You poured rules lawyer all over my fun

Over on the SJG Forums, a thread started up that inspired next Thursday’s Melee Academy topic, a cross-blog event where anyone that wants to take a shot at it writes about their favorite way to tackle a given topic. This particular thread is named “unarmed vs. knife,” and the melee academy was broadened more or less to shortish-reach one-handed weapon (Reach C, 1 in GURPS, probably anything that can strike the same tile or adjacent 5′ tiles in D&D).

That’s neither here or there. What I want to do is point out something. Somewhere around Post 62 the thread sort of digressed (devolved?) into a protracted back-and-forth between mostly two posters. Sure, others got in there, but mostly it was 60 more long, involved posts that are really taking the letter of the rules, shaking them down for their lunch money, and stuffing them in a locker.
Most of this seems to revolve around an interpretation of particular language that is legalistic in nature – the rules say what the rules say, or what you can make them say. This would be somewhat opposed to a descriptive or principles-based approach to the rules and to the game.

In this particular case, the general concept of how the various parts of movement – in this case a “step” can be combined seems to be – with some reasonably support by +Sean Punch more or less that the step/movement and the attack are really just one continuous thing. So you can take it as a step, attack, or an attack, then step. Or if you’re doing something that allows multiple steps, you can mix and match. Or if you’re doing Rapid Strike, you can attack one guy, step, then attack another. Basically, try not to be too atomistic about it, and so long as you’re more or less obeying the rules for when you can change facing relative to movement, you can blend your facing changes, steps, and attacks together in a way that represents your continuous movement fairly. Your foe, likewise, should be assumed to be able to do more or less the same thing on defense.

The sixty or so posts in the linked thread represent a bit of the extreme opposite approach, as if the rules have to be defended in front of some sort of Gaming Supreme Court of Nerd Rage or something.

If you note that I have an exasperated tone in this post, you’re not wrong. Because much as in another parallel thread on the exact parsing of the wording in Committed Attack, I think discussions such as this, that turn on a near Clintonesque view of what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is do not help gaming in general, and GURPS in particular, draw in new blood and new fans. I’m not even sure they help resolve the issues at hand, because they’re so very particular they require a level of system mastery and textual precision that takes a flying leap off the fun mesa, landing messily in the burning abyss below.

Unless they’re contract or patent lawyers who really love their job, because that’s what both of these threads remind me of. I’ve had conversations like this with vendors at work, usually when they’re trying to weasel out of delivering what they promised to deliver, because, well, the contract says precisely X, and we can torture it until it means Y, and if you want what you say you want, well, a million bucks, please.

Again: not helpful.

I said it way, way back: the rules serve the story. This isn’t to invest story with magical powers either, but consider this quote from Eddings’ Belgariad:

“Because it’s necessary to say it. The word determines the event. The word puts limits on the event and shapes it. Without the word, the event is merely a random happening. That’s the whole purpose of what you call prophecy—to separate the significant from the random.”

This is the purpose of rules. To give shape to the event. To allow us to put bounds around what can and can’t be done. To allow the players to have a common understanding, and again to borrow from pop culture (this time Xander Harris), to define rules, borders, and an end zone. Substitute “rules” for “prophecy” here and I think you’re on to something.

That is, rules exist to put gutters and bumpers on the game. To allow the story and events to evolve without someone flinging the table over or deciding that the game is too arbitrary, and the opportunity cost for playing the game is higher than the alternative: shaving one’s head with a cheese grater while chewing on tin foil.

So whenever I see sixty posts worth of not explorations of tactics, but how much you can get away with within the letter, but not the spirit, of the rules, part of me gets frustrated. GURPS doesn’t need that crap, because it suffers from an undue burden of point-based front-loaded chargen, one-second turns that are shorter than the usual time frame within which people conceive of character action, and an attack-defense-effect paradigm that can be festooned with Attack Options and Defense Options. If you take all of this useful color and then require sixty posts to figure out that, no, Clyde, your foe can in fact see you running round him in the middle of a one-on-one combat, and can in fact compensate for such – then you’re turning my favorite game system into something even I don’t want to read about or play.

