Guest Post: Author/historian Shawn Fisher comments on rules-lawyering

Shawn Fisher, co-author of GURPS High-Tech and GURPS WW2: Hand of Steel (among other published works) posted a comment to the thread on rules-lawyering that somehow bounced from Blogger. He contacted me offline with the comment, which was fairly extensive – too extensive to be buried in the comments!
So here’s more fuel on the fire. I anticipate restrained and level discussion.
The very point of rules is to help narrate an adventure game. No GURPS writer will ever be able to write rules that are perfect: That’s an impossible standard. In addition, GURPS authors aren’t trying to do that anyway. GURPS has an official play style that is very important. 

On Basic Set p.492 it says a GM listens

“to the players describe what they’re doing, then use the rules of the game to tell them what happens, so they can describe what they want to do next . . .the sections below will help you, as GM, determine “what happens next” in a variety of situations. But the most important things are not “rules” at all, but guidelines for good GMing. Use common sense. When any rule gives a silly result, follow common sense instead. No matter how much we playtest, no rules are perfect – including these. Don’t let the players turn into “rules lawyers.”

So the rules are intended for mature people, playing a cooperative game, who are willing to use common sense to fill in the gaps – or fudge results – and who can handle their own problem solving. It says that right on the tin. If you are unhappy with that purpose, play another game: GURPS will never make you happy.

Robin Laws, in his book published by SJGames, says,

“What really makes a difference in the success or failure of a roleplaying session is you. Your participation, whether as GM or player, has much more influence on the fun your group has than all of the game products in the world. Rule books are not roleplaying games, any more than a screenplay is a movie.”

So, yes, if you like a particular play style that is at odds with what GURPS writers are doing, according to company editorial guidelines, you are “doing it wrong.” If you expect the rules to provide “the fun,” Robin Laws thinks otherwise. Ken Hite and many others will likely agree with us, and not with you. That’s fine. Ignore us all. But do not come and bang on our door and whine and cry and hair pull that it’s not working for you. It’s never going to!

Also, understand that no amount of thinking, writing, editing, thinking, playtesting, re-writing, editing, will produce a set of rules that cannot be misunderstood. Rules are not objective – they are by their nature subjective. Ever read a grammar book, and then the commentary on grammar styles? Game rules are no different. People will inevitably misunderstand the rules. It’s the nature of language. GURPS authors aren’t paid to answer questions on the forums. If we do show up, it’s out of a sense of love for the hobby, and nothing else. I can’t tell you how much “fun” it is to be chided on the forums by people who don’t write books and who can’t read the rules. Or buy the products. Nothing in any of that experience is fun, I assure you.

Finally, let me say this. People that have a problem with game rules and playing in a cooperative game often have other problems in real life. This is not directed at anyone in this thread, but it has made me think.

I’ve been a gamer since the 1980s. I’ve never met a bad gamer who was a success in real life, or who didn’t constantly have problems with relationships and employment outside of gaming. I’ve met good gamers who were well-adjusted and had successful careers, but the worst rules lawyers and the most argumentative people to ever sit at my gaming table were not the doctors, lawyers, professors, teachers, engineers, and career police and military officers. The worst offenders were pizza delivery drivers, convenience store clerks, and stock room workers, or the unemployed. This is not to deride those jobs (I did those things, and worse, in my college years), but rather to say that there is in my experience some correlation between politeness, propriety, and group cooperation and the ability to hold down a steady job that pays a decent wage. Gamers that do not have real life success often game to experience success through escapism, and when that too is denied, the response can be vicious. Often the very same people who showed up without snacks, a character sheet, or even a character name (call me Bob) were also the ones most intent on misconstruing the rules, mis-adding character points, and generally being a nuisance in other ways.

Again, I’m not accusing anyone here of these things, only recalling my interactions with bad players. Make of it what you will.

Finally – and perhaps a bit tangentially – the point of a blog is to post one’s opinion, free from censorship of others. Doug’s blog is his place to speak. If a person comes here and posts, it’s like standing in his living room. Be respectful of his space.

