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Why Rules Lawyering Is a Negative Term

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
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?"
That is an interesting approach. So, from my perspective, I would rather tear off all of my toenails and fingernails with an ice pick than run the 3e or PF ruleset ...

And with that in mind, I run my games with the general idea that, "Pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered." Sort of a meta-rule. See, the trouble with having everything specified (or, as you put it, clear and unambiguous) is that I want players to be delighted with their own sense of adventure, and I don't want them to feel that everything must be put there for them to do it.

This is sort of the age-old variation of, "If you give the thief those skills, that means no one else can do it," debate. And so long as players adhere to the spirit of the game, and are looking to enhance not only their own fun, but the fun of everyone, I'll allow it (pigs get fed) and the ruling is incorporated into the rules of the game (adjudication as common law).

It's only when the player acts in an inequitable manner, attempting to break the game for their own benefit ("rats in a bag," aka hogs get slaughtered) that negative rulings have to be made.

I view my position, when I DM, as adjudicating with the consent of the governed, with a mandate towards increasing everyone's enjoyment. And so far, that seems to work. As opposed to being a referee.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
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.
Don't confuse Rules Lawyer with someone that knows the rules well and shares knowledge openly. RL is looking to twist the rules for their own personal gain, it's not a problem if you mention a rule whether it hurts or helps himself or a fellow party member. At my table I used to give out inspiration points if someone points out a rule that hurts them or a fellow player.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
First I just want to comment on the "everybody likes rules lawyers when their on your side". Nope. Not me. But it was written by a dedicated rules lawyer who thought it was fun to find some exploit in the rules for personal gain so they probably do believe it. In my experience rules lawyers care more about gaming the system than they are about playing the game.


Rules lawyers have a bad reputation because they disrupt the game with arguments often twisting words and spells in their favor. It's not that they know the rules well, it's that they hunt for gray areas in the rules. Their goal is to "break" the game, not have fun.


I have several versions of rules lawyers. Most of them are some mix.


The cheaters.
You know who they are. They apply misapply bonuses, "misread" rules in their favor on a regular basis (everybody does it now and then) deliberately fudge the rules. This is most often done with some obscure multi-class and feat combination perhaps along with a magic item. Anything so that when you ask them they can rattle off


I had a guy (in 4E) that said they had a power that "ate" enemy action surges. He never had his books on him and hand-wrote his version of the rules that he would show the DM. When he was finally caught he just looked sheepish and said "well nobody ever questioned it" which was completely untrue.


In another campaign (I wasn't the DM), we had a cleric who had ludicrously high DCs for his spells. When asked how he did it by another player, he just sniffed and said "it's complicated". Nobody could ever figure out other than "magic math".


The nitpicker/metagamer.

During a game the nitpicker will question everything the monsters do. Expect lots of "how did they do that" and "monster ___ doesn't work that way". Uggh. Please. Put away the monster manual and just enjoy the game. This gets to the point of rules lawyer when they start arguing with the DM about minutae of actions and abilities. I run a cinematic game and if it doesn't affect the outcome I'll take liberties now and then. Like the guy that really had time to get to the door and lock it waits until you come around the corner to give you a hand signal before closing and locking the door.


We had one guy (the cleric from above) who would literally have the MM open and let everyone know exactly what the text of the creature's abilities were. Then he'd keep track of HP, abilities like legendary saves, tell people what spells to use to use up those legendary saves, etc.


The arguer/pouter/whiner.
I kind of lump these people together, but they will argue until they are blue in the face that their interpretation of the rules is the correct one. If the DM takes a hard line and will not argue about it during the game (which is what I do, we can discuss it after the game) they'll whine about it. "But I reeeeaaally waaaannnnaaaa". When done whining they'll pout.


We had a guy who was flying while invisible. In heavy armor. He thought he should be undetectable but the DM "only" gave them a stealth after they complained when the DM pointed out that it was an enclosed space and that he barely had room to fly above the enemy.


The exploiter.
Give them an inch, they'll take a mile every time. Write a book in natural language and not in technical gamer terms and they try to chisel out every advantage possible. I'd reference the thread that spawned this topic, but don't want to derail the topic.


Usually this is something along the lines of "the rules don't specifically state". An example from back in the day (pre errata) was reloading dual hand crossbows. The rules didn't specifically state that you had to have a hand free to draw ammunition, so therefore ammunition just magically transferred itself from your quiver to the crossbow.


This also happens when someone is multiclass a/b/c with feat x. Unlike the cheater above, there may be some gray area but they will spend hours scouring the message boards for exploits that might just work. See the simulacrum army exploit or pun-pun for an example.


They may also selectively quote rules, skipping over clarifications so it sounds better. For example use the Mold Earth cantrip on pavement and "read" the rules and state that it affects a 5 ft area of earth or stone. Then they'll excavate a 5 ft cube of pavement skipping over the part that excavation requires loose dirt. Oh, and just for funsies they'll do this directly underneath someone and then "trap" the target in the stone that's reformed around them.
 
