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The Games Within The Game

Posted By Matthew J. Neagley On December 16, 2010 @ 10:21 am In GMing Advice | 12 Comments

906242_donkeyI have a confession to make. That anal retentive constantly nitpicking rules lawyer at your table? That’s me. I even once got my head so far up my ass that when a fellow player asked for a ruling I immediately responded “I’ll allow it.” Then I turned about three shades of beet red, handwaved some excuse like “Oops! Sorry. Used to being the GM. Just ignore me.” and kept my trap shut for the rest of the evening.

Now, there are lots of reasons to be a rules lawyer from power trips, to bending the rules in your favor, to pure old anal retentiveness but most of those have been discussed at length. If not in the stew specifically, than in plenty of places elsewhere. Just do a Google search for “How do I deal with a rules lawyer?” but I recently had an epiphany about why I’m a rules lawyer and I’ve never seen it mentioned elsewhere, so I felt it was worth bringing up. Further, I’m fairly certain it’s not actually limited to rules lawyers. It’s apparently able to explain many types of problem behavior.

So here’s the big idea: I‘m a rules lawyer because I enjoy being a rules lawyer. I don’t just argue about rules in games; I argue about anything and everything and have done so as long as I can remember. I enjoy the duel of wits, the heat of the exchange, the organization of facts into unbreakable logical chains. I don’t even care about winning or losing. I just love arguing.  To me it’s a game and it’s a game every bit as fun as any RPG I’ve ever played.

A player playing a social game while playing an RPG is distracted and disruptive, and it’s in everyone’s best interest, including theirs, to either get them to focus on the right game or to leave entirely. Think of them as the guy who starts playing video games on his iphone mid session. Not only are they not paying attention, but other players are paying attention to what they’re doing.

You can tell when a player is causing problems because of this motivation because they’re enjoying themselves. They’re enjoying whatever disruptive activity they’re participating in, and it’s the activity itself, not necessarily the outcome of the activity or the effect it has on the game that they’re concerned with. I argue because I like to argue. I’ll quibble about any rule out there, regardless of it’s impact or importance to the rules, or if it even effects my character. Hell, I’ve argued for more penalties sometimes, because it’s the argument that’s important.  Similarly, the player who enjoys pushing other player’s buttons isn’t going to care that it’s slowing down the game, or that another character poisons their character’s oatmeal in retaliation. They’re getting their satisfaction from the act of irritating others. The same goes for the spotlight stealer: it’s getting everyone’s attention that’s fun for them, regardless of the effect it has on the game. I suspect not everyone motivated in this manner is both aware of why they’re acting the way they are and willing to admit their motivations, so diagnosing this issue may require as much observation as simple communication.

So how do you deal with a player who’s playing social games in detriment to the RPG? In some cases, like mine, the player enjoys both games, and to the extent that they’re rational human beings, are willing to put aside the game only they want to play for the game everyone wants to play. You may need to ask them to do so and have some patience with them, but they should be happy to oblige. In other cases, the player doesn’t really want to play the RPG. They may have never enjoyed playing RPGs. The only reason they’re at your house eating your chips is to fulfill their social kink, and that means they really have no reason to be there. You’re hosting an RPG. You’re not hosting a debate. So if I’m there for a debate, you might as well show me the door. It’s what you would do if I showed up to sell vacuum cleaners.

About  Matthew J. Neagley

First introduced to RPGs through the DnD Red Box Set in 1990, Matt fights on ongoing battle with GMing ADD, leaving his to-do list littered with the broken wrecks of half-formed campaigns, worlds, characters, settings, and home-brewed systems. Luckily, his wife is also a GM, providing him with time on both sides of the screen.




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12 Comments To "The Games Within The Game"

#1 Comment By samhoice On December 16, 2010 @ 11:07 am

If your player is interested in playing both games and not just there to exercise their annoying quirk, you could use their spotlight moment to let them practice their debating. Assuming you’re up to it as a GM and you don’t let it drag on too long, it could be a fun plot point. Of course, you probably couldn’t do this every session.

#2 Comment By Roxysteve On December 16, 2010 @ 11:40 am

I enjoy not argument, but discussion. I try not to do it in-game because others don’t understand it isn’t life-and-death and can’t walk away afterward. I’m also a rules lawyer in-game unless I try really hard not to be.

Not because I want to bend the rules to suit me. It is universally so that the rules get applied as written rather than ignored, because there went the challenge of the game.

Example. I want the GM to levy spell costs in D&D. This not only challenges me to keep a well-stocked spell larder as it were, but also allows for the possibility of forensic detective work – a spell used in a crime might leave Spell Component Residue (SCR) at the scene for example, and an NPC who has the word out for such-and-such a rare commodity might just be that spellcaster burgalar we’ve been looking for etc etc.

In one game I was really unpopular because although the GM didn’t enforce spell costs and components, I did on my magic-user and steadfastly refused to perform spells for which I had no components or where the costs were usurious. For me, that was role-playing. For them I was being a dick.

I want *all* the grid rules in play if we are using the grid, because otherwise there’s no point. You may see it differently, but that is my own well-considered opinion based on over three decades gaming experience, much of it on tactical hex-grid war games. Turn off one rule and you may as well turn them all off.

If you can remember all the bloody shortcut keys for WoW you can get to grips with AOO so stop whining and concentrate!

