Gamemaster’s Guidepost: The Three Ring Circus – The Malefactors

+Peter V. Dell’Orto talks about rules-lawyering here and +Mark Langsdorf talks about it here so I guess I’m going to talk a little bit about it myself. First, let me talk about how I run RPGs. I assume (as does anything I write on my blog or when handing out advice to other games on other platforms) that the game you are in is a cooperative venture with your GM and fellow players. The exception to this being games where the GM and player are supposed to be antagonistic (e.g., Paranoia). This is because I’ve never seen a gaming group last long when mutual agitation and belligerent one-upmanship are the glues that bind it together. It just doesn’t work for the same reason that other social bonds cannot be held together with the same negative “social adhesives.” On the other hand, I have seen groups function when the players are businesslike in their gaming – they view their hobby as a group effort, but it’s not personal. This sort of approach can work as long as the social contract specifically and emphatically spells out exactly what is expected from both player and GM.

Personally, I find the first type of group (antagonistic) repulsive to such a degree that I won’t play in any game I feel leans that way and I won’t run any player who presents such tendencies (see below for how to deal with such people. I’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating: if you are running a game you do not have to play with a rules-lawyer/meta-gamer/munchkin. These are what I consider the three most trouble gaming archetypes (see below for further explanation). If you are a player and you see even a hint of such behavior just quit the game. It’s going to save you from irritation later on. In most cases as a player you can’t do anything about the RLMGM anyways. What you can do is quit. My personal rule is three sessions. If in three sessions the player hasn’t reformed his actions then he’s not going to. If the GM doesn’t do anything to curtail them within those three sessions he’s not going to. So unless you like rules discussion and theorycrafting more than actual gaming – and some people do – find a new game. I recently made my own foray into the world of online gaming and it’s been nearly as satisfying as playing face to face. (I still miss actually being with my friends and the game-day cooking.) Still, a gaming group made entirely of RLMGM is workable – I’ve actually seen it in the wild. It’s essentially a group of people who get together to argue about rules rather than actually gaming, but it can work – if you are into that sort of thing.

The second type is workable, but it’s more common among the beer and pretzels/wargaming crowd from what I’ve seen. Now, nothing is wrong with either of those things, but I prefer high-drama/action/etc. over “I hit it with the sword and do 8 points of cutting damage.’ That’s just me. For some, the approach works just fine – just not me. Such games have to have very clear expectations on all parts otherwise the game is likely to end up about what the expectations of the game are exactly. It’s the same problem with government committees – you end up needing a committee about the committee. For such impersonal gaming groups I suggest a shareable document that spells it all out in black and white. Gaming is all about what they can personally get out of it for such a group.

The third type – the type I prefer above all others – is the cooperative group. The group that builds the setting with the GM one game at a time (or even assists in the very beginning of setting design – this is something I also prefer). In such groups the players actively assist the GM in whatever way they are best capable and while they know the rules for the most part, they don’t ride the GM like a rodeo show when he gets them wrong. Gaming is for fun for this type of group and they treat it as such.

The Rogue’s Gallery
So how do you deal with rules-lawyers, meta-gamers, and munchkins? Well, let’s breakdown exactly what I mean there so there is no quibbling over defintations or intent:

The Rules-Lawyer
Most don’t really want to play – they want a place to argue their personal grievances in public. The Rules-Lawyer often has a hard time getting to be a player in a game because of his tendencies and because of this he often ends up as a Gamemaster. Unfortunately, those selfsame tendencies tend to drive players away at an astonishing rate because he’s forever altered the rules he dislikes or changing them mid-game. Rules-lawyers tend to view RPGs as something they can control and therefore interact with and/or convince the GM to bend to their view through incessant nagging or, well, rules-lawyering.

Notable Features
Often starts digressions with “Well, I think [X] is [X] so I came up with a solution…”; likes to argue both in person and on public forums or discussion boards; tends to view game designers as their personal whipping boys.

Countering Rules-Lawyers
Countering a rules-layers is actually pretty easily done. You look them in the eyes and tell them to stop. If they persist you ask them to stop again. Should they wish to continue you eject them from your game. Do this in as an emphatic manner as possible. In at least two cases I violently ejected a player by picking them up and removing them from the gaming space. I don’t recommend this action unless you’re really really good at physically controlling a person. Often enough just telling them to leave works. Now I hear some of you “But, Christopher! my rules-lawyer is my sibling/spouse/smizmar.” In that case you have to communicate with the rules-lawyer. You need to explain to them that what they are doing is not okay and it’s ruining the game for others. Except for the most a**hole-ish of rules-lawyer they tend to try to rein themselves in.

