I’m a “Rules Lawyer,” or at least, I’m accused of it enough that I’m willing to entertain the idea that I am one. It’s something of a derogatory term, possessing the connotation that a Rules Lawyer is getting in the way of everybody else’s fun, or arguing the rules so they can “win” the game. I’m not going to deny that these are Rules Lawyer behaviors. (Nor will I deny that I do them, at least not without the caveat that I can justify my Rules Lawyering.)
Rules Lawyer is a subject term, though. It can easily mean different things depending on who you ask about it, so let me establish what I’m referring to when I say it: a Rules Lawyer is somebody who has a particularly strong affinity for knowing and following the rules of a game, sometimes to a fault.
I’ve had the term thrown at me numerous times as an insult, but that isn’t to say I don’t have my redeeming qualities. So with all that said, allow me to use myself as a case study for why Rules Lawyer doesn’t have to be an ugly term.
1) Helping New Players
This is the most obvious helpful usage of an expansive knowledge of the rules, especially for a game that has relatively complex character creation. A relatively common such situation I’ve found myself in was in games of World of Darkness.
One of the trade-offs that the World of Darkness games typically have is that despite simpler dice mechanics, character creation is a little more complicated, since one is afforded a lot more freedom in designing their character.
Until some of the gaming groups I’ve been in got the hang of character creation, even when I wasn’t GMing the game, I was often leading everybody in the game through character creation. It wasn’t particularly feasible to have everybody make their characters outside of game, since we only had two copies of the rulebooks available for 7 of us.
So, with my book turned to the quick-reference for character creation, I took everybody through it step by step. Which is also kind of a way I was able to...
2) Help New GMs
In the example above, I was also helping the GM, who wasn’t quite as familiar with the game as I was. This isn’t to say that interjecting with the corrections of the rules whenever the GM is wrong is helpful, though -- discretion is the better part of valour, as they say.
The key here is if the GM seems unfamiliar with the rules of the game. In the above mentioned group, we were playing what was at the time known as “New World of Darkness,” before the God Machine Chronicle Update happened and turned that IP into confusing mess of who owns what and what works with what.
One of the players then decided they wanted to run a game of Vampire the Masquerade, when he had previously only ever (and very scarcely) ran games of Dungeons and Dragons. Admittedly, I wasn’t very familiar with the table top version of Masquerade, but I do take to learning rules quickly.
I once again did my usual schtick of guiding char-gen for everybody, but during the actual run of the game, I kept quiet about how the rules actually worked until he requested to know something specific. (Notably, combat rolls, since those are a multi-step mess with a lot of variables in the “Old World of Darkness”)
After all, one interpretation of Rule 0 is “The GM has the final say.”
3) Keep Record For Experimental Projects
Let’s say you’ve got a new sub-system for your favorite game you’re homebrewing, or some other such similar scenario. However, you’re not much for writing and organizing things, and all the ideas you have for this are stored in your head, and not on paper.
If you’re genre savvy, you probably already know where I’m going with this: enter the Rules Lawyer. The role of the Rules Lawyer here is that they can keep track of your rules, ideally by writing or typing them down as new ones are introduced.
I’m not much for homebrew games, however, I was still involved in a similar situation. A friend of mine got their hands on a copy of a game from Japan called Detatoko Saga, which was released in 2016. Naturally, there’s no English translation of the game available at the time, but said friend did know how to read Japanese.
Knowing we’ll inevitably need to refer to these later, everybody involved in the game wrote down the skills they needed. I took things a step further, and wrote down EVERY rule and process the GM mentioned.
This actually wound up coming in handy as we played, with the GM (who was translating the game) occasionally referring to my notes.
Based on the examples I’ve presented from myself, a reasonable assumption here is that what could make the difference between how a Rules Lawyer is perceived is often the context of when they want to bring up doing things by the rules.
After all, regardless of what game you’re playing, knowing how to make a character for it is important; and sometimes, a GM has trouble finding that one rule or subsystem, and a helpful interjection may be necessary.
Remember though, just because somebody hurls that name, Rules Lawyer, at you does not mean it’s suddenly a compliment because you know of the good you can do. After all, a passion for the rules of a game, much like any tool or skill, can be used for good or ill.
Aaron der Schaedel is a rules lawyer that applies to gaming one of the old maxims of visual artist’s: learn the rules before you go breaking them. Given the amount of games he has learned to GM and still wishes to learn, it is sound gaming advice.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.