Surely, of course, I don’t have to play that way – and I don’t. But I’m positive Sean, +David Pulver, and +Peter V. Dell’Orto – just to name the authors of Basic and Martial Arts (though I could throw +Hans-Christian Vortisch in there for Tactical Shooting, a perennial fave on this blog) don’t write rules with the intent that sixty posts are required to figure out what is precisely going on here.

Parting Shot

Now, it is possible to seek clarity with what the rules are supposed to be saying, to determine what kinds of action are provided for, and not be trying to be an evil rules lawyer, but instead serve as the lawful good variant of that trope.

Asking if the intent of slicing the pie really does require Step-and-Wait, for example. That’s legit, especially since the text of that passage does seem to require it, but doesn’t call it out explicitly.

Asking when, if ever, anyone would ever use the ST-based rather than DX/skill-based options for moving to someone’s side arc when using Technical Grappling? Totally legit.

But if you find yourself having a “cool” move hinge precisely on the word-for-word interpretation of several rules from several books? If what you’re trying to pull off only makes sense when looking at a series of moves arbitrarily divided by an equally arbitrary definition of what a turn is? What you’re doing is a rules exploit, and if you get Rule Zero’d, you deserve it.

Follow-up Shot

Honestly, as I think of it on the run-around-to-the-side thing, there’s already more or less a consensus that if you want to claim the “the foe can’t defend” that derives from attacking from the back hex, you have to start there. Otherwise, you treat it as a run-around attack, which only treats it as an attack from the side. That’s -2 to defend.

I’m almost wondering if a similar logic should apply for side attacks. You only get the benefit of that if you start your turn in that arc.

Another way to look at it is to treat the “rear” arc as -4 to defend if you end in the rear hex (bear with me), the side as -2, and the front as no penalty. The penalty to defend is the average of where you start and where you end. Defenses are still minus infinity (no defense) if you start in the rear hex.

So a true run-around, starting in the front and ending up in the rear, is at -2 (average of 0 and -4). Start from the front and end in the side? That’s a -1. Start in the side but end in the rear is -3.

That gives a game-mechanical benefit to sliding around a foe, but doesn’t invite the kind of hair-splitting the brings the game to a halt and chases away players.

Another simple way: if a foe steps around you, go ahead and let them make a single hex-rotation to follow you as part of a defense, and two or even three rotations combined with a retreat. This has consequences of its own, of course – it might open up the back to your friends – but it would also make clear what’s going on in that run-around attack, and show why you get that -2 instead of no defense. The game presume you’re not standing frozen, which is exactly what you’re not doing in a swirling melee.

31 thoughts on “You poured rules lawyer all over my fun

  1. "do not help gaming in general, and GURPS in particular, draw in new blood and new fans."
    The hell it doesn't. Sales show, over and over again, that the general RPG public likes legalistic rules. 3rd edition D&D and it's descendants were incredibly popular and they happened because people liked Magic: The Gathering. New players are young players and young players enjoy rules lawyery.

    "GURPS doesn't need that crap"
    What GURPS doesn't need if for people to be given crap over how they like to interact with the game.

    The thread on committed attacks and steps more than proved it's worth in producing the RAI for rules where several people had not even considered that they might be interpreted that way.

    1. vicky_molokh responded to me on the forums

      "Let's face it: there are different niches – the rules-lawyery ones, and the not-so-rules-lawyery ones. GURPS can cater to both. Sometimes the players collide.
      Also, sometimes rules-lawyering is a sign of trying to make good tactics while having no reliable way of divining the RAI.
      E.g. I'd rather know whether a given tactic is possible in the campaign, so that my character can pick an action that is sensible within the campaign. System rulings affect what's sensible – a world where guns only do scratches is very different from one where they do typical GURPS damage; ditto about other types of game-mechanical differences."

      Precisely. A lot of RPG games consist of people manipulating abstract rules objects that are flavoured by real things but aren't defined by those things. Just because GURPS does it's best to please people who care about realism doesn't mean people shouldn't be able to discuss things on a purely mechanical level with each other.

