# How should I respond to a DM who unfairly plays the “rules-lawyer” card?

My question: How would you, as an experienced role-player, deal with this situation?

I was recently invited to join a 4e startup goup. I've RP'd a fair bit in my day, but not in decades, and never D&D.

To prepare I pick up a PHB1 and research my race, class, and role. Since I am the group's tank I take it upon myself to be as prepared as I can be. I also purchase the DM a deluxe screen as a show of goodwill (he needed one, Amazon had them on sale, no biggie).

I create my character using PHB1 only, as per DM's request.

In the days leading up to our first session the DM and I often chat electronically. Lots of enthusiasm. At the DM's request I write an EXTENSIVE back-story for my character. DM seems extremely appreciative and excited.

First session, I use a Charge. DM decrees that Charge functions differently than what I thought I read. I go along with it, but take note to inquire afterward. I then use Combat Challenge to "mark" a few opponents. Again, DM decrees that this ability functions differently than what I thought I read. Rinse and repeat with a few more of my abilities. Note that at no time does the DM explain to me that these abilities are intentionally being "house ruled". He simply says "no...Charge doesn't work that way. It works this way". I assume that I misread.

Session ends, all good, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, myself included.

That evening, away from the table, I research my abilities further and see that I had understood them correctly. Wanting clarification, I send the DM a polite email. Being a noob without experience to fall back on, I cite an example on the WotC message board. In the DM's reply, I notice an immediate change of tone. I am called a "rules lawyer".

At this point I have never heard of the term "rules lawyer".

DM goes on to type that it's his "table" and he "doesn't have to listen to what wizards say on message boards". In my head I'm like, whoa, dude, I was only asking for clarification here. But I respond "Thanks! See you next session".

Over the next few days he initiates electronic chat (game related) with me many times. Enthusiasm returns, I figure I must have misunderstood the previous exchange altogether.

I ask a few more questions. Like, what source materials we are limited to going forward, and for a clear definition on how core abilities function (because hey, I'm excited, I'm interested, I'm looking ahead and planning out my character long-term. If I only get 1 OA per round, I'm probably going to stay away from OA feats).

DM types "Christ almighty man you're taking the fun out of this game"

This time I respond: "whoa, dude, I'm only asking for clarification here"

DM goes on a rant about how he doesn't want the game to get bogged down by rules, how he doesn't want min/maxing, how role-playing is far more important than stats etc. etc. etc.

I don't argue, I just say "OK man, my bad". But in my head I'm like...I was the only player to create a back story. It was 5 pages long. And I'm being slapped about being too focused on stats? When I'm just asking for clarification on how my core class abilities are being house-ruled?

Now, it's days later and I've lost all enthusiasm for my character, his back story, the campaign, my role, my build, everything. I'm ready to bail.

Here are the options I see:

1. Press the reset button on everything and go to the next session as a casual player. Don't read the cards, just ask the DM how my abilities work before using them (not sarcastically). Forget how I've been slapped down by someone I've just met and am supposed to be having fun with.
2. Bail from this group. Take what I've learned and find another group.
3. Realize that D&D is apparently too nebulous for me, and go back to board games.

Advice would be appreciated!

• This reads like someone who is used to one set of D&D rules (3e/pathfinder), who started a 4e game "under duress", then applied (3e/pathfinder) rules to the game. Charge in 3e/pathfinder is a full round action: in 4e, it is a standard action that ends your turn. OAs in 3e/pathfinder are once per round (with feats to let you do them more often), in 4e they are once per opponent's turn. I'm guessing the DM would want to run standing up like 3e (where it provokes OAs), and not like in 4e (where standing up as a move action does not). The moral: DM shouldn't run a game system they do not like. – Yakk May 8 '13 at 2:49

Run.

Quickly and nimbly. Run

Seriously. Run.

4e is a game that thrives on balance. The first clue for me that something was messed up with your group was your DM requiring PHB1. Those rules are frightful and have been replaced with much newer, nicer and shinier rules.

The second clue that something was wrong was the outburst about getting bogged down by rules. 4e is almost exclusively rules driven if your DM doesn't want to get bogged down by rules he should choose another game to run.

