That One Rule

Proponents [of the Duckworth-Lewis method] assured us that this was the fairest way of determining the outcome of rain-affected matches. Fans without calculators and computer printouts were not so sure.
2003 Cricket World Cup highlights DVD

Games require rules. Even Calvin Ball has one. Most of the rules are simple, especially in simple games, like tag. But then, there's That One Rule.

It's the one exception, it's complicated, it can get most people arguing over how long players can stay on base without getting tagged.

Whether these rules are caused by an Obvious Rule Patch or just a bad design decision, most players (or fans, in the case of sports) learning the game will wind up confused by this rule; particularly spectacular examples will confuse (and be hated by) advanced players.

The point here is that this is a case where most of the rules are very easy to understand except for a rule, or a few rules, that are glaringly complicated.

Differs from Loads and Loads of Rules in that this is a localized case of the problem. See also Grappling with Grappling Rules, an example from tabletop RPGs. Not to be confused with Scrappy Mechanic, which is not about a game rule or mechanic being complex or confusing, but about it being outright hated. Note that a rule can be both (for example, the draw rule in chess, below).


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  • Monopoly:
    • The mortgage interest rules seem simple enough. Mortgage a property, get cash from bank, can't collect rent. Pay 110% cash back to bank, collect rent again. But transferring a mortgaged property requires the recipient to pay that extra 10% immediately, whether they pay back the entire mortgage or not. (And if they don't, they have to pay it again later when they do.) The most common reason for mortgaging property is a lack of cash, a lack of cash causes players to go bankrupt, bankrupt players give all their possessions to their creditor... you can see where this is going. (In especially unusual cases, this could cause Taking You with Me between a pair of weak players.note )
    • The auction rule is forgotten entirely by a surprising number of players. When a player lands on a property and chooses not to buy, it's supposed to go up for auction to the highest bidder, introducing an added level of strategy into what would otherwise be a simple question of "can I spare the cash or not?"
    • Landing on Free Parking does absolutely nothing. This seems awfully boring at first glance, but the common House Rule of getting money for landing on that spot (whether a flat bonus or a jackpot of various fees normally paid to the bank) tends to prolong the game — when one of the most common criticisms of the game is that it's too long, this is probably the wrong move.
    • Income Tax was this, as until recently there was an option to pay 10% of your total wealth rather than accept a flat tax of $200. Doing so in the mid-to-late game meant busting out a calculator and adding up your cash, buildings, and all your properties while everyone else used it as a chance to use the restroom.note  Newer versions of the game eliminate the 10% option entirely.
    • Jail - This is house ruled so often that many don't even realize that in the default rules the only penalty for being in jail is being unable to move, which makes it a good thing in the late game as a player can just sit in jail and collect rent without having to worry about landing on someone else's property.
    • Trade - Technically, things like immunity from rent or selling buildings (on the trading partner's turn so they can buy the buildings you put back into stock) are not part of the game. They can be promised, but the promise isn't actually a part of the game. Money cannot be loaned to another player, but Ain't No Rule that says it can't be gifted.
  • Castling and en passant capture are confusing to many Chess players. The latter move is an Obvious Rule Patch that allows a pawn to be captured by another pawn on a square which it has just moved past, while the former is the only way in the game to have two pieces of the same color move at once and has highly unusual restrictions on when it can be used. Tournament Players will certainly be familiar with both of those moves; what frustrates them instead are the long-evolving rules about when they are allowed to claim a position as drawn.
    • Once or twice, chess grandmasters have demonstrated a lack of understanding about castling (namely, thinking that the rook is not allowed to pass through a threat, when that only applies to the king).
      • However, there is only one scenario where this is the case. Queenside Castle with a threat to B-1 or B-8 squares.
  • The board game of Go has extremely simple rules...
    • except for the "ko rule" which is designed to prevent repeating positions. In the simplest form it just disallows one specific position which is sufficient for 99.9% of all games. The Ing Ko Rule resolves the other .1%, at the expense of pages and pages of explication.
    • Endgame scoring under the Japanese rule set can also be problematic in certain situations, because if a group is dead in the endgame, the killer doesn't have to capture it. Sometimes, however, whether a position is dead or not is in dispute, because the position is not truly alive with two eyes, but the attacker could not capture it even in the endgame; the most common situation where this would happen is with a shape called a "bent four in the corner," which can only be captured through a ko fight, which is a bit unpredictable, and resolving ko in the endgame is a source of major rules disputes.
  • The "one-Yaku-minimum" rule in Japanese Mahjong can be incredibly frustrating for new players, as just getting a legal hand can be difficult enough without then being told you can't win because your hand has no "value".
    • And then you throw in the rule that a hand with no value has some value.Explanation 
    • And then you add that, under some circumstances, you need more than one yaku to win.
  • Some of the mechanics of Magic: The Gathering are like this.
    • Banding is a particularly bad example, though it is not too complicated, just occasionally creating counterintuitive situations because a group of creatures behaved in an unusual manner for blocking purposes, damage assignment (spells and combat damage were assigned to banded creatures in different ways, which confused players), and sometimes led to odd situations that confused newbies (such as assigning damage to a creature which ordinarily could not even be blocked by the creature it is taking damage from, and in some cases, this would also prevent the creature from dealing any damage to the band at all). Bands With X, however, was completely baffling as originally written. X was a creature type or a description, such as "green Legends" or "Wolves of the Hunt". Why is this confusing? Because, despite its name, this did not allow these creatures to form a band with, say, Wolves of the Hunt, but with other creatures with banding or "Bands with Wolves of the Hunt". So, if a Wolves of the Hunt did not have Bands with Wolves of the Hunt somehow (possible in many ways), it would actually be impossible for another creature with "Bands with Wolves of the Hunt" to band with it! Both abilities were quickly dropped from the game.
