How to Banish Rules Lawyers in RPGS

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Books and gavelIn a discussion thread on G+, someone mentioned dealing with rules lawyers in RPGs. I thought my response (and some elaboration) should also find a home here in blog-land, for you game-interested folk. So, on to the meat of the matter.

The “House Rules” Approach

I haven’t been plagued by rules lawyers in eons, for two reasons. First, for the last (mumble mumble) years, it’s been because I have home brew rules and there is no book for them to refer to. I tell them what crunch they need to know to create characters, and after that my belief is that if I’m doing my job right, they shouldn’t need to know “rules” in order to adventure as they wish. They say what they want to do. It’s up to me to adjudicate that. Needless to say, I don’t run a game where “you can’t try that because xyz in the rules doesn’t allow it.” Instead, my answer is always, “sure, let’s see how that attempt turns out.”

The focus here is on “what do you want to do?”, not “how do you calculate what the rules allow in order to achieve X?”

I recognize that most people probably do not run home-brew systems, but I put it to you that the deciding factor here is not “lack of rule book for them to look at.” (In fact, I do produce player handbooks and rule summaries, so they do have crunchy things to reference.)  Rather, the emphasis here is on this critical bit:

“If I’m doing my job right, they shouldn’t need to know ‘rules’ in order to adventure as they wish.”

To me, the essence of role-playing games has always been “imagining you are there, and being that person living that experience.” My orientation here is that I want to encourage characters to live in the game moment and tell me what they want to accomplish. It’s up to me to apply the odds, the mechanics, and the crunch out of their sight.  Ideally, except for minimal book-keeping (“remind me, what bonus do you have with that sword?”) I won’t even talk through this at the table. What is important to deliver at the table is an adventure narrative. This keeps players in the moment, keeps the jarring underpinnings of crunch (mostly) out of sight, makes things much more immersive and immediate and, I find, far more entertaining.

This kind of game does not lend itself to a player asking himself (or the group): “given my strength and this sword and my dexterity, and this foe’s apparent armor class, am I likely to get in a killing blow with my first attack? If yes – I go for it! And if the GM gives me flack, I’ll point out where in the book it says I can do xyz as I attack…”

If you strip out these calculations (for the simple reason that the player has no way to make them, because of your unique and mostly unpublished rule system), then that person is left with simply the more authentic, gut-level reaction to what they are faced with. They’re more likely to say (for instance),  “Holy sh*t, that’s a big mother going after my friend! I’m leaping to help him!” and jump into the fray.  (Or: “I’m running for the door!” – but in that case, fewer rules to adjudicate.)

Lack of (published) rules to refer to compels players to live more in the moment. The concomitant to this is that the GM must be thoroughly familiar with her own system (for the most part) in order to keep the dramatic pace of encounters flowing. There should be no long lulls to “look things up.” The GM has to either know the rules exhaustively, OR be willing to improv in a convincing and even-handed manner in order to deal with the quirks of the moment. If players are caught up in the excitement and challenge of an encounter or an ongoing piece of the drama, they are not likely to second-guess about the rules anyway.  There are exceptions to this (complex combat interactions come to mind, where angles of fire and exact positions may matter a great deal), but for most of the game, things should flow, not stumble from rules-page to rules-page.

The “Guidelines” Approach

The second reason I have no rules lawyers problems, even when I played with published rules sets, is that I start out the very first player orientation by saying, explicitly, “Let’s get one thing really totally clear: these rules in my game are a GUIDELINE ONLY. They are NOT written in concrete. If I think it will make a better adventure, some things may be allowed that aren’t in the rules, or some things the rules permit won’t in fact be happening. In short: forget you have that book, because it’s not going to help you here. In this game, you are your character, and you’re in a world where you cannot be certain how God orchestrates things.”

LARP: Sternenfeuer group from Germany

The secret to success of this approach is that it goes a long way towards setting and managing player expectations. If players expect they can refer to the rulebook to adjudicate anything they take issue with – they will. If they expect that they can’t – they won’t. It’s that simple.