      Other people enjoy discussing the way rules are written outside of a context of actually using them just like other people enjoy talking about a film's cinematograhy as a separate thing from observing the content being filmed. To discount the validity of that discounts the artistic value of RPG books as a separate thing from games played using them.

      People don't deserve to be given crap for engaging each other within the same niche even if other people don't enjoy that niche. The greatest challenge the RPG hobby faces isn't that rules lawyering exists, it's the persistent willingness to denounce how other people engage with games.

      It's also helpful to assume good faith with respect for RAI and assume that people either didn't perceive RAI correctly or want to engage on a RAW level without implying that the rules or author are just because that produces weird results.

  2. "So whenever I see sixty posts worth of not explorations of tactics, but how much you can get away with within the letter, but not the spirit, of the rules, part of me gets frustrated. GURPS doesn't need that crap,"

    Yes, that. "How much can I get away with?" and "How I can turn the wording of these rules to ensure it allows me to do something I want to do anyway" really poison the well of fun for me. It take a lot of the enjoyment out of discussing the game I enjoy, or helping people figure out what the intent of the rules are so they can go off and make their own fun.

    Obviously, people disagree with that, which means inevitably rules lawyering and arguments about the rules trump "Here is the intent, go and have fun with them." It's hard to overcome strident argument about the rules with laid-back advice about how to have fun. Basically, all it takes is a few people who like rules arguments to mean that's going to be the dominant form of discussion.

  3. I have a lot of thoughts when I read this post, and I just don't know what to write. I'll just speak for myself. I feel I could shake the rules' lunch money out of them and stuff them in a locker, if I wanted to, but I don't. I'm not a rules-torturer, and if the rules convicted President Clinton of perjury, I wouldn't stand on his defense. I want to know how the rules will work in play based on RAW. If you feel there are people arguing in bad faith on the GURPS forum, would it be better either to call them out publicly or to ask the moderators to intervene? If you don't feel there are people arguing in bad faith, would kindly stop using such rankly insulting language "Gaming Supreme Court of Nerd Rage?" Actually, on second thought, please strike that language regardless. But, most importantly, if these posts upset you so, why don't you leave the thread and check back every so often to see if the discussion's moved on? That's what I do, personally.

    For the record, I'm known on the forums as McAllister.

    1. I knew who you were, and I don't mind pseudonyms. Just truly anonymous posts. Even signed within the text is fine with me. Anyway, that's not here or there.

      First if my inflammatory language moved you to comment, well then mission accomplished. 🙂

      Overall, have no issues with your stated goal of "how does the game play using RAW?" Or even, more broadly, "what is the general intent of RAW where it comes to topic X." That's all good, and I gleefully engage in such discussions. Hell, one such led to more research and a major errata to the biting section of Technical Grappling, so when the SJG Forums are on, they're very on.

      But you have to admit that some of those threads take the tone of a prosecuting attorney holding a bunch of hobby writers accountable for over a million words of text published over ten years and expecting it to be 100% consistent, up-to-date with how the game has evolved, and then retroactively corrected. Probably for free.

      The tone brought to the table is not constructive nor conducive to the continued participation in the forums by those who write the material. Are people arguing in bad faith? Not as such, but the assumptions and exepections (summarized in somewhat exaggerated terms above) are not well matched to the nature of the discussion and the implicit expectation by those who write for the systems that at the heart of every game is a GM that will be dynamically interpreting the guidelines provided by the rules in order to run games.

      And then it does feel much as though you're on trial by a bunch of angry people. And anything you write – perhaps trying to answer a question helpfully while at a traffic light, in between meetings, or otherwise catching a moment of time to engage in a discussion about your hobby – is being responded to with a level of vitriol that hits the "not worth responding to ever again" level.

      I did leave the thread(s), and come back periodically, as you noted. I find, though, that I have to do that more and more these days. Maybe I'm just getting old and crotchety.

