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TL:DR question is at the bottom.

I'm pretty new to being a DM (2nd run) and started with a party of 6 (I know, it's a tough way to start) players who are all incredibly inexperienced. We had a session zero where I outlined a bunch about the world and how I would be handling things. I asked everyone for their expectations and took them all into consideration.

Now I have two gamers who like to dig through the rules and find loopholes. I knew they were going to be tough to deal with, but I didn't realize they would be this bad. It's quite stressful.

Here's an example of a ruling I made outside of the game session — it's not the worst that's happened, just the most stressful. (The TL;DR for this paragraph is we spent a lot of time and made a ruling that he agreed made sense.) This ruling involves the darkness spell. The wizard wanted to have it up, cover it then take his turn and uncover it at the end to basically sit in a darkness spell whenever it wasn't his turn and then be completely unaffected by it whenever it was his turn. I decided that I didn't want the spell to be working that way as it felt wrong (because all of the turns in turn based combat are actually simultaneous, not consecutive). I ruled that I would only be ok with him covering or uncovering it on any given turn. This is how darkness would work. I should mention, we talked for almost an hour and we were sending links from research back and forth. Ruling made and done, right?

Fast forward 2 weeks:

Player: "Can my character have lip piercings?".

Me: What? I mean, yes... Of course. Weird question...

Player: Ok, so I could cast darkness on the lip piercings and just put them in my mouth and not have to...

Me: No, we already made a ruling on this. This spell will work this way for the campaign.

Player: But what if we change the spell?

Me: We already made a ruling. I am standing by it. I'm not changing how the spell works for this.

He keeps giving more and more random arguments, completely ignoring that I said I wasn't going to change my ruling, then gets the other rule lawyer player to try to help him. Once he contacted me, he opening claim was that he and the other player looked at some stuff and figured out what the ruling should be. Keep in mind, I have reruled the same way after extensive research six times now, and have told them the issue is done. I tell him I am not listening into any more arguments as I have literally spent the entire morning before work doing nothing but that.

One of the two players chose to leave because I wanted to sit the two of them down to talk about how I am not going to have all rulings up for argument indefinitely.

Now, I understand I could have just let them have their way and then used in game mechanics to rain on their shiny new darkness tank, but that would be setting multiple precedents that I wasn't ok with.

  1. The spell is changed to work that way, which I felt defied how the world of turn based combat works

But much more importantly

  1. The DMs ruling lasts only as long as it takes you to argue with him enough that he will cave in and give you what you want

Question: regardless of the ruling, how do you deal with players that refuse to respect the ruling you are making and will continuously bring up old rulings with new arguments (not the rulebook says I can. More the rulebook doesn't say I can't) forcing you to have to keep defending things that should have been left alone forever ago?


Update: convinced them to have the chat, finally. Used a lot of the stuff here to make an outline to help move the conversation along and stay on point. For the discussion I had these notes. They listened and agreed to follow the guidelines and we are meeting again tomorrow. I used a lot of points from here to help.

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Don't accent the rules — describe what happens in the world

Decide what you’re trying to accomplish first, then consult the rules to help you do it. As a DM, you help guide the narrative and bring the world of the adventure to life. From this perspective, the rules are not directions, but a tool:

The rules serve you, not vice versa. (DMG page 235)

When you make a ruling, in order to prevent arguing, ensure you provide a plausible in-world explanation for players (e.g. "you can't put this trinket in your mouth, because you have no time", not "because the rules say so").

Considering the provided example — casting the Darkness spell on an item and hiding this item in a mouth is actually a clever idea. But your player's intent wasn't to invent a smart tactical move, but to "trick" the game world by abusing the turns mechanic.

But you can't trick the world. Unlike a computer game, the game world in D&D is not the mechanics, that's why DM is needed in the first place. Distinguish between what happens in world (what character see) and what mechanics do you, the DM, use for resolving the situation. Explain, why sitting in complete darkness is a bad idea:

— I could cast darkness on the lip piercings.
— It will effectively render you blind in the middle of the combat, are you sure you're doing it?
— But I can cover the darkness when my turn starts, can't I?
— Not exactly. We (players) use 6-second round mechanics to organize the combat pace, but for your characters there are no "turns". They are just fighting the bad guy and all act simultaneously. You can dismiss the darkness when you hear something, I will use the Ready action to resolve it. Do you do this?

More info - How does time pass in combat?

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There is a golden Rule in D&D-like games, that even in D&D5 is written:

The GM is always right

It may be hard, but a GM has not only the right to be always right (and thus may bend/break the rules as fit), but he is also in the duty to keep the world consistent.

