3 things role playing has taught me about rules lawyers

I spent a good deal of my college life roleplaying. It was a thing I did. In a very visceral way, you could say it changed my life. One thing it taught me about was “rules lawyers”.

A “rules lawyer” is anyone (typically a non-lawyer) who prefers to live according to the letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law. Wikipedia defines this nicely for us thusly:

When one obeys the letter of the law but not the spirit, one is obeying the literal interpretation of the words (the “letter”) of the law, but not the intent of those who wrote the law. Conversely, when one obeys the spirit of the law but not the letter, one is doing what the authors of the law intended, though not necessarily adhering to the literal wording.

Rules lawyers are the ones who will contest something you’ve said or decided by pointing to the rules/law/charter/other written agreement  by saying “but is says in Section 3.c on page 12…”

The problem with rules lawyers is that it’s impossible to argue with them. Rules lawyer vs. rules lawyer arguments are fun and all, but most of us fall into the not-rules-lawyer category. Which means a lot of backtracking, checking the rulebook, looking online, cross-referencing, etc.

The first thing I’ve learned about rules lawyers: I hate them

The problem goes deeper than just the argument itself. By challenging your ruling, they are challenging your authority, your control of the situation. In a game, it’s easy enough to deal with. Most games accept a fairly fluid interpretation — surely no one can go to jail for not interpreting the rules correctly, or running the rules slightly differently in your game than how it’s written in the handbook. That’s fine. The easy response is “well, that’s not how I’m running the game this time.” But that’s a difficult thing to say, especially against a rules lawyer who may actually know more about the rules than you do. You doubt yourself, and start to waver. It’s not the position you want to be in if you’re trying to lead a gaming group. It’s an entirely more difficult thing when you’re not dealing with a game and are, in fact, dealing with a legally-binding document of some kind.

The second thing I’ve learned about rules lawyers: don’t argue with them

It’s just like the “don’t feed the trolls” adage, arguing only gives them more fuel and, generally speaking, only digs yourself deeper. Arguments with rules lawyers have a habit of escalating themselves. Egos are on the line. Feelings are hurt. People get defensive. Both sides are sure they are right. They are also utterly pointless. Because, as I’ve already said, you can’t argue with a rules lawyer. They’ll keep going back to the document, and you’ll keep trying to argue the spirit of the law against the letter of the law.

Which leads directly to:

The third thing I’ve learned about rules lawyers: the only way to beat them is with a real lawyer

Everyone has a weakness, an Achilles’ heel, and the Achilles heel for rules lawyers are actual lawyers. This can be everything from consulting the actual book to prove you’re right (though, if you attempt to do this to a rules lawyer, be absolutely sure you actually do know the rules better than they do — it’s not advisable) or bringing in an official rules judge or lawyer to review the document in question and make an official ruling, one that can’t be argued with further because it came from someone whose expertise is explicitly the issue in which you are dealing.

A fantastic example of this is the rules lawyering of the Thesis theme several years ago. Chris Pearson said that his Thesis theme didn’t need to be released under the Gnu Public License because, as open source software, he is free to do whatever he wants with his code, including writing code that is released under a non-open source, proprietary license. Matt Mullenweg of WordPress and Automattic disagreed. This went back and forth for some time until WordPress actually had the lawyers from the Free Software Foundation look at the GPL, the code of WordPress, how it was executed, and made an official ruling…in favor of WordPress. Lawyered. Now Thesis is released under a mixed-license; the code that is executed by WordPress (namely all the PHP files) fall under the GPL, but all images and javascript is released under a proprietary license. And since you can’t extract the css and js from the theme without breaking it horribly, it becomes a generally restrictive license preventing illegal copying and modification.

It’s easy to get caught in an argument with rules lawyers, especially when you are in a position of authority where you are making the decisions and running the show. Don’t. Wait for backup. It’s much better, and saves face, to say “let me get back to you” then to say “well, I could be mistaken.” Never admit defeat unless and until you are proven wrong, otherwise you invite more rules lawyering.

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