Rise of the Rules Lawyer

“The orc raises its battleaxe high over its head and attempts to coup de grace you.”

“Coup de wha—?”

“Coup de grace. Basically, it takes advantage of your helpless state to deliver a killing blow, scoring an automatic critical hit.”

“Wait, where is that in the rules?”

“Um…it’s under coup de grace.”

If there’s one thing D&D Encounters and other public play programs have taught me—it’s that not many players read the rules. One of the reasons I really enjoy running D&D for the “average player” is that it shows me what rules they miss or don’t understand. As an editor and the rule update guy, it’s important to see where sticking points in the game are, and how we can smooth them out. Even the designer in me needs to be reminded that the average player isn’t picking up on 95% of the stuff that is being discussed in the forums. Most people have their hands full remembering to use all their powers, let alone remembering what a charge does or that you can give someone a Heal check to let them make a saving throw.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not slighting the “average player.” Our game has a lot of moving parts, and unless you take time to really read the rules, digest them, and read them again, you’re going to miss some stuff. And that’s fine. The thing about D&D is that you could use a fragment of the rules—roll a d20 to attack, roll some dice to deal damage—and still have fun. The enjoyment one gets from the game rarely depends on the nuances of the rules. Heck, I’d feel confident improvising half the rules, so long as I had a good story.

Jeremy Crawford, one of my colleagues, was discussing this very issue with me today. He’s been playing D&D much longer than me (since Original D&D), and he remarked that it used to be only the DM who read the rules, and even he or she would have only a vague grasp on them. Rules lawyers didn’t exist. They were more like rules interns—the guys in the law office that fetched coffee for everyone. They might know a smattering of rules, but they were in no position to call the DM on it, especially since the DM was making up half the stuff and throwing half the stuff away.

This notion that players should have a vivid knowledge of the rules seems to have evolved in the last few editions. Particularly in third edition, where I think there was an advantage to knowing the rules because it let you “game” the system. I’m guilty of this in fact. Oh yes, I definitely went after my +1 attack bonus for having high ground whenever I could. Suddenly, the Player’s Handbook was rewarding me for knowing the rules. It made my character more effect.

I don’t think it’s necessary for anyone besides the DM to know the rules, so long as players are willing to listen and learn, and eventually, show some investment in building his or her character. D&D is one of those games that is best learned by doing. Computer games already work this way. And if you play board games, you know that it’s usually a single person who learns that rules and then teaches everyone else. As brilliant and well-organized as Rules Compendium (coming in September)—and trust me, it will be like a Second Coming—the best way to learn D&D will always be to sit down with a buddy who knows the game. Fortunately, with the arrival of other products like the Red Box and the D&D Essentials line, it’ll be easier than ever to learn, regardless if you have someone to run you through a few roleplaying scenarios or combat encounters.

So I’m curious, how many people in your group have read the rules. Let me know!


26 thoughts on “Rise of the Rules Lawyer

    1. And that’s what awaits you when you return next week! Muahahah!

      Okay, so I didn’t actually. That example was taken from an experience in Chris Perkins’s game. I did have a character death, though.

  1. I DM for my younger siblings on occassion, and in some ways it get frustrating when you have to point out rules, but the game flows naturally enough that in some ways it becomes more fun when the kids get creative.

    Excellent post!

  2. In each of my home games there are 2 people that have read the rules for certain at the table each time (one of them is always me of course ;)). In my LFR group that number who have read the rules is much higher.

    That said in 4E it is my observation that one of the impediments to understanding the rules is lack of consistency in the rules, or areas of the rules lacking definement, or creating multiple rules elements that do the same thing in very different ways.

    Divine Challenge – should use the interrupt or reaction game terms instead of “makes an attack”

    Implements – not defined in the same way that weapons are defined, creating 2 rule sets for similar things

    Is a Parrying Dagger a Dagger when the word “daggers” is used (eg Sorcerer Implements).

    The biggest problems I see consistently are around Triggered Actions – there are functionally 3 different types of them! Some of whom have can have a counterintuitive function for most folks, experience with MtG or L5R CCG does solve that though – but not all gamers have that experience. There probably should only be 2 triggered reaction types – Interrupts and Reactions.

    1. There is some inconsistency, but we’re working to iron some of that out. It would have been nice to have only immediate reactions and immediate interrupts. However, opportunity actions do serve a very specific function in the game. The “free reactions” are probably the most difficult, but they too have a purpose, because the designers needed to have a set of triggered actions usable on a character’s turn, as well as one that wasn’t (immediate/opportunity). I’ll agree that triggered actions are definitely difficult for more inexperienced players though.

