Thursday, May 14, 2009

Poll Result: Rules Lawyering

So - another Eleven Foot Poll draws to a close. The question this time was "As a DM, which of these player behaviours annoys you most?" and you've thankfully avoided a humorous tie between "indecision" and "no team focus" by expressing a clear hatred of rules lawyering.

A couple of years back I was privileged at a convention to meet Steve Jackson, creator of the roleplaying game GURPS. It's a game is known for its almost endless supply of supplements, expansions, and conditional rules, and speaking on that topic he said, "I would rather be dragged through a knothole sideways than play one of my own games using all the crunchy bits."

Here's the thing: in a roleplaying game, rules aren't rules. They aren't laws that govern the universe and they aren't immutable commandments governing the one true way to play the game. They're a toolbox; a list of options available to DMs to aid in resolving conflicts and stimulating desired player behaviour.

DMs should use the rules. They should understand the rules and know why rules have been crafted in the manner they have. In well designed games - and 4th Edition is a well designed game - the rules are deliberately crafted to achieve a particular goal, in preference to other systems which were trialled and found wanting. A DM modifies the rules at his peril, knowing that he is substituting his personal brainwave for something that has the benefit of experience and playtesting.

At the end of the day, though, the rules belong to the DM. They live in his toolbox and they only come out when he wants them to. If the DM decides that today is the day for a screwdriver instead of a hammer, the players can point out that they like the hammer, but not demand its appearance. The player who thinks they're entitled to the hammer is a player who's mistaken.

Rules lawyering is the manifestation of that mistake. Rules lawyering stems from the belief that the printed rulebooks represent a higher authority than the Dungeon Master, and that in times of dissatisfaction they can be appealed to in order to provide relief. But they are not a higher authority - only, at the best of times, a wiser one. A player dissatisfied with their DM's games is best served to argue not using their rulebooks, but using their feet. The game your DM runs is the game he runs - if you don't like the game, don't turn up to it.


Maelora said...

Well said as always. But I've noticed something else about my hobby that touches on this... It was prevalent in 3rd edition, and seemingly even more so in 4E... and that's the weird fetishization of Rules-As-Written.

In the pre-internet days, we just used what rules we liked and discarded the ones that we disliked or thought didn't work. DM's say was final, so we went with whoever was running it at the time.

One case in point - I played with a dozen or so AD&D groups down the years, and not ONCE did I meet anyone who used the non-human level limit rules. Not once. Class restrictions, yes; level limits, never.

I've noticed a lot of things in the 4E discussions about such issues as 'can small characters use a staff' and suchlike. It seems that many of today's players genuinely have difficulties in making house rules, always wanting things to be ruled as 'official'. Have a diet of MMORPGs really atrophied the average gamer's decision-making skills to this extent?

Maybe not strictly 'rules-lawyering', but part of the same problem, I think.

Greg Tannahill said...

Rules As Written is an essential concept for use in discussion. Everyone homebrews, but there's only limited utility in discussing everyone's homebrew. If you take homebrew as the default state of play, you never end up with better core rules. Your game becomes increasingly self-customised and the value you're getting from your purchased official material becomes progressively less.

To design and develop a better game it's essential that the discussion engages with the rules as written. Having a vague dissatisfaction with a game mechanic and ignoring it in your home game is great for one group but it's much better to precisely identify why the rules as written do or not work to improve the game for everyone.

I, for example, don't use the lighting rules. They're just too much trouble. But I understand how they work, and if a future expansion ever does something that makes them attractive again I'll revisit them.

The RPGA, as an official organisation, confines itself strictly to rules as written. And I think that's good for the game. Knowing that there's a place where the literal interpretation of rules will be viciously exploited in any way possible provides a spur to the developers to make better and more robust rules.

I've spoken before about how the philosophy of game design in videogaming is decades ahead of where RPGs are at, and I think this is one reason why - there's no "homebrew" in that medium. You have to get it right.

Greg Tannahill said...

And now I realise that the argument I just made would have been a better post than the one I actually wrote. :-(

Unknown said...

That is a fairly insightful comment. Maybe you should post it so that people who don't read comments can get the benefit of it.

