Why Rules Lawyering Is a Negative Term

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
So, I saw the following on another thread, in response to a comment that "rule lawyers have the reputation they do."

"Oh, and a side note to this: Yes, and people hate real lawyers, until they're on their side. Funny how that works, isn't it? People don't hate rules lawyers, they just hate people that disagree with them, and they especially hate it when the people that disagree with them have a point."

Is this true? Do people LOVE rule lawyers, and only hate people that make succinct points that disagree with them? What do real-world lawyers have to do with this? Well, it's time for a deep dive!

Let's start with the concept of what a rules lawyer is, and the differences (and similarities) between a rules lawyer and an actual lawyer. The idea of rules lawyers not only goes back all the way to beginnings of D&D, it pre-dates it, to the origins in wargaming.

There has always been a tension between the exhortation to players to know rules (see, inter alia, p., OD&D Men & Magic p. 4 "If you are a player ... you will find there is a great advantage in knowing [the rules] herein[.]") and the admonishment to, um, not be a jerk (see, inter alia, AD&D DMG p. 230 "IT IS THE SPIRIT OF THE GAME, NOT THE LETTER OF THE RULES, WHICH IS IMPORTANT. NEVER HOLD TO THE LETTER WRITTEN, NOR ALLOW SOME BARRACKS ROOM LAWYER TO FORCE QUOTATIONS FROM THE RULE BOOK UPON YOU, IF IT GOES AGAINST THE OBVIOUS INTENT OF THE GAME."). Notice Gygax's use of the term "Barracks lawyer," a phrase carried over from the military and wargaming; "rules lawyer" had not yet superseded it in popular use.

But in that Gygaxian admonishment, we see the origin of the issue of the primary issues with Rules Lawyer (hereafter, "RL"). That the RL demands that their rules, in isolation, be followed, and that the RL is generally disliked (that it is a negative term).

Let's start with the reverse order; that the RL is widely disliked is so well-known that by the end of the 80s, Dragon Magazine could publish an article (making fun of gamers at conventions by classifying them as birds) and reference that the "Great Crested Rules Lawyer ... is arguably the worst pest of all convention birds." It is easily seen that this is a pejorative term, and has been for some time. But, more importantly, why?

This is where it is necessary to understand the difference between a rules lawyer and an actual lawyer, and between games with rules, and .... legal systems. Let's examine them:

1. Attorneys are (sometimes) necessary, rules lawyers are not. I want to emphasize this; if your significant other, for example, is complaining that all you ever do is argue about petty details and the relationship isn't fun and your nothing but a nitpicker, you probably don't want to respond ... "Yeah, well people need attorneys too!" Or, maybe you do ... and if you're married, you will need an attorney. The point is that this is attorneys are needed- if you're getting a divorce, or charged with a crime, or someone has brought a suit against you. But you don't bring an attorney to a dinner party with friends, or a pickup basketball game? So why would your bring one to your TTRPG?

2. Attorneys are paid, by you, to understand that actual law, and then advocate, as best as possible, for your position. RLs, on the other hand, only advocate for their own advantage. This is a very important distinction; once your attorney has all the facts and understands the law, he will then understand the best way to advocate for you; and that may be to settle an action (for example) when the facts and the law are not in your favor. An RL will just bloviate forever, and only accepts those things that are favorable to the RL.

3. Finally, games aren't the law. The law is an evolving institution that has existed for a very long time, and has to deal with "RL" types ... and reacts very strongly against it. And there are all sorts of ways that the law deals with them (differences between law and equity, procedural rules, prior cases, etc.). RPGs, however, aren't. To given an analogy to sports (which, by the nature of not being an RPG, doesn't need as complicated rules ... well, theoretically at least), you can either continue to make more and more and more rules to try and cover every possible situation (similar to American football), with the downside of the rulebook getting increasingly complex, and no ability to ever fully capture all possible cases (what is a "catch") or you can make a very simple rulebook (similar to, um, futbol, aka soccer) with a lot more discretion and fewer rules. There's no right or wrong answer, and both approaches have their drawbacks.


Finally, there is a difference between reasonable discussions about rules, and the dreaded RL. The RL is the individual who does not understand that this is a game, and looks solely to better their own position; it is merely one aspect of an otherwise dreary personality.

That's why my tables long ago adopted a rule- if you have a question about a rule, you raise it once; once a decision is made, there is no further discussion about the ruling until after the game. Because life is too short.