Why Rules Lawyering Is a Negative Term
The same reason "Rules Paladin" would be a negative term...

…Further humorous digression, because I've reached that age where hearing one thing will send your mind wandering off into the past:

So, I sometimes date myself by mentioning something that happened back on UseNet, now I'm going to carbon-date myself by mentioning something from BBS days. Whatever the offline qwk reader I was using was, it let you define a set of taglines that it would randomly add to your messages.
One of mine was "I'm not a Rules Lawyer, I'm a Rules Activist."

Yeah, not worth the setup at all, and that was one of my better ones.
 
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Celebrim

Legend
That is an interesting approach. So, from my perspective, I would rather tear off all of my toenails and fingernails with an ice pick than run the 3e or PF ruleset ...
lol.

3e D20 is the best and worst of systems. I can sympathize with both those that love and hate it, as I've certainly spent a lot of time hammering the system into shape.

And with that in mind, I run my games with the general idea that, "Pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered." Sort of a meta-rule. See, the trouble with having everything specified (or, as you put it, clear and unambiguous) is that I want players to be delighted with their own sense of adventure, and I don't want them to feel that everything must be put there for them to do it.
So this gets straight to the heart of it. I'm not going to claim a DM that runs a railroad is the exact analogy for a player that is a rules lawyer, but as it is something else that is usually denigrated and with good reason, and because I think the motives of the two participants are often the same, let me talk about railroading a second.

I've been very fortunate to never have a railroad DM but I've played with and talked with a lot of players that have. The group I was with the longest as a player, had lost its long time DM just after I joined, and while they had been players in his game for years and enjoyed it, it was clear that they also had a good natured resentment (if you can imagine such a thing) toward the fact that he had DM PC's and pet NPC's and he railroaded them relentlessly and they never really had any agency. They'd tell horror stories of his abuse with arbitrary and unfair rulings, and then laugh about it because what else could they do and there is still a sort of fun in that sort of thing. But they would also tell the new less railroady DM later that he ran the best and most enjoyable game they ever played.

The problem with a subjective standard like "pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered" is that pigs and hogs are pretty much the same thing, and the farmer here can do whatever the heck that he pleases. The farmer gets what he wants, and the pigs can't object. When you say something like, "It's only when the player acts in an inequitable manner, attempting to break the game for their own benefit that negative rulings have to be made.", my first thought is, "Why if you don't want players doing that, do you have rules that permit it?", and my second thought is, "Does this mean the entire game you play is basically, "Do what makes the farmer happy, least you be slaughtered?"" As a player, I don't want to be in a game where the only rule that matters is, "Mother may I?"

I tend to have as my meta-rule, "Run the game the way you would want it run if you were the player." This is of course a very subjective self-centered rule as well, and maybe you are in fact running the game that you would want to be in if you were the player. Certainly I know players on the boards that bristle at the very idea of railroading, but when I asked my group of players some 8 years ago what sort of game they wanted, they all basically said, "We want to be on rails. We want you to have some epic story in mind, and we want to experience and discover it, and we don't want to spend much time trying to find the fun or make or own fun."

I really don't like justifying the spirit of the game when it comes to rules. That's a discussion for table social contracts and the like. With respect to rules though, the claim that the perfect is the enemy of the good shouldn't be used as an excuse for having bad rules, and really I don't think you should have a rules set where the player is asked to not try too hard to succeed lest the DM's wrath be roused against him. It creates a structure were the actual processes of play have basically nothing to do with the rules and everything to do with intimate knowledge of the judges personal biases - like knowing better than baking something peanut butter flavored for Paul Hollywood.
 

Celebrim

Legend
I tried that, but my players still didn't like Weapon v Armor Type adjustments.
There is no rule I miss more than Weapon vs. AC adjustments, and it is one of two rules I'm forever tempted to port forward from 1e - the other one being casting times in segments.

Sadly, there is only so much granularity you can stuff into a single system before the costs start outweighing the benefits.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
The problem with a subjective standard like "pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered" is that pigs and hogs are pretty much the same thing, and the farmer here can do whatever the heck that he pleases. The farmer gets what he wants, and the pigs can't object. When you say something like, "It's only when the player acts in an inequitable manner, attempting to break the game for their own benefit that negative rulings have to be made.", my first thought is, "Why if you don't want players doing that, do you have rules that permit it?", and my second thought is, "Does this mean the entire game you play is basically, "Do what makes the farmer happy, least you be slaughtered?"" As a player, I don't want to be in a game where the only rule that matters is, "Mother may I?"
But that's the basic divide, isn't it?