      1. Aye but a great deal of that is because you gave reaction and interrupt a blanket restriction on when they could be used.

        The fact that “Free Actions” can interrupt another action just makes it worse – because they are not triggered actions.

        Remove the restriction on when you can take interrupt and reaction triggers and then these terms can be used to give clarity to the timing of actions.

        This would allow the following for example:

        Encounter Arcane, Force
        Immediate Action (Interrupt) Personal
        Trigger: When it is not your turn you are hit by an attack.
        Effect: You gain a +4 power bonus to AC and Reflex defense until the end of your next turn. (Reminder: This may cause the attack to miss.)

        Notice that the exception is built into the trigger?

        Opportunity Attack
        At Will
        Free Action (Interrupt) Personal
        Trigger: When it is not your turn and a monster moves from a square adjacent to you or makes a ranged attack while adjacent to you.
        Effect: Make a melee basic attack. (Reminder: Options that allow you to use powers in place of a basic attack can be used for an opportunity attack.)

        This would create the following action types:
        Immediate Actions (Interrupt/Reaction) – once per round
        Free Actions (Interrupt/Reaction) – many times per round
        Minor Actions
        Move Actions
        Standard Actions

        Instead of the current options:
        Immediate Actions (Interrupt/Reaction) – once per round
        Opportunity Actions – many times per round if triggered
        Free Actions – many times per round if you want
        Minor Actions
        Move Actions
        Standard Actions

  3. My entire group has read the players handbooks and a few more the DMGs. The positive side is that if there is something I’m not sure about, we quickly can decide on a temporary remedy that is pretty fair. The bad thing is, well, rules lawyering, particularly over issues like hidden/stealth and players assuming certain things about the world and/or monsters. Sometimes that can take the fun out of things and makes me worried about bringing cool effects into the game that would be really fun but perhaps not fit perfectly into the “rules.”

    Another issue at our table is that the players are very unsure of doing anything that is not clearly defined and at least one of them constantly bemoans the lack of something in 4e. Some really want professions back and others want the skill list broken down into everything they possibly could do. Personally, I love the freedom to invite cool stuff that 4e provides but I’m also new and not used to playing D&D a certain way.

    Finally, and I’m sure you get this complaint a lot, a good index somewhere would help a ton. I’ve thought about creating such a thing but then I remember reading language in one of the various legal docs that said something like, “ye shall not reference page numbers.” I understand, it creates for a bad experience if WotC later reprints the book. Given that many things are scattered over lots of books, it can take a lot of time researching how certain things get handled. My guess is that Rules Compendium will help with this a bit. However, it might be a good idea to let some people make an index in the mean time. I would be more than willing to help.

    1. “Finally, and I’m sure you get this complaint a lot, a good index somewhere would help a ton.”

      Just wait—Rules Compendium is coming! Also, you can search for rules in the DDI Compendium now, which might help.

  4. Skipping the Coup de Grace bit (ugh, what the hell is the death toll in your games man!), there obviously was a conscious decision to share the burden of the rules from DM only to DM+players during late 2e (kits, advanced combat options and splatbooks) and from 3e’s launch onwards.

    From 3e’s point, the DM became a gatekeeper and the Rules Laywer was a new type of ‘problem player’ you had to deal with, often encouraged by weakish/flip floppy behaviour from the DM.

    Like many socially aware gaming groups, we eventually gravitated to ‘make your case in 2 mins or less, accept DM call, talk about it after the game”

    Great post

    1. We already discussed this some on twitter—but like I was saying, I don’t coup de grace players. In fact, with the exception of play formats where death doesn’t matter much (D&D Encounters, LFR, etc), I can’t bring myself to kill characters. In my current 4E campaign, the closest I’ve gotten is petrifying someone.

  5. Rules lawyers were a big hassle for me in 3.5 because (as you said in your post) knowing the rules gave you significant advantages and some exploits. Even after I got the 3.5 rules compendium, it only got worse. This was one of the big reasons I switched to 4e, it was so much simpler and less for me to remember as a DM. Now everyone I play with just seems to not care and just wants to have fun. Yeah, I gotta use the DDI Compendium (Awesome tool btw) to look up and clarify things every now and then, but rules lawyering seems to have dropped to a minimum now (at least from my perspective). Stealth was really the only thing that gave me some trouble in 4e, but I’ve figured out its mechanics for the most part. That and there’s plenty of class options besides Rogues now.

