In every group there’s at least one person who has read the rule books through and through. In most groups these persons are the game masters. Then there are those who’ve read the books and have all the requirements for the prestige class Dreaded Rules Lawyer.
If there’s one thing that playing with kids has taught me, it’s how much I like playing without being interrupted with remarks on rules or my rulings being argued over. Kids, through school and sports, have an affinity for taking for granted what grown ups say but also love to immerse themselves in games, like roleplaying.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind player asking for help with rules or asking for clarifications on rules, but I detest spending time arguing over rules, whether they should be ruled-as-written or ruled-as-intended, if this or that part of the session was exactly by the book or not. Explaining rules, making judgement calls and advocating the game is part of the game master’s job description. Sometimes game masters need to bend the rules, sometimes the rules get in the way of good story telling. Even Gygax did it and urged other DM’s to do it as well.
I’ve played with roleplayers whose approach to the rule set was more akin to a strict orthodox religion. Some of those, who by most standards would be called rules lawyers, have actually been quite fun to play with, while others have had detrimental effect on my enjoyment, to say the least.
The helpful rules lawyer
Almost all roleplayers I know have a fairly good grasp of the basic rule set of roleplaying. They know you have to roll a die to succeed an action and that in roleplaying games they take on a role of a character in a story determined by the game master along with the players. I also know a handful of roleplayers who have mastered the rules of a given system and who know how to make the most of that knowledge.
I also know a handful of players who know the rules really well and have mastered rule sets of many roleplaying games. Sometimes this can come in handy, a player like that can actually be quite helpful because having more than one player around the table who know how to play the game tends to spend things up.
The helpful rules lawyer is an added value. She can move things along and doesn’t mind helping the inexperienced player to learn the game. This is the kind of person that invests time reading the rules, doesn’t mind sharing her knowledge but respects the game master’s rulings. This can make life easier for the game master and help her focus more on the narrative.
The bothersome rules lawyer
As much as the helpful rules lawyer can be a great asset in any group and handy to have around, the bothersome one can be a handful. Constant remarks and arguing over rules’ interpretations isn’t something I enjoy, whether I’m a part of that argument or not.
The bothersome rules lawyer is the player who feels the need to interrupt the flow of the session arguing over rules or “correcting” the game master. The bothersome one will argue and fight over the rules or technicalities, because to him it’s more important to be right than to be happy. For this kind of rules lawyers it’s the letter of the rules, rather than the spirit of the rules, that’s important.
If put in internet terms, the bothersome rules lawyer is the kind of person who will argue with you about trivial matters and when he finds himself in a tight spot, he will revert to correcting your grammar.
(To be honest, I have played both of these rules lawyer roles. I’ve argued over rules and had heated arguments about this or that rule. I’ve also been the helpful one, using my knowledge of this or that system to help the group getting the best results, making best use of spells etc.)
Don’t be a dick
I think perhaps the single most important thing I try to teach my kids is to not be a dick (in Icelandic: Ekki vera fáviti!). Doesn’t matter if they are in school, sports or playing games with their friends. Nobody likes people who are dicks or assholes. Be kind, respectful and stand for what you love.
The bothersome rules lawyer can be a dick. This kind of rules lawyer robs other players of their fun and for me that simply is not allowed.
Dealing with the bothersome rules lawyer can be tricky, you can use these great spells and enchantments that Helgi wrote about in his article on dealing with problematic players. I find that talking privately with the bothersome rules lawyer often solves the issue and in most cases I simply ask the rules lawyer to be a helpful one.
Back to basics
For most roleplayers I know roleplaying is a chance to meet friends, have a laugh and share a great story. Roleplaying is, first and foremost, a social activity and it is supposed to be fun. Roleplaying isn’t a competitive board game, it’s all about shared storytelling.
Sometimes I think I’ve learned more from playing with my kids than playing with people my age. Their enthusiasm, joy and excitement is contagious. The rules don’t matter as much to them as it does to us the veteran players, for them it’s all about having fun. I think that is the foundation of all roleplaying games and adopting that kind of mindset has for me actually been really redemptive.
Rules lawyers, people with not so great social skills and know-it-alls are almost an integral part of the hobby. As a game master it’s your role to make sure that these persons don’t ruin the fun for the other players, and to make sure that the rules lawyers have fun as well. After all, they are a part of the group.
Dialogue and discussions are the best way to tackle this kind of players, be honest, respectful and tell them how you feel. Most people will be grateful.