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1st rule of D&D (as of 3rd edition/pathfinder): The GM is the final arbiter on all rules.

I understand this, completely, and do not disagree. That said, I'm having trouble with a group that doesn't seem to understand what I call the 'assumption rule,' which is as follows.

Assumption Rule: Unless and until the GM makes a ruling to the contrary, the rules of the game are assumed to be as they are stated in the book.

I have yet to find anywhere that it actually says this, but it just seems like common sense to me. If I cannot assume, at least for the majority of the time, that the rules of the game are as they are stated in the books we're using to play the game, how can I expect to be able to make and use a character that I made with those rules in mind?

Also, I'm not referring to one instance. This is not me complaining about a GM denying me the ability to abuse one minor loophole in the system to break the game. The group I am referring to will, as soon as anyone says anything like 'the book says,' almost yell 'the GM trumps book.' Whether or not the GM has actually said anything about making a ruling, or even disagreeing with the book in the first place.

The biggest issue I'm having with this is that, for the current campaign, the GM we have is relatively new, and isn't an expert on the rules, as they are depicted in the book. He is so used to playing with this same group, that he assumed a common house rule to actually be the rule as it was stated in the book. (The rule in question was the re-rolling of 1's when rolling stats. He was surprised when I asked him if we were doing that for his game.) This is becoming a frequent problem for me, as I play in multiple groups, and house rules vary between them. So, I'm forced to fall-back on the 'assumption rule' more often then not, only to have it blow up in my face every time I try to use a completely-legal tactic to gain an advantage in combat, or make a check that the rules say I can make, then have the group turn on me when I point that out because the GM did not specifically state that we weren't using that rule.

UPDATE: To clarify something I'm not entirely sure everyone reading this is getting, I'm not being a 'rules-lawyer.' I'm not quoting the rule book religiously, or trying to use it to argue with the GM, or anything like that. I'll do something like try to change a random NPC's opinion of my character with a diplomacy check, only to be told that I have to role-play it out. It won't be someone important to the plot, or even someone that I could potentially get some huge advantage from. This exact situation was me trying to rp my character talking the bartender into giving him a minor discount. And it was the group that told me I had to RP it, not the GM.

Or, as another example, during one combat session, I said that I was going to use the withdraw action, only to have the whole table look at me like I was stupid, except the GM who just looked confused. When they (the group, not the the GM) told me that I would take an AoP for it, they yelled their 'GM trumps rules' mantra at me just because I looked up what a 'withdraw action' is.

This is not a rant. I'm not trying to vent about something. I'm trying to convey what happened, as it happened, and ask for advice on how best to deal with this. Answers from experience would be appreciated, but I will listen to any advice anyone has to offer.

I like the group, and I enjoy being part of the campaigns they play, it's just this one issue that seems to keep coming up. I would hate for something like this to get me kicked out.

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I’ve played in so many groups like this and I feel your pain. I think the only way to make the group understand the rules a bit better is to GM for them yourself –  Macona Nov 21 '12 at 9:32
How you present yourself may be relevant. Whenever I see a DM deviate from the rules, my normal wording is akin to "I think the rules differ here, is this a houserule?". And then either they say "yes" or "just for this" or we stop and they check the rules. At no point do I tell the GM the rule unless asked. –  Mooing Duck Aug 13 '14 at 21:36
I do not understand. The groups is acting as a GM, with the GM present, and he says nothing. It doesn't make any sense to me. Why isn't he saying something? Why are they interfering? What happens if you tell them "wtf are you doing?"? –  Lohoris Aug 26 '14 at 15:56
I'm with Lohoris on this. My response to the situation would be to simply ignore the players, continue to look at the GM and ask "Craig, what's the resolution?". There's only one person at the table who determines action resolution — the DM (as per Angry Rants: The RAW). –  Greenstone Walker Nov 27 '14 at 23:55
@Lohoris In this case, the GM just didn't voice his opinion. The exact situation I'm describing would play out with me declaring what I intended to do; someone else at the table would pipe in that it didn't work that way/worked some other way; I would show them in the book they're wrong; everyone would chant their mantra "GM trumps book;" then the GM would ask for some completely random stat/skill/etc check to determine my success. My problem being that the random check usually didn't favor my success nearly as well as if we'd followed the rules as written. –  Zach Jul 17 at 9:29

10 Answers 10

up vote 36 down vote accepted

For someone as nomothetic as you, there is only one option: Leave.