By the way, stumbled on this blog, and I love it. Keep up the good work!

Greg Tannahill said...

Thanks Alex. I might schedule it up as a special bonus post for tomorrow.

Grant said...

I get intensely irritated by rules lawyering and indecision when I play RPGs.

Greg Tannahill said...

I've played so many games that are entirely my own design now that when players come to me with a rules argument I'm a bit shocked - "What the... how do YOU have the rules?"

Maelora said...

>And now I realise that the argument I just made would have been a better post than the one I actually wrote. :-(

Isn't that what debate is supposed to stimulate, ideally? :-) So here's more, in devil's advocate mode...

I still don't see the benefit of consulting the PHB as some kind of holy book, the creator's 'final and perfect revelation'. After all, this thread is about how that kind of behaviour ticks us off :-)

I mentioned before that in practise, players tended to ignore the racial level limits in 1st ed. These limits were raised in 2nd, and ignored completely in subsequent editions.

Even 4E has seen some major overhauls and errata, including some serious ones like Skill Challenges (and some people still don't think they work now!). Were these ever playtested?

After all, you have proved - logically and precisely - that the first two modules for 4E have some pretty serious design flaws. Is it therefore not possible, as it was the same people who designed the core game, that they might have made errors in the rules themselves?

And finally, I'm not sure what videogames have to do with RPGs. Ideally, they should provide a different experience. Part of the appeal for many people is changing and modifying things. Is it absolutely necessary to completely replicate the experience of videogames with RPGs? Although I suppose it does give a good explanation why I'm increasingly disillusioned with 4E...

Greg Tannahill said...

Game design isn't so much an art as it is a science. Some things are more fun, on average, than others, and the reason is less to do with the aesthetic craftsmanship of those things and more to do with the way the human brain is hardwired.

We respond measurably and predictably to certain reward schedules. One of 4th Edition's biggest mistakes is that it's almost completely eliminated random rewards, which means that when people level up and are looking at the long stretch to the next level they're at the plateau where they're most likely to stop playing.

Our brains treat numbers in strange ways. We're disproportionately impressed by large numbers and round numbers - hence XP landmarks being measured in even thousands - but we find it hard to use large numbers to assess risk and probability - hence the elimination of percentile dice rolls in 4th Edition.

We're as deferential and easily intimidated by large avatars in virtual spaces as we are by large people in real life - hence the move away from Large and Huge player characters.

We derive fun from exploring and mastering large but limited possibility spaces - hence character development being constrained to finite by complex possibility sets. By contrast, we disproportionately accrue stress when forced to make choices that forfeit desirable resources - hence no racial or class stat penalties or behaviour restrictions.

It's a science, and that means there's a better way of doing it. All those homebrews and house-rules out there are great, but by refusing to engage with the Rules As Written they're each independently re-inventing the wheel. We should be putting that passion and design into a common pool and coming up with one masterful, definitive, all-embracing ruleset that draws from the best of the collected community knowledge and experience.

Maelora said...

That all makes sense, and is argued with real insight. But as to your last paragraph, I'm pretty sure that what works for one person probably doesn't work for another. Isn't the strength of an RPG - opposed to say, Final Fantasy or WOW - that we can create our own stuff and run the rules as we want to? We even see this in PC game design, which is a very different animal to console games, and usually has a large community of people whose main joy is 'modding' the game. Me, I'd rather RPGs be like PC games than console games, which provide a purely packaged entertainment. Great for many, not for me.

And when you say we should be 'putting that passion and design into a common pool and coming up with one masterful, definitive, all-embracing ruleset that draws from the best of the collected community knowledge and experience'... I guess the good news is that we probably are. I assume they changed the level limit thing in later editions because people ignored it in the earlier editions. I assume they changed skill challenges and the 'Blade Cascade' power in 4E because of player feedback that these things needed fixing.

But some people - many people, I'd guess - will find that the 'masterful, definitive, all-embracing ruleset' doesn't work for them. I think that's just the type of audience we gamers are. We're tinkerers and mavericks, always thinking we can do better :-)

Malcuy said...