This sounds like a situation you should run from. Because this DM is obviously set in his ways and isn't going to change them just because you asked nicely. However, I enjoy gaming, and you probably enjoy gaming, and if the other people in the session are actually enjoying themselves then maybe this guy has something to offer, so I'm going to give you some advice to keep things going.

• Ask for a social contract. Defining this explicitly is a relatively new concept, but it's a really good exercise specially if it's a new group. this can be used to set expectations for the group and also to set up what rules will be houseruled and which ones should be interpreted by the book. This would also be a good place to set up who arbitrates rules disputes and what can be done if house rules negate decisions you make (fewer opportunity actions, classes/power sets being nerfed etc). Doing this allows everyone to operate under the same expectations. (This is something every group should do at it's outset, I really wish we'd done it in ours)

• Stop worrying about the rules and just do stuff. This is a suboptimal (mechanically) solution because it doesn't involve learning anything, but basically, if you want to do something do it. It's up to him to tell you no or make you roll. This could get your character into some trouble, but I'm guessing for the most part this is the most enjoyable route for you and your character.

• Learn the rules well and point the DM to specific sections of text. This is the actual rules lawyer approach, and is probably overly combative for this DM. But if he claims to actually be playing 4e and not a highly house ruled version of it, having the actual text ready and on hand is a good way to combat it.

• Record each house-ruling your DM makes. It's especially important to note the big ones (like changing the mechanics of Charge). Make sure that he applies these rules consistently to both the PCs and the monsters. From here you have a vindictive option, learn how to break the game with his house rules. Or you can choose to just write them down and remember them.

• Buy the Rules Compendium this is the easily the best rules book they've published for 4e. And is an excellent volume to own. But more than that it contains all the latest errata which means you can call the DM not just on using house rules, but on house ruling rules that have changed dramatically since PHB1 was published.

Generally, my advice is to leave, but if you're going to stay either choose to learn the rules thoroughly and be the rules lawyer (or house rules lawyer if your DM admits these are actual house rules), or go laize-faire and just do stuff (that's my recommendation, don't even ask about your powers, just tell the DM what you're doing, and do it).

• "Ask for a social contract", "Record each house-ruling", "Make sure that he applies these rules consistently", "you can call the DM not just on using house rules". If this is what you're going to do if you stay then I definitely agree with your advice to leave, because this stuff is only going to annoy the DM further, and provide further proof that you're not willing to play the game he's running. Spending a lot of time in a game that's not fun for you, making it not-fun for the DM too, just to prove that he's mislabelled his game as DnD 4e but is breaking the rules, would just be spite. – Steve Jessop Apr 21 '16 at 9:49
• ... I mean, these are all fine suggestions for DM who wants to play by a fixed set of rules but is having difficulty doing so without help, but this is a DM who says "you're taking the fun out of this game" and "doesn't want the game to get bogged down by rules". So adding more rules and calling out the DM when you think he isn't following either the RAW or his own previous house rulings, is certain to continue taking the fun out of the game. The fact that he shouldn't have advertised his game as DND 4e is IMO a petty point to score at this cost. – Steve Jessop Apr 21 '16 at 9:56
• In a highly rules-balanced system like 4e, with a DM who frequently contravenes those rules, I would assume that he hasn't considered the impact of his decisions on that balance. In that situation, the vindictive option, learn how to break the game with his house rules would actually be an extremely fun activity for me, personally. – Dan Henderson Jun 1 '16 at 22:18

D&D 4e is definitely not a nebulous game. It gets all oogy and wobbly if houseruled carelessly and too much, which is what it sounds like this DM has done.

Your three options are well considered! It sounds like you have your head on straight, and your reaction isn't disproportionate at all. It's entirely possible that this DM has had bad experiences with rules discussions in the past and their reaction is understandable too, but you're still getting the unpleasant end of a reaction that isn't your fault.