Anyway, I thought I'd shed some history there, because it's rare that someone manages to badmouth attorneys. I mean, compare them to gnomes ... but RULES LAWYERS! That's a bridge too far. Attorneys are people too.
 

Celebrim

Legend
As a complete aside, it's getting harder and harder to defend the current laws of soccer. They seem OK until you have to justify them, and as VAR has shown, there are cases where the soccer RAW makes no sense in practice and purely subjective standards in a game as low scoring as soccer mean a majority of games are actually turning on the referees entirely subjective 'discretion'.

But as for rules lawyers, I'm with you. There is nothing wrong with a player reminding the DM (me) of something in the rules or the fictional positioning I've forgotten. However, players that do that tend to often as not have an unhappy face when they do it, because often as not it's too their disadvantage to not remind me.

But, as you note, that's not how rules lawyers behave. Rules lawyers act as if playing the metagame rather than the game was the game that they enjoy and expect to excel in. They act as if the whole point of being at the table was not to make propositions about what their character does, but to argue about how a proposition should be resolved. They are never consistent idealists about applying the rules. They'll happily contradict themselves in principles or application if in this situation doing so will gain them some advantage. And they'll be perfectly content to argue for an hour over some minor aspect of the rules while everyone else does nothing.

They are also in my experience inverterate cheaters. Every rules lawyer I have ever met misreports their dice rolls, and will roll or say that they have rolled 20 15's or higher in a row.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
As a complete aside, it's getting harder and harder to defend the current laws of soccer. They seem OK until you have to justify them, and as VAR has shown, there are cases where the soccer RAW makes no sense in practice and purely subjective standards in a game as low scoring as soccer mean a majority of games are actually turning on the referees entirely subjective 'discretion'.
Instant replay (VAR) is the death of sport. And once it gets its toe in .... it just gets worse and worse.

But as for rules lawyers, I'm with you. There is nothing wrong with a player reminding the DM (me) of something in the rules or the fictional positioning I've forgotten. However, players that do that tend to often as not have an unhappy face when they do it, because often as not it's too their disadvantage to not remind me.

But, as you note, that's not how rules lawyers behave. Rules lawyers act as if playing the metagame rather than the game was the game that they enjoy and expect to excel in. They act as if the whole point of being at the table was not to make propositions about what their character does, but to argue about how a proposition should be resolved. They are never consistent idealists about applying the rules. They'll happily contradict themselves in principles or application if in this situation doing so will gain them some advantage. And they'll be perfectly content to argue for an hour over some minor aspect of the rules while everyone else does nothing.

They are also in my experience inverterate cheaters. Every rules lawyer I have ever met misreports their dice rolls, and will roll or say that they have rolled 20 15's or higher in a row.
IME, the Venn Diagram between inveterate cheaters, incorrigible jerks, and rules lawyers is a single circle.
 

Sadras

Explorer
The RL is the individual who ...(snip)... looks solely to better their own position
This!

Celebrim said:
They'll happily contradict themselves in principles or application if in this situation doing so will gain them some advantage.
And This!

It is less about an innocent rule discussion/clarification and more about the personal advantage that they will gain. At least that is my experience. They also tend to give min/maxers a bad name, since every RL of this type is inevitably a min/maxer.
 

Fanaelialae

Adventurer
In my group I was given the joking title of "Rules Lawyer of Justice". This is because while I have rules lawyered on my behalf and others, just as often it was on the DM's behalf (including times that it went seriously against my own interests).

However, I recognize that in the end the DM's word is law. Admittedly, in my younger days somewhat less so.

My point is that, in my opinion, healthy rules lawyering is about fairness. It's about playing a game where we can have realistic expectations of what the rules are. And in fairness, there are some DMs who sometimes forget that their goal isn't to "win the game", and the RL exists in these cases as a buffer between them and the other players, helping to nudge the DM back in the direction of arbitor rather than adversary. (If the DM wants to win, then their victory is a foregone conclusion.)

Like anything, it can certainly be taken too far or misused. However, when used with tact, intelligence, and maturity, I don't think there's anything wrong with a bit of rules lawyering.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Instant replay (VAR) is the death of sport. And once it gets its toe in .... it just gets worse and worse.
The thing is, VAR is there as soon as a sport is televised and recorded, because every fan of the sport will review every play of the sport on there own whether the sporting officials have to our not. So a sport has to acknowledge that video review is taking place whether it accepts VAR or not.

