Background - My Group's Gaming Style

When I GM, I run games loosely from a rules standpoint, and do not feel bound to adhere to what the rulebook says when it doesn't make sense in a given situation. I adapt things to fit the game-world reality over the written rule and use my judgment as the final authority for in-game events.

This is how all the groups I've been in "back in the day" played. The OSR guys have codified this approach more recently as "rulings, not rules" - back when I was playing in the 1e/2e days that was just the way things were, and people who insisted on the "rules as written" were stigmatized as "rules lawyers". Nowadays, this is more common and "the rulebook is the final authority" is accepted behavior in many gaming groups. That's fine for them, but is explicitly not for me and my group. If our style is not for you, move on to another question please; I'm not interested in whether you think this approach is right or not. It works for the groups I play in. I am interested, however, in how to help new players who aren't used to this mode of play become comfortable with it.

We have an existing large gaming group playing a variety of existing game systems. We've run long campaigns in Pathfinder, Savage Worlds, Alternity, Mutants & Masterminds, GURPS, Silhouette, nWoD, and shorter games in Dresden Files, Feng Shui, Unknown Armies, Godlike, Adventure!, and many more. At the table, players own rulebooks and roll their own dice. I am not looking to retool the group or choose a new system or make major changes to our order of operations. Things are working well for us and we are having fulfilling gaming experiences.

This is not a discussion about D&D or any game in particular, it's about a type of mindset brought to any game. We rotate game systems and are not a "D&D group." I have seen people used to a Rules Are God approach apply it to Savage Worlds, for example. Let me use an example from one of our Savage Worlds campaigns. One player had a big brute of a character, and we were in some building with ninjas or something attacking us from the rafters. The brute couldn't hit them, so he wanted to bash the rafters, knocking them off balance - a Strength Trick. And it made sense in the situation. However, the rulebook only allows for Agility and Smarts Tricks, so the GM objected to the action on those grounds. This example shows that regardless of how big or small the ruleset is, it can be approached as "guidelines" or "the law".

This mindset, or its opposite, can be maintained across game systems - again, it was largely the default metaphor back when all there was were 'trad games.' I understand some people may not believe that, but for purposes of this question, you have to take it as a given that we are able to successfully play all kinds of games without valuing the rulebook over the GM/game world reality.

The Question - Player Onboarding

We get new players from time to time, and sometimes their previous gaming experience is so steeped in 3e/4e D&D or similar games to the point where they just instinctively go to the rules over rulings. They want to spend ten minutes looking something up rather than just running with it, or are surprised when I say something can't happen, or look at another player who tried something not defined in the rules and succeeded like they're cheating or something. They want to build whatever options they can buy the book for into their character and are sad when I restrict them. I want to help these fragile souls adapt to our gaming style.

Assuming we don't think that they are just so incompatible with our playstyle that we wouldn't invite them in the first place, how do we help a willing new player become comfortable with our more freewheeling approach to the game? Naturally we inform new players of our approach, but group and individual approaches are poorly defined things, it's not as easy as matching our label to their label and voila, they slot in to our style perfectly. When anyone joins any group, there is a certain amount of adaptation that happens implicitly and explicitly. We want to facilitate the culture change process a new player may be going through.

To state it another way, if you are more comfortable with Threefold Model terminology, I am looking to onboard willing new players coming from a past gamist-heavy experience to a game based more on a simulationist mindset (with a side dish of Rule 0 and immersion). Even willing players can have a hard time overcoming their baggage from previous gaming experiences, as our experiences form some of our default expectations in ways so subtle we are not always cognizant of them. What are techniques we/they can use to help shift gears?

I'd rather not change our play dynamic wholesale, like "take the books away from everyone."

Please read this question carefully before responding. "Don't do that," "Don't get players that aren't exactly like that," "Change your rule system, you have to play indie games," "GM fiat is evil," "You can't play a game like D&D that way," "The threefold model is a scam," "My GM touched me in a bad way once," etc. are not answers to my question. The question is: I have a group that plays a variety of games and generally doesn't value strict rule adherence. Assuming someone wants to uptake this different playstyle, what can we do to help them do that?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Eagerly awaiting answers on this one. My attempt to run AD&D for my 3/4e group was an abject failure. \$\endgroup\$ – Pat Ludwig Feb 12 '11 at 18:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, I came to my own realization about what 3e "had been doing to me" when I ran 2e for a friend a couple years back (she had an old 2e character and I didn't want to take the time to convert, and she hadn't played since 2e). The play experience made me realize how legalistic we'd become (it's insidious). \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 13 '11 at 0:53

22 Answers 22


Here's a technique I've used. When I invite people to a game I tell them that the game we're playing is a homebrew system called "Valadil's Game" which is loosely based on D&D.

This does a couple things. Firstly, it scares off rules lawyers who want to play RAW. I figure those players aren't compatible with my games anyway and I'd rather just nip that in the bud. It also signals to the players that this isn't another kick down the door, slay the monster, loot the treasure D&D game. It removes that expectation and opens them up to something with more story.

If you want to get technical about it, this is just a restatement of Rule 0. But it works.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a good suggestion - I regularly do this for campaign settings ("this is my Greyhawk/Forgotten Realms/Star Wars/Dresdenverse, it will vary from the canonical one and I don't want to hear lip about it") but hadn't stated it in the same way for the rules. Of course it's a little ambiguous, does that mean "we have a bunch of house rules, which we adhere to blindly" or does it mean "we don't cling to the rules too much..." It could be interpreted not quite as Rule 0. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 12 '11 at 22:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1. The problem is that the players think they know this game, and you have a different way to approach it. So sell it to them as a different game. Either they'll play this game or they won't. Also as Rent said above, take the books away. Leaving them around clearly indicates that it's the game they know. \$\endgroup\$ – Dave Hallett Feb 13 '11 at 10:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ Since you're not using a published game, does that clearly say "DM is god & game designer both" (a possible turnoff)? \$\endgroup\$ – ExTSR Feb 15 '11 at 23:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ExTSR, yes I clearly say exactly that. It's a turnoff for some players and I don't miss them. They probably wouldn't like my style of game anyway. \$\endgroup\$ – valadil Feb 16 '11 at 4:23

Speaking as a Rules Lawyer (I try to think of myself as a good guy, i.e. "how can the rules let you do what you want to do"?) and the occasional TD, I've found a couple simple rules work out.