This clearly set limit upon game dynamics alters players expectations.  They cease to assume that they are holding The Book Of Rules that invariably defines what they or the GM can do. It opens up the possibility of Other Things happening in this adventure world. It creates uncertainty, and forbids them to grasp to that lifeline that is The Rule Book.  The trick here on the GM side is that there must in fact be fairly standard rules that you DO apply, behind the scenes, without making the players aware of the crunch involved.

What’s important here is consistency. GM decisions must be seen and perceived to be fair, and even-handedly applied across the board. One of the major reasons players grasp to the rule book is because they don’t want to get short-changed in some manner. (And sadly, if they have been victims of piss-poor GMing in the past, they have a right to be concerned about pinheaded GMs.)  The other most common reason is that they want to work the system to their advantage.

If the GM demonstrates fairness in adjudicating game events, this first concern is quickly allayed. There’s not much one can do for the second; this player will either adapt to the new play style, or leave the game. Which may not be a bad thing, if that person’s absence allows a more supportive and less argumentative table-top environment to evolve.

In any case, I find that emphasizing that I use rules only as guidelines is transformative to the “rules lawyering” inclination some players have. Some people will find this uncomfortable at first – but play a few games like this, be scrupulously fair in adjudication and provide an exciting game, and very quickly players are willing to go with the flow, and forget they have ‘source material’ to refer to in the first place. They live in the world more, and that becomes their frame of reference for whatever is going on – not “the book.”

At least, this approach works for me. I think a GM has to have confidence in his/her abilities, as well, to sell either of these approaches to the players, and carry through on doing them well.

Lessons Learned

At the end, I think the most important aspect of GMing a rules lawyer is this bit. To repeat something I said above,

[M]y answer is always, “sure, let’s see how that attempt turns out.”…The focus here is on “what do you want to do”, not “how do you calculate what the rules allow in order to achieve X?”

In doing a little research for this post, I came across this very telling remark in the comment responses to A Different Look at Rules Lawyers at the Reality Refracted blog. Emmett commented,

As a former rules lawyer, I think the lawyering stems from fear of loosing control over the PC and the story. I felt that if the GM had a different interpretation of the rules, I wouldn’t be able to do the things I wanted to do. The GM could just say “No I don’t think you can do that.”

I think this underscores the importance of my subtle but crucial distinction in the GM’s approach to the game. The GM must think in terms of “how can I allow a PC to do – or at least, to fairly attempt – whatever he wants to do?”  When this is the orientation from the start, it soon becomes clear to the players.

A D&D game session in progress

It is true that some rule systems make it more difficult to create this kind of latitude than others. Even so,  where rules say character  X cannot (successfully) do action Y – well, treat them gently.  To the paladin who wants to Move Silently down the hall in full plate: don’t say, “you can’t do that.” Instead, just tell him, “You know your attempt is not likely to succeed, because of the noise your armor makes when you move.”

Maybe he’ll strip the armor; maybe a magic user will cast a Silence spell that deadens the air around him; maybe he’ll just take a chance anyway. Whatever the response – let the character try, and if their approach to solving the problem is creative enough, well,  the GM should factor all that into whatever dice roll determines success or failure.

Of such unlikely successes are great games made.

What tactics do you use to shut down rules lawyers? Do any readers also just “toss the rulebook out”, as I do? (either metaphorically, or literally), and foster the players’ ability to do (or at least attempt) whatever they can imagine?  Let’s hear about your experiences in the comments below. Thanks!


1.  Lots of interesting fermentation going on in G+ right now. Still wild wooly frontier; it feels like Usenet Newsgroups in their hayday, just without the ability to sort things easily by subject lines. Sigh. Can’t wait for better content sorting tools. Am hoping they’ll evolve over time. Meanwhile – great thinkage flying around, every which way there right now. Kinda cool. If you want an invite, reply to this post & I’ll send you one.


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After a hiatus of 15 years, I'm playing d-n-d again. I have a friend who handles the rules lawyer in the group just the way you do. It didn't take long for him to understand that it was helping, not hindering, him. He's opening up to more creative play and I think enjoying himself more. As you said, anything is possible, maybe not very probable, but possible.

Welcome back to the gaming fray. 🙂 Glad to hear your friend is finding ways to enjoy the game without second-guessing GM decisions. I understand where that comes from, but it's a certain game killer for so many, many reasons. It's nice to have alternatives.

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