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As a game master, what strategy/strategies seem to work well for handling players that have spent more time reading through the rule books than you have? While it's helpful at times to have the players point out things you may miss that would ruin the gameplay, having a player that knows the books so well they know enemy stats and can meta-game tend to bring down your morale for running the game.

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This related question as an answer which might help you out. Maybe turn the tables on your rules lawyer in a useful, non-confrontational manner. rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/4317/… –  Aaron Mar 17 '11 at 22:27
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19 Answers

up vote 36 down vote accepted

The best advice I've heard comes from the dd3.5 DM guide. Basically, if the players taking fun away from the game, talk to the player out of game, and away from the other players. Just be polite and open. If the player is reasonable he/she will understand.

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Yes, +1. This player has a need to be a rules lawyer. Presuming that the need is driven by a negative impulse, you should try to figure out how to work this (normally positive) impulse to better the game. Tell the player about separating IC/OOC knowledge. Character failure is not a bad thing - it tells the story of how something went awry / wrong. Don't try to 'beat' the lawyer, and ask him to be productive. –  Tobiasopdenbrouw Aug 19 '10 at 22:03
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My way? I like to play games that don't have so many rules -- FUDGE, Fate, Swords and Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, etc. If the GM is the final arbiter of play, through the use of "rulings" not rules, then the books don't come into play much and the likelihood you'll get angry at a rules lawyer diminishes.

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Start throwing custom-made content at them. Build your own setting, such that there's no possible way for said rules lawyer to already know the stats.

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Excellent answer. Embellishing monsters will really throw him off his game. When he sees the orcs have red skin he might call you on it. When said orc blows fire in his face he'll start to get the picture. –  digitaljoel Aug 19 '10 at 20:52
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To a player who hasn't memorised the Monster Manual, by-the-book and custom are identically surprising. Taking away the advantage of a player who has memorised the books is not unfair. It's only players who use their unfair advantage to assume they know what they're facing who will be caught by custom monsters. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 4 '10 at 20:07
    
If you manage to find a balance between existing (known) powers and custom ones, you can even reward that player a bit. He might still know some things (which gives the party a minor advantage), but not the main powers (which is what you want). –  Mala Dec 8 '13 at 21:24
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Enlist rules-lawyer as a helper to streamline combat, especially when it's the baddies turn, he could really help move things along.

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Sounds a bit like appeasement to me. –  user126 Sep 18 '10 at 0:40
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@CJM More like delegation. If the player in question is used to GMing (or possibly more experienced), he might just get off on rules and the applying of structure to chaos; just another way to enjoy the game. Nothing says you can't turn his powers from good into awesome! Some RPG books even suggest enlisting players to help with combat and other number-crunchy phases of play. In the end, it might just be more important to the GM to tell their story, and less important to micromanage mechanics. –  Aaron Mar 17 '11 at 22:34
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I played with a DM once that asked the guy to show him where in the rule book it was. When the rule-Lawyer brought the book out the DM took the book and threw it into one of the corners of the room.

The rules are there for a reason, that reason is not to take away from the fun of the game. Remember you are the DM you are allowed some leeway.

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Ouch, that seems to be a social disaster at the table in the making. How did the player react? I think I'd tske offense at being thusly schooled at a gaming table. Maybe back when we were all 15 or 16 years old. But now? –  Alex Schröder Aug 27 '10 at 8:08
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You are making a valid point about the rules being there for fun, but that is absolutely the wrong way to deal with the problem. Not to mention, you could end up owing the player for a new rulebook. –  RMorrisey Aug 28 '10 at 5:53
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The throwing stuff is just an anecdote, not a solution (that's how I read this answer). It's about F-U-N that should depend on a GM not some books –  naugtur Sep 6 '10 at 8:47
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I personally think you have two choices:

1) either you accept the fact that the game you are going to administer is highly technical and rule-oriented, and you plan accordingly, or 2) you go against the will of the players and propose an adventure more oriented towards interpretation than fighting.

What to choose depends mostly on the kind of players you have. I know people who crave for action and metagaming so deeply that reject anything involving interpretation. Others instead accept the challenge and try a different gamestyle. In any case, I strongly suggest you not to force hands. Nothing kills the mood more than unsatisfied players. If they like lawyer-playing, let them do it.

If you have a single element playing the lawyer, then it depends if he is constructive or disruptive. A constructive lawyer can even spice up the game by providing an unusual twist. A destructive one will just point at mistakes and most likely offend the DM or other players. On this, solving this issue is a matter of diplomacy (real one).

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There's that one rule in there somewhere..

Oh yeah, Rules are used and not used at the DM's discrection.