  1. No checking the rules on your turn. Look it up while you're waiting.

  2. That includes the DM - if you ask the DM if you can do something, you get their best guess; we're not stopping the game to research.

  3. Whatever the DM decides that day goes. If we look it up after the game (or you look it up in the book while you wait for your next turn) and the book disagrees, the book is wrong today.

  4. (For the DM) - the usual caveats about permissability - I tend to judge based on "are they doing it because it's cool, or because they're sneaking an extra attack in?". Cool gets a nod, power-gaming gets a "nice try".

If you have a player who has trouble playing "fast and loose", I'd recommend Paranoia for a one-shot. Since it actively punishes the player for arguing with the Ref (or even admitting they know what the rules are!), it's a great way to make us lawyers relax for a day. :)

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "are they doing it because it's cool, or because they're sneaking an extra attack in?". Cool gets a nod, power-gaming gets a "nice try" \$\endgroup\$ – o0'. Apr 20 '14 at 19:40

The most important thing I do to achieve this, I think, is to communicate to my players that, while I am responsible for handling the actions of their enemies, I am not their enemy. In fact, I am on their side, because what we are all working to do is enjoy ourselves and put together some bits of story worth remembering.

A lot of factors go into this, from body language and tone of voice to the overall structure of drama and consequences in the campaign. For somebody new and possibly traumatized like you're talking about, discussing it explicitly is probably a great idea. They may not quite believe you right away (cue testimonials from current players at this point), but my general experience is that once a player has some evidence that you're not a sadist who feels like he's scored metaphysical points if he manages to kill their character, their need to hedge themselves about with a forest of rules starts to ease up. Creative interpretation on your part becomes something to look forward to rather than fear, and dice rolls can be allowed to be more of a source of possibly unanticipated flavor to the course of events than ironclad, micromanaged determiners of all outcomes.

If someone is still clinging to the rules after a gentle introduction to non-adversarial gamemastering, the next tactic I would try is moving too fast for the rules; creating a situation where you're asking for responses and describing consequences at a speed that leaves no room for number-crunching, and (very importantly) doing so without inflicting terrible consequences on the new player, even if they freeze up or try to lawyer and you have to declare their character to be standing around looking confused while you move the action forward. It may be a bit rough on the player (and is as demanding on you as a GM as it is potentially exhilarating), but hopefully can establish that first bit of trust that playing without the safety net may be all right after all.

If that fails too, take away their snacks until they put down the manual. :)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Very helpful response. Upping the tempo could really help a lot. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 17 '11 at 4:44

I'm going to reword the question: How could you, as a GM, help me, as a PC, learn to relax about the rules?

This answer is written in a completely subjective "appeal to Brian" case study. I hope that it tells a persuasive story.

T-2: Before the character

When I join a group, I expect to discuss how the group works with the GM. I'm very aware of different social contracts and I don't like stepping on peoples' toes. This is the place to explain to me "Hey, we use the rules as a guideline."

That statement, based in my experiences, sets off alarm bells. I played in a 3.5 LARP that used that statement which translated to "There are no real consequences to your actions, so don't worry about the rules. Yeah, sure, a 7th level character can lead an assault on Hell. Why not?" Therefore, the thing to do here is pre-emptively employ positive and negative feedback. Give me examples of what kind of imagination you want me to employ and what you don't want me to employ.

I'd ask for a crowning moment of imagination, and some examples of what the DM forbids. What I'm looking for however, is the genre and style of game. Is it cinematic, is it trying to be realistic? If I was invited to a simulationist game of this sort, the game I like playing is trying to figure out how to map the techniques of modern technology to fantasy analogues. (We'll leave the tools v. techniques philosophy of science debate for another time). So, we would engage in a conversation about what the DM wants from me as a character, as a player, and what she doesn't want. If the DM cannot articulate requirements, then I'll run screaming, because the DM is serving as the rules instead of the books. Evidence of fuzzy thinking means that "actions that support the DM's narrative succeed." and that the DM doesn't like thinking about the consequences of actions in-game or of his/her rulings.

Assuming that the DM is comfortable with me applying philosophy and logic in game, to substitute for the rules and that I'm comfortable with the knowledge that actions will have real consequences in the game, we'd move to the next phase: making the character.

T-1: Making the character

Here, I continue to be very odd. Coming from an InfoTech background, I hate going into projects without Requirements, because it means that whomever the client is (and I regard the DM as the client) has no idea what they're doing.

In this kind of setup, I'll test the waters by trying to make a character completely without the books. If the game is designed around DM fiat, contradictory information in the books will just confuse me. I'll invite the DM to coffee and ask her what requirements she has for my character. Through the requirements gathering process, I'm looking for some significant information: 1) Does the DM want another character in the group. 2) What does the DM want of the character? 3) How does the world work with respect to the character?

I'm happy with any kind of base requirements from: "The group needs a healer" to "Well, you need to be from this area because that's where the group is adventuring" to "I want to explore this kind of story." I view character creation as a collaborative effort between myself, the DM, and the rest of the party. Once the DM's requirements are set out, I'll explore to see how my own requirements can fit in. "I'd like to play a talky character. I don't really like combat, and would love the opportunity to avoid it." (Yes, I know. That's not very heroic. I'm... odd. It's caused problems in the past, which is why I like discussing my goals beforehand).