As long as a ruling is not final, it is usually assumed that rulings (or house rules) are discussed openly. That every player and the GM gives their input, and that is what you had done. You had discussed the topic(s), then thought about it, made research and finally established a ruling. At that point, discussion about the ruling usually should cease unless a totally new problem is found to have been established by the ruling. But until such new problem is found - it has to be new and unconsidered - the decision of the GM is above the other rules.

As such, in the situation presented, where the player does still fight against the rule and tries to find a loophole, there I see pretty much 3 options left:

  • Ask him to accept the ruling for this campaign. If he does, he shall never bring the topic up again during this campaign. You made a ruling after considerng a discussion. Fighting the ruling is not ok, as it takes the fun from everybody as they lose precious game time to the discussion.
  • Ask him to take over. This is pretty much the threat I face whenever I lecture my Mage GM over some tidbit I know better. Sometimes he nods and says "Ah, right, I stand corrected" (that is if I pretty much point to the right rule spot), other times I stop in my tracks and back out of the discussion, as he asks "do you want to run the game?" Of course, your player can't keep his PC when he runs the game, but he can rule as he pleases.
  • Ask him to leave. This is always an option, usually the least wanted and hardest to make. But if he can't play by the rules established by the books and the GM and doesn't want to run the game... I don't see how it will work out.
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There is a simple killer argument which you as the DM can use to counter any rule interpretation which makes something far more useful than intended:

I won't allow that because it would be overpowered. This is clearly not how [X] is supposed to be used, so allowing this would break the game balance.

The nice thing about this argument is that it also rules out any alternative method to replicate the effect, unless it is associated with an additional cost.

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"Let's talk," Take Two

I think the primary issue occurring here is the social structure currently in play here. Personally, I can be a pretty aggressive rules lawyer if I (or someone else) doesn't rein me in, but that's not an excuse for disrupting the flow of the game to such a significant degree. One aspect of your inquiry stood out to be as particularly disconcerting:

One of the two players chose to leave because I wanted to sit the two of them down to talk about how I am not going to have all rulings up for argument indefinitely.

While I would like more details on this particular aspect of your issue, I strongly suspect this is the crux of the issue, especially because it would typically be the solution to your problem.

Without knowing the details, I would recommend you pursue this avenue again, but do so one on one. I think via an online method would be best as, both sides can carefully consider the words they use. This will let you fully draft out your thoughts without interruption as well as give a chance for feedback without the two of them feeding into each other with caveats and callbacks and the like.

Be sure to indicate in both conversations that you'll also be talking to (or have talked to) the other person. This will hopefully lighten the blow of you approaching them with the dreaded, "We have to talk."

Following this one on one with each of them online, meet them both in person prior to your game. This will give you all a chance to touch base on the issue as a group and hopefully everyone can stay friendly after the tension.

If either of them refuses your request for one-on-one discussion, I strongly recommend removing them from the game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @KingdomGnark. That's incorrect. You can boot him. That's what the "If either of them refuses your request for a one-on-one discussion, I strongly recommend removing them from game" is about. If your bad players are costing you good players, then.... \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Nov 17 '17 at 19:48
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You are arguing with your players about the rules. That puts you on equal footing with them, arguing at DM level. That's a strict no-no during game time: only one DM per table. And even if you are arguing with others outside of the game, the argument between DMs would be "I do it this way" vs "I do it that way", and exchange of experience and consequences.

For better or worse, the DM is the game. That's a lot of responsibility, and to bring it off convincingly, the DM has a rule book to rely on.

Now you are starting out as a DM, and that means that you'll likely be inconsistent and also not firmly rooted in the spirit of the rules. That means you'll be a lower quality DM than other players might wish for, but you are still the DM. If they don't appreciate you doing that job, they can go elsewhere or set up their own game.

It's sort of problematic that you are all beginners: that makes it harder to establish or even recognize this social contract that is fundamental to game immersion.

So as a DM, you need to establish the skill to brush off argumentative players in a manner leaving no hard feelings. Getting input/info from more experienced players when starting as a DM is kind of a mixed blessing, but if a DM states one thing, as a rule the players have to roll with it. It's like a referee at a ball game: you don't discuss decisions with him, but there are situations where it is ok to bring attention to something (like when he decides in favor of you and you are sure that was wrong) that might affect a decision. But once the referee has all information, weighs it, and makes a decision based on it, that decision is part of the game.

