Gygax On…Rules Lawyers

Over the last three decades, I’ve noticed many shifts in gaming culture and practises. A lot of these are driven by technology, changes in society, expectations of the gaming experience and so on. One of the most marked changes I’ve noticed is a subtle shift in who seems to actually be “in charge” of a game or campaign.

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)
By William McAusland (Outland Arts)


In the good old days (the days of 1st Edition), the DM ruled supreme—the master of all he surveyed by dint of his creative efforts and the power bestowed on him by the 1st Edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. Hell, fully fledged combat rules didn’t even appear in the AD&D Player’s Handbook!

Of course, that didn’t stop a certain special kind of player making his views known and arguing voraciously for them.

With the advent of 3rd Edition, if anything this type of player seems to have become more common. With a rules system as complex as 3rd Edition (or Pathfinder) and its descendants there are obviously going to be disagreements about the rules as written, but such discussions often bog down play and lead to bad feelings or an awkward atmosphere around the table.

At the end of the day, if no PC dies or suffers some other horrible disadvantage or penalty what does it matter who was right?

It seems there has been a subtle change in attitudes. Instead of seeing winning as simply enjoying the game, winning is now defined as defeating the PCs’ enemies no matter the cost. Of course, most players enjoy crushing their enemies and taking their stuff—and there’s nothing wrong with that—but I’d argue the mood around the table is just as—if not more so—important.

So what did Gary say?

“It is the spirit of the game, not the letter of the rules which is important. Never hold to the letter written, nor allow some barracks room lawyer to force quotations from the rule books upon you, if it goes against the obvious intent of the game. As you hew the line with respect to conformity to major systems and uniformity of play in general, also be certain the game is mastered by you and not by your players. Within the broad parameters given in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons volumes, you are creator and final arbiter. By ordering things as they should be, the game as a whole first, you campaign next and your participants thereafter, you will be playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as it was meant to be.”

Dungeon Master’s Guide (page 230), Gary Gygax

It’s interesting that Gary places players last in the pecking order of what’s important (after the game itself and the campaign). I’ll have to ruminate on this further, but it is pretty clear Gary viewed the campaign as more important than any one player’s desires or interpretation of the rules. I wonder in this age of gaming and player empowerment how sustainable Gary’s approach is.

My Realisation

I’m sure every GM reading this has had spectacular “heated discussions” with at least one player at his table. Sometimes these can be fun—I personally love discussing and dissecting the minutia of the rules.

The other day, though during a Shattered Star session, we were discussing a ranger’s favoured enemy and if the ranger should get the bonus to damage and suchlike even if the target hasn’t been identified as a favoured enemy. I thought the bonus wouldn’t apply, while one of the chaps thought it would. One of the players offered to check the FAQ. Without thinking, I said, “I don’t care what the FAQ says.” That’s quite a rare thing me to say—I think a hint of rules lawyer lurks deep in my blood and I like to play the official rules—but once I said it, I felt so liberated.

More importantly, my statement killed the discussion dead and we got on with the game—which we were all enjoying. As I said above, given that no one died or suffered undue hardship I’m fine with making that kind of pronouncement.  It kept the game moving forward which, I think, is the important thing.

(And—at the very worst—if we have similar discussions in the future and it turns out I’m wrong we can always work it out in between sessions and make a ruling without wasting precious game time.)

Do You Cuddle the Rulebook?

Are you a rules lawyer? Are the rules—and the slavish adherence to them—the most important aspect of the game? Let me know, in the comments below.

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

39 thoughts on “Gygax On…Rules Lawyers”

  1. I’ve relied on rules lawyers for helping run 3.X/Pathfinder since I can’t remember all the rules. But I dislike the “barracks room lawyers” as mentioned. It implies that they have no experience when the rules and real life intersect. For example, Pathfinder rules lawyers will argue that one cannot spot the sun because the rules of perception are flawed, ignoring the reality that some things don’t require a roll (others may refer to this as “common sense”).

    The rules are important, and GMs need to play by the same rules as the players. That doesn’t mean I can’t have strange, weird things in my world, but if I suddenly give the orc warlord three attacks per round, there had better be a mechanical reason why the orc can do it and the players can’t. Pathfinder, I think, limits the DM’s ability to do this more than a system like Swords & Wizardry, thanks to extensive rules. The other side of the coin is that the GM may have more resources (third party products) to draw on, setting up an imbalance the players cannot overcome through wily play (one of the advantages S&W has is that it encourages players to think outside the box, instead of looking down a list of abilities on the character sheet).

