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.

Role Playing Games for kids

Our son loves reading.  He’s recently gotten way into The Magic Treehouse series and we’ve since completed the full series (all 45 books!).  It occurred to me, since he’s so interested in storytelling, that he might be into those Choose-Your-Own Adventure books that I wasted my youth reading and re-reading until every possible scenario had been played out.  That had mixed success (mostly due to the actual story — which was some crazy alien space opera with names that had more consonants than they had a right to).  I started wondering about the options for RPGs for kids — surely they’re out there, right?

I came across this article from GeekDad, who has been trying to introduce role playing to his kids.  Apparently, Dungeons & Dragons has wised up and started tapping the limitless potential of getting kids hooked on gaming before they’re in their double-digits.  And why not?  It’s storytelling, it’s family time, it involves math and reasoning and — if you run it well — could bring in history or social studies or any number of other educational subjects.  Plus, it’s fun as hell to bash on a monster and rewarding when you emerge victorious.

So I downloaded Monster Slayers: Heroes of Hesiod, which is a little mini-scenario with a very basic framework with the idea of introducing young or novice gamers to role playing.  I got the pages printed out at the FedEx Office, laminated the character tokens and mini character sheets and the badges they are awarded when they defeat the monsters.  The general premise of the scenario is just a training exercise — the player characters are kids who have to be trained to fight because their village is always being attacked by monsters. It was a hit!  But it quickly became evident that the limitations of this particular scenario would start cramping the kids (and, honestly, the adults — my wife and I) pretty quickly once we ran through the same basic hack and slash adventure a few times.

So, I decided to modify it a bit.  Create a little halfway house between the basic, stripped-down Monster Slayers rules and full-on Dungeons and Dragons D20 rules.  I created similar character sheets, adding a new Monk character just to throw in some variety, and gave everyone some basic weapons and armor based on their classes.  Each character has one special ability, which correlates to some spell or skill or feat that their character can do (based, again, on actual D20 rules — possibly a bit fudged here and there).  I came up with a very simple adventure (which lives entirely in my head), designed a couple maps, and grabbed some monster pages out of the D&D Monsters Manual.

!! Spoiler alert! DMs Only! !!
The scenario goes like this: a pack of wolves have been raiding the village’s chicken coops on the north end of town.  The heroes (now in their basic, level 1 equivalents) meet Loomis at the cabin where they’ve been conducting their training, and Loomis tells them about the situation and asks if they could help out and find out what’s driving the wolves into town and take care of the situation.  To the north (which, if you’re playing along, is equivalent to two lengths of the first map in the adventure’s documents) they find the pack of wolves led by a single dire wolf.  The wolves will attack the heroes, but they’re not really out for a fight, and will retreat — if possible — if their hit points get too far down.  If the heroes slay the dire wolf, they effectively complete the mission and the rest of the pack leaves the village alone.  Of course, I wouldn’t be much of a DM if that was all that was going on, would I?

Since Beholders played a role in the training, I decided to throw one into this scenario as well.  To the far north (the second map) there is a cave in the mountains where a lone Beholder has taken up residence, pushing the wolves out of their former territory.  Inside the cave there is some loot for any adventurers brave enough to try to defeat the Beholder.  This is a standard Monsters Manual beholder, so should be a pretty tough cookie for a bunch of Level 1s, so the loot should be worthwhile if they care to venture further.

The importance of visuals

In playing Monster Slayers, the visual aspect seemed very important to the kids, who really needed a visual reference to understand what’s going on.  It’s much harder to ask them to visualize a cluster of rocks which is blocking your view of the monster than to just point on the map and say “there”.  So I continued and made the maps for my scenario.  I also took some Lego people and fashioned Lego heroes for each PC.  It added to the interest and, I think made the whole thing a lot more fun.  Now I’m eyeing the Playmobil dragon we have and am waiting until the PCs are a high enough level to possibly take on a dragon — the relative size between the Lego minifigs and the Playmobil dragon are just about right…

I made the monster tokens for the same reason — because it’s important for them to be able to see their enemies and where they are coming from and going.  Additionally, I added illustrations to the character sheets of the weapons and armor (if any) to provide even further visual reference and more visual cues about what their character is holding and/or wearing.

We’ll see how far we get until I have to modify the rules again.  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do once they level up in terms of their special abilities — I’ve considered either allowing them to do their initial special or a new one, or just giving them a new one that’s more powerful than the last one.  We’re playing with precocious 3 (almost 4) and 6 year olds, so I’m thinking simpler is probably better.

You can download the DM resources here, via Scribd.  You can also find a copy of Monster Slayers on Scribd, or download the PDF from Wizards of the Coast.