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?
The Canons of Statutory Interpretation
Well, for starters, put away your Freud and Derrida. While it has long been intellectually hip to put on a black beret, drink French martinis, and declare that “text has no meaning,” this sort of deconstruction is of little use to an RPG gamemaster charged with interpreting what the game rules say.
A better source of guidance are the “canons of statutory interpretation” used by real-world judges as rules of thumb to determine the meaning of laws. A thorough discussion of the canons takes about fifty pages, but below, I’ve simplified some canons of statutory interpretation that can be used by a gamemaster to interpret game rules.
- Your starting point in interpreting rules is always the plain language employed by the game designer.
- If a rule specifically defines a term, use the defined definition; but in the absence of a defined definition, interpret the rule in accordance with the ordinary and natural meaning of the language (the dictionary definition).
- If the rule is still ambiguous, look at the rule holistically. Terminology in a rule that is ambiguous in isolation may be clarified if the same terminology is used elsewhere in a context that makes its meaning clear, or because only one of the possible meanings is compatible with the rest of the game.
- Gamemasters should not interpret different terms within the same rule to mean the same thing, nor the same term within the same rule to mean different things.
- If the literal interpretation of the words is absurd, the rule must be interpreted to avoid absurdity.
- If possible, give meaning to every clause and word of a rule; don’t assume anything is redundant.
- Specific rules override general rules.
Let’s apply these canons to the case of the levitating wizard and his friend pushing him from a nearby floating disc. The wizard, a consummate rules lawyer, argued that he would move horizontally through the air from the push, while his disc (carrying his friend) would follow, enabling them to create a two-man “flycycle” that could maneuver through the air.
We start with the plain language of the rules:
Floating Disc: This spell creates an invisible magical platform the size and shape of a small round shield which can carry up to 500 pounds of weight. The disc will be created at the height of the caster’s waist, and will remain at that height, following the caster wherever he goes. If the caster goes further than 6 feet from the disc, it will automatically follow, with a movement rate equal to the caster’s.
Levitate: When this spell is cast, the caster may move up or down in the air without any support. Motion up or down is at a rate of 20′ per round. This spell does not enable the caster to move from side-to-side. The caster could, however, levitate to a ceiling and move sideways by using his hands.
In the situation at hand, the caster is levitating in the air, while his friend is standing on the disc about 6′ away pushing him with a 10′ stick. Since a disc is the size and shape of a shield and can carry 500 pounds, the plain language of the rule (Canon #1) makes it clear that the friend can stand on the disc. The first real question is what happens to the caster when his friend pushes him?
Levitation plainly says that the spell does “not enable” the caster to move from side-to-side. “Not enable” is not a defined term so, following Canon #2, we look to the dictionary definition. “Not enable” in this sentence could mean “not permit” or “not empower”. If it means “not permit,” then levitation forbids side to side movement. But if it means “not empower” then levitation simply doesn’t provide the motive force for side to side movement, but it doesn’t forbid it. Since the very next sentence says the caster could “move sideways by using his hands”, looking at the rule holistically (as per Canon #3) tells us that “not enable” simply means “not empower” because that’s the only way that permitting moving hand by hand across the ceiling would make sense.
Canon #4 tells us that we should not interpret the same term to mean different things, so there’s nothing preventing the caster from moving sideways while levitating if some other motive force is provided. We rule that if crawling across the ceiling will move a levitating caster, so will getting pushed by a big stick.
The second question is what will happen to the friend on the floating disc? The plain language says that “if the caster goes further than 6 feet from the disc, it will automatically follow, with a movement rate equal to the caster’s.” The plain language thus suggests that when the caster is shoved away by the pole, the disc will follow at the caster’s movement rate. But what is the caster’s movement rate? Here things get quite tricky!
“Movement rate” is a defined term in the D&D Basic Rules, so following Canon #2 we look at the defined definition: “The number of feet a character may move in one turn.” The normal movement rate is that “all characters are able to move 120′ in one turn.” Our rules lawyer argues that this means that the wizard and his friend can move 120′ per turn by pushing the caster. But this makes no sense – pushing hard enough to send the wizard gliding 120; would surely do damage to him, or knock the fighter off the disc, or both; or that interpretation would also make it possible for the disc to move further than the caster. Since the literal interpretation of the words is absurd, we follow Canon #5, and interpret the rule to avoid absurdity. We rule that “movement rate” means the distance the caster actually moved, not his possible movement rate. In this case, that’s about 4-5′ since he’s being pushed from 6′ away with a 10′ pole.
The final question is what will happen if the caster levitates up or down? Reverting to Canon #1, the plain text says “the disc will be created at the height of the caster’s waist, and will remain at that height, following the caster wherever he goes. If the caster goes further than 6 feet from the disc, it will automatically follow.” Since vertical movement could take the caster further than 6 feet from the disc, and since the disc “will remain” at the height of the caster’s waist, the disc will move up or down with the caster.
Following this chain of interpretation, we can rule in a consistent way that the wizard and his friend can move 20′ up or down each round, and about 5′ horizontally each round, creating a slow-moving “fly cycle” that lets the two of them avoid pits and soar over obstacles.
I will leave it to the reader to grasp how this ruling eventually led to a flying centaur under invisibility 10′ radius carrying 2 wizards each with 4 floating discs carrying archers, resulting in a D&D stealth bomber…
Alexander Macris has been playing tabletop games since 1981. In addition to co-authoring the tabletop games Modern Spearhead and Blaze Across the Sands, his work has appeared in Interface, the Cyberpunk 2020 fanzine, and in RPGA AD&D 2nd Edition tournament modules. In addition to running two weekly campaigns, he is publisher of The Escapist and president and CEO of Themis Media. He sleeps on Sundays.