What I'm fundamentally testing for in this step is: what kind of rulings does the DM make? Is she a narcissist? How is her system mastery? Even in a rulings based world, system mastery exists, its just that the system is of the DM's own imagination. If he/she can articulate their thoughts well, describe their requirements of narrative, simulation, and game, then it makes me feel better.

My fundamental demand in a game is for consistency. I really like planning, especially out of game, and if I can't rely on a consistent universe then it's really not worth my time to play. The rules are the easiest way to guarantee a consistent universe, but a judicial precedent based world also works, so long as the one making the rulings is consistent. If the DM can reassure me of that point, then the state of the rules matters less to me.

(Side note: I don't find arguing about the rules fun. I do like asking for clarification of ambiguity, but will never argue one interpretation over another. I just demand a consistent universe. This is why I describe myself as a rules Jurist, rather than rules lawyer. If the incoming player delights in argument, and uses the rules as a prop for argument, then this entire post doesn't apply to them.)

One good option here is for me to play a hireling or some low-impact proto-character. It doesn't make sense for the DM to be hugely invested in me if my style doesn't fit the group.

T-0: The first game.

With any luck, the DM and I have made a character that fits all the requirements. This first game is a check to see if the requirements correspond with any kind of meaningful reality. It's also a way to observe the group play-style. I'm not a huge fan of off-topic conversation at the table, because it's fundamentally distracting to me.

Here is where I try to understand what the group thinks about role-playing, about the use of imagination, and so on. I want to see what the DM means by imagination and how the DM reacts to rulings. Are the players playing conservatively or are they luxuriating in the freedom that imagination can grant? My concern here is making sure the game isn't an intellectual equivalent of a Hobbsean anarchy: nasty, brutish, and short. If while playing my hireling (in preparation for the real character developed or being roughed out) I am encouraged to try innovative tactics, explore unexpected edge cases and suchlike, then my desire for rules will be lessened: I have learned that I can trust my imagination.

If instead, the DM shuts me down, then I'll first ask for a "what should I have done?" And, if that doesn't work, not return after the first game. I'm happy to invest time in gaining system mastery in a rulings-based-game, but getting shot down is not a fun or fulfilling way of doing it.

On the other side, if the DM refines my ideas, and translates them to her world, then the game will be fulfilling. If the DM offers me scaffolding, assistance while I acclimate to his/her world, then I will find the learning experience fun. If, instead, all that is offered is frustration, then I will be loathe to return.

And this is how I would transition me into a rulings based game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ A much more useful answer, even if it does make me say "Good Lord this guy is high maintenance." But we have some of those. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 19 '11 at 3:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Really, if you are this critical of style, you should generally be a GM, not a player; a producer (as by your profile you clearly are), not a consumer. \$\endgroup\$ – Engineer May 31 '15 at 13:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ArcaneEngineer I've got to disagree--I've had a few players in my time who like this level of detail/interaction/guidance/feedback, and I've found it to be extremely rewarding. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Feb 4 '16 at 19:21

I've played with a GM who was extremely adamant about NOT playing by the book.

His method was extremely simple: players were forbidden to mention the artifacts of the game during the session

  • dice results
  • rules
  • meta-information

The first few times we slipped, he warned about it, then accidents would happen. We never got the meteor he had promised us, but did get a couple minor injuries :)

I must admit the first/second sessions were hard, as we were used to play book in hand, but afterward it became really enjoyable.

Note: for those who wonder how not to announce dice results, you need to use your imagination to describe the result, very amusing :)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Oh yeah, I've done this. Ran a five year long campaign where no rules table talk was allowed, no sharing character sheets with each other, players rolled and indicate that they "hit AC 5" or whatnot and I'd narrate results. It resulted in the most immersive campaign I have ever witnessed. So in terms of answering the original question, you'd say just plunging them into it hardcore like this would be the best approach? I don't mind that, get them on board or shake them out ASAP. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 15 '11 at 14:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk: as a former "rules" player I really appreciated it. Makes for a much more streamlined game, which I found more entertaining that endless discussions on the interpretation of some obscure point lost in the rules book. Of course, it's also a different mindset, so I suppose some would find it's not the game they enjoy :) At least, you'll know if they fit. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Feb 15 '11 at 14:44

The Shock Treatment

I run a short (one-off) game session using some (not all) of the Original D&D rule set. Each player chooses a class, race, and name; then I give them stats, "all standard equipment", and 5-10 gp (and a couple of spells for mages & elves of course); finally they choose armor and a weapon (fixed dmg 1d6) and max hp. That's it. Fits on a 3x5 (one side). You're ready to start in 5 minutes.

Doesn't have to be OD&D tho; ANY game with rules that can be ignored or minimized can be used. The point is to present a minimum-rules environment, for contrast. Whatever you use, the change is as stiff and shocking as possible since few players know the actual 'rules' (or guidelines).

Run a typical dungeon crawl, with evocative descriptions and fast combats. If possible use figures but no squares, and readjust the figures during combats (primarily to help visualize) to show how to move liberally, less rigidly. Show how the game moves along faster, especially in combats... leaving more action/story time. Introduce additional details along the way as necessary, and get out the saving throw chart only when needed.

Important: Many new-schoolers seem to diss old-school because of perceived or imagined abuse of a DM's discretion. Proactively demonstrate that such dangers are minimal (and exaggerated, being unknowns). Make decisions quickly, and err in favor of the party.

Your whole Shock session can be as short as an hour.

Finally (praps most important) -- discuss the game, even if briefly. Reinforce the points you've made in the demonstration. A lot of things came up during the game; this is your chance to explicitly emphasize the benefits (as you see them) as well as the negs (e.g. lack of precision).

After a successful Shock Treatment opens their eyes, the players should have an easy transition into the style and rules that will apply to your regular game. In that process you'll now be moving away from a 'total rules chaos' feel and back to a little more Order... a step, at least, back toward their comfort zone.