I'll address your third option first, to get it out of the way. D&D may well be too nebulous for you, coming from a recent boardgames background. Roleplaying games are notoriously under-specified rules systems that require much (conscious or subconscious) glue rules supplied by the group as a whole, though D&D 4e has tried its damnedest to be a fully-specced system. However, seeing as you phlegmatically considered the option of sitting back and not worrying about the rules, you may well do just fine with even some of the less rigorous RPGs. There are some advantages to having under-specced rules – namely, being able to "drift" them subtly to support roleplay better than the designer-who-has-never-met-your-group could ever do from their office. So if roleplaying games aren't inherently too much a moving target for your tastes now, D&D 4e (at least as-written) is definitely not a game that you have to worry about being too nebulous.

As for your remaining two options:

1. If you're OK with playing a game that doesn't really have rules, as such (and lots of people are!), then staying is reasonable. Forget that this is a D&D-anything game, let alone specifically a 4e game, and let the DM be the Pope declaring the will of the rules ex cathedra. There is lots of roleplaying fun to be had. The only reason to not do this is if the DM still expects the player group to fight hard to win – with no ground rules that you can rely on, that's a recipe for disaster and capricious PC deaths. (In which case, even if you're OK with rules-light games, run!)

2. If your enjoyment depends on engaging with rules systems, even a little bit (lots of players' do!), then staying will probably make you unhappy unless the DM's houserules turn out to be actually really well thought out. If you're not sure, you can stay and find out if it makes you unhappy! You might find that the story and roleplaying trump the rules (and there are no traps about not paying attention to the rules), and discover that you're closer to the set of motivations in (1) than you thought.

• "The only reason to not do this is if the DM still expects the player group to fight hard to win – with no ground rules that you can rely on, that's a recipe for disaster and capricious PC deaths." My Fighter fell unconscious 3 times in our very first battle. I wonder if this qualifies. Not being sarcastic, I have no idea how often a protective tank should pass out. – dmc Sep 27 '12 at 15:55
• @dmc if this is level one that's not completely out of bounds for a fighter. Fighters get hit a lot and tend to yo-yo between up and down early on. – wax eagle Sep 27 '12 at 16:37
• This... is one of the best answers I’ve ever read on this site. And considering our history, d7, you know I’m not saying that lightly. But this is really an extremely on-point and excellent answer, and displays an impressive depth of understanding for playstyles not your own, which I know I lack. – KRyan Oct 4 '13 at 1:34

This answer is probably not going to be any better than any other answer, but I have to point it out because you're new to role playing and I feel it's important to see the whole picture. Everyone else is giving good advice, but it helps to have some background on why they're giving that advice.

## The DM's NUMBER ONE Job is to Make Sure Everyone Has Fun

That means that everything else, including the game itself, is secondary.

This DM obviously doesn't understand this concept. You are (and he knows this, trust me) obviously his best player. You take the most interest in his game, you spent the most time on character creation. You are the block of gold in that group. If what he's doing is making the game less fun for you, he needs to stop doing it. Period.

## I've Been in Your Shoes Here

I have been in every different type of group. There are groups where you can't do anything that's not explicitly listed in the rules. In these the fun is lost because of limitations that are presented by situations the rules couldn't possibly account for. In your position, the DM has taken the other extreme. Throwing out the rules altogether can make for interesting story, but it also leads to misplaced expectations. This is a case where you can expect abilities to work differently every time you use them.

At that point, why bother having character sheets at all? Freeform RPGs are very popular, but 4e is not one of them. Tell your DM to pick a different system if he doesn't like 4e's rules. Or better yet, tell him that if he doesn't like the rules in the book, then he's writing his own book, and believe me, that is no easy task. Every new DM thinks he can write his own brand new system for role play. The time spent on well-balanced, accurate, fun to play classes is not something to shrug at. It's no wonder WoTC still struggles with it every release of D&D.

## There's a Reason There are Rules

Rules, in any game, whether it be D&D or Soccer, are a way of making the game fair, balanced, and entertaining for everyone. There will always be people who try to read too much into the rules in order to beat the system. This is what a real rules lawyer is, after all. The concept of rules in the first place though is so that you have expectations. So that you don't encounter a creature covered in spikes and say "I want to charge him" only to find out that, in this situation, charging will somehow impale you on a spike. "I didn't want to grapple him" you might say, but the rules changed this time, and charge = tackle today because the DM thought it was funny. That's not fair to anyone, especially you.