That's great power, and it comes with great responsibility. Now part of the fun in playing with a DM is that the DM can deal with unusual approaches. That means looking for and trying prospective loopholes becomes an option. Saying "I won't allow this" is a DM privilege but not a lot of fun. Instead you can make the loophole ugly: you are usually talking about ill-defined situations, and it is your privilege to make the ill-defined side-effects capricious enough to not throw off the game balance.

In an RPG, there usually are no trivial "winning moves", and if a player thinks he cooked up one, it is the DM's job to not make it so. Not by spontaneously inventing unrelated obstacles (that just comes off as invidious) but by making parts of the "winning moves" self-defeating in a manner where the payoff is not a game changer and does not throw off the balance of the party and campaign.

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First off, the idea amuses me by virtue of being the inverse of something that's come up in a campaign I'm currently in. We're in a low magic setting with potions and oils crafted by alchemists being the most accessible forms of magic. Our alchemist didn't realize that he had made all of his light potions actually light oils, so when he drank one, the inside of his mouth was now glowing and for the next hour, he had to choose between talking or being able to see. After that, he opted for slathering the oil on our knight's shield.

Forcing the player to deal with the consequences of their actions based on the ruling you've set for how the thing works is one tactic you can apply - as the DM, you are not obligated to tell the players how something will work in the hypothetical or the abstract, and you are always able to say "Why don't you try it?" when asked whether X action will cause Y result.

It's also worth remembering that D&D is not, ultimately, a democracy. The DM is allowed to change or make up or remove whatever rules they choose to suit their campaign, and you don't actually need to provide any explanation beyond "DM Fiat - it works this way because I say it works this way," though it can grate on your players if the rules you decide on don't seem to have internally consistent logic. In this case, since each player's turn within a given round happens simultaneously, your ruling makes perfect sense even though it wouldn't in real life, and if a player refuses to acknowledge that, you don't owe them a chance to appeal. Even if this weren't a mechanical issue of making combat manageable to run, that would be like if a fantasy author changed how their book's magic system worked every time a reader emailed them saying "this thing doesn't make sense."

It doesn't matter how right or wrong the reader is - it isn't their artistic vision to modify. If you agree with their changes, you are welcome to make them, but don't mistake a willingness to listen for owing the players the chance to speak their piece, and don't be afraid to remove people if you have to. It sucks, but sometimes it's necessary if the player is disrupting the campaign as much as it seems like this person is.

Of course, you always have the nuclear option of "rocks fall; everyone dies, campaign's over, get out of my basement" if you run out of energy to keep the campaign in line, and if they want you to DM again, hopefully, they learn.

Edit: for the record, one of my constant gripes with D&D rules is that they don't make any sense if you have a basic understanding of physics. Arrows travel on a flat trajectory, there's no such thing as terminal velocity, whichever person in the initiative order goes first can kill someone else without consequences even if they would themselves have been struck by a lethal blow in real life...the issues go on and on ad infinitum. It's one of the failings of the game system, and while you can house rule fixes for some of it, in many cases it is broken intentionally so the game is more fun to play and doesn't require a mathematician to calculate targeting vectors with a bow and arrow.

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RAW: the DM interprets the rules

In the introduction to the DMG, it says this:

The D&D rules help you and the other players have a good time, but the rules aren’t in charge. You’re the DM, and you are in charge of the game. (DMG, p. 4)

It also says this:

And as a referee, the DM interprets the rules and decides when to abide by them and when to change them. (DMG, p. 4) {italics mine}

This point on how D&D 5e is organized is worth sharing with your rules lawyer player.

Discussion

In D&D the number one rule (often called Rule Zero) is that the DM's word is law. In the DMG, on page 5, there is a section called "Master of Rules" that spells out DM authority.

  • {D&D 5e} ... needs someone who is impartial yet involved in the game to guarantee that everyone at the table play by the rules. As the player who creates the game world, and the adventures that take place within it, the DM is a natural fit to take on the referee role.
  • "Sometimes, mediating the rules means setting limits."
  • "A player tells the DM what he or she wants to do, and the DM determines whether it is successful or not, in some cases asking the player to make a die roll to determine success.

This is a gentler way to describe what it said in the D&D 3.5e Dungeon Master's Guide (p. 18)

You're the arbiter of everything that happens in game.

That convention has been with the game since its release in 1974. So, quite frankly, the rules are whatever you as the DM say they are for practical purposes.

So you are well within your rights to shut down a defiant player with "Because I said so" and it doesn't really matter in the end whether you're technically in compliance with the rules or not, let alone the fact that you actually looked into it for yourself.