This extends to changing stats of monsters etc. Just change the names so it must be assumed the stats changed. A "Rat Swarm" changes to a "Hungry Rat Swarm", etc.

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Determine what kind of rules lawyer you have first.

There's the kind who will cite rules knowledge anytime any rule is not being followed to the letter with no bias. Consider deferring rules questions to this person to make them feel involved. If something is uncertain, rely on making a quick rule call and ask them to help you investigate the matter after the game session.

The other kind will only cite rule knowledge when it is to their advantage. There are many ways to deal with this kind of player but in my experience it is best to discuss the matter with them outside of the game, away from other players. Find out why they are so concerned with getting their way. If they are being disruptive to the group or flow of the game with their behavior, be sure to express that. In my experience this usually results in asking the difficult player to leave the game. Don't give them the chance to rant in front of the group if you can.

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As a player, I kind of hate raining on other player's parades when they try to do something (usually accidentally) against the rules. If it is completely and blatantly wrong, I'll mention it, or if the DM mentions it and the player tries to disagree, I'll pipe in. Normally, if they have something wrong, and the DM lets it slide, I'm just thinking the DM is trying to be nice to the guy, and if it isn't game breaking, I don't mention it. –  Matt Jones Aug 19 '10 at 21:52
    
As per @digitaljoel's answer, the first type of rules lawyer is an asset at your table. You should take advantage of their knowledge to make the game faster for everyone. –  Greenstone Walker Feb 24 at 2:06
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I'm pretty sure I am considered a rules lawyer, and if a rule is ambiguous, I'll use a CS response or side with the player if I am DMing. If something comes up, and the answer isn't obvious, and the players wishes to use something that breaks the game, we usually don't allow that. And send in a CS response after the session for verification.

As a player I hate incorrect DM rulings, it just ruins the fun of a game if you want to do this cool combo you thought of and put 90% of your feats into, and then the DM says that you can't do it. Then you just become a character that doesn't have feats, which is likely not very fun...

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Talking to the DM about the combo beforehand can avoid that situation. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 4 '10 at 20:10
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Afterward can also be helpful. If you made your decisions based on a rule that you later found out the DM isn't applying you can frequently talk to them about it, explain your situation, and see if they won't let you make some modifications to take into account the houserule/interpretation. –  Lunin Aug 26 '11 at 20:56
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I'd take issue with the wording of "incorrect DM rulings", especially referring to them banning a minmax combo. If the DM decides that, for a valid cause, he can't allow you to build that combo, that's not incorrect at all. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Dec 22 '11 at 17:28
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@AdrianoVaroliPiazza "for a valid cause" is an interesting turn of phrase. In my experience, GMs can misunderstand or misinterpret the rules just as often as players do. I rememeber one GM, unused to 3.5rd edition, who announced that he was going to "nerf" the rogue's sneak attack because it was overpowered. After some discussion, he reversed his decision - But I've known other GMs with strict "no questioning GM reasoning" policies, and I can only imagine that similar well-intentioned balancing acts could result in much less agreeable outcomes. –  GMJoe Mar 13 '12 at 6:41
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Do one of the following:

  • State categorically at the start of the campaign that some of the statistics of monster will be changed to make it more interesting.
  • Thank the rules lawyer and just go with it.
  • Ask the rules lawyer to stop lawyering the rules, do this privately away from the game table.
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In the old Hong Kong action rpg Feng Shui, there was a simple rule to cover these situations. Essentially it said that if a player took advantage of having read game material, then monsters and opponents would immediately get bonuses and special abilities against that player only.

It's a great rule, but I would recommend being careful with it, as while it fits with the free-wheeling spirit of Feng Shui, it is a bit of a harsh move and isn't appropriate in all games and groups.

The best thing to do is to have a word with the player. Be polite, and let them know that it's your game, and that as game master, at the table your authority is final. If something in the game doesn't match what he's memorised from a rulebook, then he can bring it up after the game, but during play, you are in charge.

If he can't handle this approach, then suggest that he might like to run a game himself.

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You want rules lawyers because, hey, they know the rules. Let them help you.

What you don't necessarily want is them to know the exact stats and abilities of the enemies they're fighting, unless they've learned them during protracted fights in-game.

The easiest solution is to re-skin or tweak monster stats. Give it a name that's not in any manual, borrow another monster's stats, and change up the weapon and description of the attacks. Now it's a monster they don't know anything about!

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I had this problem many years ago and have NEVER had a problem with it in almost 20 years. I did one simple thing: I set my D&D campaign (although this could work with any RPG) in my OWN campaign world. Case closed.

