House Rules vs RAW or RAI
This is a discussion that has come up in my games quite a few times where players have taken it upon themselves to argue the rules during the game session at the expense of game play. This post is in response to one of my players not understanding why we are not playing only Rules as Written (RAW). I have 30+ years of dancing around this issue for fear of losing players from games. So here is hoping that it can be laid out in the open in the hopes that players understand why this is a sensitive issue and how it impacts those who play and run roleplaying games.
- What are House Rules?
- What are RAW?
- What are RAI?
- What is a Rules Lawyer?
- What can I do in my game?
- How do Players React?
- How does this affect my games?
- Content Updates
What are House Rules?
House rules are there as a way of making the game unique and give the Games Master some flexibility in their world or setting to showcase stories.
House Rules are meant for things that take the rules into new directions, update other rules system to the one you are playing or extend the functionality of existing rules.
Examples of House Rules in my games:
- PF2 Campaigns set before the Core Rulebook timeline discounting various options from gameplay such as race Goblin, or Language Thassilonian as starting options.
- PF2 Location feats that grant player who didn’t push their luck with character creation, options for fast travel.
- PF2 Language proficiencies which affect how you know a language and what your capable of doing with it. This also has an interaction with magic that scales with level, so low level magic use is not the golden ticket for knowing and understanding the full content of language when language issues is part of the narrative.
- Sourcebooks beyond the core books. i.e D&D uses Player’s Handbook, PF2 uses Core Rulebook. What this means is that players should not be bringing content to the table that has not been approved by the person running the game just because it has been released. Any book added to a campaign outside of the base books is technically a house rule, no matter who printed the book.
- Story rules that come into effect when various stages of the story are reached. For D&D Hollow World has a different take on magic, where as in PF2 I have a mechanic for becoming spellscarred and what that means for the ongoing campaign. Now I could detail the story rules completely (as asked a few times) but then there is no exploration, investigation or reveal. Everytime I have laid out the story rules to my current players, their characters automatically act on those rules.
What are RAW (Rules as Written)?
Rules as Written is an necessity for Store Based Games, which are purely focused on how the rules are run and not any roleplay aspects which get in the way of the play time.
Examples of Rules as Written gameplay:
- You can only target creatures you can see without a miss change, or guessing their square if they are invisible.
- PF2 Downtime cannot be done while doing any other activity on that day. This includes travelling stopping any downtime.
- Store Based Game Rules Expansions are usually all allowed if you have a purchased copy of the rules your referencing with you. Web references are generally not legal unless it is for a clarification on the printed material you have with you.
What are RAI (Rules as Intended)?
Rules as Intended is every interpretation beyond Rules as Written that add words or intent not actually in the writing but in the spirit of the rule.
Rules as Intended is the Games Master option for allowing actions that are not in the action rulebook, but are close to existing rules. This allows for more flexibility in the game but cause issues with all Rules Lawyers on the table (normally unless they are specifically getting a benefit from it)
Examples of Rules as Intended:
- Telekinetic Projectile only works on an unattended objects was allowed to be used with a spellcaster check on an unconscious party member allowing them to be safely recovered (after taking two wounds due to the spell) but out of reach of the creature on its turn.
- In PFS there is the concept of Hero Points, this is similar to the GM’s Luck rolls, but not as flexible so I incorporated concepts from it into the generic version I have been using in my games. Though as I expand upon the games and they advance in levels more will come to bring it in line with how hero points work.
- In shadowrun, penalties are time consuming to implement, so if your running a faster game, looser with the rules, then for low level characters you can ignore most of the penalties in favour of them being more powerful on the streets. This is a good way to introduce people to the base rules, but only works if players trust the gm to tell them of the penalties instead of arbitrarily taking the implementation of the rules into their own hands. It did give a higher level of play, but it also got abused a few times, with mismatch between players penalising themselves without direction and others taking avantages without direction.
- In star wars, applying the negative consequences of the dice rolls is meant to be done by the players, with the GM having an overview of those results. In practice it is usually the GM having to figure out what the penalties are and how they are implemented. It still works, but put more load on the Games Master.
- In Fate it is assumed that you will make connections with all the other players, or at least two connections each making a web of connections between player. Well this only works if the characters created are the ones used in the game, because the campaign was a failure due to inability for connections to be used in the games. So a good rule of thumb with fate is make sure you have a core group so the story has a chance to be played out.
What is a Rules Lawyer?