At some point, it's more trouble than it's worth to accommodate a defiant player, especially if the other players are starting to get annoyed at the constant arguing.

I once got overruled by a dungeon master. It was a blatantly unfair ruling, but they still got their way because it was their game to run as they saw fit, and the other players turned on me because they were more upset at me for bucking the chain of command and defying the DM than they were at the DM for unfairly ruling against me. And rightly so. My defiance of the DM's authority made me persona non grata with the group and I was asked to leave. Once I got on the group's bad side it became clear I did a lousy job at picking my battles.

You should use the same logic in dealing with a player who shows blatant disrespect for your authority as a dungeon master.

Once he started getting defiant after you made your ruling the problem stopped being merely about the ruling in question, because at that point he had compromised his relation as a player to you as a dungeon master.

What to do in this situation

In your place I would stop the adventure on the spot and give him an ultimatum that his disruptive dissent is not welcome and that if he doesn't cease and desist pronto I will ban him from the campaign. Even if it was just one situation, once I've made my ruling I'm entitled to compliance and anyone who wants to keep arguing about it is blatantly disrespecting my role as a DM. The fact that he did this multiple times just aggravates what is already bad enough.

The bottom line:

Owing to the fact that he is blatantly defying and arguing with you even after you've made your ruling final, it's important to see the proper perspective on the issue. Once he started challenging your authority as a dungeon master the problem escalated beyond technical and became social.

And for the record I have never personally seen an experienced dungeon master entertain a rules lawyer.

A DM I played with once knew his rulebooks and knew them very well. He had the confidence to stand by his rulings and not once did he allow a player to argue about them once he had his decision made.

I only heard of one player who ever tried to continue arguing about it after he decided, and the player was swiftly reprimanded and shut down on the spot and it was made clear that further dissent would threaten his membership in the group.

The player in question dropped the issue for good and after further trouble with the DM in a later incident is no longer welcome in the group.

A cautionary tale that your recalcitrant player in question would do well to heed.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Nov 3 '18 at 15:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ Raymond, please review the edits I made, and consider taking doppelgreener's advice on tone. When writing, it is always important to consider the audience that you are writing for. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Nov 3 '18 at 15:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, it looks like your markdown-fu is beter than mine. Edits look good to me, what do you need me to do? \$\endgroup\$ – Raymond Jennings Nov 4 '18 at 4:31
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Your problem here is using research. By engaging with the rules, you're indicating that you think your 'for the turn or not at all' darkness is the way the rules work. It's not, and there're a half a million things that support that, so your rules-inclined players keep bringing it up because, from their perspective, they keep finding new evidence that you're wrong.

The solution is to, whenever you reach the point you want to finalize a ruling, clearly indicate that this is the way the thing works now, regardless of the rules. By indicating that this isn't how the spell or class feature or whatever is intended to be run nor how it would be run in an official game or whatever, but it's how you are going to run it in this game, the players in question will not feel compelled to present all the evidence that your ruling is contrary to the rules, intention, etc of the game, since you aren't saying it's not.

You also say your statement to them was:

Basically, for my campaign, I will never allow a player to be unaffected by darkness for the duration of their turn while having everyone else affected on their turns.

and that you just copy-pasted the above text whenever they presented a new darkness-related idea.

That's a problem, because that's not your ruling. When you tell players that you are ruling a certain way, and that that ruling is incontrovertible, but at the same time it's obvious that the ruling is just wrong, that it, it does not actually describe the game world or the way the GM adjudicates situations, it comes across like you don't really mean it and are just being defensive and the actual conversation should happen later. When you're going to make a rule like this, don't just throw something out there in a misguided attempt to punish the players cause you're angry, think about what the consequences of what you are saying are, and be ready to either live with unexpected weirdness or change the rules. If you're going to abandon a ruling at the first sight of strangeness, you certainly shouldn't deliberately tell your players contrarywise; that just teaches them that you can't be trusted to be consistent even when you say you won't be changing something.

Instead, take time to come up with something that seems reasonable, and test it against various edge cases to figure out how it should work. If your rule doesn't have at least one exception, you probably haven't thought it through enough.

You probably want me to explain why I'm saying your ruling isn't actually your ruling, so I will:

1) your ruling doesn't take into account line of effect or distance. If one PC is searching the king's bedchamber for hidden clues as to why the king has been acting so strangely while another is a quarter mile away in the throne room in an audience with said king, do you want the player in the audience to be able to signal to the one in the bedchamber that the king is coming by casting darkness after the audience in a random side chamber? Is everything dark all the time? Someone somewhere is casting darkness, right? In the context of your players' plans, if they cast darkness and the party stands just outside the affected region and the enemies stand just inside it, are those outside really unable to see anything? Is there no way to tell what darkness was cast on nor the range of the spell, cause it just affects everyone everywhere across all planes when it's cast?