I've been in your position. I've, in fact, written a paper (along with @CRoss and @mxyzplk) about different approaches to the rules.

This group, as described, is intensely idiographic: they prefer the traditions of their group and their consensus mimicry and simulation of the "real" rather than providing for social trust through codified rules. Your question indicates that you are far more nomothetic: you don't share a mutuality of concern with them, and therefore don't partake of their particular traditions (as they claim are "house rules" but stretch far deeper into their implicit social contract). You also require external sources of imposed trust because you play in many different games.

This is exactly the position I've been in in a number of times.

The thing that will cause the least pain is for you to leave. Sometimes the right answer is, "I'm sorry, folks, but I just can't play your game." I was involved in a D&D game that I'm still bitter about, 3 years after it ended, because I couldn't make this statement. The game was playing fast and loose with the rules and the plot drove all success and failure.

Not only was I miserable, not only am I still bitter, but I count it as one of the primary reasons why I can no longer enjoy D&D 3.5.

Sometimes a game is just not worth it. If there are no mechanisms for establishing trust (i.e. everyone builds a consensus world based on shared rules or tradition) ... then there can be no ludic activities. The group will endlessly revert to "storming" and will enter a vicious negative cycle until something breaks.

Don't let that thing be your enjoyment of the game.

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For those who don't understand Philosopher's Kant: Nomothetic and Idiographic. –  Pureferret Nov 17 '12 at 13:27
For anyone else that feld the need to pull out a Dictionary: nomothetic = defining laws and comes from ancient greek. Or Pureferret's link is very good for a longer discussion. –  TimothyAWiseman Nov 19 '12 at 17:51
I liked a lot of what you said in this answer (thanks for the paper) but gave a down vote because I don't think the option leave is the only one. –  Len Jan 7 '13 at 10:24

There's a couple things you can try. I'll note this question and answers are mostly a duplicate of How should I respond to a DM who unfairly plays the “rules-lawyer” card? though that one has a very slight 4e focus, you should review that extremely similar situation for guidance.

Mirror Check

First - general rule of Internet posts like this, is that when someone posts a rant about how a group is treating them unfairly despite how reasonable they are, they are probably at least 50% of the problem. If the group keeps yelling "GM over the book" at you, it is likely that you are coming across as a bossy rules lawyer know it all. I know you don't think you are, but because you're getting this response, you need to review what you're saying and how you are saying it. Go read How does a player correct a GM mistake without being a rules lawyer or pushover? Also related, How to handle a rule-lawyer player? There's clearly a communication problem going on atop the actual problem. Honestly review and try to evaluate and reduce your contribution to the conflict.

Try New Things. Or Not.

Second - try to figure out what the core of the group's play experience is, decide if you like it/want to try it, and do it. If not, leave, but I find that a lot of the discussion around play styles tries to pigeonhole people harder than alignment discussions do. "Oh if you're a X type of player you will never like Y, run" is as poor advice as "You like heavy metal, you'll never like classical music, flee from your friend's orchestra invitation." It's only true for the small minded and obsessive fetishists. Is that a little harsh? Sure, but only as harsh as "cocoon yourself only in the one game and game style you'll ever love and don't step outside it."

In this case, maybe their playstyle is about the fictional game world and not the rules. Try looking for advantages in game - reasonable ways your character might get an advantage in combat in the game world, and then perhaps those lovely +1's will flow. Watch how the other players interact with the world and GM and figure it out. Or maybe it's something else. Try to experience and understand it rather than continuing to be puzzled when your attempt to impose your usual framework on it is going badly - think of it as gaming anthropology.

Sure, maybe they're just all dinks. That happens. But also maybe this is an opportunity to try a new playstyle that is different from the usual Organized Play-centric groups out there.

