Some Thoughts on Being a Rules Lawyer

I wrote about role-playing last time, so I figured I should cover the opposite, “rules lawyering”. What is rules lawerying in a tabletop game? Well, typically it’s when a player(DMs included) halts or derails the game being played to scour the rules for something to make the situation work in their favor and places the rules as written(RAW) above all other interpretations. I don’t believe this is inherently bad. Ultimately, the DM’s job is to present how the rules work in the way they do, and players should also be allowed to make a case about why the rules might or should work in a different way. This has gotten a negative stigma because, stereotypically, a rules lawyer will relentlessly argue their idea long past when the DM has given their ruling and instead of focusing on role-play in the game they only care about minmaxing their character’s stats and abilities.

Every DM at some point will either decide on a rule that differs slightly from the text for one reason or another or introduce a rule that doesn’t exist in a sourcebook. This is suggested in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, it tells the DM to alter the rules if you think it’ll be more fun for your game(It actually gives the DM total authority to modify any rule for any reason). So, in a perfect world all the DM’s deviations from RAW are well thought out, make the game more fun, and the players can simply trust their DM. But your DM isn’t perfect. They might make a rule that detracts from your fun, make a ruling in the moment that is inconsistent with how the game was previously played, or even just forget a rule. It is at these times that I expect you to pick up the mantle of being a rules lawyer and maybe even argue for a bit about what is going on. However, players should also have a good attitude even if you don’t agree with the DM’s final say. If something continues to seriously bother you, talk with your DM about it afterwards but let the game continue.

A different way that a rules lawyer mentality can negatively impact the game is that it can restrict rules to only what is written. Some things or actions should be possible even if there isn’t an explicit rule that covers an exact situation. DMs and players can fall into the trap of thinking “well it’s not in the rules, so I guess it just isn’t possible.” In my opinion, that is an incorrect way to handle the game(please remind me about this if you think I’ve fallen into this trap). One of the beautiful parts of D&D is that you can still figure something out to facilitate how an action might work when it is not explicitly in the rules. For example, if Player A is grappled by an enemy and Player B wants to try to break that grapple with their action, this should be possible to attempt even though the rules only give directions for how Player A can try to escape. This is a danger in always being a rules lawyer or following the rules RAW, it can severely limit how you play game.

Some Thoughts on Tabletop Role-play

A game that provides an emphasis on role-playing allow things like freedom of action, seemingly unlimited choices, and an open-ended world or story. Since we’re playing to get immersed in the world, your character’s entire existence can be story based; the more you play your character for the story, the more you are going to get out of the story. On the other hand, you certainly can play a character that constantly changes their desires, has no real fears, and always shares mutual objectives with the party, but I promise you’ll get more out of the game if you don’t.

Think about elements of your character when figuring out their personality. What drove them to become the class they are? What might their stats reveal about their personality? For example, with a low wisdom score they could be fearless, impulsive, or easily influenced. Being fearless might have caused others to look up to you as a brave adventurer your whole life. Maybe you’re used to receiving preferential treatment. Similarly, how do their past experiences manifest? A character with a history involving orcs killing their family doesn’t instantly mean they hate orcs and want to kill them all the time, they could just as well be utterly terrified of orcs and can’t stand being in the same tavern as one.

Ultimately you should have a character you think is interesting to play and will have fun playing. If writing a psychological profile for your character helps you get into the game, great! If you just want a simple smash-and-beat-em-up barbarian to kill things with, great!

Some examples for heightening the role-playing aspects in your game:

  • Don’t forget to share or shine the spotlight on other players
    • The story doesn’t, and really shouldn’t, revolve around your character, it is supposed to revolve around the party together. There might be an aspect if your character that takes a focus in the story, but that can just as easily impact the other characters too.
    • Sometimes your character’s intricate history doesn’t become relevant – it happens and it’s okay.
  • Show more than just tell about your character
    • A 10 minute long monologue or side text chat explaining to everyone that your character really hates dwarves is infinitely less interesting than your character mocking or even attacking a dwarf in the tavern and the group having to deal with the consequences.
  • Build relationships with PCs and NPCs, other beings in the world can be more useful to you alive than dead.
    • Consider allowing the bandits that ambushed you on the road to live, they might spread word of you around town or come to join you on your adventure. As for the dragon that has been terrorizing the kingdom that you have finally hunted down, try striking a deal instead killing it – what can it give you?
    • Making friends in different places can be invaluable if you need a favor or help later.
  • Play your character, especially when it matters
    • It’s good fun to have a low intelligence character to play as an idiot around town. But what about during combat when they need to make a split-second decision?
    • Remember your character’s flaw(s).
  • Putting your character into dangerous and deadly situations is cool
    • Some of the most memorable parts in our favorite stories is when a character sacrifices themselves for the greater good. If a battle means something to your character, they might push their own personal safety aside to take their revenge against the bandit king or to ensure the rest of their party escapes the collapsing dungeon exit.