2) You can probably tell from the inconsistent interpretations above, but another serious problem is that it's very much unclear what 'everyone else' and 'player' means in the context of your ruling. Is it just players, so NPCs can cast the spell as normal? If so, are familiars still NPCs? Is 'everyone else' actually everyone else or is it something else, like 'anyone' or 'your current enemies' or 'your current enemies in this fight' or 'people within 10 feet of the darkness spell's origin', etc. It's often weird when things treat PCs differently than NPCs so bluntly, if this really is meant to just be a PC-only thing.

3) What about everything else that interacts with timing? If a spell is dispelled, does it not cease to function until the next round? If a spell is cast, does it retroactively affect stuff earlier in the round? etc.

4) What about other stuff that interacts with darkness, like Devil Sight? If a player casts darkness but none of the enemies are immune, does that really negate their ability to see through magical darkness? Can they tell if an enemy is sneaking up on them by casting darkness and then waiting till they can suddenly no longer see through it? If a player plays a dwarf, do they really only have infravision when no one else is around?

Based on your description, I'm confident none of the above is intentional, and were it to come up, you would not allow it. That means the ruling isn't actually what you mean and you should either not present it as incontrovertible but rather as the way things are now until it turns out to be a problem, or make a more specific, thought out ruling, like 'when you cast Darkness in this exact way you can't do this exact thing' and put up with having to add more as the players find ways that should work with the current state of your rulings but which you don't want to allow. In this particular situation, I reccommend you avoid preemptive rulings, they'll just cause more problems than they solve.

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Darkness in your mouth

Well, the lip piercing is an in interesting tactic to take. If he holds it long enough to cast, then places it in his lip, he's now wasted at minimum two turns to set up his dark-lip magic item...

And now his darkness is 100% at the control of his mouth. So if he's talking, the world is flashing in a nasty strobe light pattern. This would include spells with verbal components.

So he's blind when it isn't his turn because he closes his mouth. And he can't talk or the lights flash. So all the events going on around him? His character cannot know what's happening except in terms of general noises. So in theory, his opponents could step up behind him and he'd never know.

And how long does it take his eyes to adjust to the general brightness once he goes dark for 6-ish seconds? Has he taken into account that his eyes will be partially blinded by the light?

And while he's casting spells with verbal components, that strobe light will completely disrupt his vision. That's GOT to make it hard to function. Try walking across a room that's lit only by a strobe light. Depth perception, motion tracking, it all goes south. So anything that would require targeting a moving opponent would need to suffer some sort of negative.

As a GM in this specific case, I'd let the lip ring work. Then I'd bury him with negative consequences.

  1. Setup takes 2 rounds, 1 to cast, 1 to reset the lip-ring in his mouth.
  2. No awareness of the combat situation can be gleaned while darkness is in effect; situational modifiers.
  3. Targeting anything that involves a verbal component suffers because the lights keep going out.
  4. Disadvantage to anything because he's going to be partially blinded for the entire duration of the spell...

And I would point out to him at the table that he won't know the full scope of the negative consequences until he tries it for the first time... After all, experimentation always comes with a risk.


This is all based on the law of unintended consequences.

He thinks he can "game the system" by using the tabletop RPG equivalent of cheat codes. Worlds don't really have cheat codes. So maybe he comes up with a ploy that gives him a specific advantage in a specific situation, but probably any attempt to do that will always comes with disadvantages in other ways.

Play up the disadvantages. Then the world is making it hard and not you personally.

Or if you can't think of a reason why a given thing would have consequences, then let it go. If he "wins" one from time to time, that's not all bad.

Compromise

This all comes down to a form of compromise. He want's to find ways to improve his odds, then he must accept that maybe it works and maybe it doesn't.

But if he won't compromise, then he isn't playing a cooperative game within your group. And yes, sometimes you have to have the authority at the table to shut down arguments.

Especially when those arguments are destroying the game for everyone else.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I had considered this, but felt it was kinder to not give him a shiny toy and then smash it. My main problem isn't the ruling, it's dealing with people who won't accept rulings. If I let them badger me into changing my mind, then every ruling will turn into what I'm going to deal with for the next week of work breaks and time off as they now know that if they keep at it, I will cave \$\endgroup\$ – KingdomGnark Nov 17 '17 at 19:53

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