A Rules Lawyer is a player at the table who has to tell everyone else how to play the game using rules as written (when convenient for them).
The basics of Rules Lawyering is bullying the person running the game to run it the way a specific player wants it, or to gain some advantage for themselves in the game or the group that was outside of the agreed upon rules.
Examples of Rules Lawyering at my tables:
- Telling me or other players about how I should be including other real world concepts in the game because they exist and should be in the game. When it is a fantasy game with things like magic, elves or science fiction with lightsabers, or even modern era with superpowers then making it like the real world removes why people play these games as an escape from reality.
- Players arguing about how something is in the core rulebook MUST be allowed (no matter how it might break the game) because it is written in the rulebook. Most rules lawyers will invent (after the event) reasons for taking this character option, backstory element or other aspect.
- An example of this is inventing a reason why your not at fault for your backstory you have been using in the game when you learn your character is being held accountable for it. Accountability for evil acts is something that is part of games I run, and why I have the rule no evil characters.
- Another example is taking a game mechanic stating your character was using specific (and justifiable) rules to obtain that mechanic, but instead of taking that agreed justification, they instead take the benefit and build a different character using the agreement without the price. This is a common issue, of GM says one thing, and Player another. And madness occurs with trying to figure out where the miscommunication occurred.
- Players choosing mechanics to make the storyline threat go away. This is an ongoing theme, where players learn what the campaign narrative threat is, and some players choose to build characters so their character can laud it over the other players in how they are not affected by the storyline. What they don’t understand that their choices have just invalidated the campaign they agreed to play, ruined a big part of the planned storylines, which in turn wasted set up time by the game master and tends to get them offside.
- An example of this is a seafaring campaign where threat of going overboard is a major factor of the story and being told if your ship goes down the whole party dies. So the rule lawyer player will find a mechanic to allow them to swim without a check and/or breath underwater so the campaign threat does not affect their character.
- Another example is where darkness is a real threat, so certain players can see perfectly in the dark, or a game that uses high as an advantage so of course they start with flight. Or they have connections with the villain of the piece after researching the setting (and sometimes the adventure). I have had it taken to extremes where players in game tell me about how the encounter should be run as they tried to win the encounter as it was written.
- Player accessing every splat book in the game released 9as soon as its released) so they can access every divine spell in the game for their character because that how they interpret Rules and Written.
- Using a tool to create their character and because they were not paying attention to any of the details, selected options not available in the game or which are rewards later in the campaign, and then arguing that the tool allowed it so I should as well. Pathfinder 1 and Hero Lab cause more complications for my games and headaches than most of the other issues combined.
- Telling you they agree to disagree over the game rules interpretation, setting or sessions, basically says the Game Master is wrong and your right, which really does not give any grounds for compromise from the players. This also occurs when they argue their point, then tell you lets not argue the point anymore which allows them to vent, control the conversation then shut down the games master as a form of manipulation that leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Unfortunately its something I have had to put up with many times over the years running the game, and if left unchecked has even lead to threats of violence against me and players in my game if that player could not get what they wanted. This was so bad I had games kicked out of establishments twenty years ago and had to tell players not to come back. This is not something I want to experience again, as I tend to run out of my home these days due to a disability can convenience. I have even had players put me down because of my disabilities telling me how I was a worthless and horrible person and I should be grateful they actually spent time with me.
- Players who are used to being Game Masters who can’t take off the hat, this is something I struggle with that makes me a poor player in other games, and I am fighting the impulse to take more of the spotlight than a player should.
So what is rules lawyering, its basically finding a way to win (cheat) the campaign and hiding behind the rules to justify bad behaviour. Calling it cheating might sound harsh, but bullying and manipulative also fit the same with harsher meaning. This is not meants as argument against my current players, but it is something that does happen, its not great behaviour and if people are not aware it can happen it can reach extreme stages, or compounded by many minor occurrences that build up to make major concerns. These issues are always worse around the months of November and December with stressed very high at that time.
This can be an innocent mistake, but ongoing behaviour and an inability to accept it was a mistake can lead to it being repeated. This lead to me creating the “Override GM” option in the GM’s Luck roll where you burn a luck point every time you do this, and if you run out of luck points you cause issues for the table. Only I can call if this will burn a GM’s Luck point, and no arguing or rules lawyering will be taken into account, except to burn more of the play time and fun of the table. So in essence the “Override GM” option is a player wanting to mess with the game, and the expense of playing the game. It is a device to show and bring it to the open just what that behaviour is, as for most players who get caught up in the game, a minor advantage might save your character. So a very touchy thing to argue, with the unfortunate side effects of telling your games master just how little
What can I do in my game?