  2. I like knowing the rules, as it gives me a way to plan my character and what it can do. I’m not too particular around what they are, as long as the rules are consistent (and I am made aware of them beforehand).

    It’s slightly different in a living setting, as there you play with many GMs on many different tables. It can get annoying having to find out what rules the GM holds valid.

    1. Absolutely, Bas. A Living situation is completely different to a home game in this regarding that players moving about the country or the world should be able to expect a certain consistency in rulings from table to table. This is particularly true when you consider some of the more convoluted or esoteric builds out there.

  3. I actually enjoy the help my players ( and friends ) give me when we play D&D with the Pathfinder ruleset. I do have my limits on how many times we have to open the books. If I see anywone have to rule search, or they start to metagame, I immediately begin describing a new more dangerous encounter to remind the players who is running the game. I have yet to see this fail. I really enjoy your articles. It’s obvious they are well thought out, by someone who genuinely enjoys the game.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Jared. It’s much appreciated and I’m glad you enjoy the blog!

      Metagaming is indeed jolly tricky–for everyone at the table. Sometimes you end up doing in subconsciously, just because of your background system knowledge. I long for the days when I had no clue what was going on and everything was fresh, new (and probably deadly)!

  4. I’m like Gary, I interpret the rules for every situation and make rulings and adjustments based on the situation at that time. Common sense dominates my ruleset, I can’t remember the last time I needed anything other than a note pad and set of dice to make a ruling, no matter the edition.

    Dungeons and Dragons is a game you “win” not by having the most efficient character, finding some exploitable loophole, or having to always be the character in the spotlight in my opinion. You win by gathering with friends or family, seeing the fabric of a story being weaved every session, having fun and working together to overcome common adversaries, and earning fame as a group for good heroic deeds. If everyone at the table is having fun, and you are enjoying telling your tales, then you are doing it right.

    The edition and rule set doesn’t matter. How much or how little of the rules you use, doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters in my opinion is if everyone at the table had a great time.

    I have been the DM forever. Never had anything less than a waitlist for every session I have ever hosted. I don’t know the rules well, or care. I am confident and have the authority to control any group of players, everyone who sits at my table has a blast. Rules lawyers tend not to want to sit at my table, that is fine, they should be having fun at their game and they won’t at mine. There isn’t anything wrong with that.

    I like to think I would share a similar outlook to Gary in this regard. But I am not so bold as to say if you don’t play the way we enjoy the game you are doing it wrong. If you and your table are having fun, it doesn’t matter what Gary and I think, you are doing it right.

  5. I like rules, but I am not a slave to them. The rules help us all play a game that we, to at least some degree, know what to expect in most any given situation. I like that. I like that I can make a decision on what to do with a reasonable expectation that it will not result in something completely arbitrary. That being said I do not like to argue rules during the gaming session. If someone has a difference of opinion with something during a game I am running & they make a calm, well-reasoned, & short statement about why they think something should be different I will consider it quickly then make a ruling & we move on. If they want to discuss it further between game sessions that’s fine too, as long as it is done respectfully to all sides & calmly. On the other hand a GM who frequently throws out the rules whenever it suits his or her purposes is looking to lose players & friends. Changing rules can be good, bad, or neutral. I have seen some GMs change rules pertaining to certain classes that throws the game off kilter, either making a certain class so powerful that it belittles other classes, or weakens a certain class to such a point that they become less important to the group (& the players of those classes end up feeling cheated). Then balance goes out the window, & while I do not believe that Game Balance is the be-all & end-all of the game system, I do believe that a balanced game is a good thing. I may have gotten a bit off point here, but I enjoyed your article. As always it is thought provoking.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoy the blog.

      I like rules. If we didn’t have them, the game wouldn’t really work. I view them as a framework–or perhaps a coat hanger–on which to hang the fun. I also think that most games these days–D&D,Pathfinder etc.–have had exhaustive work done on them to at least approximate balance. Making wholesale changes to a class or other major element of the game probably isn’t the way to go unless everyone agrees. As a GM I have house rules–who doesn’t–but all of them were developed in conjunction with my players (or at least their input as gaming is somewhat of a team activity!)