When a sport becomes televised, then every one of the viewers can see that Maradona tipped the ball over the keeper with his hand. The video review happened. Even the viewers that didn't see it the first time, could see it easily on the replay. That is something modern sport has to accept, and typically the problem that VAR reveals is a problem with VAR itself, but a problem with the rules having no uniform application and being treated as if they are unambiguous and produce unambiguous results when in fact they clearly don't. That's the thing VAR forces a sport to acknowledge, even if VAR isn't a refereeing tool. The very act of televising a sport means that the guardians of that sport no long can act as if they are unaccountable to the public. Televising a sport democratizes it.

I'm a fan of two spectator sports: soccer and sumo, and both are embroiled in different stages of this controversy. Sumo recognized very early on after matches became televised that the very act of televising the sport would change it and was an early adopter of VAR and has some of the most elegant video review in sport. But what sumo has thus far failed to recognize is that its rules are ambiguous and that in ambiguous situations you ought to tend to prefer a non-ambiguous outcome if you can. They don't seem to understand that if you can see what is going on clearly but you still don't know what to review, or if you can't see what is going on clearly even if it is in slow motion in front of you, then this indicates that there is something wrong with the rules.

The history of this in US soccer is huge. What many people are unaware of in this country or the world is that in the 1920's and 1930's soccer was a pretty big thing in the United States and we were pretty good at it. The reason soccer died in the US was in part that the American leagues told FIFA that the game was too ambiguous and too arbitrary and too dependent on the referee for the taste of American fans - they wanted to make a bunch of rules adjustments including hockey style 'penalty box' for play (remember at this time 'yellow cards' weren't even an official rule), and they wanted to allow 3 in game substitutions per match (something that wouldn't be official for another 30 years in FIFA play), and so forth - and that if they didn't make these adjustments, the American fan wouldn't put up with it because they expected sports officials to be accountable to the viewers as if the game was played for their benefit. Soccer to this day treats the referee as a little unaccountable autocrat, and that's only slowly changing. And FIFA and the USA leagues ended up in a fight that undermined our professional leagues, and when the great depression hit, between the fact that soccer was already losing out to baseball as the more widespread American sport and the one that worked better as a radio sport and the infighting in the US leagues, soccer went bankrupt in the US and was basically gone for 50 years thereafter and is still very much an 'also exists' sort of fifth wheel at least with respect to male athletics (its been readily embraced and even promoted as a women's sport).
 

Celebrim

Legend
My point is that, in my opinion, healthy rules lawyering is about fairness. It's about playing a game where we can have realistic expectations of what the rules are.
Well, just when I thought this was going to be an unambigious hate bash of rules lawyers, you've managed to find the ambiguity.

The problem I foresee even though I've never observed this first hand, is that there are GMs that do not believe that the game should be about fairness or that the players should know what the rules or are what to expect of them. There is a theory of GMing out there that the best game is always constructed by the arbitrary whim of the GM, and that the expectation that the game will be fair ruins the game.
 

TallIan

Explorer
...
"Oh, and a side note to this: Yes, and people hate real lawyers, until they're on their side. Funny how that works, isn't it? ...
IMX people hate their own lawyers as much as any other lawyer. :)

In my group I was given the joking title of "Rules Lawyer of Justice". This is because while I have rules lawyered on my behalf and others, just as often it was on the DM's behalf (including times that it went seriously against my own interests).
I would not call that a rules lawyer, but someone who knows the rules well. Rules lawyer, IMO, are the kind of people who come up with, and push for things like going prone in melee for disadvantage and then claiming using luck to get super-advantage.

I have no problem with a player pointing out the correct rule, so long as they are willing to accept my ruling. The counter to this is that I have to be up front and consistent with the players about any house rules I use.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
The thing is, VAR is there as soon as a sport is televised and recorded, because every fan of the sport will review every play of the sport on there own whether the sporting officials have to our not. So a sport has to acknowledge that video review is taking place whether it accepts VAR or not.

When a sport becomes televised, then every one of the viewers can see that Maradona tipped the ball over the keeper with his hand. The video review happened. Even the viewers that didn't see it the first time, could see it easily on the replay. That is something modern sport has to accept, and typically the problem that VAR reveals is a problem with VAR itself, but a problem with the rules having no uniform application and being treated as if they are unambiguous and produce unambiguous results when in fact they clearly don't. That's the thing VAR forces a sport to acknowledge, even if VAR isn't a refereeing tool. The very act of televising a sport means that the guardians of that sport no long can act as if they are unaccountable to the public. Televising a sport democratizes it.
That, in essence, is the exact problem. The perfect is the enemy of the good. We see the ouroboros of instant replay with American football spreading to other sports, and that's the problem.