This should really stop all rules lawyers arguments. The players are on YOUR territory now and you define the limits and definitions of your world's boundarys. Don't like a spell? It doesn't exist. Trolls immune to fire? They are in your world. Halflings who are paladins? Yes they are. Anytime a player tries to pull a "well, it says in the rulebook..." on you, simply and without malice explain that in the World of Stonerock, or Campaign Medoran, or the Great Underground World of Zeo, that is simply NOT the case and move on.

This isn't saying you don't have to be consistent (for instance, making mummies immune to fire one day, and immune to magic weapons the next). It simply means that the rules exist only as a GUIDELINE to play in your world, and you set the exact parameters. With this in hand, rules lawyering stops cold.

Communication is key though. If you don't explain this to your players right off the bat "Look, I know you are used to the ways things are in Eberron, but it works a lot differently here" then hard feelings can result. However if you explain the differences that the player's character would know (for example, a priest character would know that undead cannot be turned in your world without using holy water along with a holy symbol) then there should be no problems, and they should appreciate the fact you have given the campaign a new twist or two.

At heart, most rules lawyers are control freaks, if you take that control away from them and force them out of their comfort zone, sometimes they will really learn to actually enjoy the game instead of enjoying finding and exploiting the rules. BTW, remember not to confuse rules lawyering with an inventive, intelligent character who simply has unorthodox ideas. The latter can be a real godsend to the game because they keep you the DM on your toes and force YOU out of your comfort zone (and sometimes get the best work out of you!)

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One of the best parts of DnD 3.5 is the easy ability to add class levels to monsters. So I will frequently throw class levels onto monsters that wouldn't be expected so that there will be things that they can't anticipate everything and plan against it by use of meta-knowledge.

Dealing with rules lawyering not related to that circumstance can be a bit trickier. But personally I don't have a problem with someone pointing out where I'm incorrect in my knowledge or rememberance of a particular rule. If it's bogging down play, though, remember that the DM always has final say on interpretation. Or, at least they should. Just try to be fair about it when there is a dispute.

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If you get a rules lawyer player who seems to enjoy arguing about the rules more than playing the game, start treating him like an actual lawyer.

Be the judge. Say, "You have sixty seconds to make your case and then I'll make a decision." Let him make his case but cut it off at a minute. Then make a decision. He can "appeal" it after the game, if he wants, but he has to accept it for the time being.

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If they're just trying to be helpful, (i.e. "you are aware that, and maybe you're doing it on purpose but I just want to check" and it is getting annoying, ask them to stop it quietly outside of the game. They're trying to help, and so give them respect for that.

Now, if the person is disrupting the game regularly, holding you to the letter of the books, and complaining about every other ruling that is different from the book -even after you've asked them not to, or to bring up ruling disputes with you after the game- you can do one of two things. If you're feeling nice, just point out the golden rule. All rules are just suggestions and subject to the GMs whim as to when, where, and how they will be used.

Alternatively, and as suggested in both the DXM and Play Dirty (I think Robin's Laws too). Don't give them their character sheet next session. Tell them they must play their character from memory, and any time they miss a bonus or penalty, or misremember the tiniest detail of mechanics for their character they automatically fail the roll. Explain that you are doing this because they are expecting you to know every last word in over 200 pages of rule books, and so this is more than fair because all you are expecting them to do is remember one piece of paper. Then enforce it.

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Play without rules. Rules are (ok, can be - depending on style the team prefers) for the GM solely and nobody else should care about them.

But it's always about having fun. If he loves rules maybe it's time you offered Your team a boardgame meeting? It might turn out to be more fun for you.

And if You are an ambitious guy that wants to make up stories and rules You can get down to preparing one of the print-and-play boardgames and developing new tiles and extra rules / additional characters etc.

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One of the holes in all the answers thus far is that they take an adversarial approach to rules lawyers. That will only antagonize him more, which will only exacerbate the problem and build up to a "dude, leave our group you jerk-face" moment. Defuse the hostility and you can go back to being friends again!

What makes a rules lawyer?

Simply put, if you and I agree to play american football, a touchdown is worth 7 points (or 6 plus the extra point kick that most sandlot football does not do). If I score a touchdown and you all of a sudden decide that it's only 3 or 4 points, then I am going to cry foul. I have played in RPGs where as the new guy, I try to do something to be told "that's not possible", yet an established player character does something so similar a few rounds later that I could not tell a difference. "Hey, you said I couldn't do a Spinning Death Attack, but George can do a Twirling Kill Attack!" A player in this situation will do one of two things; either they will leave your group/the rpg community because "those guys screwed me over"; or they will learn that rulebook and everything in it so when they want to do a Twirling Kill Attack/Spinning Death Attack, and the DM says "nope", they can say "Actually, yep. I use [feat], [skill], and [action]".