  6. As a player and DM, I like having rules that define actions. I don’t necessarily need a lot of rules, just enough to reasonably answer questions and resolve debates. I also like a certain amount of flexibility and try to use common sense.

    The only times a ruling by a DM will be problematic for me is if it intentionally hamstrings a character. If a DM doesn’t like an ability and limits or bars it’s usage without offering an alternative or allowing the player to reconsider their character choice, especially with Archetype abilities (speaking of 5th edition, my current preference), then I will absolutely have a problem with it.

    I have no problem with a DM being the ultimate arbiter of the game, but I have a problem with a DM randomly changing a game because he doesn’t like something. There’s a subtle difference between rule interpretations and changing the game.

  7. I personally think it comes down to group chemistry. If the whole group enjoys discussing the rules at length and that’s the norm then go for it! Personally I prefer to have the rules in the background. It’s a storytelling experience first, a fellowship experience second, and a game third. At least in our house. The whole group gets really frustrated when one guy/girl stops the story to argue the rules with me so we tend to keep rules lawyers out of our games. Mostly so our group as a whole is happy and works together well.

    1. This is an excellent point. If everyone likes dissecting the rules and discussing the minutia of them they should go for it. If everyone is having fun, then they are doing it right!

  8. As GM/DM I created the scenario, detail what is seen, what actions can be taken by the characters, what monsters are seen, the difficulty of play, and all combat. There are GUIDELINES not rules for running the game that provides for imagination and meshing reality with fantasy. Over the years (I’ve been a GM since 1984), there have been discussions, some of them quite heated. The principles my group have stood by are: 1) IT’S A GAME!!!!! 2) After all discussion, the GM’s ruling is final! 3) If the problem will affect other GMs in our group, a temporary ruling is made for that specific incident, and discussion (with hopefully consensus on the situation) will be dealt with offline. If consensus is NOT achieved, NOTES are made on how the differing views are played by different GMs.

  9. During my career as a gamer (my parent gave me the D&D boxed set for Christmas in 1978), I have been the most lawyerly of rules lawyers to an almost freeform GM.

    I have learned that while rules are important (they build the framework of the system), it is the enjoyment of the session/campaign for everyone involved that is the most important part of gaming.

    So long as the story is consistent and the “rules” are consistently applied, it does not matter what those rules are.

  10. I’d like to think that everybody I game with is a friend, and we don’t really have much in the way of rules discussions. When we do, we accept the DM’s decision. It’s something of a trust issue – we all trust one another to be working towards the same end, a fun gaming session for all. That’s probably because we are all what you might call “mature gamers”. 30 years ago I used to have plenty of horrible rows during D&D games, but then we used to squabble about absolutely everything in those days. (On the favoured enemy question, I allow rangers to get it regardless of the circumstances; it doesn’t make any sense in some cases, but it avoids needing to have a discussion about it!)

  11. Brilliant article Creighton!
    I think Gary summarized it best when he said, as you quoted, “It is the spirit of the game, not the letter of the rules which is important.”
    No one remembers rules. They remember stories.
    Stories keep people coming back. Not numbers. Not rules. The DM’s job then is to place those “rules” in such a way that the players feel they are merely interacting in a fantastic world, not an accounting nightmare…

  12. The rules exist for consistency. That said, change them all you want as long as those changes are in the open ahead of time. If you don’t like a DM call, don’t disrupt a scene with it. Make a note and bring it up between scenes or better yet, after the session.

  13. One of the problems of “Rules Lawyers” is that they tend to argue the fine points of the rules in order to promote their own characters. This creates an adversarial role which is a disaster for long term campaigns (this is distinct from the “But what about …” people who bring up a not so obvious reasonable counter point to a current situation).

    People who tend to stop the game to look things up can also ruin the flow of the game and the campaign. (Doing it downtime and being polite about it is another matter all together.) Having played a number of systems from way too detailed to over simplified, I can attest that it is not always easy to get a game to flow at a reasonably enjoyable pace. Too many of these “challenges” hurts both role playing and sports games.

    Now there is a role for a “Rules Librarian.” They are good for quick questions of details like “What’s the crossbow’s range again?” Where you really feel the need to look up the rule but you don’t want to break the session to do so. But the librarian should never become a lawyer. They should be ready for advice but not to be a secondary referee. The DM is the game’s referee.