I have allowed a lot of wiggle room in my games over the years, but anytime I have done so it has lead to gameplay issues. Too much cheating can be a source of irritation for Games Masters.
What can you do about it?
- You can ask players to fix it, this rarely works as its more often turns out to be about how its the Game Masters fault for not knowing they had illegally built their character to begin with, or at their last level upgrade. This has the problem of players taking it personally and treating you as the enemy, and loosing friendships. I have lost friends and gamers with this request.
- You can vet every character, if your running one game, don’t have a disability that limits your reading capacity (I do), or you can ask someone else to vet the characters for you. This has lead to discussion with almost every character I have looked at, about what they have missed, what was not built correctly, where they have taking things they should not have, where they have missed things they should have. Its basically a lot of work to correctly vet a character. I have 40 characters in the fortnightly games, and each character would require at least 1 hour per character level to correctly vet every item in the build. I don’t have the time or energy, when I have done so, its gone badly more than it has been good. So I call vetting a character being the fun police as your walking over someone cheating fun so its fair for everyone.
- Have a version of character required before play. This has led to me creating a stat block so there is a single acceptable character format for simplifying my time taken while also having the character available when they have lost their sheet, or don’t make the game. The problem with this is my format was not acceptable, so everyone changed it to the point it was no longer a valid way to check peoples characters, even with a reward mechanism for doing so. I have had arguments hurt feelings and made to feel like crap because I have not giving people the bonus for ignoring what they were asked to do to get it. Players were dropping characters on the table sight unseen because of life, or taking option they knew they could get away with
- Stop and explain how the rules work. This is where I hold up play to discuss this vitally important rule mechanic that is more important than the limited time we are playing the game. I have asked players to bring up rules questions between games, but that does not work, they have to know right then and there as that mechanic (which might not have anything to do with their character) is important to show everyone else just how stupid the games master is and how he can’t be trusted to know the rules and run it during the game.
- Now if that seems harsh, think about it. The Games Master is the adjudicator of the rules for the group. Its even rules as written of the Player Handbook for D&D and Core Rulebook for PF2. Yet it does not stop players from telling me I am wrong in game and stopping the game to prove that I am wrong in how I am handling a situation.
- This has ranged from cinematic play not following the rules to allow more roleplay cause me grief, to allowing commands from animals to continue with the last command in the previous round.
- Tell the players they are using bullying behaviour. This never goes well, no one likes to think that they use bullying behaviour and has caused me to loose friends and gamers.
- Kick the bad behaving player out. This usually ends any friendship, they maybe behaving badly for other things in their lives, talking to them can help, and sometimes they just need to get away with being a bully in the game. But either way if you kick them out, then you will most likely loose any friendship you might have with them.
- List all your rules in a public place. I have been putting my game rules up here for players to reference and know what is in or not in the game. The games have a level of rarity that says what is available, and if its listed as Uncommon or Rare then it must be approved before its added to the character and not the other way around. Which is good in principle, in practice it is normally discovered during game play with me being told I approved it.
A common statement from other GM’s is to kick the player, but when roleplaying in a home campaign becomes a circle of friends this is not a good option. You want the games to be fun, but you also want to run the games. Having to argue your way though games, lock horns with players over rules, setting and interpretations is more exhausting than most imagine.
In comparison, the reason most game masters continue to run games after more than a year or two is because when games work, they leave you feeling excited, energised and uplifted. They are inspirations on how a group of friends can come together and tell a story bound by an agreed upon set of rules with trust that the games master would help guide the characters through the story narrative while trusting the players to follow the guidelines laid out for the campaign and will work together to explore, struggle and eventually succeed at the storyline. While this might sound idealistic, its this idealism that makes the game last, and show the hero journey that underlies most roleplaying campaigns.
How do Players React?
When players are put into a position about justifying their behaviour (or character choices) this is always a confrontation. While as Games Master you are the arbiter of the world, setting and rules. In reality you a group of individuals trying to get along and work together.
Most players what to be special and have something no one else has access to. Not everyone understands this is what they are asking for when they want something that was outside of the scope of the game.