See, this post, and these comments, are why I really *really* like this blog. I'm finding it very helpful to see the analysis and suggestions of someone who has far more experience of these things then me. I have more things to say, having read most of the blog by now, but I can't think of an eloquent way to say them. So you know, keep up the good work.

Greg Tannahill said...


I think the thing I missed saying is that I don't for a minute advocate that people shouldn't use whatever homebrew they feel comfortable with in their games. They absolutely should. It's one of the strengths of tabletop roleplaying that you can. It's just that before you do that, you should try to understand what the developer had in mind, and have a solid argument as to why you're second-guessing it.

As for computer gaming, my point largely is that game developers can't rely on modders to fix their product for them. They have to have something that works, out of the box, and catches the audience in the first half hour of play. If a computer game sucks, people won't go write patches for it - they'll walk away. And that more ruthless and vicious environment has had a kind of survival-of-the-fittest effect. Almost everything we've learned about game design in the past twenty years has come out of competitive environments, for the most part computer gaming but also to a significant degree Magic: The Gathering and its imitators.

The fact that roleplaying's not competitive isn't something I'd remotely want to change, but at the same it's that non-competitiveness that's hurt its evolution. It's been so wrapped up in a fuzzy, forgiving community that it's never been forced to really justify itself at the molecular level in the way that, say, Magic has.

Maelora said...

Oh, I think we're mostly on the same page here. I'm just arguing a bit because I like debate and I rarely find anyone quite as erudite as you :-)

I'm not sure if the RPG community is necessarily 'fuzzy and forgiving'... but yes, we do stay with the hobby and attamept to fix the faults rather than walk away. I guess we're all frustrated designers at heart.

It's also notable that many computer games can have glaring bugs and glitches - the computer market, far more than RPGs, rush-releases its products and skimps on playtesting, resulting in most games being released in an unfinished form.

But anyway, back to the point of the post... 'Rules Lawyering' is unpopular with GMs. It's funny that if everyone stuck to RAW there would be far less rules-lawyering... But that's part of the fun of the game, as most of us seem to agree. I'd say that the number of people who played 100% vanilla D&D, with no house-rules, prior to 3rd edition was probably close to zero.

Anonymous said...

MEMO to self: Tone down the rules-lawyering - most of Greg's readers don't like it.

That said, a serious response from the other side of the screen:

I willingly admit to being a rules lawyer. I like complex systems with layers of rules, and I like using these constraints and options to effectively achieve my goals within a structured framework. If I didn't like rules and preferred the DM to arbitrate everything, I'd play a freeform game. But I don't want to play a freeform game.

Of course, I realize the system isn't perfect. There are bits of crunch that are unbalanced (like the "Blade Cascade" exploit) or tedious (like non-infinite rations). These aren't fun, and I have no problem with houseruling these things, provided it's discussed with the DM before the game starts.

It's the simple, mundane (combat) rules like "creatures can't shift around corners" that bring up the rules arguments. You say that "the rules belong to the DM." He wants to give his gnolls 5 more hit points or rework the skill challenge system, fine. But when I read the Player's Handbook, I want to be able to use the information within to my advantage. When the DM makes an on-the-spot ruling that contradicts what I've read in the rulebook - that makes me question whether he's read the rulebook - then I feel I've wasted my time. The DM "can't cheat" - yet I feel cheated.

I'm surprised you gave this post a "Player Advice" tag without providing any real player advice. Suppose a rules argument comes up at the table. Should players argue it on the spot for a predetermined amount of time (30 seconds)? Let the play be made, then look up the rules during someone else's turn? Argue the rule after the game is over? Let it go, then make a mental note to bookmark that page in the PHB in case the issue reappears next week? Surely "quit the game and find an RPGA group, you munchkin" isn't the only option.

Maelora said...

I have a player much like this, 16. I used to feel he was trying to usurp me, to be honest, but we hit a happy medium. He's happy to take my judgement calls (as I am his, when he DMs) and we can argue the pros and cons in the pub after the game. I'm personally open-minded and have changed my views on things after discussions.