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+1, for "There's clearly a communication problem". It's funny how many RPG problems stem from players not communicating at a table (or away from it). –  Pulsehead Nov 19 '12 at 14:48

Pathfinder Core Rulebook, page 9

Most Game Masters have a number of “house rules” that they use in their games. The Game Master and players should always discuss any rules changes to make sure that everyone understands how the game will be played. Although the Game Master is the final arbiter of the rules, the Pathfinder RPG is a shared experience, and all of the players should contribute their thoughts when the rules are in doubt.

(Emphasis mine.)

I can't tell if your GM likes to jerk players around with “Rule Zero” or is just new at this.

Ask the GM for a list of the house rules that they're operating under. Everyone should be operating under the same set of rules. If they refuse or keep adding new rules during play (without the agreement of everyone), your options are to stick with being jerked around or leave the group.

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Comments pruned as per FAQ. They were not asking for clarification nor elaboration. Differing opinions should be incorporated into your answer as a function of answering the original question. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Nov 17 '12 at 10:12

State your concerns with the group, it is the only real way to handle it. If you do not explain your concerns, they might never even realize that you have a problem with it.

I suggest you do one of the following:

  • Approach the other players, and of course the GM, one at a time, outside regular play time.
  • Or, tell them all at the same time, preferably just before you begin the next session.

Be careful how you state it though. The one thing you do not want is conflict. Having a fight is not going to solve anyone's problem. This is not meant in any patronizing way, of course, but be mindful that people might recieve your concern as "criticism".

Tell it simple: "When I play, I assume that we play by the book, unless the GM says otherwise. I don't feel that this is received very well around this table."

Then ask them to stop saying that "the GM trumps the book" before the GM has said anything. Tell them that it feels hostile (if that is in fact what you feel) and that it's not likely that he forgets it anyway.

Be plain, don't criticize, explain why it is a problem to you. Most people are pretty sensible and will sympathize.

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I've had problems like these before - you have my sympathies, friend. Here's what I'd suggest:

  • Solve this problem before the session, or after it, but not during. No one - NO ONE - likes it when a session breaks down into arguments about rules or alignments or what-have-you, so the best thing to do is to approach the GM first (it's his game) either before or after the session, and then the group in general afterwards.

  • Be calm and mature. Not to imply that you normally aren't or anything, just stating it as general advice: being defensive, annoyed, or frustrated will only hurt your case, no matter how justified it is.

  • Now onto the actual solving-of-the-problem bit! Have you tried asking your GM for a formalized listing of house rules? If, as you say, the GM is a bit new to the game then this might be harder to get than you want it to be, but you can't be shot down until you ask, right? You can also offer, gently and politely, to help the GM learn rules that he finds fiddly or confusing (PF, like 3.5 before it, is full of those) and let him know that you're just trying to figure out what you can and can't do in the game world.

  • Apologize to the rest of your play group. Yes, even though/if you've done nothing wrong. It'll make you seem more mature, but rather more importantly it'll serve as a peace offering. Once you've expressed regret over "causing problems", you can then ask them to maybe lay off of you during the sessions. After all, you're making an honest mistake trying to interpret house rules that they know intimately, but you haven't learned yet - anyone could make that mistake! You may be coming across as some kind of rules lawyer without meaning to, but that doesn't excuse them ganging up on you like that.

  • Explain (to everyone) that you reference the printed rules because they're a consistent reference between many play groups, and that you're not trying to 'overrule' the GM, just to figure out how his game differs from them.

  • Leave ONLY IF, after having a mature conversation with them, nothing changes.

Hope that helps!

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It may well be that the style of this game is so that a "formalized listing of house rules" doesn't and cannot exist - i.e., it's not a simulationist style of "action X will succeed on a d20 roll of 5+, Y will be impossible, and Z will do 2d8 hp damage" but instead the rule is "the effects of X, Y, Z will depend on the plot and how the particular encounter is going, so you can't know in advance". –  Peteris Apr 1 '14 at 22:07
Agreed, plus asking for a list of house rules can very easily come across as passive-aggressive if there is no such list and everyone knows it. But still, good answer. +1 –  Bradd Szonye Nov 26 '14 at 1:37

Question: Are you really playing the game you think you're playing?