## You May Not Be Innocent Here

This part is the hardest on people, especially new players, but all I've heard here is your side of the story, and how you tried everything to be what this guy wanted. There's always another side of the story, so remember that when you go into this group. While all of us are giving you advice on how to talk to this DM, when it comes down to it, he spent hours, maybe days working hard to prepare his game for your entertainment. So when you sit down at that table, whether you agree with him or not, his way goes. This is part of the reason almost everyone here is suggesting you leave the group rather than try any other tactics.

I didn't say the DM was right in how he does things, but you're at his table playing his game. If you don't like it, and he won't change it, go somewhere else. This is one of the things I love about my current DM. He calls it your game and he is very amicable to changing the way he runs games based on the players in his group. Still, his games will always be in a mature setting with extremely challenging decisions and that's how he chooses to run.

## There are Other Players at the Table

The second part of this is the other players in his group go there for his DM-ing style, as it is. So when you're asking him to change, you're affecting other people. I wouldn't want someone to tell my DM to run silly dungeon crawl style games because that's not what I enjoy. I like the challenge of out-thinking a bad-guy who is just as smart as I am. I would not enjoy a game where I kill all of the monsters in a room and open a door to more monsters with no real goal or purpose in sight. So it's important that you consider the other player's opinions.

## The DM is Human

I feel like a broken record on this, but everyone, and I mean everyone, tends to forget that people in a position of power are just as human as everyone else. Your DM is going to make mistakes, and I'm not just referring to rules mistakes, but he's going to have personality flaws. He may have had an issue with an actual rules lawyer in the past, and found that the only way he could respond to rules arguments that would end them was "stop being a rules lawyer". He may have gotten annoyed with the complexity of 4e rules over time and just given up trying to learn them.

More importantly, he may have spent so much time on his storyline that he's now nervous that if he starts using the rules more strictly, that one bad guy might not live long enough to tell you guys some vital piece of information, or that one good guy might get killed in the fight where you were supposed to join in and defend him in order to move the story forward. This could be a defense of his story, which he has definitely worked hard on. Be careful that you see things from his perspective and remember that it's not easy to keep a whole bunch of people working toward a common goal.

That's all I've got to say.

I'm not going to attempt to tell you what decision to make partially because everyone else already has done that, and partially because I'm not there. I don't know if the joy you got out of the game is worth the sacrifice of the joy you get from using the right ability to counter the enemy just right (that is a good feeling too, and I enjoy it from time to time). I don't know if you have a lot of options for other Role Playing groups in your area or if you're somewhere in North Dakota with no one around for hours of drive time. I won't pretend to be in your shoes, and so I can only tell you what I know, from experience and study, of which I've done a lot. Good luck with this decision. It's a tough place to be, especially when you're new to D&D.

• I have real trouble with the idea that it is the DM's job to make sure everyone has fun. It is everyone's job to make sure the table is fun. The player above contributed by writing up a character history, making a character, purchasing a DM's screen and double-checking the rules. Fun isn't the DM's job, fun is everyone's job, even if the way different roles contribute to the fun is different. – Judd Oct 1 '12 at 6:36
• @Judd While I disagree, even if I agreed, your statement The player above contributed by writing up a character history, making a character, purchasing a DM's screen and double-checking the rules. tells me the player did his part and that, in this case, the DM isn't doing his. – deltree Oct 1 '12 at 12:03

In a nutshell, your second option, to leave and find a different group, sounds best.

The guy DM'ing has made it clear he doesn't want you understanding the rules, let alone implying he might not know them.

"Rules Lawyer" is generally a label for someone who disrupts play by telling the GM where they didn't follow the rules, especially when it benefits their character.

Calling you that is a direct insult. It's not "defensiveness" - it's an outright accusation of disruptive behavior. which, since you saved your questions until after session, doesn't seem to fit.

Further, the DM's behavior has made you uncomfortable.

And yes, it is fine to be a rules-oriented player. Even Wizards agrees.

Session ends, all good, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, myself included.