People want things to be perfect, but we live in an imperfect world. So the question becomes, "How much are you willing to sacrifice to make things a little better, in terms of compliance with the rules?"

Because what people don't recognize is that replay always, always, always comes with a cost. Ignoring the actual cost in terms of hardware (added cameras for more angles, more officials to watch replays, etc.) there is the cost in time. Not just for the spectators at home; the spectators at the venue, suffering through yet another interminable stoppage to get things "just right."

And that affects the play. It affects the play because replay takes the crowds out of the events- the cheering, the excitement. It makes the officiating worse, as officials become timid in the hope that replay will correct errors (as opposed to using replay technology AFTER the event to train officials).

But then everyone is like, "Well, the use will be limited! We will only use it for these few plays! We will only have one challenge per game."

But it never stops. You can't use it on pass interference (because it's subjective) until there's a bad pass interference call. You limit the challenges, until someone blows through their challenges, and then you add them at the end of the games. Or on turnovers. Or on touchdowns.

And then the rules have to change. Because it becomes obvious that the way games are played can't match the rules of SUPER SLOW MOTION instant replay.

Then the debates start, because (and this is true) cameras can fool you- things look different, intent can look different, slowed down.

It never ends. And are the games actually officiated any better? Are the games any better?


I would much rather deal with human imperfection, than the horrible compromises we make chasing a perfect system that will never happen.

I have seen the future, and it is 6 hour football games, with instant replay looking for offensive line holding on each and every play.
 
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Elfcrusher

Adventurer
I didn't know this was a question that needed answering.

It's called "Rules Lawyering."

How could this not be a negative term?

EDIT:

So one day in kindergarten, the teacher went around the room asking every child what his/her mommy and daddy do for work. When she got to little Johnny, he proudly announced, "My daddy plays piano in a whorehouse!" The teacher blanched, but the other kids seemed confused by this, so she rushed the conversation along.

That afternoon, though, she requested a meeting with Johnny's parents. When they came in, she told them the story, and both parents shifted in their seats and looked very uncomfortable. "Where would Johnny learn to say something like this?" the teacher asked.

Johnny's father coughed, and said, looking abashed, "That's what we tell him."

The teacher was aghast. "Why on earth would you tell him that?"

"Well, you see, really I'm a lawyer. But how do you explain that to a 5 year old?"
 
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Celebrim

Legend
That, in essence, is the exact problem. The perfect is the enemy of the good. We see the ouroboros of instant replay with American football spreading to other sports, and that's the problem.

People want things to be perfect, but we live in an imperfect world. So the question becomes, "How much are you willing to sacrifice to make things a little better, in terms of compliance with the rules?"

Because what people don't recognize is that replay always, always, always comes with a cost.
In a lot of ways, you are preaching to the choir here, and I want to be shouting out, "Amen, brother. Preach the word!", and not just with respect to sports.

And with respect to American football, you are totally correct. Video review in American football is chasing after perfection, because that's always been the culture of American football. Referees in football for example after making a call give both elaborate hand signals and verbal clarification to the spectators to explain the call on the field as if the spectators were kings sitting in review of the proceedings. And the rule book for American football is not only the longest for any sport in the world, but gets changed yearly by committee to try to make it perfect.

But the situation in soccer is nothing like this. The situation in soccer has been up until really recently that things like "The Hand of God Goal" are just part of the sport, the referee is accountable to no one, and having every game that is actually competitive determined by questionable refereeing and/or bribery is just part of the sport and there is nothing you can do about.
 

Sacrosanct

Slayer of Keraptis
Rules lawyering is the antithesis of the spirit of the game. That's why they are universally disliked. What do I mean by that? The most important rule of any game is that it's a social form of entertainment. People are there to have fun. Every edition that I know of has some sort of call out how if everyone at the table agrees, then no rule should ever make you dislike playing the game. The rules lawyer is against that. In fact, they demand that their interpretation of the rule matter more than anything else, even if it's disrupting, causing angst, and detracting from the fun of anyone else at the table. And as you mention, unlike real lawyers, they are only doing it for their own benefit.