Best of all, this whole process isn't just educational, it's wild & crazy & FUN.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That's a good idea. I've done this, I used Feng Shui as my shock treatment for my current group way back before the first time I ran a campaign for them (it was Mutants & Masterminds), to try to get them into the more freewheeling frame of mind. It kinda worked. It failed to sufficiently transition them in other ways that it should have - like they really didn't like the narrative genre enforcement of four-color supers, even though we talked about it first, and Feng Shui, though not supers, shows how to value genre emulation over "killing them and taking their boots." \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 12 '11 at 22:48

A few thoughts from a mostly reformed rules lawyer:

Hopefully understanding where the lawyer is coming from will help you to reach out better to them.

  1. I realize that Rule 0 is that what the DM says, goes. If the player wants to argue and won't listen to anything in game, maybe it's time for a break. Go to the bathroom, smoke a cigarette, walk around the block, whatever.
  2. Understand that this is a game. Games have rules that are agreed upon before play. I'm not going to play American Football with someone for very long, if they decide to hand-wave that a touchdown is not worth 6 points (with PAT), but 2. It's not the rules. If you want to tell me before kickoff that TDs will be only 2 points, then I'll be able to make an informed decision. Similarly at the table, if you want to rule that Rogues can't Sneak Attack, that's changing what most folks would think of as the "standard" rules. I'm sure your game world has a perfectly good explanation for WHY Rogues can't Sneak Attack, but that should not be found out in the middle of a dungeon. Unless you are running a "fish out of water" story.
  3. Houserules. They're great! If you hate running some aspect of the game the way it's written, change away. You are the DM, and you have that right. However it's all about communicating these rule changes/tweaks ahead of time. If you rule (in 3e) that AoO doesn't exist, and I've already taken feat(s) to make me the King of the AoO, then I'm going to feel short-changed. My next comment will be something like: "Look, I've taken X, Y, and Z to be able to do this. If this doesn't work, I want to be able to take other Feats." If the DM won't allow a re-tool (either right away or between sessions), I'll feel screwed over. I've seen this happen WAY too often.
  4. Have the 2 minute rule. If a rule gets looked up and argued (successfully) in 2 minutes, then let it go. If I want to do something, but don't know how to do it, I'll look up the rules while waiting my turn. That way, I can know not only what to do, but how to do it. I'm happy to share this with the DM (especially if it's an uncommon thing).
  5. Someone above suggested the no books rule. Bad idea. Now you will get into arguments about what's in the book (and memory has a slippery way of remembering what is advantageous, and forgetting those pesky limiters).
  6. Finally, if there is a hand-waved decision, look up the rules after the session. The rules-conscious in the group will appreciate the effort, and be willing to cut the DM some slack in future ad Hoc rulings.

If I'm gaming with a DM who will only use Rule 0, and the DM seems fair, I'll calm down somewhat quickly, but if I feel the DM is being arbitrary, I'd have difficulty cooling down the inner-rules-lawyer. In the end, without SOME rules that everyone understands, you won't be able to get rid of the cops-n-robbers "I shot you!" "No you didn't!" "Yes I did!" phenomenon.

Now to Onboard the New guy:

  1. Patience on everyone's part. I'd even recommend that the first character the new guy runs is an NPC of short-term importance. This way, he is not invested in the character he's running at all. Sometimes when Rule0 bites, it hurts not because it's rule0, but because "you are denying MY ability". Do this for maybe 1-2 sessions to help the newbie get used to your style and build a little teamwork and trust with the group/DM.
  2. Before/while the PC is making up his character, communicate any house-rules. If you think the magic system is broken, type up a quick sheet on how you handle it, etc.
  3. A player wants to do something, has NO clue how to do it, but remembers reading about it in one of the books. So, he looks up the entry while waiting his turn, and then reads/summarizes what the book says. Some DMs see this as lawyering, others see it as a player trying to streamline the game. Communicate your opinion of this activity to the player before he rolls up his character.
  4. Again, if you choose to invoke Rule0 to avoid looking up a rule, state something along the lines of, "well, to keep this combat going, we'll roll [whatever Rule0 says to roll], but can you jot down the specific action so we can look up after game?" This communicates that Rule0 is used for when memory fails, but if you then look up the rule and decide it sucks, sit and talk about the issue(s) with the RAW and decide whether you will use RAW, some other house-rule, or dis-allow the action all together in the future. But make sure everyone is present, and everyone gets a say in it (if they wish to speak). When (semi)permanent changes like this get made, state what you want to change AND why you think it should be changed.
  5. Now for the biggie: You say Rule0 is to-hit with a -10 penalty. Rules-lawyer says that the book says to-hit with a -2 penalty, give the lawyer either 2 minutes to look up and make an argument, or 30 seconds to just make the argument of WHY he should get what he wants. Be willing to listen. Maybe doing whatever maneuver SOUNDS really hard, but is actually much simpler than what you think. Maybe the character is underestimating the difficulty. If the character trusts your ability to be fair, situations like this will go away with time. However, if the existing Fighter was able to do a "cartwheel of death", and the new guy (also a fighter) wants to do a "cartwheel of death" and you Rule0 that he can't, there had better be a darn good reason why. I've found that Rule0 DMs frequently let established players (who they've played with for a long time and trust) do more than a new person who the DM hasn't built up the trust/teamwork with yet. I don't mean to flame anyone here, but frequently the DM doesn't even realize that they are doing it until the "lawyer" says something like, "hey, you just let George/Grognard-the-Brave do the exact same thing a minute ago!"
  6. If you allow 30 seconds/2 minutes to argue specific points of rules, at some reasonable point, the player should slow/stop their challenges to your rulings. I like the system that the NFL has for instant replay; burn a valuable timeout and if the decision is overturned, you get the time out back. Maybe give the rules-lawyer 3 poker chips (or similar trinket) that can be turned over for a rules-challenge. But provide a carrot/stick to this. Give some bonus if they DON'T use their 3 challenges. After about 5 sessions, give them 2 instead of 3. After about 5 more sessions, give them 1. If after 15 sessions, they have not adapted to your way of doing things, maybe invite the player to find another group. As for discouraging it to happen, maybe if they burn all their challenges, they need to pick up the pizza next week.