    Great article btw! 😀

  6. The change was really in 2nd with Skills and Powers, and even earlier with the brown books. The introduction of many stacking bonuses for PCs encouraged players to look for cheese – and to memorize when and how it could apply – lest the DM say no to them. 4E has taken that to the far extent by publishing so many rules in 2 years that DMs have less of a chance to know how any one class works than they would have at the end of 3.5! This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but it places the center of knowledge at best across all shoulders and more than likely on the shoulders of each player. Know your PC and relevant rules because your DM probably won’t! I have many PCs but no defender – the player are the centers of knowledge. I play a Cunning Sneak – the DMs practically never know more than I do about the stealth rules. That’s the reality. And, in this new world, the DM is for story, RP, guidance, encounter building… not rules adjudication.

    1. It’s nice for the DM to not have to focus on the rules and let players adjudicate themselves. Particularly for classes like the rogue, it’s a lot easier if the rogue is keeping track of his own stealthing and just telling the DM what he needs to know.

      1. The thing is the DM doesn’t need to know all the powers.

        The DM needs to know:
        Combat Rules (You’ll notice many of the following are subsets of these ;))
        Movement Rules
        Condition Rules
        Resistance Rules
        Vulnerability Rules
        Timing Rules
        Concealment Rules
        Cover Rules
        Skill Use Rules (Noticeably Monster Lore, Stealth, Climbing, and Jumping)

        There are some “fine tuning” rules that help (eg weapons as implements) but most of those only matter when a player is using them, so the DM can skip them if they don’t have such a player in their group.

        No one needs to know the rules for how every power or feat works – that is a lot of the point to exception based design afterall. You only need to know how the ones you have work.

        This is why DDI is so cool – when you gain a level you can just go and look at what all your options are! (Of course this is why some things need better organisation in the CB.)

      2. Agreed. Calite, I’m with you. But, as Greg writes, it is a sea change from the earliest times when the player had little to master – the options were obvious to all and the non-obvious things were things like scale and movement, psionics, etc. where there was no answer. The DM was arbitrer and adjudicator because there was no “truth”. Now we usually have a pretty good truth, but so much of it that the DM can no longer be the sole voice and is not always/usually the most informed. I see many DMs struggling with this. They want that old role of being in charge… they are, but not for how rules work. They are in charge of story, pacing, etc. And, as you said, should have mastery of the core issues.

      3. Agreed. Calite, I’m with you. But, as Greg writes, it is a sea change from the earliest times when the player had little to master – the options were obvious to all and the non-obvious things were things like scale and movement, psionics, etc. where there was no answer. The DM was arbiter and adjudicator because there was no “truth”. Now we usually have a pretty good truth, but so much of it that the DM can no longer be the sole voice and is not always/usually the most informed. I see many DMs struggling with this. They want that old role of being in charge… they are, but not for how rules work. They are in charge of story, pacing, etc. And, as you said, should have mastery of the core issues.

  7. I found this post to be enjoyable to read. As a player at one of the “Encounters” tables, I’d be happy to share some observations from the perspective of a new player who has limited time to dedicate to D&D but is having an enjoyable experience getting into the game.

    When I started playing at “Encounters” a few weeks ago, it was my first experience as a 4E player. And it had been several years since I played 3.5, so not only did I not know the new rules, I was pretty rusty with the old ones. First off, I think the DM has done a very fine job helping new players (like me) feel welcome at the game. He has patiently explained the rules so that both new and more experienced players are having a fun time.

    Although I came into “Encounters” unfamiliar with 4E, I have learned quite a bit since week 1. I have now finished reading the PHB, and my opinion is the ideal way to learn 4E is to play a couple sessions with a patient DM and then read the rule book. The rules really sink in much better if you have a little play time under your belt. Point #1: best way for a new player to learn is by playing a couple sessions and then reading the rulebook.

    I’m still very much a novice. I now have only about 6 hours of experience at a 4E game table. Even with such limited experience I can say without hesitation that as I learn more rules, the gameplay is more enjoyable. I think that novice players who don’t learn the rules (for whatever reason) are missing out on a big piece of the fun. Once you’ve got the basics down, you can move onto the finer points of the game that make D&D a cool strategic game. In the most recent session, after I finished reading the PHB, I accidently found myself asking the DM if the monster is charging (as opposed to walking) into combat against a fellow PC. Probably not appreciated by the player, but if I want to become a better player I’ve got to start learning and understanding tactics. Point #2: D&D is a lot more fun if you know the rules. You can focus on strategy and having fun instead of madly flipping through pages of rules.

    The D&D online character builder is an excellent resource, but looking back, I should have used pencil and paper to create my character. That’s the best way to understand how the core game mechanics work. For example, one racial trait of the elf is I can 5 foot shift even in difficult terrain. It took me 4 sessions to realize that – and only then because the DM told me so. It’s right there on my character sheet – I have no excuse. Had I filled out the character sheet by hand, I would have been forced to write that on my character sheet and I would have known it. Point #3: New players should be encouraged to fill out a character sheet manually to really learn their character better.

