The Rules Lawyer is probably the most reviled problem player after the Munchkin. He constantly questions the GM’s rulings. He complains loudly and constantly when the GM deviates from the printed rules, often causing the game to degenerate into lengthy and heated arguments over whose interpretation of the rules is right. These arguments eat up play time and cause bad feelings among the group.
Some Rules Lawyers simply love to argue. But for many, the driving force behind those arguments is fear. He simply doesn’t trust the GM to act fairly towards his character. After all, if the GM can change rules on a whim, what’s to stop her from suddenly deciding that the Rules Lawyer’s character can no longer use his abilities? If the rules change, how will he know what he can and can’t do in the context of the game?
Most Rules Layers that I’ve encountered have came from games where the players and the GM were at odds. Sticking to the absolute letter of the rules was the only way these players could succeed. Even so, many game sessions still devolved into slightly more sophisticated “Are not! Are too!” arguments.
Actually, the Rules Lawyer’s reactions are quite natural. After all, we spend a lot of time teaching our children to follow the written rules of a game. If they don’t, we tell them they’re cheating. And cheating is bad.
Then they take up roleplaying and suddenly they’re told that rules are just guidelines and can be changed. But only by one person: the GM. If all you’ve ever encountered are board and card games where every player is on a equal footing, having a player who doesn’t need to follow the rules is rather confusing.
Add to it that in the other games they play, they compete against the other players. It’s hard for a Rules Lawyer to lose that sense of competition. After all, every other game has competition. Other games have only a single winner. If the players are to act a single team, that leaves the GM as the only competition.
Rules Lawyers primarily cause problems in two ways:
- Taking a literal interpretation of the rules, then challenging anyone else’s interpretation,
- constantly interrupting the game to argue for their interpretation.
Most Rules Lawyers aren’t trying to ruin the game. In fact, they see themselves doing just the opposite. They genuinely believe they’re helping the GM run the game “right”.
How to deal with a Rules Lawyer
1. Listen to the Rules Lawyer—briefly. Let him briefly state his views and listen for anything in his arguments you can agree with. Then tell him you’ve heard what he said, that you agree with points A, B, and C, but in the interest of keeping the game running, you’re making this temporary decision which will last until the end of the current game session. Tell him you’ll consider what he said between game sessions and that you’ll make a final ruling by the beginning of the next session. Then make sure you do.
2. Put house rules in writing. Print them out and pass them out to the players, preferably during character creation or when they first join. If any player wants to argue these rules, consider that a red flag—she may not be a good match for your game.
3. Ask for help. Consulting the Rules Lawyer on mechanics you’re not sure of can help promote the feeling that the two of you are on the same side. You can add to this by asking him to help the other players learn the rules. The Rules Lawyer prides himself on his knowledge of the rules. Make him feel that he and his knowledge are assets to the game and you’ll have gained an ally rather than an opponent.
Basically, it comes down to a matter of trust: your players need to trust you. They need to understand that you all want the same thing–to make the best game possible.
This is an excerpt from The GM’s Field Guide to Players, the up-coming book from rpgGM.com, due to be released this Summer 2012.
- my sword glows blue in the presence of rules lawyers (wilwheaton.typepad.com)
- The House Always Wins: Examining the Concept of House Rules (campaignmastery.com)
- Creighton’s Corner: House Rules (gameknightreviews.com)
- Rules lawyer (Wikipedia)
- Rules Lawyers (Shirtoid)
- How to handle a rule-lawyer player (Role-Playing Games forum)