Booyah Buddha: Musings of a Rules Lawyer

When I introduced myself in my first Booyah Buddha blog entry and also in the Booyah Games About page, I described myself as a rules lawyer. But what is a rules lawyer? And what does it mean to me?

In the gaming community, rules lawyers are most commonly seen as people who enforce strict readings of the rules with little regard to the actual intent behind them, usually as a way of getting some kind of advantage. They can be very disruptive, bringing a game to a grinding halt in order to argue their points, and generally just drain the fun out of a game.

I do feel that there had been times in the past that I’ve spoken up about the rules as a player in an RPG more than I should have, questioning how the game master was running the session. I never did it as a way to gain an advantage, but just as a way of trying to keep everyone on the same page. Most of these instances were with a long-time friend of mine as the game master.

While I do feel a little bad about the disruption that I may have caused in some of those games, it was comforting that my friend disagreed with me calling myself a rules lawyer after he read my previous post. He told me that in most cases, me speaking up was helpful, reminded him of rules that he had forgotten or had not realized had changed when we went from D&D 3.5 to the Pathfinder RPG.

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Still, I have no shame in owning the label because I don’t think rules lawyers have to be a detriment to a tabletop gaming group.

TV Tropes has a Rules Lawyer article with a surprisingly detailed and nuanced look at what a rules lawyer is and can be. While the article does talk about the typical negative view of these people, it also explores the existence of the helpful or “Lawful Good” rules lawyer. Instead of using the rules as a way to gain an advantage in a game, these individuals play by the rules as much as possible even some of their arguments puts themselves at a disadvantage.

This is where I like to think I usually fall in the “spectrum” of rules lawyers. I feel that most games are designed and playtested well enough that it is best to play as closely to the rules as possible. This should, in theory, put everyone on a level playing field and make for an overall fun experience. I also do this in part out of respect for the people who designed the games that I play.

Up to this point, I’ve primarily talked about rules lawyers in the context of tabletop roleplaying games (D&D, Pathfinder, etc.), but I think the concept can be applied to tabletop gaming in all forms, including board games.

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I see a rules lawyer during an RPG session to be akin to an actual lawyer (the player) arguing a case before a judge (the game master) and the jury (the rest of the group). The sheer massive number of rules in a roleplaying game system and the common practice of homebrew content and house rules causes a lot of room for debate. However, with their less open rules, how a rules lawyer fits into board games can be very different. This would be more like a real world lawyer reviewing a contract or other complicated legal documents for a client.

I’m not saying that a rules lawyer can’t still get into a heated debate and try to abuse the rules to their advantage in a boxed board or card game. If it’s a particularly cut-throat competitive game, this can very well be the case. But for the most part, I feel that “rules lawyer” behavior in board games is much more likely to take “Lawful Good” form. Not only is a single boxed game usually less complicated than the hundreds or thousands of pages worth of rules that can be found in an RPG, but it’s also usually much less of a time commitment involved, making it less of a “high stakes” situation.

In board games, the helpful rules lawyer mentality is usually best for the owner of the game being played, a position that I find myself in very often. When I bring a game to the table, I take it as my responsibility to know the rules inside and out. I do my best to understand as much about the game as I can and have any foggy areas cleared up before it sees play. Unfortunately this can increase my pile of unplayed games, but it does make for a smoother gaming experience when the game eventually does hit the table.

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Going back to the analogy of reviewing legal documents, my position as a board game rules lawyer usually has me teaching the rules to others. This is yet another motivation for me to know the rules as well as possible. I don’t want to teach other people the wrong way to play!

And as far as potentially putting myself at a disadvantage, if we’re playing a game for the first time or coming across gameplay elements that we’re seeing for the first time, I will commonly make suggestions of actions that a player can take even when it could make it more likely for them to beat me. But I do have to be cautious as to not take away too much of their fun or get to the point when it almost feels like I’m dictating their turn.

This brings us to rules lawyer edict. So you know the rules of the game better than anyone else at the table. Now what? If this is a teaching game, how in depth do you make your initial explanation? If you teach some of the rules as you go, how well can you insert the explanation? If you feel that someone has a better move available to them using a rule that they may not know or remember, do you speak up? If someone is doing something wrong, how do you handle it?

There are no hard-set answers to these questions, but I’d say 80% of how you should act comes down to frequency and delivery. Try to restrain yourself from interrupting the game constantly with rules talk and checking the rule book; don’t be afraid of making some mistakes in your first few games and try to learn from it for next time. Do your best to not sound full of yourself or condescending when you explain things, giving people suggestions, or correcting people on how the rules work. If you’re going to give people suggestions, make sure it sounds like a suggestion and not a command. Also, if you’re playing with more than one person, don’t favor one individual during play and give suggestions to all when appropriate.

These are just a few tips for any would-be “rules lawyers” out there, but in the end communication is key. Treat others how you’d like to be treated. Put yourself in their shoes as someone who may be coming into the game blind or doesn’t know the rules as well as you. The worst thing you can do is be a jerk and not have people to game with anymore.

The Booyah Buddha has spoken!

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