10 thoughts on “Guest Post: Author/historian Shawn Fisher comments on rules-lawyering

  1. Calling one paragraph on page b492 an 'official play style' seems rather unrealistic. Most RPGs have paragraphs similar to that one, and their presence (or absence) is widely ignored.

  2. Pg. 486: "The GM adds all the details that make it come alive. With a good GM,
    even a badset of rules can be a lot of fun. With a goodset, the sky’s the limit. We semi-modestly believe that GURPSis a very good set of rules indeed – but without the GM,
    the rules are nothing."

  3. And later: "In any question of rules, the GM’s word is law. The GM decides which optional rules to use, and settles any specific questions that come up. A good GM discusses important questions with the players before deciding – and a good player accepts the GM’s decisions." So, no, this is not the single line or paragraph. It's the philosophy. Here's Sean Punch, commenting in the official GURPS _How to Be A GURPS GM_ book p.37: "GURPS is designed around there being a GM in the loop, exercising judgment. It isn’t a set of PvP or computer-game rules. It’s a tool kit for GMs. We design assuming that there will be a GM, the GM will fudge, and the players will live with it."

  4. GURPS _How to Be A GURPS GM_ p.27: "Despite all the points and rules, GURPS isn’t a highly objective, prescriptive system where the roleplaying is actually a thin veil over a set of PvP rules. You cannot rely on its mechanics to gauge threats and outcomes very precisely. It’s designed to be used by a GM running a game with a group of players in a more-or-less cooperative fashion, and it tacitly assumes that the GM will sometimes fudge outcomes to get dramatic results."

  5. The choice to ignore a rule that says that all rules can be ignored is interesting, because it's a case of the unsustainable barber paradox.

    We can of course choose to ignore the rule that says that all rules can be ignored – we can do so on the basis of that rule itself! But if we do so, then that rule disappears from the ruleset. Thus, now, all rules must be complied with, none can be ignored. Therefore, that rule must be reintroduced, and complied with: it can't be ignored. So if we have that rule again, we can ignore all rules, including that rule itself… And so on, ad infinitum.

    An alternative to a situation in which no solution is ever valid is a situation in which both solutions are valid. I.e., and that's the way I read the GURPS rules, my gaming group, favoring common sense, logic, and realism, will ignore a rule that works 99% of the times, in that 1% of the cases in which it would deliver a nonsensical result. And at the same time, a group of rules lawyers can, if they so wish, favor strict enforcement of the letter of the rules, in all cases. if they are happy with that, I only wish a lot of fun at their gaming sessions.

    Now, I don't know if a rules lawyer would approve of a system that can at the same time yield such different outcomes. But I do, and my gaming group is happy with the way we have handled the very, very rare cases in which we agreed the rule didn't yield a reasonable result. Many of the players I have met over the years would also agree.


  6. In regards to common sense. I know at least one person who to my face told me that heavier items fall faster than lighter items, because common sense told them so.

    In regards to common sense and GURPS rules, two books GUN FU (SA co author) and Tactical Shooting (TS) deal very well with common sense gun myths. Gun Fu by building on the common sense around movie myths and tactical shooting by dispelling many realworld myths that common sense tells us are true. I remember a friend reading TS in front of me saying 'thats not true, thats not true!' Cause once again common sense told him the myths were true. I imagine there's many a GURPS game where the players have thought the rules failed to represent reality, but they were 100% realistic and the group was wrong.

    In the spectrum of games there's on one side the perfect PVP games like poker or chess. You cant improve these games. You can change the poker rules, make chess three dimensional, but the games are so well balanced that there will never be an issue. You might prefer one game or set of rules to another but that's just a question of taste.

    Its not possible to make an RPG like that. You don't have the same deck of cards or chess pieces. Once you, for example, buy guns instead of magic or go left instead of right the adventure and system will already have assumptions on which is more or less useful.

    My problems have always been been:

    Where the system is just bad and probably not playtested. So you get ridiculous things like people shrugging off close range explosions just because…

    And/Or the GM and players havent really read or understood the rules so they change them as you go, give you -1 to hit and +1 damage with no regard to what that means or the change the rules completely because the system actually is unworkable.