The Meta-Gamer
Meta-gamers use player knowledge to overcome ingame obstacles (e.g., encounters, puzzles, and so on). In my experience, meta-gamers also tend to inflate their character’s abilities through outright cheating (e.g., “I rolled a five!” when he rolled something else) or “accidental” misreporting of character abilities. In my opinion, they are almost as bad as the rules-lawyer for sheer campaign stopping power. Meta-gamers tend to come in two types – the malicious and the unintentional. The latter isn’t using his knowledge on purpose – he’s half-remembering things and using them for the benefit of his character. The former isn’t. He’s doing it because he views RPGs as something to win at. And as we all know there can be only one winner *snrk*.

Notable Features
Buys every adventure in every game system he plays on the off chance that he might be involved in it; hates showing his dice or character sheet (though not always) to others; often uses the phrase “But this is what my character would do!” and other similar ploys; has a “I must win at everything!” mentality.

Countering Meta-Gamers
Countering meta-gamers can be difficult – but it is possible. For the most part simply change any information you think they might know into something they couldn’t know. Make it up on the spot if you’re good at improv – that’ll drive them nuts. For the cheating variety I’m going to recommend you do something that I wouldn’t otherwise do: fudge your rolls or the difficulty. Only do this if you are very sure they are actually cheating. For the unintentional meta-gamer it’s a bit harder – how do you stop someone who is not actively trying to ruin the game? In such cases, try to run adventures they don’t have or change up the information as you would for a malfeasant meta-gamer.

The Munchkin
Aka the “Power Gamer”. We’ve all met this guy at least once. He bends the rules into a pretzel until they do what he wants – I’ve been guilty of this to a degree on some occasions – and while this isn’t always bad, it’s never good for the unprepared GM. The munchkin is pretty straightforeard and he’s rarely malcious, he just likes the “mini-game” of character creation. And let me be clear there is nothing wrong with that. Where it creates problems is when the Munchkin finds a way to violate the rules or precepts set down by the GM and the GM either fails to notice or doesn’t realize the impact that might be brought about by such violation. Munchkin’s love to find new ways to do things – especially if the new way is cheaper, better, or both. Munchkins view games as a way to test their prototype builds and tend not to care about the game they are in. Oddly enough, a “benign” munchkin is one of the GM’s best friends..

Notable Features
Has near encyclopedic knowledge of his chosen game system(s); creates characters for fun or as an exercise in rules applications.

Countering Munchkins
Double check their builds and simply say “No” to things that will ruin your game. It really is that easy. For some you need to keep copies of their character between sessions, but that’s not very common.

Picking Over the Bones
This post lays down some pretty broad and sweeping definitions – that’s because this is my opinion on how the “bad guys” of the gaming world function. Not all folks see things like that, but in my experience over the last 20 years or so these are pretty common in the player base. GMs tend to have ways to deal with such players. For example, I handle all of the above the same way: I outright disallow rules-lawyering, metagaming, and munchkinism. If you do it you get a warning at first offense, second offense means you’re out of the game for the night, third offense means you’re out for a month. If you do it a fourth time we’re done. I don’t care how awesome a player you if you are ruining the quality of the game for the other players then we’re done. And to clarify, when I say “offense” I don’t mean “Hey you forgot X” or “No, my character would do X” I mean if you argue with me and stop the game and ruin it for the others you get a warning. I’ve used this system about 8 years now and I even include what I expect from players in all my handouts so they know where I stand. It works. It tends to create excess stuff for the players to read, but it works. How do you deal with such issues?

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  1. Well said. This post lays out why I have problems gaming with many (Not all) WoD players. The inter conflicts between PCs can become dismal. Vampire politics is not why I roleplay.

    Another individual in the online gaming communities are the individuals who will bring heavy social problems to the table. The "Everyone's out to get me" viewpoint can be wholly damaging to a group. Especially if you use heavy immersive style Roleplaying online.

  2. Yup. When I ran WoD back in the day for my tabletop group (not the Norfolk by Night LARP I ran for umpteen years) I required all players to be friendly to one another. Turned off a lot of people, but made many more happy.

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