Sounds like a good RP experience to me. Why let that be destroyed by disagreements about rules?

Fundamentally, the problem is that you and the DM have different leanings in the GNS model of roleplaying styles - he seems very strongly narrativist while you seem to have mostly simulationist and gamist priorities. This is compounded by the fact that you're using an RPG system that that is very much designed to cater to gamist styles (which raises the question: why the hell is he using that system?).

I'd say the core question is: do you think you'll enjoy a style of roleplaying where rules, any rules, just aren't considered very important, and the main goal is to collaboratively tell an interesting story?

If yes, go ahead and, as wax eagle puts it, "Stop worrying about the rules and just do stuff." If no, there's no point in staying in the group.

It may help to discuss it with the DM or the entire group in these terms - the social contract thing. Just be careful to state it in a way that doesn't sound like "meta rules lawyering" - the DM seems to be positively allergic to that. Doesn't mean it's a fundamental character flaw, perhaps he's had bad experiences with an obsessive powergamer who ruined the fun for everyone.

And maybe that discussion will even lead to the adoption of a less rules-focused RPG system - which should please the DM most of all.

• "Sounds like a good RP experience to me. Why let that be destroyed by disagreements about rules?" Agreed. Though this is less about rules as it is about communication, consistently, and approachability. DM can house-rule all he wants, I just prefer him to be consistent and clear about it, and not become frustrated/confrontational when approached. – dmc Sep 27 '12 at 16:04
• Yep. Even a flexible, story-focused, and fun-loving player can have their enjoyment done in by not being able to predict what effect their actions will have. D&D has combat simulation rules. If those rules are unknowable due to the DM interpreting them inconsistently, that's injurious to story and roleplaying. How can you decide whether to make a heroic charge if you don't have some basic idea how likely it is to succeed? Your character would have that information, in-world; it's why he's a professional tank! The rules are there to allow you to play your character well. – Jenn D. Aug 20 '17 at 3:33

To elaborate on what wax eagle's typed:

However, I enjoy gaming, and you probably enjoy gaming, and if the other people in the session are actually enjoying themselves then maybe this guy has something to offer

I am mostly GMing in 3.5e, but I think that this edition is also "almost exclusively rules driven"... Well, maybe a bit less. This hasn't stopped me from ignoring half of the combat rules, not bookkeeping which spells enemies can still use, not writing down monster info for 99% of encounters, coming up with stats, numbers and items on the fly and doing other things which should render the game completely unbalanced and unfair. I've even managed to have an enjoyable game with a min/maxer.

So yes, there might be something about that guy, perhaps he manages to balance things out in combat without a problem, or perhaps he concentrates more on non-combat encounters, or any of the other things. I think it might not be a bad idea to try to play few more games with him if, as you said, you and others liked it...

... unless you take into consideration his overzealous attitude to rule lawyers, and how quickly he jumps into conclusions. Maybe it's because he doesn't know you well yet, maybe it's just how he is in some aspects of life, maybe something else. Also remember, that people appear differently on the internet and in real life, so maybe all you have to do is to talk about it in person?

• Do you tell players up front that you are home-brew or in any other fashion running a not 100 percent true to rules game? I'd also contend that 3.5 encourages/functions with that sort of GM choice better because the system is so big and so complex (Class tiers come immediately to mind) whereas 4e has balanced both skill challenges and combat implicit to make the game feel more tactical. – Joshua Aslan Smith Sep 27 '12 at 15:13
• @MaurycyZarzycki +1 to your last paragraph. Even though I bent over backwards to not seem confrontational, maybe my inquiries were taken that way. At any rate our exchanges probably would not have gone the way they did if they were in person and not over the internet. I'm going to make myself less e-available. I'll just show up to our sessions and talk to him then. – dmc Sep 27 '12 at 16:21

This sounds like a bad situation, honestly. It's certainly alright to change the rules to suit a campaign (as a GM, I do it too), and it's even alright in some circumstances to let the players discover those changes (some magical effect in an area makes Fireball not work properly, for example).

However, it's not okay to do that and then get upset when the players start asking for clarification on just how the new rules work. Without that people are playing a game blind, just using abilities randomly and then hoping they work because they have no idea what anything is going to do. That's not fun.