    • A few old-school cards have very complex rulings because they were made before making sure that there was no room for interpretation became one of the game's priorities; see for example Ice Cauldron or Word of Command. However, the absolute worst part of the rules is what happens when there are multiple persistent abilities that affect what a card can do, epitomized by the interaction between Humility and Opalescence. Witness the block of rule clarification on the interaction between those two cards specifically, as well as how many times those rulings have changed.
    • The only cards that are completely banned in the Vintage format (as opposed to restricted to one copy) can be said to involve this trope.
      • Ante cards are banned because the ante rules are no longer supported due to falling afoul of gambling laws (and was kinda silly anyway, as the ante was randomly chosen from each player's deck).
      • Shahrazad is banned because it was mostly used to prolong games beyond tournament time limits, forcing a draw, rather than for strategic advantage.
      • Chaos Orb and Falling Star are banned because the physical dexterity mechanic was in stark contrast with the mechanics of the rest of the game, the "at least one foot and flipping at least once" bit was difficult to enforce, and it forced players to play with the habit of spreading out their cards, which interfered with tournament space constraints.
    • The so-called "infinity rule" is also responsible for plenty of headaches. For example, if one player can do an arbitrarily large amount of damage, and another player can prevent an arbitrarily large amount of damage, things get ugly. (Would you believe that the outcome depends on whose turn it is?)
    • The rule that disallows players from reordering the cards in their graveyards. This can interfere with effects that count cards of a certain type in graveyards, and forced players to pay strict attention to resolution order when placing cards in graveyards (for example, Day of Judgment must go on top of the creatures it destroys). All this for only a handful of infrequently-played cards that cared about the graveyard order (Death Spark, anyone?), which is why they haven't been printed in more than a decade, and tournaments that do not include those cards are basically free to ignore this rule.
    • Regeneration was considered this for quite some time, including by the developers themselves. While it was relatively straightforward in the early days of Magic and the concept was simple - pay a cost and have a dying creature brought back to life - increasing complexity of the rules led to plenty of confusion as to how it was supposed to work. It's been grandfathered in and clarified since, but Word of God has said that a rule like Regeneration never would have made it off the drawing board if it were thought up today. New cards no longer use it at all - instead, cards wanting this type of effect become "indestructible until end of turn".
    • The Protection keyword ability has also historically been a source of some confusion, as it is shorthand for several distinct abilities (for something that has protection from a given category: all damage is reduced to zero, it cannot be targeted by a spell or ability, it cannot be blocked, and it cannot be enchanted or equipped). Newcomers to the game often find the mechanic confusing because it is non-discriminatory (something with Protection from Red grants protection from ALL red sources, including friendly and/or beneficial ones), and it has several notable omissions (it does not prevent "Destroy" effects, global effects, effects that produce counters, or effects that target the controlling player and force THEM to do something to the protected card). Worse, it still shows up fairly regularly, and several powerful cards have significant Protection abilities (Emrakul has Protection from All Colored Spells, while Progenitus has Protection from Everything), making those distinctions fairly important.
  • Summoning conditions in Yu-Gi-Oh! in regards to reviving monsters. If a monster's effect says it can only be special summoned one way, can it be special summoned from the graveyard after being special summoned through that method? For some cards (Dark Necrofear, ritual monsters, most fusion monsters), yes. For others (Armed Dragon LVs 7 and 10, Rainbow Dragon, most Elemental Hero fusions), no. The only way to distinguish between the two is whether the card reads "can" or "cannot... except..." while the rest of the Summon condition text is nearly identical. While the text formatting for modern cards makes the difference more distinctnote , old cards that have yet to receive a reprint in this format are still subject to this problem.
    • The fine print on spell/trap/effect monster cards can also lead to some unusual circumstances and headaches. Legendary Fisherman on the Field while "Umi" is active? If no other monsters are on the field, opponent can attack your life points directly. Trap Card negating the effects of all monsters on the field? Monsters can still be special-summoned by their own effect, ignoring any change to ATK and DEF as a resultnote . Both of these are official rulings. Also, flip effects of monsters ONLY activate after damage calculation. A face-down defense-position monster that is attacked is NOT flip-summoned, it is merely "flipped". A handful of cards have the exact text "When this card is flip summoned..."
    • Similarly, there are cards (such as Thunder King Rai-Oh that specify that they can negate the special summon (any summon that isn't a normal summon or flip summon) of a monster. Despite what they say, they can only negate certain special summon; they can negate anything where a monster special summons itself without starting a chain (synchro summon, xyz summon, Cyber Dragon, Black Luster Soldier - Envoy of the Beginning, etc.), but they can't negate a special summon performed during the resolution of another card's effect (fusion summon, ritual summon, Monster Reborn, etc.). This is because you aren't allowed to activate effects during the resolution of other effects. Cards that can negate any special summon have to explicitly say that they can negate a special summon or an effect that would summon a monster.