If the GM isn't contradicting the table (or at least agreeing with you), then you're not using the rulebook. And at that point I'd argue that you're not actually playing Pathfinder - you're playing this group's homebrew game that just borrows a lot of 3.5 elements.

"Homebrew" isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it will cause a problem if you're expecting things to follow a book that no-one else is respecting.

Possible angles to try:

  1. Next session, leave all your books at home. Just tell the GM what you want to do, and ask him how you go about it. Play like it's a brand new game you've never seen.

  2. Is it possible that the GM isn't the real power behind the throne? The description implies that the GM is getting bossed by other players at the table. It's entirely possible that talking to the GM offsite may reveal that he'd welcome someone backing him up. Might do the guy a solid that way. :)

  3. This group might not be the right fit for you. It takes all kinds, as they say.

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Usually (or at least, usually in my experience) a player who jumps out with a "GM trumps rules" thing is a player who would like to do something that the rules don't make possible.

Since the game system is designed to be fixed by DM intervention (in D&D 3.5 there's the infamous "you pass the diplomacy check, but he still doesn't want to do what you suggest" but that's just the tip of the iceberg and D&D 4e is not free of this problem) players expect that the DM is supposed to fix problems both ways.

The problem is that the DM's going to do that only if it's good for his plans. He could insist on applying a rule when it's convenient for the pre-planned plot, and do the opposite when, well, the just-made-up consequence of the PC action is more convenient than what the manual says for the plan to go on.

This is strongly tied to the "If odds are against me I can always try to convince the DM" problem that's the main point why the rule zero is considered bad by the forgites.

The very fact that the DM can bend the rules opens up a whole world of "let's see how to convince him to do that in my favor". That's why I consider a game good only if it uses the rule 0 to fix small problems that the rules can't handle. But that's me.

And maybe it's you too.

Also be aware that introducing a new rule could open up unpleasant consequences. "Last time you had my fireball blow up the oil barrels for Xd6 damage, it should do that again" could make the players race the "let's create favorable conditions" race.

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"What the rules don't make possible" may well be the best reason for Rule Zero; the problem comes when somebody wants to do something the rules specifically make impossible/forbid. –  TimLymington Nov 18 '12 at 19:26
The real problem is that rule 0 allows you to override the working rules too. –  Zachiel Nov 19 '12 at 16:57

I've been on both sides of the Rules-lawyer argument. I can tell you that a rules-lawyer players is as annoying as a GM accusing you of being a rules lawyer. Some tips that experience has taught me:

  • Build trust with the group. I find that when I'm playing with a new GM (or actually new to me) that my inner rules lawyer is right under the surface. The easiest way (for me, at least) is to participate in an activity that lets me get to know the other people (and especially GM). Strategy board/card games are great at this. Even if it is only for a week or two (assuming you are pretty new to the group).

  • Read up on Rule-0. There are two kinds of Rule 0 rulings: "I'm flying by the seat of my pants and don't care what the book says", and "I don't know the rules, so I'm keeping the game running by making system rolls up." If it's the former, you will likely not fit into the group, if it's the latter, you can be a big help to the table, but you have to proceed carefully, respectfully, and delicately. And there are few worse things than having a game humming along only to have the whole thing come toppling down because you don't know what rolls to ask for.

  • Triage the situation with the group as a whole. Ask the GM for a little time before game (with books/dice/char sheets away). Discuss how you are a rules-oriented player and the "shut up and listen to the DM" comes across as very disrespectful. Acknowledge that you are working on being able to accept Rule 0 rulings without complaint, but them yelling you down when your inner "that's not fair!" comes out is not helping. It just pushes you back into a corner and makes you more willing to lash out with it. Figure out how the other players can give a gentle nudge in the ribs instead of a swift kick in the behind.

  • Know the the rules. Nothing kills your credibility more than to say "the book says it's +2 to stealth because I'm wearing squeaky armor" than the book saying it should be -4. Know the rules. Know them backwards, know them forwards, and be an asset to the GM. When he knows you know the book, and when he has a "how do I proceed?" moment, he'll turn to you (once there is trust built up). As a reformed rules-lawyer, my group will routinely ask me for rules. It uses your specialty in a positive way.