Whenever possible, custom rules should be written down and made available to the players so that everyone knows what is going on. If they need to be explained, the GM needs to show patience while doing it.

Rule #1 of GMing may be that the GM's word is law, but rule #2 is that the GM is there to set up a world for the players to play in. Your GM seems to have forgotten that one. Given that situation, I'd give serious consideration to quitting if talking to him doesn't work.

(I'd also agree with the others not to judge 4e based on this experience. This is a human problem rather then a system problem.)

I'm sure lots of people have given you great answers already. I can at least empathize.

I had a similar situation. I created a thief character for 2nd edition back in the day. The DM gave me some nice opportunities to use my thief skills. When I used them, I noticed he gave me really low experience points for using them. He based them off of my roll. If my pick locks skill was 40% and I rolled a 35%, I would get 5 LOUSY Experience Points. The book did not base experience off the die. I was supposed to get 100-500 points PER USE! When I asked him about it, he said it was a house rule and that I shouldn't complain because I still got experience for killing monsters. The problem was, the rest of the party was filled with fighters and mages who were much better at killing things then I, and you only got points for the "killing blow." So my opportunities for points were severely limited. I quickly lost interest in and left the game.

I had DM'd and still DM a lot of games. I try not to be a rules lawyer and try to never tell my players "no" but allow them to at least try things. At the same time, I also try to have a consistent rule system so they feel like their investment in their characters, both in the role playing and the point distribution (I bought a magic sword here, i raised a skill there) is worthwhile. I try not to vary too much from the house rules, and when I do, I try to make it VERY clear what the new rules are, what the advantages and disadvantages to having these house rules are and try to actually make the house rules be in the players favor at least make it interesting.

A DM is a leader, and as such he needs to set expectations and make the people he's leading feel safe to ask questions.

So my advice, as others have said, is to run. The fact that he's being a dick about it should tell you something.

## Control Freak Behaviour

Some GMs like to feel like they are 'in control' of what is occurring. This usually means railroading. Which isn't always bad - some people are good at railroading, to the extent that people don't notice OR care. And that's fine.

Sometimes this means that every rule only works how the GM thinks it does, not how it says in the book. This CAN be fine, but is less often fine. For a specific kind of player, who likes the setting/world/game to function under a set of rules that are the same so they know what's going on, it's absolutely terrible.

I'm that sort of player. I have been accused of being a rules lawyer under exactly this sort of circumstance.

The situation, as I see it, is this; You just want to know what the rules are. You don't care what they are as long as you can know them, and then simulate a world in your head based on that, in order to play your character. However, in order to do that, you're asking questions about the rules. This is treated as a passive-aggressive attack, an accusation, and worse, an assault against the GM's 'authority'.

That explains the reaction, the situation, the 'fluid' rules. Some people can operate in this sort of environment, especially if the GM is a good storyteller - the good storytelling makes up for the idiosyncratic rules and lack of tolerance for any sort of dissent. In fact a lot of the time people with this style who stay as GMs have quite good storytelling abilities - it balances out the blatant railroading.

I can't play in games like that. The complete lack of agency, the lack of any knowledge of how things work in the world (the rules), the 'being kept in the dark' nature of both the rules and the story, they ruin any sort of agency I feel I can have, any fun, or any roleplaying. It feels false.

Worse, there's no real compromise or change possible when even a suggestion or a question is taken as a passive-aggressive attack on the GM's authority. At that point, I would just leave the game - and have, in the past. Any possible changes would require so much effort as to be either impossible or not worth it - against that type of personality, no change can be made.

I would suggest that when he makes specific rulings that are unfair to you (since you made decisions about your character), you should challenge them and ask to revise the original decisions, whether it's something in combat from several turns back, or a feat you took half a dozen levels ago.

He said "you're taking the fun out of this game", point out where he's doing the same to you. By randomly changing the rules around, he's making it hard for players to predict how things will work, which is unfair.

Anyway, no matter what you do, you should be prepared for the possibility of leaving (or being kicked out of) the group, since it's possible that this DM simply can't be reasoned with.