As for the situation brought up in your comment, either the python is on the ground and can't strike the horseback bad guy, or the python is in a tree and can, but unless the action was declared, the python is hanging out next to the character/wherever he was at the beginning of combat. If the player did not declare the python is in a tree AND fully acknowledges that the python is right next to him on the ground and should be able to strike the rider on the horse, you either have a brain-dead player, or a munchkin-twinkee. It sounds like he stuck to his guns that his python should be able to strike far/high enough to wrap around a horse-rider's neck. Since this would require a VERY long python, he would likely also need to worry about the python taking an AoO from the horse stepping on it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ A frank appraisal: You wrote a novel-in-bullet-points to try to answer this question, indicating that you entirely missed the core idea: alacrity. This causes others not to read your answer and causes people to walk out of gaming sessions. \$\endgroup\$ – Engineer May 31 '15 at 12:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ I read your answer with some interest, but I'm sorry, I really don't think it answers the question. OP asked for a way to introduce rules-oriented players to his style, and explicitly said he didn't want to argue about what was right or wrong with that style. In the first half of your post, 5 of your 6 points are either about why his style is wrong, or ways to water it down. In the second half, 4 of the 6 points are similar. Particularly "the Biggie", point 5: it's nothing to do with introducing a player to another style of play, it's about letting him change it back to his comfort zone! \$\endgroup\$ – Securiger Aug 22 '18 at 14:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ Part 1 point 2, and part 2 point 5 are the big ones. Getting your character concept torn down by house rules sucks. Especially when you see grog doing so much more, and if you try to do anything you keep hearing "no", then when you try to explain you hear "hand over a token rules lawyer", it gives you the impression that the DM just hates the rules. The difference between bx and 5e isn't that bx is about ignoring rules, it just has less rules. \$\endgroup\$ – user-024673 Feb 10 '20 at 1:51

I think that the crucial part is to demonstrate the benefits of your approach. The new players have been taught and shown that, by developing a sense of system mastery and learning the ins and outs of the rules, they are certain to have a fun time and a measure of success. You're asking them to discard those things and rely on their nascent instincts of how a fantasy world (even one based on the real world) might work — moreover, since you're the arbiter as the DM, they have to predict how well those instincts will match up with your instincts and presuppositions. To use a possibly trite metaphor, you're asking them to turn off their targeting computers and trust in the Force.

What I suggest is to run the first session or two with "training wheels" on. Let them use the rules books as support, but add in things like "circumstance bonuses" that work explicitly in their favor when they use the environment or elements of the fiction in a way that's satisfying to you. One of the difficulties of going from gaming to sim is that it's often used as a way to deny and to block — the game says that it works, but I say that it doesn't. (You've seen some of that.) You'll have to allay that fear to get anywhere.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for training wheels, and the fear of "rulings are used to deny and block" \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Feb 19 '11 at 1:41

From what I am reading, your problem has nothing to do with rules lawyers. Your problem directly stems from making the rules obscure before entry. I mean, look at your examples. "No Psionics" means the player didn't know you were not using them before they showed up a the table. "Only Prestige Classes I Specifically Introduce" specifically changes their character concepts in negative ways. This is about Communication and Expectations, and your not communicating enough before those new players hit the table.

A rulebook exists to create a common ground for people. When you say you are playing D&D, for example, there are expectations made with that. A 2nd edition game, for example, can expect people to have proficiencies, taking kits, and have access to their 'class books'. Fighter will be having Weapon Specializations, wizards will have access to the Magica Aracna books, and so forth. Furthermore, they expect that the things in the rulebook to hold true, even if they are not being rules lawyers. For example, one assumes that Save Vs. Breath Weapon to happen when you get caught by Dragon Breath, that falling damage caps out at 20D6, and that percentage strength exists.

When you start making 'rulings' and not following rules, you break this common ground. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it adds to the confusion a new player has when they start entering the land mines of DM Fiat and House Rules. Given how I have floated through groups that say they are using the same rules, but are not, even with the focus on rules in the current edition, I have to say letting people know what you are and are not using is Improtant.

Whenever I am introducing a new player to a ongoing (or even new) campaign that I have specific visions for, I always hand them a campaign sheet. This sheet explains what is not being used in the game, what supplemental material I will be using, and what house rules I have. By removing the mystery of what rules I am using, and which ones I am ignoring, I help the player embrace what my game is about.

Furthermore, I talk to them as they are being accepted for a first game, before they show up to the table. I communicate with them the way I run games, what I do, and what the game is about. I communicate at the table when I am breaking rules, so that players know they're going into No Man's Territory, and that they can argue whatever just happened after the game.

To me, it's not about getting the players to stop focusing on the rules. You are going to have the obsessive compulsive that will always do that. What you want them to do is focus on the right rules, and you help do that by organizing your play and improving your communication to help them understand that.


I love questions like this one. I am late to the party as per usual, and have not had any time to be here lately. But I am going to hit up a few bullet points from my own experience.

  • Make sure the ruleset used matches the style of game and the setting you want to play, or else the rules will create more dissonance and will be more apparent. This is one of the most important things for making the rules fade into the background. Players love to use their toys (part of rule 0), and if your game is magic-lite but the system has a ton of spells, or a social-heavy game using a game with tons of specialized combat bonuses, the players will feel like the rules are slapping them in the face all the time.

  • Buddy System. Before you have a new player join the group prooper, choose a gamer who has been in the group for a while as a buddy/mentor. I have had great luck with this, as they often email back and forth, set expectations from the player standpoint, and let them know how we play, not just what we play

  • Have a wiki or google doc or website where data is available in and out of game. This allows newer players to spend some time before game to acclimate themselves to the setting and the houserules. I have found that giving the players editing rights also includes them into feeling like it is 'our game', and not just, 'My Game'.