    • The most hated rule is easily the missing the timing rule. For those of you who don't want to click the link... there are four types of effects that activate when a certain condition is met (they take the form of "If X, Y", "If X, you can Y", "When X, Y", and "When X, you can Y"). An "If" effect occurs as long as its condition is met, and is incapable of missing the timing. A "When X, Y" effect must occurs right after its condition is met, but can't miss the timing because it's mandatory. "When... you can" effects, however, MUST happen immediately after their condition occurs; since it's not mandatory, and thus doesn't HAVE to happen, it won't happen if anything else happens in between when its condition is met and you're allowed to activate new effects. This means that if its condition is met during any link of a chain other than the first link, or ifs its condition is met during any part other than the last one of the resolution of a multiple-part effect, it'll miss the timing because the rest of the chain/the effect it was met during happens before you have a chance to activate it, and thus the condition is no longer correct by the time you're able to activate it. For example, if an effect can activate when a monster (let's call it monster A) is summoned by another monster's effect, but that monster is summoned during chain link 2, then you won't be able to activate it after the chain ends because link 1 happened during the small window of opportunity when you were allowed to activate the effect, forcing you to skip it. Similarly, if you activate a monster's effect that allows you to summon monster A, then do something else (such as tributing another monster), then the second half of the effect will cause you to skip past the window of opportunity, again forcing you to skip the activation of monster A's effect. Confused yet? The fact that such a rule doesn't exist in the anime doesn't help.
  • Star Wars Customizable Card Game: Attrition. For a vastly simplified explanation, at the end of most larger battles, both sides are assessed a penalty, in addition to the penalty paid for losing a battle, which can only be paid by discarding combatants (as opposed to discarding from one's hand or deck), which counts simultaneously toward the penalties paid by the loser; this penalty or its remainder is often waived if the characters remaining have sufficient Plot Armor, but how much plot armor is needed depends on the whole penalty, regardless of how many has to be paid by Red Shirts, and the loser's penalty remains if it's not paid by the time remaining attrition is waived, and can, if the player wishes, be paid by discarding these characters. Even in a game notorious for Loads and Loads of Rules, the complications that would crop up around this one in particular are legendary.
  • Before 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, initiating a grappling attack is usually cause for your entire gaming group to throw large, heavy objects at you. There's a reason the trope is called Grappling with Grappling Rules.
    • Subduing dragons in early editions required the GM to recalculate what percentage of the dragon's HP you had burned through with non-lethal damage and then make percentile rolls. Worse, it basically amounted to giving a rampaging, roaring engine of death a blanket party and hoping it decided to cry. Bad rules are bad; violating the Rule of Cool and Rule of Fun at the same time is unforgivable.
  • The 3rd edition of Nobilis introduced a system for resolving non-miraculous actions by mortals that is a bit confusing because it focuses not on immediate success or failure but the effect that taking such an action has on your life. (e.g. Achieving long-running goals, impressing people, making your life better, doing "the right thing" etc.) Handling task resolution at this level is hard to wrap your head around, but it's mitigated by the fact that most mortals don't have the "oomph" to regularly get really high on the scale. Normally. However, Nobles can do so trivially with Aspect miracles, and the "Shine" trait gives an extra push up the chart for mortals doing something a Noble tells them to do.
    • Wounds, since they cover any unwanted effect ranging from being shot to being turned into a cat, can be very confusing for quite some time.
      • Taken Up to Eleven in Chuubo's Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine: the author had to clarify that you can take a Wound to prevent someone from healing one of your previous Wounds — and might even want to, if playing as Nightmares' Angel or other Wounded Angel characters.
    • The Treasure attribute's upper echelons were so confusing that a free minibook, The Story Of Treasure, had to be released to clarify.
  • Draws are exceedingly rare in Shogi, Japanese chess. However, they can occur under the right circumstances where both players are able to surround their king with promoted pieces. In this case, the winner is decided by counting all of the pieces owned by each side, with a point value for each (5 points each for bishop and rook, one point for all others). If both players have at least 24 points, it is a draw. If not, the player with more points wins.
  • Diplomacy is normally a relatively simple game - there are four basic moves and rules for resolving their interactions - except that convoys, where an army moves between locations using a chain of naval units possibly owned by another player, are notorious for creating problems. This began with the discovery that a player could convoy another player's army without their knowledge or consent, and continued into situations creating actual paradoxes. For example, an army which travels via a convoy to kill another army which is cutting the support of a fleet which is attacking the same convoy; if the convoy succeeds, the support is not cut and the convoy defeated, so it ought to fail; but if the convoy fails, the support is cut and the convoy survives, so it ought to succeed. The tournament rule book at one point simply abandoned any attempt at making sense and spent several pages presenting a humanised version of the source code of the automated resolution system.
  • Bridge - In tournament and club play, there are procedures for dealing with a board that cannot be scored for any reason at one or more tables. These are mathematically complex, and can result in a pair not involved having its score reduced - for example, a pair that might otherwise have gotten 10 out of 10 on that board will now get only 9.9. This is disliked both by new players (who don't understand the calculations involved) and by experts (for whom that small adjustment can have an impact on their placement).
    • The scoring procedures for a fouled board (where cards got moved between hands somehow, so that not everyone played exactly the same hand) are even more complicated; fortunately, this comes up very rarely.