    2. It's excellent that the GURPS forums gets authorial responses at all, let alone to the depth and frequency that it does. However while guy who doesn't understand the rules at all appreciates extremely the mid traffic response when someone is trying to figure out exactly how the rules work the mid traffic response will often only lead to confusion of their part and a worse mood on the author's part. It's probably better to put off the quick reply for deep detail and maybe reply to it later when more time is available.

    3. Had you made the connection between William Craft and McAllister? Perhaps, but I'm happy to note it for other people surfing between the blog and the forums.

      Mr. Cole, I appreciate the response. I hadn't considered that, as an author and friend to other authors, you felt it was you who was on trial. I'd like to say that I've always ever approached this as an examination of text, but I will admit that your perception of the tone is reasonable, and I'm sorry that it sunk to the level of ad hominem.

    4. Quick note: I've never felt personally attacked on the forums. I once was told that, when I stated for TG 'this is the rule, and this is what I intended' that I was wrong, not in the interpretation of the text, but my statement of intent was incorrect! That was . . . bewildering.

      As an author with a penchant and/or reputation (deserved, mostly) for complex metasystems, one might find it odd that I find textual arguments about the rules a bit maddening. I'm OK with this. It makes me like The Sphinx: "Terribly mysterious."

  4. In an in-depth presentation to a session of the IGDA, Mike Mearls stated that they were very surprised that their playtesting data indicated that there is a direct correlation between player satisfaction and game complexity for non-combat rules/play. However, there is an inverse relationship for satisfaction when it comes to combat and complexity…most of their playtesters (~175,000, I believe) stated that their satisfaction decreased when combat complexity increased.

    This would suggest that rules lawyers are outliers, despite what some forums and blogs may indicate.

  5. As a lawyer IRL, there's a few things that I find about Rules Lawyering that are annoying:

    First, in my experience and from what I can see on D&D and GURPS forums, rules lawyering generally comes into play when someone is being greedy and trying to do something obviously unintended by the rules. Munchkinism, if you will.

    Second, I cannot stand the whole "RAW" versus "RAI" concept. I know I may send everyone over the edge here, but…There is no such thing as RAW. SERIOUSLY. That term is the goofiest term I have ever heard of. Every rule/law is being interpreted by the reader. And that's critical to determining what is meant by a rule. For all of those who say, "Well, if you read it literally, it means THIS," and that's supposed to be RAW, I give you Judge Learned Hand, from his opinion in Giuseppe v. Walling (1944):

    "There is no surer way to misread any document than to read it literally. … As nearly as we can, we must put ourselves in the place of those who uttered the words, and try to divine how they would have dealt with the unforeseen situation; and, although their words are by far the most decisive evidence of what they would have done, they are by no means final."

    So, RAW is a meaningless term (and frankly, so is RAI). At the end of the day, each person reading the rules has to interpret what was meant. Sometimes the rules are written so clearly, there's no question, and a plain reading of the rule works just fine (I guess you could call this RAW, but it's still a stupid term). Other times…less so (usually, but not always, due to poor drafting). And the fundamental concept that should be remembered when interpreting any rule is this: Courts generally steer clear of any interpretation that would create an absurd result–since that could not be the intent of the rules' author. That shouldn't be any different in RPGs, board games, whatever. In other words: if you're trying to interpret a rule in the game to make yourself into a Super Munchkin, you're almost certain to have the wrong interpretation.

    In summary: I think Peter Dell'Orto and Doug (as well as others) have it correct: the game is about fun, the spirit of the rules is what is paramount (both in RPGs and in real life), and let's have fun playing the game instead of trying to squeeze that extra advantage out of a tortured reading of the rules.

    1. I'm editing Anonymous Ruleslawyer's post for civlity. Fair warning: ad hominem will get you banned.

      Anonymous Ruleslawyer said: "Learned Hand was arguing against the use of literal reading not the possibility. That's also ignoring that RPG rules are generally written much less ambiguously than real laws due to only having to apply to a narrower set of contexts.

      How about we not act as if people with different styles of play aren't attempting to maximize their fun huh?"