  14. Your ruling on the favored enemy, would make me not to want to game with and I have played and GMED since 1977. It is an ability of the PC, and took it away with little logic to back it up. I doubt your players felt that was fun. Nothing worse than an adversarial DM. I have GMED for 99.9% of my time in the game. Hope you felt like a big shot after your haughty ruling, it speaks more of your insecurity than expertise.

    1. I’m sorry you disagreed with my ruling. At the end of the day, the game continued, no-one died and no one complained afterwards. I’d happily revisit my decision if the rules proved me wrong, but I’m not going to waste seven people’s time while we look up a tremendously minor game play point. We meet once a week to play games, not argue the minutia of rules! (That’s what we do during the week on WhatsApp!)

      1. Schrodinger’s Favored Enemy? I think the real question is -was- the target a favored enemy or not? I suspect you were coming at it from an angle where you didn’t want to give away the identity of the target since it hadn’t been identified. You are treating it as if the PC only gets the bonus based on what he or she perceives, i.e. the bonus is because they are “angry” or “vengeful” against the favored enemy, so if they have no reason to be emotional, they get no bonus (such as when the PC doesn’t actually know the enemy is of the favored enemy type). An argument could also be made where it is a purely mechanical bonus- your PC is, essentially, genetically (or magically) predisposed to be more effective against a particular enemy type. I suspect that’s where the person replying to you is coming from, in which case if the enemy is, in fact, a favored type, the bonus stands whether or not the PC knows it. Both sound like valid interpretations and as long as the players and the GM see it as such at the end of the day, I say no harm, no foul. I take it you were unable to find a concrete answer either way after the fact based on your response further down-thread (I don’t actually play Pathfinder anymore and have never played 3.5 so I have no idea). I agree, though, with your ruling to not spend a lot of time looking it up. I tend to go with “If it takes more than a few minutes to find a concrete answer, GM makes a ruling and we move on”. I am okay with a quick verification, but I hate for a session to bog down because of it. Thanks, as always, for an interesting article.

      2. Also, I found a Pathfinder discussion on just this subject (

        The long and the short of it seems to be that RAW, you’d still give the bonus because the rules don’t actually say you shouldn’t, but the rest was largely up to the GM to adjudicate, with an ongoing suggestion that if you, as the GM, worry that the bonus will spoil a surprise, either let the Ranger roll a Knowledge check with the Favored Enemy bonus, or just apply the bonus “behind the screen” and if need be fluff it to the player that “they seem to be easier to hit than you expected” or something should they roll just right where they -think- they didn’t hit (for a non-favored enemy) but they actually -do- based on the Favored Enemy bonus. Hope that helps, sounds like the forum goers are somewhat divided on the subject, too!

  15. I think the rules exist as a social construct between the players and the game master. It exists as a way for the players to understand and interact with the game. Sometimes changing the rules to suit a story or whim can leave a player feeling victimized, and that really doesn’t lend itself to the goal of the game, namely entertainment.

    That being said, these things are rarely cut and dry. In the given example the player’s possible loss was small, and the bonus to the group was large (namely not slowing everyone down while the person in question looks up the rules). In this case a quick adjucation by the game master has improved the game.

    If it was me, personally, I’d be curious what the rule really was. I’d want to know if I made the right call, and after the session would find out and then stick to that rule. That’s just my personal preference.

  16. I hate rules lawyers but both 3.5 and Pathfinder have some of the worst written rules. Take Swimming as an example. Sounds great. Fail a swin check, start to drown, hold your breath. There seems reasonable. But what if you are in a pool, you sink right? So how far? your move? What if you then pass another swim check the next round, does this mean you are miraculously above water again? What if you failed 3 swim checks, then passed 1, Assuming move of 20′, are you 20′, 40′,60′ or more or less underwater. I find in these scenarios to try a bit of common sense and a bit of skill checks. Certainly causes my party to worry everytime water comes around now.

  17. ‘THE CREATOR, ORGANIZER, AND ARBITER OF ALL’ – That’s the first subheading in ‘The Master GM’ chapter in Gygax’ ‘Role Playing Mastery’ book. Rather sums up where a Rules Lawyer would stand in relation to the GM.

  18. Over-reliance on rules will usually end with people being unable to see the forest for the trees.
    The story – role-playing and the flow of the adventure – should take precedence over nit-picking regarding the minutiae of the rules.
    Retaining flexibility – within a broad framework of rules understood by GM and players – while having FUN should be the goal of everyone involved in your campaign.

