Last post, I discussed murder hobos, one of the most challenging types of players a DM can encounter, and how to frame a game in a way that addresses that play style. In this post, I'm going to talk about another occasionally challenging form of player, the rules lawyer, and some of the tools I've found to turn that behavior into something positive that adds to the table.
A rules lawyer is someone who knows the rules of the game inside and out, and often times will get into esoteric debates about them during game, causing a lot of frustration and delay (if not complete derailing) of game. In the social skills groups I run, we have less than two hours of gameplay, so one of my big jobs is keeping game flowing. Getting into nitpicky arguements is generally frustrating to everyone involved, so it becomes imperative that they're avoided.
That being said, you should never punish them for being detail oriented and fastidious about the rules. I work with a lot of autistic teens, and very often they come in having a better understanding of the rules than I do. And that's fine- that is a strength, if it's used in a way that brings a lot of positivity and fun to the table.
The first safeguard against problematic rule lawyer-y behavior is to set very clear table rules, one of which should address the DM's rulings- Something like "The DM's word is final, and if you have concerns, bring them up after session." That way, there's an established rule that you can bring up that circumvents everything else. And thus far, it's worked fairly well. It does lead to occasional snarky comments, however, when I make a call they disagree with. If this happens during game, remind them of that table rule, and move on.
However, after that happens, you should talk with the player about what your goals are, and what theirs are. Ask what they want out of the game, and what they find fun. Talk to them about your role as a social skills facilitator, and make it clear that the nature of the game is geared towards this. Once that's apparent, listen to what they want, and incorporate that type of gameplay in a way that builds social engagement. One instance that comes to mind was a student that really enjoyed tactical gameplay, so shortly after, I included a session that involved defending a caravan against a bandit attack, with each student taking on a specific role in combat. It was a huge hit, and the student later showed a lot of appreciation that I had taken the time to listen and incorporate the content he really enjoyed into the game, including some horseback tactics he had designed himself. A huge aspect of applied gaming is balancing DM goals with player agency, and I've found that the players will give you all the guidance you need to give them a gameplay experience that is personally engaging, freeing you up to focus on the specific learning or behavioral goals.
Another way to utilize rules lawyers is make them your group mentors. If you have a new player who is insecure about the rules but wants to become better, pair them off with a rules lawyer who can teach them how to optimize their character. This has generally worked incredibly well, but can backfire if they find that the player isn't taking their advice. Keep an eye on how they interact, and if you see them getting upset at the less experienced player, defuse the situation and remind the student that this group's goal is to work on building social skills and creating a positive environment. You may need to do various interventions if it isn't working out, and sometimes it's better to have the more rules savvy players sit near each other so they can dive into esoterica together.
Another tool I've used is having them actually design and run sessions. Be very careful doing this, as I've had situations where they try to be perfectionists, and are unhappy with their work and are unable to finish it, leading to them feeling like they've failed the group. If this happens, let them know it's ok, give them space, let them know that they can try again, and remind them that it's ok to have a hard time with this type of thing. Whenever you have a situation where a student is running the session, always prepare a session, just in case.
You can actually incorporate elements of this by having them design components of the world- Creating their own armor, spells, or monsters can be an absolutely wonderful way to engage their creativity. Never say no. Say either 'Yes, and' or even better, 'Yes, but...' adding your own challenges to the content. Create scenarios where they have to work to get the thing they want, so it feels like an accomplishment, and a shared sense of building something cool that has a solid root in the world. I once had a student create an entire school of magic based around ice, but unlocking its full potential became a significant character arc that ended in the character ascending to godhood over the course of two years. This was far more interesting and engaging than just giving them free reign to add things, and it allowed them to involve the rest of the group in discovering this cool system they had built.
Finally, one of the best tools I've found around it is to do a lot of free form role playing- which comes with the territory with social skills groups anyway. When you spend a lot of time on the mechanical aspects, you increase complexity that can come back and bite you, which is why I prefer to run my games almost entirely in the theater of the mind. Dungeon crawls, miniature heavy battles, and complex combat can be fun, but I've found that for the purposes of a social skills group, they require a lot more planning on top of the social skills curriculum you're building at the same time. Even so, it's important to include these things sometimes, as there's something really cool about watching the players come up with group tactics to take out a difficult challenge, especially when they use the mechanics to buff and assist each other.
All in all, however, a lot of my success with players who tend towards rules lawyering comes from building a strong relationship, one that's built on respect, mutual listening, and a lot of positive feedback. This is the backbone of nearly all of the success I've had, and building that trust and working relationship both serves to teach them valuable social skills, but also make for a better game where their rules lawyer nature is not something that gets in the way of the game, but is an asset that improves it for everyone at the table.
I'd love to hear any feedback you have on working with rules lawyers, reach out to me at @rollforkindness on twitter with any interesting stories or tips you have. Thanks for reading!