Last column, we discussed the role of legal precedent in sustaining a long-running campaign, and explored how as a gamemaster, when you make rulings on grey areas not covered by the rules, you are acting just like a common law judge does in the US and UK court system. In other words, the gamemaster is the game's judge in a literal, not figurative, sense. With that base established, I now want to expand our discussion of judging a game to address the phenomenon known as "rules lawyering".
Rules lawyering is the practice of using technicalities or ambiguities within the game rules to gain an advantage within the game; those who practice it are known as "rules lawyers." Rules lawyers crop up in every game. If playing a rules-light game, the rules lawyer will take advantage of ambiguities and vagueness inherent in whatever simple system is being used. If playing a rules-heavy game, the rules lawyer will take advantage of technicalities that are often overlooked in the volumes of text, or of ambiguities regarding how different rules interact. Either way, rules lawyers are so common that they are one of the basic player types covered in Grubb and Baker's Dungeon Master for Dummies.
Many gamemasters, who dislike the "litigation" involved in handling a rules lawyer, treat the rules lawyer as an enemy to be crushed or banned from the game; but rules lawyers don't need to be the enemy of good gaming. Indeed, a good rules lawyer can make the campaign better.
Most rules lawyers are not trying to gain an advantage within the game out of malice or spite; they are doing it because they are invested in the game and want to express their interest in the outcomes of the rules system. And that's a good thing! To put it bluntly, if a player's character is at stake, and he doesn't try to find some technicality to save his life, that player probably doesn't give a whit for your campaign!
There are, of course, problem players who use rules lawyering as their tool to cause grief. But there are also problem players who use role-playing to cause grief ("that's what my character would do"), ignorance to cause grief ("I didn't know that would get you killed") and so on. The issue is always the griefing, not the way the griefing is expressed. I've already discussed how to handle griefers in Managing Problems and Players, and here we're focusing on non-griefing rules lawyers.
The classic example of good rules lawyering is when the players think of unexpected and unforeseen combinations of rules mechanics that create intriguing possibilities. Consider an example that came up in my own Classic Dungeons & Dragons campaign: What happens if a levitating wizard conjures a floating disc, and then has friend stand on the floating disc and push the wizard with a 10' pole? For some reason, the authors of Classic D&D did not think this activity merited a specific rule, leaving me to decide what the outcome of this adventure in arcane aeronautics would be.
As a gamemaster, you will be called on to make decisions like this every single session, and when your campaign is young, probably every single encounter. The rules lawyers in your group can be counted on to always advocate for their benefit, but you should not do likewise - it will not do to always side with the players, nor always against them. Instead, you must strive to interpret the rules in a consistent way. How does one do this?