Its not a pleasant experience to constantly remind players about rules they are abusing, getting wrong or where you have to remind them that you are the GM and you get to make the call on what is in or not in for the game.
Here are a bunch of reactions from my games:
- “In real life we can do this action or have this item” which is used as justification on how they should have a rule changed in their favour.
- “The book (or errata variant) says this, so I am doing this” which is used as justification for how they are using their rules lawyering to force everyone to play their way, even if the GM has provide a different interpretation previously (including just before the rule lawyers quotes)
- “The rule says this, but its your game, do it your way” which is used to point out how inadequate the GM is to the other players, belittle their rules knowledge and showcase how the rules lawyer in question should be the tables prefered source of rules.
- “You should do these actions for your turn” where a player decides to play everyone else’s character for them because they can’t be trusted to play it on their own.
- “Can I play this race/class/option that is not on the approved list” which normally has a simple yes or no, and when I say no, it does not mean ask me again at every following session, or tell me that your selected option anyway. I have been asked by the same player to play a race I said no to 7 times now.
Now these also might seem as harsh, but really what is the point to saying these in a game session. What you don’t get here is the tone of the words and how emotion can be thrown around the game table. If your sensitive to such things that can be painful or just unpleasant and become the leading cause of what is called GM Burnout where the person running the game does not want to run it anymore.
While I talk about bad behaviour, there is also the opposite style of play:
- Players thanking the GM for a good game – while rare, it does make you feel like running the games is worthwhile. Though some of those also involve messaging the gm it can also slide the other way where they publicly say good game, then have nothing but complaints afterwards.
- Players building characters together – This is usually called session zero, pre campaign, where you talk and communicate with each other what game you want to play, and what characters you want to take in and how your going to work with the theme of the campaign. This usually goes well, but has had a few notable failures.
- Have a supportive environment for play – this is where players listen to each other, and allow each players to have a say, a role in the group, and explore their own storyline.
There are many more good attributes of players that are supportive of the game and system. But late at night when you delve into the darker side of the hobby it can be hard to see the light when caught in the darkness. Again I will state that not all games are like this, not all players are like this. but with more than 1500 gaming sessions in just the last 10 years you find some players fluctuate simply due to life and need to be forgiving. Unfortunately, players are not always forgiving to having any of this discussed in private or with the group.
How does this affect my games?
My games will most likely continue on as they are, we are a circle of friends and while we have disagreements, we do need to be adult about playing with others. This might mean a few things need to be taking into account:
- Apologise if your having trouble away from the game – behaviour can be excused if its limited impact on the other players and the games master, but if its ongoing you should be aware of its effect on others and either find some way to make it up to the group, or take a break for a time to get things under control.
- Cost me friends and gamers – just writing this post and showcasing issues will costs me either gamers or friendships and sometimes both. No one likes to be called out on this and the initial reaction is usually to pull out and walk away.
- Have to explain story at cost of playing it – to justify some of my rules decisions I have had to reveal story aspects of the game and expect that to happen ongoing, as those story aspects usually get moved to background and are less likely to see tabletime.
- Spend more tabletime arguing who is right – this is a no win solution.
- Be force to Game Master as the Fun Police – basically have the games master clamp down on anything that is not rules as written so there is no longer any wiggle room for creativity which is where the name fun police comes from.
Mostly games should continue either way, but I am hoping with more of a positive attitude as everyone has had a bad time over the last year with how 2020 has given us all challenges.
This is not meant as a GM complaint about woe is me and games, it meant as a way for players to understand what it takes to run a game is more than just sitting at the table, you will face much of this as a Games Master and learning ways to cope without taking it out on the players can be hard.
Being a games masters is usually a thankless job where you spend a lot of time in and out of games dealing with misinterpretations, force of personality and arguments of story, rules, characters and players. While you don’t need to be thanked, you also don’t need to put up with abuse, being told how bad your games are or that your a horrible person.
So next time you want to try to change the game to your favour with rules lawyersing (or other forms of game bullying) you might want to ask yourself, if that is how your want to be treated?
So as a last message, its a game, its a shared experience, the basic principle is that you trust the games master to provide a narrative to allow you to experience the world and story they have taken the time to prepare. Be a team player and try and make it enjoyable for everyone and not just yourself.
Concluding a Campaign: Star Wars
This site is constantly under revision, no blog posts are final as this is a work in progress place for me to develop my game settings and rules. Some posts might be placeholders for future content, so feel free to check back later for updated information.