    2. It is not ad hominem to accuse someone when the point is to accuse them, only when it is invalidly used to leverage another point. My point in the second part of my post was that Vic LaPira's posting was objectionable.

      I shall however refrain from personal attacks in the future.

    3. "How about we not act as if people with different styles of play aren't attempting to maximize their fun huh"

      I honestly think everyone intends to maximize their fun. I just think that it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the fun is the whole point, and the rules are just guidelines to help you make that fun happen during the game. They aren't the fun, itself, and are really there for individual gaming groups to take and run with and modify as they please – which ultimately means there isn't a single right answer for all. And it seems hard to reconcile that with the occasionally fairly venomous arguments that erupt around game rules!

    4. I figure there are: "rules as written," "rules as intended," and "rules as applied at the table based on the first two and our own definitions." Only the third, ultimately, matters. The first two are more like theoretical concepts, the third is reality.

    5. "I honestly think everyone intends to maximize their fun. I just think that it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the fun is the whole point, and the rules are just guidelines to help you make that fun happen during the game. They aren't the fun, itself, and are really there for individual gaming groups to take and run with and modify as they please – which ultimately means there isn't a single right answer for all. And it seems hard to reconcile that with the occasionally fairly venomous arguments that erupt around game rules!"

      They are the fun though for quite a few people.

      Do you understand what it's like to regularly read people simply stating that the way you enjoy a game is not fun?

    6. "They are the fun though for quite a few people."

      I just don't think that's true. I think some people like to argue rules, but that's not where the fun is for actual play. It's a different thing entirely.

      "Do you understand what it's like to regularly read people simply stating that the way you enjoy a game is not fun?"

      Yes, I do.

    7. Giving preference to "actual play" ignores all of the other fun generating activities that people can engage in. Even limited to matters of actual gameplay, I am standing here saying I like a playstyle and being informed my preference is wrong and not actually fun.

    8. The rules for RPG are for playing cooperative* games of shared imagination. They are there to give a set of guidelines for what happens when things are attempted, subject to the GM's judgment. That's what they are for, and I feel comfortable saying that only the actual play that results from rules ultimately matters for judging those rules. Those sorts of rules have to cover too much ground to ever be close to airtight or work without a GM there to decide how they function and the agreement of the players to put the shared experience over the words used to convey the rules. I also think that once you hit the rule books to start arguing, rules-lawyering, and otherwise engage the rules as rules instead of the rules as an aid to this activity of RPG play, you've stopped playing and started doing something else.

      That some people might like arguing online about the rules doesn't change any of that. Even if they enjoy that – it's a sideline at best to what the rules are there for. And while it's fine for people to like arguing online about the rules and to say so, it's also equally fine for people to say that they don't like people arguing online about the rules. Or, like I said in my own post, that they categorically reject that as part of their own tabletops.

      I just note as a rules writer, while I do my best to make the rules work smoothly and easily across a variety of circumstances, and while I do my best to word them so that confusion between intent and wording and results is at a minimum, it's impossible to make them flawless. It's enough that they're functional, and it's not only possible but strongly encouraged for gaming groups to take what's in the books and ignore it, change it, or otherwise twist, spindle, and mash them into what they want.

      This kind of thing is why I'm generally happy to explain what the rule is intended to do, how I run things personally (not always the same thing), and accept constructive criticism of the wording to make it all work just a little better. But I'm generally extremely unhappy to be told the rules are wrong, have the rules be bashed on and extended beyond all practical expectation just because the wording can be interpreted to sort-of say you can do some thing, and otherwise forced to defend rules from folks who – if they don't like them – should just change the rule themselves and get on with it.

      * As in, the players cooperate to make it happen, even if the characters don't cooperate in the actual game.

    9. What perspective the quality of rules should be judged by is not the same thing as whether it is acceptable and helpful to the community at large to declare that some people's playstyle preferences are wrong.

