No Rules Arguments at the Table

Referees debating minor distraction penalty

Several weeks ago, Peter V. Dell’Orto posted how his games run with a no rules arguments at the table policy. This post aims to expand that discussion with some practical tips for establishing this policy in your gaming group.

Why a “No Rules Arguments” Policy

There are a lot of benefits to having a policy of no rules arguments at the table, but the two primary ones are fun and speed.

Having characters do awesome things is fun. Having characters struggle against difficult challenges is fun. Coming up with creative ideas for how characters can overcome those challenges is also fun. And, scrambling to figure out an alternative when your character’s Plan A goes south can also be fun.

But, debating whether a modifier is -2 or -4 is not fun. It’s not fun for the people at the table whose characters aren’t active because the decision doesn’t affect their character’s agency; only the result of the dice matters and it’s still going to either be a success or a failure.

It’s also not fun for the GM. Rules arguments turn the GM into an antagonist, rather than a referee, and it insinuates that the GM is responsible for whether the characters succeed or fail. That’s not the GM’s role. The GM creates the world and establishes opportunities for the characters to act; he or she doesn’t singlehandedly drive the outcome of those encounters.

Even if the player at issue thinks that rules arguments are fun—and some people really do enjoy “rules lawyering”—the group is entitled to decide that this group is going to have more fun by adventuring than debating the rules and ask the rules lawyer to either join in that game, or find a different group.

The other reason to adopt this policy is that it speeds up the game. Most players and GMs would rather spend their time together working through adventures and not looking up charts or digging through rulebooks for that one line that explains the exception.

The bottom line is that the group can decide how it wants to play the game. Some groups like serious games, while others encourage humor. Some groups enjoy playing evil characters, while others find that sort of role-playing uncomfortable or morally problematic. There’s no right or wrong answer, but it’s important that the group be on the same page. The same is true for rules: a group can decide that it wants to spend time looking up every rule when there’s a question, but it’s also perfectly acceptable for a group to decide that it doesn’t want rules questions to slow down the game.

Before the Game

Before the game begins, tell your group that you want to have a policy of no rules arguments at the table. Explain why you want to adopt that policy. Let the players know what are appropriate ways to raise rules questions—during the session recap? Between sessions? Privately in an email?

Make sure the players understand what you want to do and get their agreement that this is the kind of game they want to participate in. This step is important! It’s not enough for the GM to declare rules arguments out of bounds by fiat—he or she needs buy-in from the players for this approach to succeed.

Stopping an Argument In-Game

During the game, when a rules argument comes up, the GM should first take stock of the situation. Sometimes rules arguments come up because a player is feeling railroaded or impotent. If that’s happening, the GM needs to recognize it and adjust accordingly.

Most of the time, rules arguments are just technical disagreements—does the rule say X or Y? If that’s all the issue is, then the GM should make a decision about whether he or she was correct in the original ruling. It’s okay to quickly shift if the GM realizes he or she erred and the player’s reminder caused that realization! But, if the GM disagrees with the player’s take, the GM should remind the player about the no arguments agreement and offer to revisit the issue during the designated time. This is usually enough to resolve the argument.

If the player won’t drop the issue, then the GM needs to make a decision about how to handle the situation: by re-explaining the reasons for the policy and giving the player a chance to cooperate, by asking the player for his or her cooperation, etc. In extreme cases the GM may need to ask the player afterwards to reconsider his or her behavior. No matter what, it’s important to treat the player with respect: no sarcasm, name-calling, or mocking. Even if someone thinks that they are being funny, it’s too easy for the target to feel put down or disrespected when conflict is occurring.


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