As to advice, I'm sure Greg will have something to say on that! But for me, I would recommend not arguing about it at the table (unless it's immediately fatal or something). Best to keep the game moving and discuss the minutae afterwards, I think. Games should be played among friends, and robust debate should be welcomed - but there's a time and a place for it.

I think the 'rules lawyers' that everyone hates aren't the ones disputing a genuine judgement call, but the guys who ALWAYS seem to be arguing the toss over trivial matters to blag an unfair advantage. You know who you are! :-)

I would also recommend any GM who wishes to change the basics to explain this before the game, so everyone is aware of what his rulings are.

Xtian said...

If the real issue with rules-lawyering is actually "excessive and annoying rules-lawyering," then I think that the current term does more harm than good. Like 16, I am also a rules lawyer. I like to think that I'm never an asshole about it (I agree with Maelora that any rules questions ought to be resolved outside of encounters since they totally kill the mood). In the end, "Being a self-absorbed jerk" is a totally legitimate player trait to despise. I sense that in most cases this, as opposed to rules-lawyering, being too loud, character optimization, bad role-playing, etc., is the real target.

Rules-lawyering, character optimization, and system mastery in general not only develop skills that are just as legitimate as other RPG-related skills, but some players find them inherently fun. I think a lot of players see munchkining as a means to the self-serving end of being superior than everyone else and gloating about it, and I think that perception is misguided.

As my first commend, I also need to commend the blog. At times I disagree with you, but overall I love the analysis. There is not enough of this stuff on the internet.

WV - persiseo - Hogwarts-style spell that causes ancient greek heroes to cry like little girls

Maelora said...

Xtian, I always thought the difference between a power-gamer and a munchkin was that the munchkin actually cheats :-)

I'm no big fan of min-maxing, but some players like it. However, I'd suggest that it's not really possible to completely power-game in D&D, because of the range of options any GM has. You can learn all the tricks in a board game or card game, but an RPG can throw curve balls at you.

For example, you make the perfect combat character... and the GM springs a murder mystery on you. Your combat skills are now next to useless, and you have the same chance of succeeding as the next guy. Or the GM could do something nasty and spring something like 'Danger at Dunwater' on you, where your perfect combat skills are actually detrimental to your success (for those who aren't old enough to recall it, it's a subtle diplomatic mission cunningly disguised as a dungeon crawl... Players who fight their way through will be needlessly killed.)

True, 4E doesn't provide any non-combat adventures. But techically, it is still possible to have them, even if it means me blowing the dust off my 1st edition modules like 'Crystal Cave'.

>At times I disagree with you, but overall I love the analysis. There is not enough of this stuff on the internet.

Totally agree. I hope Greg doesn't mind us having this discussion on his blog!

Greg Tannahill said...

Discuss away! It's awesome!

16lettersonly - the player advice was to vote with your feet. Turn up to the games you enjoy. Hold DMs accountable to their performance. I should probably add, though, that that's only meaningful if you give clear feedback as to why you're enjoying the game or not enjoying it.

It's the DM's job to provide clear, consistent, appropriate rules, and when the DM fails to provide that and the game suffers as a result that still doesn't make it the players' job.

Like I say, DMs should understand the rules, and when they go against them it should be for a clear reason, to achieve a specific effect. That's part of their craft. If players feel dissatisfied with a rules call, they can say so, and why; if players have an idea about how things can be done better, they can offer it. And the DM accepts that, or ignores it, but then the game moves on.

You get a better game once the option to argue the rules is taken off the table. The DM's ruleset is an underlying part of the game experience he's delivering, exactly the same as his campaign setting or plotline. You, as players, will judge him on the quality and consistency of that ruleset just as you will with his setting, and make a determination whether to turn up to games accordingly.

Anonymous said...

Xtian - I don't quibble with the "rules lawyer" moniker. Though I've never intended to be an asshole over a rule, I'm sure I have inadvertently been one every so often, and I could be one if I really wanted to. Not everyone has this power. It is a great (and terrible) power to have and it deserves to be recognized.

Maelora - It's perfectly possible to power-game in D&D. Just take a glance at the "Character Optimization" forum on - one of the site's biggest and busiest - where you can watch thousands of people endlessly debate the relative merits of feats, powers, classes, and builds. (Could you imagine such a thriving discussion about a White Wolf or LARP game?)