How to tame a rules lawyer

  1. Look in the mirror. Sometimes you have done the Spinning death is not OK, whereas Twirling Kill is within the rules. Sometimes you need to learn how a new player communicates, and the player's preferred way to communicate how they want to do something is to quote chapter and verse of the rulebook so you "can't" tell them no.
  2. Cut the rules lawyer a little slack. If you have a short-temper towards rules-lawyering, you may be burning his bacon as much as he is burning yours. A little patience, this will take a little time and work, but rules-lawyers can be reformed.
  3. Talk to him. It is creating strife in your group, and his chapter/verse quoting is killing your fun. Ask him to meet you for a coffee (or other appropriate beverage) outside of game. Buy his drink (which helps to communicate that this will be a friendly discussion, and not an adversarial one). Don't beat around the bush, don't talk about your feelings and such wishy-washiness. Use simple declarative statements of fact: "I am concerned that you are quoting rules in group and disrupting the story." "Second-guessing my every move is really killing my motivation to DM." And similar statements. Be very clear what you want. Ask him why he does the rules-lawyering. Then shut up. Seriously. Shut up and listen, REALLY LISTEN to what he says. It is entirely possible that he thinks he's doing things right.
  4. See things from his side. Some rules-lawyers are looking for ways to add to the game. Stay with me here... I don't "just want to smack him with my sword AGAIN." So I think up the whirly-death move. So I look up what ARE the rules for doing a whirly-death move. Then I will tell a DM "I want to [narratively describe a move], which I think would be [crunch description of the move]. Do you agree?" Now, I'm a mostly reformed rules-lawyer and getting me to this point took some work on both my part and the parts of a few DMs. It takes time, and I backslide, especially when I feel that I'm getting shafted/ignored. Sorry, it happens.
  5. Give him a little rope. If he knows the stats of the monsters better than you, change up the stats on monsters. Tell him he's not allowed to look at the monster's manual while at the table. Period. Yet let him have his player's guide(s) so he can look up rules as necessary. If there is something that you don't know, ask him to look up the rules. If the rules are unclear, then say something like "Well, to keep the game going I think we should do [ruling]. After your turn, can you look up how we should handle this next time, [lawyer]?"
  6. Wean him from rules-lawyering. If he's arguing with you on rules, give him a few challenges per session. Maybe start with 3. If he challenges something, give him a minute to make his case. Don't try to "run out the clock on him" or other chicanery. If he's right, go with the rules. Period. If he's wrong, he loses the challenge. Every month or two bump down his challenges until he has only 1 left. Now, instead of taking away his final challenge, give him some sort of small bonus the next session ONLY if he does not use his challenge this session. Something like a +5 on a d20 roll, or he can turn a "fumble" roll into a simple "miss". It is just one roll, and it expires at the end of next session.
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Absolutely talk to him outside the game; it's not "possible he thinks he's doing things right", it's quite certain. It may even be that after a talk, you think he was right. But not at the table; if you allow yourself to be overruled, then (beside the break in immersion) at best the other players don't know whether to ask "can I do my Spinning Death Attack or not?" of you or the rules-lawyer, and at worst you have lost control of the story, and have to get his (or the book's) permission to do anything new. Rule 0 is not there just to bolster the DMs ego. –  TimLymington Nov 23 '13 at 16:14
    
@TimLymington, Unfortunately, once you start rolling dice to do something, immersion is broken. What's the difference between having a discussion/rules clarification at the table, or walking into the other room to have it there? –  Pulsehead Nov 24 '13 at 14:25
    
I'm not sure I agree that rolling dice breaks immersion; depends how it's done. But I meant during the session; other players waiting during the discussion is bad no matter what conclusion you reach. And announcing at the start of next session that you are playing rule X differently from now on is much better than changing mid-game. –  TimLymington Nov 27 '13 at 14:46
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One item I stole from the XDM (eXtreme Dungeon Master) guide by Tracy Hickman was a possible solution when you have a player who always seems to know the exact rules and details of their character and seems offended that you aren't as well-informed. Ask to see their character sheet. Then keep it. Tell them that, as an experiment, they're going to play their character only based on what they remember about their character and that trying to claim abilities or HP totals other than what they have will be dealt with. Of course, almost nobody is able to do that, so it makes a point to them that you can only keep so much information in your head at a time, let alone when you have multiple players to keep track of.

It's a fairly extreme thing to do, and obviously not the tack to take if you spring a trap on someone and ask them to roll a Reflex save and they respectfully remind you that they have Danger Sense, so they should have had a skill check first. This is for the guy who can't keep the condescension out of their voice as they tell you that you forget about step 4a in the grappling rules.

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