Back to the issue of rules, let's use the following quote:

"A Constitution, to contain an accurate detail of all the subdivisions of which its great powers will admit, and of all the means by which they may be carried into execution, would partake of the prolixity of a legal code, and could scarcely be embraced by the human mind. It would probably never be understood by the public. Its nature, therefore, requires that only its great outlines should be marked, its important objects designated, and the minor ingredients which compose those objects be deduced from the nature of the objects themselves."

Different strokes for different folks, right? To me (and the people I play with) 3e is the worst possible game system. It has all the prolixity of a legal code, yet still ... well, still sucks, because it doesn't model everything we want to do. Whereas you enjoyed it. And that's fine.

Some people are comfortable with this approach, just as some people immediately understand what, instinctively, "pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered" means. *shrug* I think you might be on the more literal end.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
There is no rule I miss more than Weapon vs. AC adjustments, and it is one of two rules I'm forever tempted to port forward from 1e - the other one being casting times in segments.

Sadly, there is only so much granularity you can stuff into a single system before the costs start outweighing the benefits.
I'd also say that the 1e version was a mess - full of inconsistencies (a shield's effect isn't consistent), no baseline (wearing no armor is often worse than... wearing no armor), and extremely punitive to monks. 2e's implementation as an optional weapon was much more cogent, though poorly described in the 2e DMG.
 

Celebrim

Legend
and extremely punitive to monks
That was a feature IMO.

There is certain class which isn't to be mentioned in this thread. Well, as much as that class is hated by the OP, I hate the Monk more.

As far as the inconsistencies go, I did make some tweaks to get it doing what I wanted it to do, but I loved the general idea and I loved its effect on gameplay and that it meant that there was no single best weapon (though two-handed sword still was the likely contender in that role, the one-handed swords were no longer obviously superior to everything else in the game).
 

Ralif Redhammer

Adventurer
A bunch of these sorts sound familiar, but this one in particular… Same edition, same MO. His character had a ridiculously high AC, based on his scrawled notes and table. Dude would also turn out to be cheating at his dice rolls.

I had a guy (in 4E) that said they had a power that "ate" enemy action surges. He never had his books on him and hand-wrote his version of the rules that he would show the DM. When he was finally caught he just looked sheepish and said "well nobody ever questioned it" which was completely untrue.
 

Blue

Orcus on a bad hair day
I don't see reminding someone of a rule as rules lawyering at all. We do it, and others are thankful because they aren't as versed in the game. Of course I'm also the person who let the DM know when the last errata nerfed my character some - holding to the rules when they help you and hiding them at other times is a whole different term, one not polite enough to post here.

Rules lawyering, to me, is about finding the loophole or other advantage that shouldn't be there or violates the spirit but not the letter of the rules. "Rule A says this, and when that interacts with Rule B that means this" or "Rule C says this applies except in these listed cases, and this new case from a later book isn't listed, so it applies". The other case is when the DM makes a ruling because of a specific exceptional circumstance and a player would rather not have it and argues for by-the-book.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
There is certain class which isn't to be mentioned in this thread. Well, as much as that class is hated by the OP, I hate the Monk more.
That's a pretty big claim!

I'm not doubting your antipathy, mind you.

I think you may underestimate my hatred. :)
 

Celebrim

Legend
That's a pretty big claim!

I'm not doubting your antipathy, mind you.

I think you may underestimate my hatred. :)
So, let's make some sort of standard.

You've undoubtably removed the class from your games. But, as a practical matter you could still play a honorable, righteous, fighter who had protective healing magic in your game right?

But I've not only removed the class from my game, I've altered the rules so that you can't even play the concept.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
So, let's make some sort of standard.

You've undoubtably removed the class from your games. But, as a practical matter you could still play a honorable, righteous, fighter who had protective healing magic in your game right?

But I've not only removed the class from my game, I've altered the rules so that you can't even play the concept.
I pay $25, cash for the heads of Paladin players, and fund research for a time machine for the sole purpose of traveling back in history and removing the class from the D&D timeline.

Some people are like, "Would you kill baby Hitler?"

And I'm all like, "Yeah, because he's the reason we have Paladins. Probably."
 

Li Shenron

Adventurer
After this thread I am still undecided whether I hate lawyers or rules lawyers more... let's just conclude the usual: kill them (both) and take their stuff.
 

jgsugden

Explorer
Do we ever go wrong when we group people together, slap a label on them, and then sling hatred at them? It makes it so much easier to be rude when you can depersonalize it!
 

Sacrosanct

Slayer of Keraptis
Do we ever go wrong when we group people together, slap a label on them, and then sling hatred at them? It makes it so much easier to be rude when you can depersonalize it!
today a right wing white nationalist was just sentenced for killing a woman when he drove into a crowd. Am I comfortable with slapping a label on his group? Yep. Are rules lawyers as bad as white nationalists? I'll leave that up to debate, but I'm comfortable saying rules lawyers are a bad things for a game like D&D. Great when it comes to designing rockets or writing code, but for reasons several people have mentioned already, pretty horrible for a subjective game that's supposed to be fun for everyone.
 

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