Rules are important. They help ensure consistent game experiences. But to use rules lawyering (often for spurious interpretations of said rule and/or intentionally ignoring the context of how all of the rules fit together) to find loopholes for personal gain? There is a reason why they have the reputation they have in gaming. A person has every right to be a rules lawyer, and every right to play the game how they want. They do not have the right to suck the fun out of everyone else though.
 

cmad1977

Explorer
If you don’t trust my call, leave my table. That’s what I say to anyone who displays this sort of behavior. Shuts them up quick and either they don’t return(much rejoicing) or they do and they’re fixed(much rejoicing).
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
In a lot of ways, you are preaching to the choir here, and I want to be shouting out, "Amen, brother. Preach the word!", and not just with respect to sports.

And with respect to American football, you are totally correct. Video review in American football is chasing after perfection, because that's always been the culture of American football. Referees in football for example after making a call give both elaborate hand signals and verbal clarification to the spectators to explain the call on the field as if the spectators were kings sitting in review of the proceedings. And the rule book for American football is not only the longest for any sport in the world, but gets changed yearly by committee to try to make it perfect.

But the situation in soccer is nothing like this. The situation in soccer has been up until really recently that things like "The Hand of God Goal" are just part of the sport, the referee is accountable to no one, and having every game that is actually competitive determined by questionable refereeing and/or bribery is just part of the sport and there is nothing you can do about.
Well, the problems in soccer (esp. w/r/t bribery, for example) I don't think can be cured by instant replay during the match.* But what we are seeing at the Women's World Cup is, unfortunately, what I foresee for soccer generally- once instant replay gets it foot in the door, it doesn't stop. It will keep expanding in use.

There are really only two occasions where I see any use of computer/replay in sports:

1. After the match. To determine if there was an issue with corruption, bribery, to review specific issues (intent-to-injure plays, for example, that the referee did not see), and to help train referees.

2. During the match on issues of mechanical application (the "electronic line judge" in tennis) that do not actually require human video review. This is just about the only example of value-added that I can think of.



*There is a LOT of institutional reform that will be required....
 

Ralif Redhammer

Adventurer
Oh man, I absolutely loved that Dragon magazine article when it came out. Still gives me a bit of a chuckle.

For me, a rules lawyer is distinct from a person that knows the rules really well. A rules lawyer exists only to try to interpret grey areas of the rules, or selectively quoted sections, to their advantage. It’s not about knowing all the rules of the game, but about using and bending them to get an unfair advantage.

The rules lawyer will only pipe up when they want to get a more favorable outcome. A person well-versed in the game rules will speak even when it means things end up worse for their character.

Let's start with the reverse order; that the RL is widely disliked is so well-known that by the end of the 80s, Dragon Magazine could publish an article (making fun of gamers at conventions by classifying them as birds) and reference that the "Great Crested Rules Lawyer ... is arguably the worst pest of all convention birds." It is easily seen that this is a pejorative term, and has been for some time. But, more importantly, why?
 

Celebrim

Legend
Well, the problems in soccer (esp. w/r/t bribery, for example) I don't think can be cured by instant replay during the match.* But what we are seeing at the Women's World Cup is, unfortunately, what I foresee for soccer generally- once instant replay gets it foot in the door, it doesn't stop. It will keep expanding in use.
The VAR at the women's world cup has been anything but elegant in application or result, but for me it hasn't really suggested VAR is the problem.

Let me compare the soccer VAR to the situation in Sumo which adopted video review I think back in the 1950's after a notorious bad call by the judges on the floor where everyone on TV could see just how ludicrously bad the call was created a scandal. The Sumo judges are vastly more autocratic in origin and demeanor than even soccer referees, inheriting an actual feudal aristocratic mindset. But VAR in Sumo almost immediately created a situation where the VAR judge was for the most part deferred to in practice more or less immediately. Sumo's problem comes when the VAR judge doesn't have clear and unambiguous evidence, which can occur in a couple of narrow situations, and then the floor judges who are so reliant on VAR now don't know what to do.

