Monday, December 28, 2009

Does 4e encourage people to go to Rules Law School?

One of my least favorite things is when a good RPG gets interrupted by rules lawyering.  There seems to be an inverse relationship between the sparcity of rules in a game and the amount of arguing with the DM - while it might seem at first glance that if there are no rules to cover a given situation, it would be open for debate, in practice that normally means that the DM just makes a ruling and play moves on.  Games that attempt to nail down every possiblity with their ruleset seem to open themselves up to players second-guessing the DM, quoting the relevant passage and bickering about the exact interpretation. 

4th Edition D&D is, whatever else one thinks of it, a very tightly designed game that has eliminated many "extraneous" elements that bogged down the DMing side of running a 3rd edition game.  Monsters and NPCs do not have extensive skill lists and are not constructed using the same mechanics as PCs - if you look behind the scenes at a 4e campaign, it is much like looking backstage at a play.  You will see that all the beautiful set pieces are actually flat constructs, unpainted from behind, and there are people franticaly memorizing their lines in the green room.  One thing this emphasis on only providing rules for things that come up in play has done is to make the 4e ruleset an amazingly cohesive and comprehensive thing.  It has an internal logic and almost any action a PC could attempt is covered in the rules.

What I have noticed in practice is that this leads to a lot of arguing with the DM.  Well, I should qualify that and say that one player in my group does a lot of arguing with the DM.  He is an excellent role-player who really gets into the spirit of his character, but if the DM rules that he cannot do something that the rules says he can do, he gets quite upset.  The rules are pretty straightforward and when they say you can identify a magic item with the use of the Arcana skill, by gum, he wants to identify that item and he does not want to hear that the strange glowing box that seems to be animating all the zombies cannot be identified without taking a short rest and looking it over more thoroughly.  When his legs get severed at the ankles and he attempts to move around on his stumps, he does not think that should count as the "prone" condition as the DM ruled because the text of prone clearly reads that prone applies only when you are lying down.

I suppose that this player could and would have argued with the DM in any edition, but previous editions made it explicit that the DM was going to have to make rulings to keep play moving forward.  There were huge lacunae in the design space of every edition up through AD&D 2e, and these gaping holes were patched with the understanding that the DM was the final arbiter.  I grew up with the understanding that the DM was god in an RPG, and it seems that this understanding has shifted.  In 4e as written, it seems like the rules are god, the rules are the be all and end all, if there is a gap in the rules it will be patched up with the ever-accumulating erata that makes much of the text in the original core books completely out of date if you do not have the D&D Insider account.

I will have to go back and reread the 4e Player's Handbook and DMs Guide and see if there is any sort of mention that the DM can and should ignore the rules as he or she sees fit.  The very nature  of the rules discourages this sort of thing, but it would be interesting to see if there is at least lip service paid to the idea of DM as final arbiter.


  1. I think this problem is why many of us like the smaller game systems of the older editions. I think the rules lawyer would argue about any system though. It is frustrating when the arguments lead to ambiguity within the gaming group. Often, when the rules lawyering becomes excessive, I have to ask, Does the group have one DM or is it Co-DMed? Some times players just need to hush and enjoy the game.

  2. I agree with both you and Chris, above! The 4E rules indeed seem to me to not only cover all gaps but also eliminate situations where ambiguity might arise & require DM adjucation. (My favorite example of this is the change in a cleric's Command from Supplement I spell to 4E power: "obey one word" becomes "knock prone or daze"). Whether I run a 4E game, I go with the flow that the rules are god and frequently ask the players to contribute their own understanding of the rules if I'm not sure, just as when I play I'll point out stuff like "Didn't you say the swarm gets a free attack on us when we start our turn adjacent to it?" As DM this takes a load off my back - I don't want to have to always be the biggest rule-expert at the table - and I like the feel of everyone being on the same page (even as I lament the restrictions that come from eliminating the kind of oddball interactions of spells that'd come about in even 3E). When I run OD&D I often try to get this same effect by asking the table for input into my rulings: "What do you guys think are the chances that this dwarf mercenary will slip and fall?"

    For me the essential part of rules lawyering is that it involves an adversarial process. It's not just having tightly codified rules that everyone tries to adhere to; the other night we played Traveler and were all busily looking up the star charts and trade rules to collectively figure out how our jumps were going to work. The hallmark of a rules lawyer is, I think, arguing in one's own favor.

    The reason I agree with Chris is that in a system where imagining the hell out of it is the way things work, the "rules lawyer" is the guy who'll keep arguing that the way the DM or anyone else visualizes it is wrong if it puts their PC at risk, and that the situation must clearly be whatever casts the player's character in the most favorable light.

    I can't tell whether your guy is really being adversarial, or if he's just saying "hey, the sense of security I get from having mastered the rules and feeling that I can use them to predict the likely consequences of my in-game choices is threatened here." Arguing that having no legs doesn't slow you down and grant combat advantage in melee does seem far-fetched enough to qualify for rules-lawyering, though. - Tavis

  3. My group tried 4E, and we decided to abandon it for something else. It just didn't work for our style of play.

  4. What I didn't mention about 4E is that I'd really like to give the game a try.I have seen the PHB offered for $20 at a used book store and wish I'd bought it at the time. As for attempting to walk without feet, that just silly, it's beyond silly.

  5. I agree that 4e is "better" than 3e since it streamlines and simplifies the rules excesses of its predecessor. But I do feel that its attempt to be "comprehensive" is what sets it drastically apart from pre-3e versions of the game and (for me anyway) makes it feel un-D&D-ish to me. I came of age in the era of the "house rule" and the DM being the undisputed God of the rules. This is still my preferred style of play. I admire Tavis' ability to have democratic discussions about the rules with his players, but that just seems so boring and stifling to me! I tune out during any kind of rules arbitration discussions and, aside from players decribing and clarifying the INTENT or EXECUTION of their actions in-game, I don't have much patience for rules debates, which is why i have phased myself out of the group Carl here describes.

  6. If and when I run a game of 4e (which I still hope to do, and Carter, I think you would have fun in the group despite your opinion of 4e) it would be with the understanding that I can ignore rules as I see fit. The way I look at it is that rules are for players in a system like 4e. They help define the character's capabilities, but as a DM if I want to make a creature that does things completely outside of the 4e scheme, that is my perogative. Likewise, if I want to rule that you can or cannot do something that the rules might state otherwise, that is simply tough shit.

    The DM runs the world, and in my opinion that is an absolutely necessary pre-requisite for a smoothly running game of D&D - there is no room for a player arguing with the DM, that just leaves all the other players sitting around uncomfortably.

  7. One thing that sort of burned me out with the last 4e game I ran was that I came to realize that the game was comprehensively designed to have rules to cover each eventuality. Running 4e straight from the box was to me a bit too constraining. I guess I belong more to the school of gaming that sees the DM/GM/referee more of an "umpire" who's main task is to adjudicate rather than to just apply the rules as they are written. That said, I'm still open to the idea of running another 4e game but in my own way- this may entail throwing away some of the rules and running it very 'rules light'. Sort of running it in an 'old school' manner. How my players will take to this is something I am eager to see... although I am readying myself to a lot of initial wailing and gnashing of teeth.

  8. I've just been reading Robin D Laws' book on GMing and there he points out that the crunchier a rules system is the more power shifts from the GM to the players. The more stuff that's covered by rules that the players have access to then you will inevitably end up with more arguing, as the players see the rules as 'theirs'.

    I'm going to be making the switch from Mutant Future back to 4e soon, and I'm not entirely sure that I want to. *grins*


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