Table Attorneys Vs. Rules Layers: How To Be Fair Without Bogging Down Your Game
Advice For Dungeon Masters
If you've been throwing funny-shaped dice around a table for any length of time, then you've heard the term rules lawyer before. Generally speaking it refers to a player (though it can apply to dungeon masters as well) who in a rules-based environment will attempt to use the letter of the rules rather than the spirit of them in order to leverage advantage for themselves. This term is most commonly in tabletop RPGs and wargames, but if you've ever worked in a corporate environment you may have met a real-life rules lawyer in the break room.
It's even got it's own Wikipedia entry!
However, something I've found is that this term is often used as a way to shut down conversation about rules, or to disparage players who expect everyone at the table to follow the rules to the same degree.
To differentiate actual rules lawyers (those who attempt to manipulate the rules of a game for their own benefit) from players who simply want both the letter and the spirit of the rules to be followed by everyone at the table (including the dungeon master), I would like to propose a new term: the table attorney.
How Do You Tell The Difference?
Lawyers are lawyers, right?
Well, for the scenario in question, think of a rules lawyer as an unscrupulous ambulance chaser. They may have a great knowledge of the legal system, but they use it primarily to enrich themselves, often at the expense of others. A table attorney, by contrast, is the sort of lawyer who embraces both the letter of the law, and the spirit in which it was written. The sort of person who can help you negotiate a sticky legal situation when you might feel lost, or when you might be taken advantage of because you don't know what your options are.
A table attorney can still quote the formula for demoralizing an enemy with an Intimidate check, or recite the requirements for their favorite spells, but they're more interested in fairness over advantage. They'll remind the dungeon master that the monsters have certain bonuses if they aren't included, or bring up light penalties in the event a fellow party member can't see in the dark, just as often as they'll point out their own character is immune to certain effects.
Can that be irritating? Sure! However, it's important to remember that if you're all playing the same game, then the rules apply to all of your equally; just because someone points it out is no reason to shoot the messenger.
Maintaining Order in Your Gaming Court
Whatever kinds of lawyers you have at your table, and whatever their intentions, it can often lead to arguments over minutiae. So, to keep the game flowing, I'd recommend the following framework.
Step One: The Pregame Talk
The best thing you can do to nip rules complaints in the bud is to sit down before the game starts, and make sure you are familiar with the particular rules all your players are going to be using the most. For example, if you have one player whose character is totally focused on grappling, then you should probably know how the grappling rules work in your game. If you have another character who is largely stealth based, then be sure you are familiar with all of the nuances that come with concealment, cover, and opposed checks to figure out whether they can be seen or not. If you have someone playing a variant of a wizard who casts through psychic power, make sure you know how that works instead of just trusting the player to get it right.
This serves two functions. First, it gives you a tight grasp of what your party is capable of, and it ensures that you and your players are on the same page regarding how the mechanics of the game work. Having them explain their abilities to you ensures that you both agree on how those abilities function before the session even begins. Secondly, it lets you identify and correct any red flags before the action gets going. This prevents you from being in the middle of a tense situation, and needing to make rulings on the fly.
Step Two: Make Judgments
Even if you do all of your prep work, there will still be incidents where a player may feel a need to argue something. Most of the time this will happen in the midst of a busy situation, like combat, or when the rules may be unclear. In order to resolve these instances quickly, you need to institute the following format, and make sure all your players agree to it. If you'll notice, it's not dissimilar to how things work in a courtroom.
First, ask the player who raised an objection to read the relevant ability or rules section they're talking about. It is their job, as the person making the objection, to have the section ready to hand. This prevents players from misquoting a rule from memory, which saves a great deal of time and argument. And part of the time the player may realize they remembered something wrong, and they've handled the issue all on their own.
Second, allow the objecting player to make a case for his view of how an ability should work. Listen to the objection, and ask any questions you have as the DM, but keep it short, simple, and to the point.
Third, make a ruling. Once your ruling has been given, it is final for this session. If you need to, write it down so there's no confusion about what you said. The matter is not to be brought up again, and the game should be allowed to proceed with the ruling given.
All told, making a ruling with this three-step process should take no more than a few minutes at the very most. It will help keep the game on-track, and cutting off any further arguments or objections on the matter means that players making an objection need to make their case clearly for why their interpretation is the correct one.
Step Three: Post-Session Research and Evaluation
Not all your rulings will be perfect, but if they haven't done any permanent damage to your game (ie. no one's character died because of your ruling) then you can look at any issue more in-depth once the session is over, or when there's a natural intermission. If a player is still unhappy with the way a ruling was made, take some time between sessions to talk the rule over more in-depth with them. Ask about it on forums, and look for any clarification you may have missed from the publisher. If it turns out you wish to change your ruling, or add nuance to it, then you should make that announcement to your table before your next session gets rolling.
None of us are perfect, and we need open communication with our players in order to maintain their trust in us as a fair and unbiased dungeon master. A little bit of active listening will go a very long way!
Step Four: Stay On Top of Character Development
Keeping your rules lawyer defenses up isn't a once-and-done sort of thing; you have to refresh yourself in order to stay current throughout your game. That means whenever characters gain new abilities, special equipment, or other tools they can use in future encounters, you need to have another conversation with your players to ensure you're all on the same page again. If you do this long enough it will become reflex; part of the routine of leveling up, spending XP, or whatever mechanic your game uses for increasing a character's relative power.
Remember, Every Group Has Their Own Rhythm!
If you've gamed with the same group for a while, chances are good that you already have a rhythm that works for you. You know your fellow players, and you've established your own group policies. Maybe you encourage players to discuss strategy out of character, maybe you forbid it. Perhaps you want all character sheets a few days in advance when players have added abilities or gained a level so you can do a review, and maybe you trust your players to do that job on their own.
The method of resolving rule disputes and objections I've put forth here isn't a game requirement. It's just a suggestion. If you already have something in place that works for your group, then keep doing it. If you don't have something in place, or you want to try something different to see if this method works better, then go forth and play! The only real judge of how well a method works is how well your players like it, and if it helps your game. Hopefully that is what dungeon masters and players alike will get out of this suggestion.
If you're looking for more sage counsel, check out my gaming blog Improved Initiative! Or, since you're already here, why not take a look at my full Vocal archive, which has a bunch of additional gaming content in addition to weird history, pop culture facts, and delves into some of history's odder moments?