  • Include a page on the wiki or document about the philosophy of the GM and style. It is one thing to tell the prospective player once, it is another thing to have it written and available on line. Include the social expectations and how adjudication and differences of opinion are handled.


I don't believe it's a wise idea to take a player and try to make them conform to your group's play style. I think the right way to do it is to find players that share your group's play style. The two big issues in bringing a new player to a group are managing expectations and determining compatibility.

First, managing expectations. Does the new player understand what the GM and the other players expect from him? Does the GM and other players understand what the new player is expecting? A lot of problems can be cleared up or avoided completely by sitting down and having a talk with the player about the game and how it's played, BEFORE they show up to play in a session. What rules set do you use? When will the GM ignore or change rules on the fly? What happens if the player disagrees with the GM's ruling? Can the player make up things about the game world when it advances the story or would be fun for everyone? Even if the GM ignores or changes rules, if it's done completely arbitrarily and unpredictably, it's very easy for a player to be frustrated or feel intentionally snubbed. The GM needs to at least have a policy (even if it's unwritten) about when they're going to break assumptions that players make on the game, the new player needs to understand it. This policy functions like the rules usually function in more straight forward rule oriented games, they form a social contract the player can expect to be followed. If the GM can't express this in words to the new player, how can the new player be expected to figure it out except by repeated frustration? The player might as well be playing cops and robbers and set their game manuals on fire. I would suggest using general examples about how game play works, and specific historical examples from recent games you've played. This helps take the idea from 'The GM will do whatever he wants whenever he wants' to 'The GM makes rule decisions that improve the game for everyone'. If your examples aren't illustrating this, perhaps you should take a closer look at your GMing technique and decision making. Sit down for 5 minutes and come up with a few good examples before hand. Encourage the new player to ask questions, get clarifications and express concerns about the game. Knowing what the new player expects helps the GM avoid sabotaging that player's fun.

Second, determining compatibility. Some players will have a completely different play style and expectations than the GM and the rest of the group. Others will understand the way the group likes to play, and could do it, but doesn't particularly enjoy it. Others will fit right in naturally. Once you've sat down and talked over your expectations with the player, compatibility should be fairly clear. Maybe it's a little fuzzy still. If so, maybe the player can join in for a few sessions before deciding to 'officially' join the group. The main thing here is that if it's pretty clear that the new player is incompatible with the play style of the group, shake hands and walk away. If you don't do it now, you'll probably be doing it later after a lot of frustration, bad feelings, and wasted time. The only time I would give it a shot anyway is if the new player is unfamiliar with RPG's in general, in which case they probably don't really understand how it works anyway, and they can't rightly form an opinion or preference on play styles. I'd give that player a chance to play and a lot of patience for a session or two, then follow-up with that meeting on managing expectations.

It might seem like a lot of effort to expend without even having rolled up a character or started a session, but think about how much time you'll be spending with this new player every week for potentially months or even years. If you're not willing to put out 30 minutes to ensure a good fit for everyone, you're probably either desperate for players or you don't value your time or the time of your players.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't disagree with your two sub-points, just your first sentence. Everyone molds to a group. They do it deliberately and accidentally and subtly. I know my own play style has been formed by the groups and games I've played. There's always change. Many people, as you note, don't have a well defined personal meta-playstyle, they just have baggage from their previous experiences. Many people want to try something new/different or at least aren't averse to adapting their playstyle - I'm looking for "how," not "if should." \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 15 '11 at 18:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ In retrospect, I agree with your criticism. My first sentence addresses a different question, the "If" counterpart to your question. But you're absolutely right, people change to fit with the group all the time, and it will happen with any gaming group. I would say my first point is still useful for the question, the "How" aspect, while my second point addresses the related "If" question. \$\endgroup\$ – gunit888 Feb 15 '11 at 22:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ You're encouraged here to edit your answers to improve them. There's no need to leave things to be only in retrospect. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 15 '11 at 23:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ Read the first paragraph, and then downvoted because your thesis is exactly what the asker said not to do. \$\endgroup\$ – DCShannon Oct 27 '14 at 23:32

Hm, maybe an open approach is the best?

Just tell new players how it is handled and that they should relax and not think in game terms, but with their knowledge and expectations about what is possible (in German, it's called "gesunder Menschenverstand", literally "healthy human understanding") and not to cling to the rules text. Tell them to decide for themselves if it's possible for them to agree to your table rules after playing.

That way, they probably will not feel cheated if something's different to their expectations, as they were warned beforehand. And it would make them, maybe, more open, because they might feel empowered by making the decision to play that way.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Sure, but assuming they are willing to uptake this new playstyle, how do we help them transition? \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 15 '11 at 19:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the German compound noun alone. (and a good answer) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 16 '19 at 2:41

The way I see it, having a rules lawyer in your game can be pretty beneficial. I tend to make the biggest rule lawyer in the group the official rule-looker-upper. When something is unclear I'll ask him, and only him, to look it up. He probably knows his way around the rulebook better than the rest of the party and can find the info I need fastest anyway. If it takes too long I'll just rule 0 it, and let him look it up either after the session, or when there's some downtime (refreshing drinks and snacks, or when someones in a store, alone buying some arrows).

This way I find I can keep the disruptions down to a minimum, can satisfy some of the rule lawyers needs and eventually the rule lawyer will make everyone in the group more fluent in the games rules, greatly reducing the need for rule 0'ing.

Bottom line: Put him in charge of finding rules in trade for being allowed to rule 0 stuff that takes too long to look up and everyone prospers.


Proof, Time and Trust.