  19. If you want to experience a new feeling of having no idea what’s going on, try rifts, they have entire books for each class.

  20. I remember Gary’s response to this question at an early GenCon, pre-AD&D so ’76 or ’77: Joe has pulled out the rule books for the tenth time tonight. When it’s Joe’s turn the next combat round and he states his action, tell him “No, you’re sitting down rummaging through your pack looking for a scroll.” After one or two rounds of sitting there defenseless Joe will get the hint.

  21. Regarding Gygax’s “players come last” philosophy, here’s another quote from him (AD&D DMG, 1st printing):

    “On occasion one player or another will evidence a strong desire to operate as a monster, conceiving a playable character as a strong demon, a devil, a dragon, or one of the most powerful sort of undead creatures. This is done principally because the player sees the desired monster character as superior to is or her peers and likely to provide a dominant rule for him or her in the campaign.” (boldface mine)

    One does wonder what his players were like. I definitely don’t get the “everyone getting together to have a good time” vibe from these quotes.

    1. yes, I also wondered about this quote. That said, these days it seems everyone wants to play some kind of bizarre and unique mix of classes and races! Why yes, I am an old grognard. Why do you ask?


  22. I was a founding member of a roleplaying club and we played almost everything and many members had their own home-grown settings or even systems. The focus was on character development, with building the world and its background a secondary focus. Although D&D (in any form) was not our primary game, many of our members over the years came from this background. I was in this club for over thirty years when a few years ago I decided that I had to leave.

    The primary reason for leaving….rules lawyers! I had noticed that more and more players that joined our ranks were dictating how things should go. To the point where some would actually move figures that the DM placed to make them fit into squares or argue about skills rolls required for PC interaction. Actually stopping in-character conversation for a dice roll and a table check or such. I would try and encourage the DM to make a stand and defend their gaming style, which was usually relaxed, informal, and about atmosphere. But the growing majority of these players would seem to turn the long-experienced DM’s into XP-supplying, chessboard-move-counting drones who began to read aloud the blurb, rather than interpret it and develop it into their own. I even had one player ask me ‘Why are you even here, your character never helps out in a fight?’ I was playing a 16 year-old cowardly thief. I was in character. He just began an argument about XP getting harder to gain because my character was not pulling his weight. The trouble here? The DM, an experienced DM at that, was indifferent. The other players objected to my style. I thought I was anachronistic. Stuck in my ways, when I realised that it was a ‘modern’ thing, a form of apathy about the RPG style. It is easier to follow rules and squares than play a role. I left the club, and remained with a smaller group of seasoned roleplayers. Occasional rule arguments still break out, but not to the detriment of the ‘game,’ the fun, the story. Of course rules are necessary, essential perhaps for consistency and fairness, but if it stops the enjoyment. What is the point?

  23. Don’t forget that with the advent of 3e, empowering players, and putting most of the rules in their hands, was a deliberate decision made largely for marketing reasons. Players are at least 4:1 to DMs, and by giving them more to buy, wotc could rake in more money. There was also a train of thought that ran along the lines of, “most DMs are crap, so let’s distribute the load of rules mastery among all at the table”. There is merit to both of those points, certainly, but it did change the balance of the game.

  24. When it comes to rules, yes, the players come third. When it comes to the spirit of play, they players MUST come first. It has to be fun. When things are not fun, not seemingly fair, or not how the players want to play, what’s the point? If the campaign is all mighty no matter what, write a book. You and your players will be happier.

  25. I’m a rules purist where I prefer proper play even when it is stacked against me. I play with another who goes by if the DM doesn’t notice then he gets away with it. Of course Gary would throw players under the bus. Up until and even including some of 3rd ed most of it was written very poorly with multiple books offering different ways to do the same thing. The system was convoluted and had few and confusing examples. Personally I had it out with the DM over 3rd ed Bullrush. I had to dig into errata and a source doc that explained the PHB in greater detail since he said if it wasn’t in print he wasn’t hearing it. I do agree that DMs should hold final say in most moments but do not treat your players poorly for they have a special ability. That is to leave your chair empty and spend their night doing something else.

  26. You can certainly see your expertise within the work you write.

    The world hopes for even more passionate writers like you who aren’t afraid to mention how they believe.
    All the time follow your heart.

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