Every GM and player has encountered their fair share of rules lawyers. In this week’s DDQ, we’re going to explore some productive ways of engaging yours when the game starts getting derailed.
Dear DovahQueen: There is one player in my group who fancies themselves a rules expert, but they aren’t much better than the rest of us in that regard. They often confuse rules from older editions. Not just 3rd ed D&D. Sometimes 2nd ed D&D. In the long term it would be nice if they weren’t so insistent but in the short term, I need new and polite ways to say “are you sure that is how it works?” and ” I am pretty sure you are mistaken.” — Just Trying to Play the Game
Dear Don’t Hate the Player: This issue has a surprising amount more nuance than I think many would realize. There’s a few things that we’ll have to consider in this so we can come up with the best and most amicable solution possible. Consider: why this player behaves this way, how the behavior affects the game, and in what ways can you modify the behavior to satisfy all parties.
People don’t tend to make decisions or produce behaviors that are spawned of malicious intent, although sometimes it can feel that they do based off how negatively a behavior may affect others. It’s important to keep in mind that in face-to-face interactions like these, this player more than likely is being a rules lawyer because they feel like the end state of their behavior is a more enjoyable game for everyone. In fact, most people believe on some level that if things were done their way, everyone would be better off. The problem is that this rule lawyer behavior *isn’t* improving the game, and is instead just causing friction, frustration, and derailments, and I suspect that good intentioned arguments are happening on both sides to exacerbate the problem.
Rules lawyering has likely been around for as long as we’ve had tabletop gaming, and it seems like every player and GM has encountered this behavior before. Sometimes, the behavior really can help improve a game, but more often than not it only serves to affect derailment and frustration. To a degree though, you can’t expect these players to simply abandon the behavior since everyone has a little perfectionist in them to some extent. What you can do though is try to find ways to channel this behavior into more productive means. I’m going to present you with a few different options from the top of my head, but I encourage you to cook up some of your own, especially with the familiarity of your group’s rules lawyer in mind.
My first thought, try ensuring that this player has a readily available copy of the rules that you’re using within arm’s reach at all time. Maybe even make sure that other players know to use other copies of the books that way that player in question can always access the rules. With this setup, make a house rule for the group that ALL questions of the rules must be looked up and displayed in the RAW (rules as written) prior to bringing them to the attention of the GM. This won’t stop the rules lawyering behavior and can still potentially enable some undermining, but it does allow for the rules lawyer to satisfy their behavior while hopefully clearing up some conflicts before they arise and while making other conflicts more cut and dry. There should be less net argument overall. “I appreciate the effort, but you would mind having the rule in hand before you bring it up to me? This way we’ll spend less time out of the game.”
The more traditional school of thought on the matter is just to house rule that the GM’s word is law despite whatever the RAW says and if you don’t like it then tough nuggies. Oftentimes, hardcore rules lawyers aren’t able to accept this, and it ends up leaving more friction than it clears up. For less hardcore lawyers though, this may work perfectly. “I’m the GM. I said it’s a -2. It’s a -2.”
For a more, hands-on approach, you could consider a form of punishment when the GM’s word is questioned. Personally, this kind of approach always felt barbaric and like a tool for a GM that doesn’t have the respect of their players, but sometimes, it’s the option that works the best. If you can’t get a player to stop challenging your decisions, consider an incremental “hand of god” repercussion. The player brings a rule to your attention, your politely inform them that your word is law, they challenge you again, and the Gods politely bestow Gragnar the Undying with a stomach bug that has a 50% chance to cause nausea every round in combat for a few hours. Sure, this is addressing the symptom of an underlying problem rather than the problem itself, but in a pinch this will probably make Gagnar shut up real fast. I consider this a last resort method because it also directly undermines the fun of that player. That’s always a detriment to your game, but if lowering one players enjoyment allows the rest of the group to *not* have their enjoyment stymied, then it may be a sacrifice you’ll have to make. “The Gods judge your hubris to be….distracting. You have a 25% chance to get distracted and take no turns in combat for 1 hour.”
The shortest and easiest method that I’ve personally seen a surprising amount of success with: “If you don’t like the way I GM, why don’t you GM?” With our group, our rules lawyer actually did take us up on the offer which led to one of the most enjoyable, if not unexpected, games we’ve played. But, your mileage vary (a lot). “Do you have a story you’d like to run? Because if you don’t like the way I run my games, I’m sure we’d all enjoy getting to play in yours next week.”
In summary, keep in mind that these lawyers aren’t the malicious bloodsucking fun-nazis that they appear to be. They just want to enjoy and contribute to the game in their own way, but sometimes they need a little help doing so in a productive manner. The job of the GM isn’t just shepherding the characters through a carefully crafted series of encounters; it’s also playing the role of babysitter for a bunch of grown-ass adults who may or may not be afraid of the sun and woefully addicted to caffeine.
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