The counter-me rules in a setting are often the reason I am playing the damned thing in the first place. If your dark S&S campaign suddenly doesn’t have any consequences to the frequent use of magic when the rulebook says you risk madness and corruption of your soul with each exposure I’m walking and I’m blaming you for a bait and switch job. And unless you say you’ve turned those rules off I’m going to “rules lawyer” every time you fail to implement the penalty (twice as vehemently when I’m the one under threat) until it becomes obvious you are not running the game you said you were.

Yep. I annoy the p*ss out of people sometimes, but only because a game has gone creampuff.

No challenge means no challenges overcome, and therefore heroes. Scott wouldn’t have starved to death in Antarctica if the rules on rations, terrain difficulty and fatigue were not in play, and by the same token Amundsen would be an unknown day-tripper.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On December 16, 2010 @ 11:46 am

That was intended as a counter to the “argument is always for the sake of it” assumption in your position, Mathew.

I also don’t proof-read enough.

#4 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On December 16, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

@samhoice – That’s an excellent idea and it never occurred to me. (You’d know because I totally would have made sure to type up and take credit for a gem like that!)

@Roxysteve – I agree on all points. There are reasons other than the one I talk about in my article for every type of destructive behavior that might be covered by the above. But while you can find those discussed in depth elsewhere I had never seen this particular one brought up. For example, your example of a bait an switch game would fall under any number of social contract, narrative control, or disclosure articles right here on the Stew let alone teh intarwebz in general.

#5 Comment By Roxysteve On December 16, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

@Matthew J. Neagley – Ah. I *have* seen the idea explored elsewhere and made a false assumption based on that.

Wanna argue about it? Bo)

#6 Comment By ekb On December 16, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

RPGs, in general, are social interactions. One of the accepted forms of geek interaction – especially male geek interaction – is social dominance. Rather than take the canine approach of marking things with urine, the rules lawyer does so through saying “you’re wrong.” Or, you can plan for such things in the process of building the game to be played. This is easily done through house ruling. Or rolling your own game…

Personally, I build time in as a metagame factor in pretty much any game I’m running. Want to take time to argue with me? Sure… let me just bump the DC/Trait for everything else in the scenario by +N for every 5 minutes you suck out of the game. Maybe you’ll even say something that gives me an excellent idea to use against you – people tend to do that when they start talking.

Or I just don’t invite you over to play. Make my fun less fun and that happens quickly. Make MY GUEST’S fun less fun, it happens now in the form of me telling you to get the hell out of the house.

Harsh? Yes. Effective? Definitely.

#7 Comment By farfromunique On December 16, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

When I rules-lawyer, it tends to not be out of a desire to argue (in spite of being good at it, i don’t like doing it), but rather out of genuinely knowing the system better than someone else, and wanting to share that knowledge. How does this translate as far as “problem-player problems” go, or does it? (My GMs tend to be stoic about good player / bad player)

#8 Comment By Patrick Benson On December 16, 2010 @ 6:29 pm

Excellent article. When this occurs, which is not often, I just tell the player “I understand what you are saying, but I disagree. Let’s move on.” and if the player brings it up again I state that my decision is final. After that I will suggest that the player leave the game, and the last step is that I will boot the player from the game.

My game is not a democracy. I have final say as the GM, and while I value input I will play the GM fiat card with a heavy hand to avoid a derailing argument.

As a player I avoid arguing with the GM at the table. I’ll give input, and I’ll bring up complaints outside of the game in private. If I feel that the GM is unfair I will leave the game, and I’ll do the same if I feel my issues with a GM’s style hurts the group.

#9 Comment By Redcrow On December 16, 2010 @ 11:26 pm

As a player I will give a brief challenge to any rule that I think is being applied incorrectly or perhaps misunderstood. Unless a bad ruling will directly result in character death I will not press the issue but instead wait until after the game to continue discussion.

As a GM I prefer my players to act in the same way.

I don’t mind the type of rules lawyers who simply have a better knowledge of the system than I do, but I do have a problem with the type that are constantly trying to force odd interpretations of rules to give their characters an unfair advantage.

I’ve been gaming for 29+ years and in that time I’ve only had to ask 4 people to leave my games; and only 1 of those was for poor rules-lawyering.

#10 Comment By BryanB On December 17, 2010 @ 2:06 pm

I’ve always felt that there was a time and place for rules lawyer type debates. The middle of a game session at the height of an epic scene is not one of them.

I’ve always brought up disagreements with my GMs during a break or after the session ends. Unless the error is game breaking, I expect my players to have the same tact. Almost nothing is worse for a game session than to halt play for a prolonged period arguing over a rule. In the end, the GM has the final say for their game and everyone should respect that even if they disagree with the ruling.

#11 Comment By Volcarthe On December 18, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

As much as I love arguing, I never try to use my knowledge of the game to screw anyone over or sneak something by.

Being the primary DM for years, I spent a lot of time learning the numbers crunch aspect of my games and bring that to the table as a player in the form of advice and clarification (or book reference). Of course, I’ve also learned that you can FM anything and it doesn’t actually help to natter on to the DM who has something planned.

Going crazy with the rules, I find, has best been used for character creation, to let everyone get the most of what they want from their PCs.

#12 Comment By Squeejee On December 19, 2010 @ 2:02 am

Maybe it’s just a particular quirk of my regular group, but I find that if we spend two hours out of a five hour session goofing around on our computers / bitching about work / arguing over the minutia of the game system than it’s par for the course, and everyone manages to have a good time anyway. So in my experience, the games-within-the-game are an essential part to every session – for some groups, anyway.


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