    Thankfully as a System GURPS is workable. If it fails anywhere its in character creation, which in RAW is so free that it requires a GM to oversee.

    Which leads me to what I think is often the problem I have with so many RPGs bad GMs! So many people who shouldnt be in charge, but just are until the group gets sick of them and the game ends

    Its really hard to get a good group. A bad player can get better, especially if a good GM can deal with them up to and including kicking them out ,but Ive never seen a GM that doesnt understand the rules, chooses to ignore them, or change them on the fly etc decide that they are the reason the game isnt working.

  7. The official playstyle is a preference of the designers not the heart of the rules. It's even easier to houserule them away than most actual rules. For example it may not be intended as a set of PVP rules, but people have run GURPS PVP tournaments and had fun. Even if one doesn't change them and also doesn't follow them that would simply mean that they are playing GURPS wrongly, not that their playstyle in general was wrong or unfun.

    There is indeed no way to write a rule that someone won't misunderstand. It is possible for rules be written to have one answer for any question. RPGs cover topics that couldn't be handled this way and it wouldn't really be a good use of resources to develop the topics that could to that level but it would be possible.

    It's just another example of the shocking levels of disrespect considered acceptable by the RPG community that having a "problem with game rules and playing in a cooperative game" is linked with rulelawyery. Obviously success in life both correlates to and allows someone to not be a jerk, but that's the trait being described. Misconstruing the rules and mis-adding character points are not the actions of a ruleslawyer.

    1. "The shocking levels of disrespect considered acceptable by the RPG community" are rulelawyers. It's not shocking that a self-identified ruleslawyer (which the complete gaming community, as a "preference," abhors) is willing to argue (!!!!) over what a rules lawyer actually is. It's an excellent example of why tabletop gaming is dying and why computer gaming is a thriving multi-billion dollar industry. Computer gaming, for all its limitations, succeeds in cutting out the "Nuh-uh, because on page 192 there's a rule…" which suspends disbelief, stops the game, and demonstrates a disrespect for the GM and the other players and results in arguments and hard feelings. It's some of the most profoundly selfish and anti-social behavior you can find in the hobby, second perhaps only to outright cheating. So, um, yeah. You're doing it wrong. Welcome to reality.

  8. GURPS does put a lot on the GM's shoulders: determining the setting parameters (TL, CR, mana level, and the like) and meta-game parameters (e.g., power level and realism level), choosing which traits to allow and in what quantity, vetting overall character builds, picking which optional rules to use in play, judging when to "roll and shout," and so on. If it has a major flaw, that's it in a nutshell. I'd assert that this is unavoidable for a generic, universal game, though . . . you can't offer a single rules set for all genres without dials and switches that someone has to set, and that someone is usually the GM. On the other hand, GURPS offers a lot of genre support to help with this. GURPS Action, GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, and GURPS Monster Hunters are extreme examples, where you could almost try PvP – almost, but not quite – because they're prescriptive in the extreme, but GURPS Fantasy and GURPS Supers count, too.

    My beef with rules lawyers in GURPS in particular is that they are as often arguing about the GM's choice of dial-and-switch settings as about the rules per se. For instance, most realism-based arguments are invalid if the GM has chosen to twist the Realism knob to down to 1 instead of cranking it up to 10, yet there are gamers who seem to believe that GURPS' "thing" is realism and that this setting is fixed at 10 . . . which is rubbish. A lot of lawyers also seem to ignore "the GM may," "the GM is free to," and "the GM is welcome to" as meaningless – or worse, they ignore "the GM" and figure they have carte blanche to fiddle, too.

    Of course, there are also bad habits not specific to GURPS rules lawyers. Examples are reading plain English "or" as logical "or" or "xor" depending on what's convenient, and attempting to argue that open-ended lists (such as "e.g., x, y, or z" and "x, y, z, etc.") are uniquely prescriptive rather than mere examples to seed the imagination. That kind of behavior is annoying to me as a writer, because it pressures me to use ugly, stilted language instead of the inspiring, flowing kind. And this does get back to GURPS in particular, as I usually say "Screw it!" and write inspirationally rather than legalistically, which means the game is bait for a certain kind of rules lawyer.

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