  • Handle any ruling questions out of game in email/at the coffee shop. Take a minute the day after game to think about the situation. Then shoot off a friendly email to the DM handling any situation.

  • "Relax, Don't worry, have [fun]." As you play with a group, your knowledge should become table-wide knowledge. Further you should begin to understand what the DM considers important/not important. You should begin to not care so much when a ruling goes against you because you know that the next ruling will likely go in your favor. Your inner-rules lawyer should relax as a result (or at least mine did).

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The thing I'm seeing missing from the other answers is the GM's role in this. I would try approaching the GM alone and explaining to him that the other players' attitudes every time you try to roll a skill check are making you frustrated and taking away your fun. Ask him (as my guess here is that he's too shy to speak up when they start ganging up on you) if you can count on him to back you up; if he agrees, the way to do it in play is reasonably simple.

Start with roleplay, of course. Approach the bartender, learn a few of their personality traits, then pick one to exploit. Either in first- or third-person, describe how your character attempts to work a discount out of them. That done, look directly at the GM and ask either (depending on how your conversation went earlier): "Is that enough to get a Diplomacy check?" or, even better "Is that good enough for a +2 on my Diplomacy check?". The second question allows the GM to directly reward roleplaying without making the rules irrelevant, and is one of the best ways to mix roll-play and roleplay.

All the GM has to say is "Yes, roll it." and you're good to go. The "GM trumps rules" arguments are already dead, because the GM has spoken and directly requested the skill roll.

On the other hand...

If the GM says that the way it's working now is how he wants it to work, this is the point you might consider leaving. Before that, though, ask if you can redistribute skill points, or even roll a different character if your character is socially-focused. Try not to do this spitefully, but just explain that if your character's social abilities are going to be based on yours and not on the character's skills, you'd like to be able to reclaim the parts of your character that aren't available for use so you can put them to use elsewhere. "Everyone else can use all of their skill points because they already knew better than to put them into Diplomacy and Bluff; I didn't know we didn't use those skills at this table. Can I put those points somewhere else?" This gives him one more chance to see that the system is hurting your enjoyment of the game, and if he's still not willing to bend, at least has a good chance of letting you rebuild your character to match the table's expectations. If you find you don't enjoy the game after the rework, then you can and should consider politely letting the GM know that your personal playstyle just doesn't mesh with the game he's running and excusing yourself to find a different group of players.

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Work on your interpersonal skills.

This is entirely a problem of social interaction, not game rules. Game rules is just the topic you're in conflict over. To resolve it, you'll need to improve your own conflict resolution skills. Leaving the group just avoids the conflict.

We GMs are an arrogant lot. We don't like to be told we're wrong. If you wield a rule against the GM, what you're really doing is stealing his authority away. We don't like that. In the GM's caveman-like brain, he's the final arbiter, and you're trying to steal away his power for personal gain.

The correct approach is to offer the rules in a way that respects the GM's authority. If the GM is unaware of a rule, your approach should be, "This is a rule on the books, here's how it works, can I use it?", but not, "Actually GM, you're wrong, and I won't step down until you admit you know you're using the rules wrongly."

In short, here are your problems:

  • You're a essentially a rules lawyer. People hate that.
  • The GM is always right. This is a long-standing D&D tradition, and you're the only one at the table who isn't playing by this assumption.
  • In contrast, the "assumption rule" isn't a rule that existed before you stated it. It's an idea you came up with that says the group can't use any rule unless it's either in the books, or the GM fully understands the rule and chooses to ignore it. You're the only person at the table who is playing by this assumption.
  • All these things lead to a conflict of ideas at the table, and you're not skilled in resolving conflict diplomatically.
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The OP specifically stated that the assumption rule is not what you have described it as, and that the GM isn't the one making the declarations that are the cause of conflict, both of which complicate the issue beyond being a rules lawyer getting annoyed at a GM for using rule zero. –  GMJoe Jan 8 '13 at 5:29
OP isn't "wielding the rules against the GM", when he asks the GM if he can roll Diplomacy, the other players (but NOT the GM) shout him down saying he can't do that. –  gatherer818 Aug 13 '14 at 17:15

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