What we are seeing in the soccer VAR world is that situations that are ambiguous and subjective actually come up more often than not, and that sport is so used to calls being ambiguous and subjective that it's find it pretty much impossible to explain and justify the calls even after applying VAR. The problem isn't just that VAR is taking up a bunch of time, because the referee can't trust the guy with video replay to say, "You got it wrong." It's that for the most part, the guy with the VAR can't say whether it was right or wrong at all, so then the referee has to make a judgment call and it really is a judgment call. VAR can't be used to resolve issues that are judgment calls, but the more soccer relies on VAR the more the audience will naturally and reasonably suspect that VAR will explain things in a way that they'll be forced to agree with or validated by. But, if it's all a judgment call, what good is the objective evidence of video replay really?

The two problems soccer has is answering the questions: "What is a foul?" and "What is offside?" While there are some unambiguous cases of what is a foul, historically soccer has basically said, "A foul is what the referee says is a foul.", and it mostly doesn't have a rigorous standard and certainly doesn't have a rigorously applied standard. But if a foul is just what a referee says is a foul, what good is video evidence? Likewise, the offside rule seems simple once it is explained to you, and most people after they get the offside rule are like, "Ok, now I understand soccer." But the offside rule contains further bits of ambiguity that are really subjective and yet in play come up all the time. The most important is the idea of "interfering with a play". Because a lot of the time there is someone that has made a run that failed for some reason, and the run would have been onside but now the player is offside. But then play immediately continues and reaches some conclusion with the runner still offside. Is that offside? Well, it's subjective. Basically, the rule is that offside is what the referee says is offside. And again, what use is objective video evidence if the rule is subjective?

This wouldn't matter much except that it is a game which often ends with a score of 1-0, and the only penalties it can apply tend to turn the entire result of the game. So it's not like football or basketball were one bad call usually doesn't alter the outcome or at the very least, still leaves the team unfairly penalized with a reasonable chance of overcoming the hardship.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
This wouldn't matter much except that it is a game which often ends with a score of 1-0, and the only penalties it can apply tend to turn the entire result of the game. So it's not like football or basketball were one bad call usually doesn't alter the outcome or at the very least, still leaves the team unfairly penalized with a reasonable chance of overcoming the hardship.
Eh, the problem (to the extent you think it is one) in soccer is twofold-

First, that scoring is relatively low (rare), making individual outcomes more variable.

Second, that because scoring is low, penalties in the box are that much more important (high leverage) because of the high conversion rate.


On the first, this also has to do with talent; as you are aware, if you get two teams that are NOT roughly evenly matched, it is quickly and painfully evident.

On the second, it simply means that perhaps the rules need to change to make those high leverage situations less common. Of course, the flip side of that is that it would perversely increase the incentive to commit penalties in the box, which would decrease scoring. ;)

Nevertheless, despite all the kvetching and some famous counterexamples, the better teams usually win, and for good reason.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Anyway, the reason I'm chasing this whole side issue of VAR in soccer and football is I think there is actually a lesson to be learned here that applies to RPGs and to the lawyer/judge relationship between the player and the GM, even in situations where that relationship is healthy and respectful (which, I think we always agree is not usually the case with someone deemed a "rules lawyer").

I'm not sure where I'm going to end up in this mental exercise, but let me explain a bit of where I'm starting from.

For most of the last 7 years I've been running a homebrew game based on the D&D 3.0e rules set. The biggest chunk of the D&D 3.0e rules, and the biggest chunk of most D&D rules is the spell system, since D&D spells are individually packetized bits of narrative force. It is a very frequent situation where a player will propose, "I cast Spell X targeting Y" or "I cast Spell X to achieve result Y", and then I am as the DM asked to judge this proposition and report the outcome. And very frequently I find the first thing I have to do is examine the text of the spell to see what the spell says happen, so I will ask the player to read the spell (which every player is expected to have open if they are proposing casting a spell in the first place). And it is a very frequent problem that even after the spell is read, I still don't know what should happen because the spell is so ambiguous. This leads to me very frequently rewriting spells to make them unambiguous in application to both the player and myself, so that in the future not only can I immediately answer what happens, but the player will have a very clear idea what is likely going to happen at the time they propose the spell, and equally importantly I will not end up in a lengthy rules argument with the player over what the spell should do, and to the extent the player is inclined to argue, I will be able to point at the spell and say "What it says is clear and unambiguous."

This is actually very much to the advantage of the player, because the wonderful thing about unambiguous spells is they actually do something. And the full weight of how much better my rules after being play-tested like this is coming through when we jump to Pathfinder (for a time) and then players are like, "What the heck does this spell do and when does it do it and why the heck do the mechanical implementations of the spell so often contrast with the flavor of the spell?"
 

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