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Sparse List of Rules
Order 4: In the event of the Supreme Commander (Chancellor) being incapacitated, overall GAR command shall fall to the vice chair of the Senate until a successor is appointed or alternative authority identified as outlined in Section 6 (iv).
Order 5: In the event of the Supreme Commander (Chancellor) being declared unfit to issue orders, as defined in Section 6 (ii), the Chief of the Defense Staff shall assume GAR command and form a strategic cell of senior officers (see page 1173, para 4) until a successor is appointed or alternative authority identified.
Order 37: Capture of a single wanted individual through the mass arrest and threatened execution of a civilian population. Follow-up directives include scenarios for body disposal of civilian casualties and suppression of communications.
contingency orders for the Grand Army of the Republic, Star Wars: Republic Commando -- True Colors

Characters in fiction frequently have a set of basic principles to live by. But sometimes, authors want to give the impression of a complex system of principles with a lot of thought put into it, without actually spending the time and mental effort to design the system.

One common way to do this is to declare that there are a large number of such rules, and then quote a few of them, in order to give the audience the general idea of what the rules are about. This trope is frequently employed in a TV series or a long book or series of books, so that the author(s) can add new items to the list as time goes by. Rule #1 from the list is inevitably mentioned at some point, usually early on, though it's not always the first rule to be revealed.

The name comes from "sparse list", a technique used by computer programmers to efficiently manage large numbered lists with many elements missing.

May incorporate Obvious Rule Patches and be counteracted through Loophole Abuse. Characters may use these to Bother by the Book. See also the Great Big Book of Everything, or its subtrope, the Big Book of War, either of which may be where the characters are quoting rules from. This trope may be used for a game of Calvinball.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

     Fan Works 
  • The Pokeumans community has one called "Things Not To Do In A Pokeumans Base", an Affectionate Parody of Skippys List. This list is sparse in that as readers submit suggestions it builds with each successive update.

    Film - Animation 
  • In The Great Mouse Detective, Ratigan pulls out a Long List of decrees after declaring himself king. Only item 96 is read onscreen.
  • Phil from Hercules has a large set of rules on being a hero. He only mentions a handful, but the numbers do go into the hundreds.

    Film - Live Action 
  • Subverted in Zombieland where only a handful of rules ("Cardio, Cardio, Cardio") are brought up, but a whole lot more were presented via internet in short promotional clips leading up to the film's release.
  • In Phantom of the Paradise, the contract that Winslow Leach signs with Swan is presented as a thick paper manuscript. Winslow only asks about one or two of the entries, including the all encompassing "All articles that are excluded shall be deemed included."
  • Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith: Order 66, the order for Grand Army of the Republic to turn on its Jedi generals, comes from a list of at least 150 contingency orders. Only four others are known, all of which come from the Republic Commando Series by Karen Traviss. Also never shown are the various other items cited in the known orders.
  • In the Men In Black films Agent Kay is given to quoting chapter and verse of MIB regulations at Jay when he does something questionable.

    Literature 
  • In the fifth Captain Underpants book, the school reveals it has the Big Book O' Rules, with nearly 8000 rules. The reader only hears two: "Rule 411: Don't kick school property into space", and "Rule 7,734: Don't transform into big, flying robots during afternoon recess."
  • The Assassin's Guild School in the Discworld series has quite a list of rules, as one might expect, but only certain ones are listed, such as rules regarding boys and girls being restricted to their own dormitories (and various patches to deal with Loophole Abusers and Rules Lawyers), and Rule 16 and its subrules forbidding keeping a crocodile in one's bedroom. Or the basement.
  • There are 700 ways to commit a foul in Quidditch in the Harry Potter universe, but the readers only learn a small selection of them and then mostly through the side book Quidditch Through the Ages. This is mainly because these are far and away the most common fouls: most of the rest are Obvious Rule Patches such as, "It is illegal to attack your opponent with an axe." And about 90% of the list is apparently rendered redundant by the general ban on using one's wand against other players. The full list, however, is not known in the universe except by the referees, on the grounds of not wanting to give people ideas.
  • The only sections of the Deneb Accords, the laws governing interstellar warfare in the Honor Harrington series, that have been revealed in the series are the sections concerning prisoners of war, since they're plot points in In Enemy Hands. They're the sections State Sec head Cordelia Ransom subjects to severe Rules Lawyering in order to try and have Honor executed.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Ferengi Rules of Acquisition, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. There are canonically 285 rules, though less than 100 of them are actually mentioned in the show. The first Rule was actually devised by the first Grand Nagus, and named "The 162nd Rule of Acquisition" as a marketing ploy to create demand for the first 161. Rule #1: "Once you have their money, never give it back."
  • Gibbs' Rules from NCIS, a list of rules said agent has come up with for how to run a successful investigation. This fansite catalogs the whole list so far. Rule #1? "Never screw over your partner."
  • Red Dwarf has the Space Core Directives that Kryten would often quote. Rimmer ended up quoting directives back but always being wrong. In one episode they show the book of directives and it's rather small despite the high numbers mentioned complete with multiple subcategories for each one, and rules for every situation including performing oral sex in a zero-g environment.
  • How I Met Your Mother:
    • The Bro Code is quoted often by Barney, yet only a few rules are ever given onscreen. A few more appear as vanity plates on syndication. It was eventually Defictionalized and made available in full on bookstores.
    • Same thing goes for Barney's playbook. Only a few plays are ever divulged, but the book itself is shown to be a Doorstopper.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Some Warhammer 40,000 storylines and fluff use the Codex Astartes like this, for example in an early mission of Dawn of War's single-player campaign where Captain Gabriel Angelos notes what the Codex's recommended course of action in response to the Orks' tactics is.

    Video Games 
  • In the Halo series, the Cole Protocol is the most important Naval code to humanity's fleet, since it lists the actions they are not allowed to do to prevent the Covenant from discovering Earth. However several rules are often ignored because they're just technicalities. We only hear one of those, Subsection 7: "No captured Covenant vessel can be brought back to human space without a thorough search for tracking devices." (Useless because the Covenant self-destruct all their vessels in danger of capture.)
  • From Star Wars: Republic Commando's loading screens: "Rule number one: kill them before they kill you." "Rule seventeen: always make sure they're dead." "Rule thirty-nine: never say no to bacta." Several other rules are also quoted, but no actual strategies or tactics are mentioned. What list they're quoting from is also never stated.

    Webcomics 
  • Schlock Mercenary brings us "The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries," of which only 35 are known so far. Maxim #1 is, "Pillage, then burn." This may eventually become an aversion. New Maxims are constantly being introduced and more importantly starting in 2012 the author started releasing calendars featuring 1 Maxim per month in numeric order (up to #36 as of the 2014 calendar). This could present a problem for an eventual 2017 calendar which will presumably finish the list with the entry for October.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • The Fairly Oddparents: Fairy Godparents are restricted to a large list of rules listed in a gigantic book titles 'Da Rules'. Cosmo and Wanda would pull out the rule book any time Timmy plans on making a wish that would break the rules. It's never said how many rules there are, but new ones are mentioned frequently.


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