      And no, it's not acceptable for people to crap on people's discussions by saying that they don't like the frame in which it is being discussed. "I'm not interested in this, so you guys, in a thread I didn't start, stop talking about it" is the bane of internet communities. If there is anything GURPS doesn't need it is cross format thread crapping.

    10. I read Doug as criticizing the way the argument devolved, and asserting that rules are guidelines for play not words to be fought over and twisted around. That's a criticism of arguing, not of "playstyle."

      And it's his personal game blog. Nothing Doug wants to post here about games or anything is "not acceptable."

    11. Doug said nothing about playstyle. My complaints regarding that are aimed at Vic LaPira and you.

      And there are a great deal of things unacceptable or personal blogs. The effects of "don't talk about things I'm not interested in" is damage to other sections of the community's ability to discuss things with each other. That's no more acceptable than someone improperly cutting a tree on their property down and it falling and hitting my plants. Some things that people do in personal spaces have effects on others. I Doug's post had consisted of him mentioning his opinions of rules lawyery in his games, the disadvantages of going off on a super detailed tangent for the original poster and a parting shot I would never have posted in the first place.

  6. By the way, Doug, I'm not sure if I'll use it or not, but I like the two-part proposal at the end of the post. A smoothed penalty might work, and the free facing change as part of a defense seems interesting. I'd have to play around with it to see how it might work, but forcing the "better defenses now vs. turning away from the facing I'd chosen for this melee" decision could be interesting. Combining that with smoothed penalties might slow things down as people try to figure out their penalties, though, and optimal facing. Might depend on the group.

    1. Yeah, those seem like good things to try in Actual Play. They were ideas I had obviously as I wrote about it, but thinking about the "really, it's all a giant munge of movement and flurry of motion" leads to being able to shift a bit as part of a defense as well as to look at the start/end states. The fact that penalties are, by and large, even numbers already makes for fast "in your head" math.

    2. The analogy between rules and law is interesting.

      I guess if I follow it along Id say:

      The game designer/author is the public servant who ends up drafting the actual laws.

      The GM is the court of appeal for questions of law.

      The SJ Forums are the lawyers with opinions on how the law should be applied.

      And the entire gaming group are the actual law makers given they decide which rules they want to use and how theyll apply them.

  7. I agree with Vic LaPira when he says, "Every rule/law is being interpreted by the reader" and quotes Hand. Absent psychic powers, game designers cannot anticipate every possible interpretation of their work, so they focus on delivering a wording amenable to interpretation by the widest cross-section of gamers. This isn't the same as a wording intended to be read literally, which would serve a single, narrow definition of fun. As a designer, I accept that this decision will snub literalists, but I take comfort in the fact that most gamers are creative thinkers, capable of intelligent interpretation on their own or in collaboration with others. I don't begrudge collaborative interpretation on forums, only (1) literalist screeds and (2) attacks on designers for not serving some specific agenda. These latter behaviors, not calm interpretation, are the true face of rules lawyers.

    Many gamers lose sight of the fact that game designers are living, breathing, fallible people with feelings, paid very little (and sometimes not at all) for their work. This makes literalist screeds and attacks on designers for not serving specific customer agendas particularly hurtful. For instance, we've read:

    "Do you understand what it's like to regularly read people simply stating that the way you enjoy a game is not fun?"

    Let's change a word:

    "Do you understand what it's like to regularly read people simply stating that the way you wrote a game is not fun?"

    We've also read this:

    "And no, it's not acceptable for people to crap on people's discussions."

    Let's change a couple more words:

    "And no, it's not acceptable for people to crap on designers' work."

    The $0.02-$0.03 of my paycheck covered by somebody buying a book in my product line doesn't leave me feeling inclined to accept beat-downs, especially when I'm spending an unpaid hour or more a day (worth considerably more than a few cents) explaining my rules, apologizing for my errors, etc. Someone who truly believe that paying for rules means they shouldn't have to interpret them – that they should get a hermetic, literal prescription – should be funding their favorite writers via Kickstarter or Patreon, not buying publisher-funded works deliberately worded to be open to the widest range of possible interpretations to reach a broad spectrum of customers.

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