I have played in many games where Referee Rule 0 is used. There success comes down to trust. Trust is something that can only be built up over time. You can't just get people to drop the safety blanket of the Rules Is the Rules until they have seen you rule correctly in the cases where the rules say one thing and reality says another. Rules in a system (that is any system not just games) build up overtime because of bad or inconsistent rulings, hence people come to trust the letter of the rule, as at least it consistent even if it might be wrong. The more you force people the more stubborn some players will become.


I have solved this dilemma by having a sign that is above me and behind me that states “MY WORLD MY RULES” this does the trick and I have very little trouble with players trying to shove the rules down my throat. I have had this type of sign since I began playing D&D and AD&D back in 1983.


A variant of ExTSR's shock treatment answer...

This is a problem that might be helped by spending some time with a light rules system, such as maximum game fun. Even if this kind of system isn't what you want to craft your preferred campaign gameworld, it can be very good for exploring a looser, faster moving style of play, and it can help players increase their trust in GM fiat over rules.

For a more sophisticated example of this kind of game, look at how Nick Brooke set up the characters in his freeform, Life of Moonson. A masterpiece.


Use the awesome stories you and your players have built together

When bringing a new player into a successful group, don't forget that your joint experiences are the best tool you have to showcase your gaming style. Get your group together with the new player on a night that you don't intend to game together and have fun stroll down memory lane, swapping stories with your buddies about the awesome things that they have done as characters in your games! Don't forget to include the new player's experiences too, as it will give you insight to the types of things that they thought were fun in previous games they have played in.

Normally, even rules lawyers don't reminisce about how they leveraged the rules to their advantage, they reflect back on the story, and how cool they felt their character was, or that moment of terror when everything seemed to be going wrong and the stroke of luck that saved them.

After the stories have been shared, your new player will have a feel for what the verisimilitude of your world is, and that will give them a idea of what to expect and ease any fears they have that discarding the rules will ruin their fun.


You may want to just change to another system that supports your method of play if your players are too used to the system you've been playing. I figure it would be hard to continue playing 4E with a bunch of people stuck on exact rules, then again, I'm pretty sure they mention in the rules that whatever the DM says is what happens.

One of the more recent episodes of Community has Abed running a game of AD&D, allowing the imaginations of the players to run wild since he's the only one rolling any sort of dice. Maybe it's more useful as an introduction to roleplaying, but I think it would also work to help the players not worry about the rules. You become the world they're playing in. It's fantastic.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Oh, we don't play 4e, for this exact reason. It's too late to not play a 3e variant, though, we got led down that path in the 2e->3e transition when the system improvements were clear but the long term ramifications weren't. And we actually play a variety of systems (3e/Pathfinder, Alternity, GURPS, Silhouette, M&M, Champions, nWoD, etc...). It's just that when you recruit a new player, the vast majority of experience is with D&D and the majority of that is with the newer versions. That colors their approach to any game. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 12 '11 at 22:53

I posted this as an answer to another question on how to reduce the munchkin-factor in gaming (the power-gamer who maximizes every stat over role-playing finesse), but I think it goes equally well here. System-agnostic, try a few of these things and see if your game doesn't get a little more focused on role-playing over rule-lawyering.

(Begin Answer From Another Question)

Talk With Your Players

You've made it clear to us that you want a much less crunch-y campaign, but have you made that fully clear to all of your players? They may be focused on the crunch, but this may just be from past experience and instinct.

Sit them down, let them know you'd like to ratchet that back a bit. You don't necessarily have to change players to get a different type of campaign. They may surprise you with how well they can role-play once you make it clear it's going to be the main focus of your campaign.

Introduce More Role-Playing Interaction

And now that you've got that down, try to introduce a lot of good situations where role-playing is rewarded over roll-playing.

Introduce diplomacy and negotiations, reward players for coming up with non-violent solutions and acting in realistic manners, and present them with characters that aren't just out to slip a dagger into their back, but instead characters who want to get to know them, work for them, sell them things, seduce them, or even a combination of those things. The richer and more interesting your characters are, the more likely your players will want to talk to them, and the slower they'll be to pull out the sword.

You can have some combat along the way, but you can also make combat much more important, and not just pull it out every time they wander down the street. Enrich your world.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah - this isn't 100% on point for this one though, as it's not that they 'don't roleplay,' but that when they are engaged with the system they expect extensive rule mastery and RAW to happen even if it's nonsensical. It's less a problem with RP and more with Rule 0. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Oct 27 '14 at 17:08

Try not to give them a negative experience

Players who aren't used to looser approaches are going to need some time to adapt. If they have negative experiences then they will feel like the approach is flat out worse.

back when I was playing in the 1e/2e days that was just the way things were, and people who insisted on the "rules as written" were stigmatized as "rules lawyers"


They want to spend ten minutes looking something up rather than just running with it, or are surprised when I say something can't happen, or look at another player who tried something not defined in the rules and succeeded like they're cheating or something. They want to build whatever options they can buy the book for into their character and are sad when I restrict them. I want to help these fragile souls adapt to our gaming style.

You are denying their ideas, subverting their expectations of how the game works, perpetuate pejoratives intentionally to stigmatize their behavior, then you go on to call them "fragile souls" for being the least bit upset.

Do you see why this doesn't create a positive or supportive gaming experience for these players?

Step 0 for you is to deconstruct these ideas. You cannot expect anyone to be comfortable in a hostile environment.

"Rulings not rules" paradigm

You don't need to have such a negative attitude towards players in order to exert power as a DM. "Rulings not rules" doesn't mean throwing out rules, it means allowing the DM to override them. B/X had rules, AD&D had rules, so how did they function? Rulings were used when the rules weren't enough. A mature system like 5e has more rules, but there is still a lot that rules do not cover.

Rulings let you do so much more than the rules, which is why they are a core concept in D&D. Let them go above and beyond the rules--the rules are a baseline to be exceeded, not a maximum to play below. Restrictions suck, being allowed to do something cool is great!

