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Why Rules Lawyering Is a Negative Term

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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.


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


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.


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.


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).


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.


"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.


Guest 6801328

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

It's called "Rules Lawyering."

How could this not be a negative term?


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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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.


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.


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).

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?


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.


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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