No one would suggest using those overpowered builds in a real D&D game, however, which is where I think the issue of trust comes in. Between a team of thirty-something playtesters whose findings are neatly wrapped into a hardbound book, and one thirty-something guy I've never met before*, I think I know who I trust to deliver a "fun and fair" play experience. But those playtesters aren't running the game I'm in. Unless the DM is running a module and reading the flavor text word for word, the game is going to be individualized. I assume this is why many DMs disallow rulebooks at the table, though a problem then arises when the DM genuinely has no idea of which interpretation of the rules would make for a better game. I should hope s/he errs on the side of "don't kill or permamently cripple the PCs."

Is it critical that the DM be right? I find the game more fun that way.

As an aside, these and other issues are why one of my "rules" of RPGing is that all participants know as much as possible about how the game is going to be run before the game starts. Just as you wouldn't write a 50 page character backstory if your DM is running Tomb of Horrors, the DM with a hack-and-slash lover shouldn't run a murder mystery - or, at least, should allow him to respec his PC accordingly. If the player decides to stick with his disadvantaged character concept (and his buddies are okay with it), it's his choice.

*This being what happens when you don't have any friends and have to resort to trolling the internets/local game stores for pick-up groups.

Anonymous said...

Just read your follow-up post, and as a short addendum after that wall of text, I think I realize a little better why so many DMs are in love with their pet houserules. Having grown up in the CRPG tradition and gone straight to 4E (with a short and unexciting stint into White Wolf in between), I've never really engaged in a game that didn't have clear, consistent, and comprehensive rules governing every important activity - which has shaped the way I approach game systems in general.

Greg Tannahill said...

Further to the historical angle, check out Wizards' article on the 1st Edition incarnation of the Roper.

Dragon Editorial: Dragon #373

Maelora said...

Yes, it's possible to 'try' to power-game... But min-maxing suggests choices, and it's always possible to make the guy wish he'd taken the _other_ choice. Of course, ideally, no player or GM would intentionally be a jerk and 'fight' each other like this.

I've played with my two groups for some time. It's become almost an unwritten rule that characters with a wide spread of abilities will do better than the specialists. By all means, choose a lopsided character, but be aware that your weaknesses WILL matter. Take the 20 Strength, 6 Charisma orc barbarian if you want, but that Chr penalty WILL have an impact. You might be beter off with Str 16, Chr 10, unless you're doing this for role-playing reasons and don't mind all the grief that's surely heading your way.

That's ultimately why I'm all but done with 4E. In the past editions, hack-and-slash was an option, not a mandate. Combat was part of the game, but (looking at old modules and Dungeon magazine) at any given time, you might be doing a ton of other things - facing a gauntlet of traps, murder mysteries, exploring, fighting against the wilderness and elements, going underwater or to another plane, diplomatic missions, or escorting a thousand refugees to a safe place ahead of an oncoming army.

In 2nd edition, there were a bunch of settings (DarkSun, Ravenloft, Birthright, Spelljammer, Planescape) that didn't fit the hack-and-slash dungeon crawl very well. In 4E, you know what you are going to get every time - 20 minis combats and a skill challenge. That may be fine for some people, but it's not for everyone.

But your main point is quite correct - be fair, and communicate your expectations as a player and GM beforehand and everyone will have a much better chance of enjoying the game.

Maelora said...

Hmm, I find that Roper article to be typical revisionist WotC NewSpeak, to be honest. "Ooh, 4E is JUST LIKE 1st edition, you old timers! Honestly!"

I do recall the 1st edition Roper was pretty broken though. Didn't it have about 90% magic resistance? I also recall they put one in a 3rd level 3rd edition module, when it was technically impossible to kill it, and yet everyone claimed to have done so...

Greg Tannahill said...

I didn't read the Roper article that way. It was quite clear that the 1st Edition Roper was a mess - it was an idea with no mechanics. Whereas the 3rd Edition Roper was all mechanics and no fun. Their claim is that 4th Edition synthesises strong ideas, good mechanics and fun.