Don't tell them rules are bad, show them that rulings are better.

Mismatched expectations

While this problem is often phrased as a methodology problem, it's actually about results. A player playing a high level rogue expects the rogue to be sneaky. When you tell them they can't do something that they expect to be able to do, the problem isn't that they "want to follow the rules" and you don't. It is that they think it is possible, and you don't. This is also the reason why a player may seem upset when someone else succeeds at something.

Instead of denying their ideas, facilitate translation into the style you prefer.

Don't say "no", ask "how"

So the player wants to do something that you do not like. They want to make a halfling, but you decided that it doesn't make sense for a halfling to be in this region. They want to sneak up behind the guard and clobber them, but you decided that's impossible. Instead of just telling them "no", ask them "how".

How did a halfling end up in the elf capital? How do you plan to sneak up close enough to smack the guard on the head?

By deconstructing the actions you move towards a more simulationist style, while still allowing the player to have a fun and stable experience.

How does this play out?

We proposed some methodology and ideological changes, but what does this really look like in game?

PC: I want to play a halfling

DM: Sorry, no halflings here, this is the elf capital

Not great. You just said "no" to the player without any kind of debate. You may be the DM, but you and the players are peers. D&D is about working together, it isn't a dictatorship.

PC: I want to play a halfling

DM: How did your halfling end up in the elf capital?

PC: Hmm... I don't know. I guess they just wandered in?

DM: Wandered in huh. The elves kill all outsiders on sight, and the gates are well guarded.

PC: Well they are a thief by trade, so perhaps they snuck in?

DM: Ok, let's work something out

Better! You are being open about why halflings can't be in the city instead of just saying "no", and you are working together to figure out how it could have happened. This will lead to a more fun experience for everyone.

PC: I want to sneak up and clobber the guard

DM: Impossible, the guard is alert

Again, not great. Allowing the player to attempt a difficult task is better than telling them "no".

PC: I want to sneak up and clobber the guard

DM: The guard is alert, looking left and right, and listening intently, they are holding a torch.

PC: Ugh, that sounds hard. I'm going to wait and see if they relax a bit

DM: You wait a few minutes, but the guard seems as alert as ever

PC: How long can we wait party? It's too risky to go now

Nice work! By being open once more, you are creating a fun experience. You and the players are collaborating to solve problems. Put a wall in front of your players, but let them try to climb it.

Remember, the power of rulings is that you can do more than the rules, not that you can do less

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    \$\begingroup\$ If you downvote could you please leave a comment so I can improve the answer? \$\endgroup\$ – user-024673 Feb 10 '20 at 6:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ I didn't downvote, but 1. this answer doesn't provide anything new compared to the existing answers, and 2. the latter half of this answer (about not saying "no") seems unrelated to the question. \$\endgroup\$ – MikeQ Feb 13 '20 at 16:56

I think part of the problem is your statement "do not feel bound to adhere to what the rulebook says when it doesn't make sense in a given situation". DnD3+ moves a lot of the rules into the players domain. As the players have equal access to these rules they can call you on them "but it does apply, that is what it says". I don't think you can run DnD3+ and not accept this, it was part of the 3ed design decisions. A better idea would be to run AD&D but use the general mechanics from DnD3 which was basically cool. I think someone out there has done such a OSR system (*).

BTW - I can give you two counter example from AD&D where referee fiat did not work:

  • I wanted a spear, we had a straight staff, string and a dagger. The referee would not let me create a spear. Then I suggested I made a pointy stick by sharpening then end, I was not allowed to do this. At the time I was flabbergasted as I would have thought a damage penalty or a chance of it breaking in combat made sense. But I was told it could not be done.

  • I was in a no book game and I as a magic user wanted to cast lighting bolt in a small room. The referee asked me three times if I wanted to really do that. He could not be bothered to reminded me why that was a bad idea. If some one did that to me now, I would walk.

(*) This is one of the reason I have started to referee Savage Worlds. The legalism in DnD3/4 are too much for me. Change the system, is your best option. Really.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not the person who voted you down on this, but what your examples show is that GM fiat doesn't do you much good if you have a lousy GM. This is neither enlightening nor relevant to the question! I agree this would not be my system of choice for this approach (or anything else, actually) but you certainly can run DnD3+ and not accept this, if you want. It's not rocket science. \$\endgroup\$ – Dave Hallett Feb 14 '11 at 20:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ 1. I understand if GM fiat is not your deal but I explicitly said that's out of scope in the OP. 2. We play a variety of systems and people that come in with a rules lawyer mindset apply it to whatever. 3. I have it on good authority (experience) that you don't have to use 32pp indie RPGs to focus on the roleplaying. 4. I done said all this in the question and other comments already. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 15 '11 at 1:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk - I don't think you can separate the two. It's like saying "lets plays chess, and by the way, I want you to roleplay the moves, ignore what the rules of Chess are". Roleplaying Games are games and have Rules, you can't pick and choose the rules without, some people complaining. You may want that, but you aren't playing Chess so why bother calling it Chess and telling people you are. That is classic Bait and Switch. I am not saying you are, by the way, just that it could sound like that to some players. \$\endgroup\$ – David Allan Finch Feb 15 '11 at 9:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, it sounds like that to gamist players. So how do I wean that one kind of player off that mindset? See original question. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Feb 15 '11 at 14:23

I say let them have their rules but explain what is exempt, enforced, or bendable at that table or in that campaign. i feel its wrong to limit a player to being to 'loose' with rules and others to 'strict' because i have come across even players who started in 2nd ed forget rules, make others up but then strictly enforce some. it is trust and understanding at the table. i'd recommend showing them more of how the game goes at the table and slowly intro the rules. in the end though the rules are the rules but the DM has the last laugh... i mean say :D

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is barely readable, but looks like it is probably disagreeing with premises necessary to answer the question. \$\endgroup\$ – DCShannon Oct 27 '14 at 23:39

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