    One thing I’ve been struggling with as a new player is getting the 3.5 rules mixed up with the 4E rules. There was such a big change between 3.5 and 4E, it’s difficult for a casual player to not fully grasp just how significant the changes are. (Powers? Healing surges?) If I had to do it over again, I would try to find a resource somewhere titled “The 20 most significant changes between 3.5 and 4E.” I would read the list, then I would read the new rulebook, then I would read the list again to really let it sink in. Point #4: I think it would be handy if there was a list of the significant changes between 4E and previous editions to help get players who’ve been out of the game up to speed.

    Great article. Thanks!

    1. Hey Joe–glad to see your enthusiasm for 4E has carried you online. I trust you’ll be at the next session of D&D Encounters? It’s been a delight having you at the table, and like I was saying in a previous post: one of my favorite things is to see new players learning the game and observing what catches them up.

      I think the “20 Most Significant Changes Between 3.5 and 4E” would be a great article. Maybe I’ll take a shot at writing it up in my blog.

      See ya on Wednesday.

      1. Hey Greg,
        Yes, I plan to be at “Encounters” on Wed. I think this format is absolutely fantastic. I hope WOTC, the locations that host the games, and the DMs that put in so much work find it to be worthwhile because it is a wonderful opportunity for players.

        I just got back from seeing “Clash of the Titans” this evening. Watching that movie makes me want to start playing D&D this very moment! Those scorpions were so cool. I just rolled a 17 for initiative. Is it my turn? Hee Hee. Enjoy the rest of your weekend! 🙂

  8. A couple of observations.

    In the groups that I DM for, there are at least 5 players that currently or have in the past run 4E campaigns.

    Also, it seems that only a striker has a chance of successfully carrying out a coup de gras on an unbloodied opponent.

    While it is not often that an unbloodied opponent is helpless, certain power can render them so.

    When an opponent is bloodied, it is possible that any of the four roles can do enough damage to kill the opponent with a coup de gras. However, with an unbloodied opponent, the requirement to do damage to exceed its bloodied value would seem to limit the roles that can achieve that level of damage.

    This may not be true at lower levels, but when bloodied values start reaching the neighborhood of 100 HP’s or more, I don’t see how any class that does not have that kicker damage that the striker has can hope to achieve that kind of damage.

    I haven’t run the numbers, but that is the way it has worked when PC’s in my game have attempted a coup.


    1. Well, the blog post really wasn’t about coup de grace—I’ll save that for another time. Still, you raise valid points. I’ve heard the complaint before that only strikers can potentially deliver a killing blow with a coup de grace. To be honest, that’s fine with me. Other characters are still getting the critical hit, and the scenario doesn’t come up all that much (at least in my experience). If you really want all the players to have a chance at delivering a coup de grace, come up with some other system, like have them make an attack against Fortitude—that way everyone has roughly a 50% chance.

  9. I don’t mind players knowing the rules; in fact it speeds the game along quite nicely, which is welcomed in the hours-long combats.

    The problem I have as DM, and this seems to be solely a public play phenomenom, is when players (and DMs) use a loose interpretation of the rules (even purposely) to push the envelope.

    People need to realize that each Feat and Power cannot be thoroughly described in detail, or else the PHB would have been over 500 pages. The writers and editors must cut down on descriptions and try to describe the features in a little words as possible. So, just because an item is described as a “dagger”, it doesn’t mean it *is* a dagger, it just means “dagger” was a lot easier to desribed than “a sharp-edge blade that is shorter than a short sword”. Unfortunately, you have the “rules lawyers” who must strictly interpret the rules and who give no wiggle room in rule interpretation. It reminds me of Yoda’s comment about Siths: Only Siths believe in absolutes. And this has lead to a darkside of gaming.

    It’s as if D&D has abandoned the concept of heroic roleplay and become the game of “Look what I’ve uncovered… aren’t I cool?”

    1. Things like the dagger thing seem like pickiness for the sake of it I know. However it is being picky because the best way to make sure that there is consistency in rules interpretation is to ensure that the letter of the rules accurately reflects the intent of the rules without accidental meanings created by the language it is written in.

      Stopping and looking at things like the use of “daggers” and the implications of that for where and how the affected game elements are defined helps make the rules as a whole better.

      Exception based design is not a reason to allow weaker text in the actual rules, on the contrary it needs the explicit rules to be more concrete so that the extent of exceptions that are created are clear.

  10. There’s a great chapter on this in Robin Laws book on GMing. He highlights how the more rules a system has the more it takes control away from the GM.

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