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.
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.
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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]?"
- 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.
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.
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!
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One thing you should do is determine WHY they are a rules lawyer.
Ideally, the DM should himself respect the rules well enough at least to know if the rules laywer's position even has merit to begin with.
Secondly, the DM has the discretion to change the rules at any point at any time, and even the DMG itself expressly lists this as a right. However, the existence of the rules in the first place does give the players, rules lawyer or not, a reasonable expectation of consistency, so if you pull something out of your ass, so to speak, it's good to understand even for yourself that it is, in fact, being made as an exception to the rules.
Thirdly, the DM has complete discretion over creative aspects, and there are plenty of things in a D&D campaign that are NOT in the rules.
Fourthly, there is a principle of not metagaming or crossing IC and OOC, and your rules lawyer may well be aware of things that their character is not, and its an important aspect of proper player ethics not to unfairly take advantage of that information. In essence, it's cheating.
Finally, the goal of a game is to have fun.
Bearing all that in mind, my advice is as follows
If the rules lawyer is genuinely trying to help enforce consistency, which is a well meaning effort, then you can do one of two things depending on the situation:
Recruit them as deputy DM and let them help you. They're probably going to be obsessed about the rules anyway, so let them take some of the burden off your shoulders. You lighten your own load and you do them the favor of giving them a juicy duty that they'll be eager to help you with. Win win.
However, if the part they're choking on is a deliberate exception you're making by DM prerogative, let them know that you're doing it on purpose and ask them to trust you. If they are made aware you're doing it on purpose for a reason, they'll be willing to yield.
If however your rules lawyer is being malicious or deliberately biased or otherwise sabotaging the fun of the group, then feel free to disregard it or if necessary reprimand them. The authority of a DM being used to shut down a foul meaning rules lawyer is an appropriate measure to protect the peace of the group.
I mentioned this for a reason, because a lot of times the rules lawyer is obsessed with more information than even their own character may well be aware of, and there's a lot of potential for a rules lawyer to have their character act on information that they don't actually have in game. Even by accident.
Bearing this in mind it's certainly part of a DM's duty to monitor this if necessary, and a DM should if necessary take precautions to prevent a character from exploiting information that they don't actually have that only the player actually knows.
Means of dealing with this:
- Ask the player how the character knows
- Make the player have the character do research
- Knowledge checks
- Wisdom rolls
- Intelligence rolls
- Other such miscellaneous means of using out of game methods to adjudicate in game events, commonly done in the form of dice
Basically, be aware of their motives, be firm but fair, don't let them be a jerk about it, don't be a jerk about it yourself, and remember your duties as a DM as an umpire and storyteller and make sure everyone has fun.
In short, to handle a rules lawyer begins with knowing why they're doing it.
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.
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).
I use the words of Gygax for rules.lawyers...
“It is the spirit of the game, not the letter of the rules which is important. Never hold to the letter written, nor allow some barracks room lawyer to force quotations from the rule books upon you, if it goes against the obvious intent of the game. As you hew the line with respect to conformity to major systems and uniformity of play in general, also be certain the game is mastered by you and not by your players. Within the broad parameters given in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons volumes, you are creator and final arbiter. By ordering things as they should be, the game as a whole first, you campaign next and your participants thereafter, you will be playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as it was meant to be.”
- Gary Gygax, Dungeon Master’s Guide (page 230)
In practicality, I generally make lots of tiny modifications. Increase a monster stat here, change a power there. But even before that, at session zero, I explain that the game I run is about story. The group as a whole will, together, forge an epic story based on our actions. Rules are guidelines, and if something makes sense for the story and setting but bends or breaks a rule, so be it. Generally, players are in board when I present it that way.
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!)
First of all, you are the DM and any player willing to play in your game should be willing to respect your authority accordingly. That includes you changing or even blatantly ignoring the rules at your discretion. If your player is trying to argue with you after you've already asserted your authority, it's a social problem that goes above the technical aspect of the actual rules.
Second, I would consider the difference between player knowledge and character knowledge. The contents of the rulebooks are player knowledge, and may or may not be included in what his character knows.
If he's having his character somehow take advantage of knowledge that he knows but his character doesn't, that's metagaming, and I personally consider it a form of cheating.
Consider forcing him to make research rolls, intelligence/wisdom checks, knowledge checks, profession checks, or otherwise justify why his character should share in his knowledge.
And at the end of the day, it's your game and he needs to remember that he's your guest.
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.
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.
My usual answer to rules lawyering is to remind that player that the DM is basically like god in D&D and everyone knows that if you bother a god enough he'll make a rock fall on you doing 200d6 roll-a-new-character damage. That usually makes the character shut up about it for a while. If not the DM makes us do spot checks anytime we walk near a mountain and points out how a bunch of tank sized rocks seem ready to fall down at any moment on a path leading straight towards the rules lawyer's PC. It usually shuts the guy up for a session.