  • The Salary Cap, in virtually any sport that employs one... and those without it have the That One Unofficial Rule that says teams in the biggest markets can just outspend everyone. Certain cap schemes are more complicated than others, at least in American sports:
    • The NFL's scheme is pretty simple: teams can't go over the cap for any reason; if they do, they're forced to start cutting players until they're below it. A player's signing bonus counts against the cap equally across every year of his deal, e.g. a $5 million bonus on a 5-year deal would count $1 million against the cap each year even if it was all paid in the first year. The player's yearly salary counts at full value. If a player is cut before the contract ends (and before the regular season starts), then the rest of the contract's regular salary doesn't count, but the remaining signing bonus cap hit applies for that year. Incentives are the trickiest part: if an incentive is deemed Likely to be Earnednote , it counts against the cap, but if it isn't earned, the team gets extra cap money next year. If it's not Likely to be Earned, it doesn't count against the cap, but if it is earned it counts against next year's cap.
    • The NHL's scheme is a bit more complicated. Regular salaries can't go over the cap, but performance bonuses can go a set amount over without a team being punished. The yearly cap hit of a contract is the average of that contract's yearly salary. No individual contract can be more than 20% of the total cap. Players sent to the minors don't have their contracts count against the cap. Injured players' contracts do count, but a team can sign any number of players whose cap hit is at most the injured player's hit without penalty. A player can't be outright cut; they can be bought out for 1/3 of their remaining salary if they're under 28, 2/3 if they're between 28 and 35, or not at all if they're over 35, and the buyout is spread over twice the remaining years on the contract.
      • And it's not quite that simple, either. Players over 35 count for their cap hit minus $100,000 if they're sent to the minors in the second or later year of a multi-year contract. The cap is re-calculated per day, so if you're under at the beginning of the year, you can spend more later. Contracts also have limits on how much they can change year-to-year (half of the lesser value of the first two years salaries is how much a contract can change value by each year). According to the CBA (the governing document for this stuff), players who are suspended don't count against the cap, but the Players' Association and the league agreed that was unintentional, so they ignore that rule (and didn't explicitly tell anyone else they were ignoring it until 2011). There are reasons teams keep messing up when they write contracts - it's complicated.
    • MLB has a luxury tax system; any team that spends over a certain amount has to pay an additional percentage of the overage to the league which gets redistributed to player benefits, growing the sport in developing nations, and the Industry Growth fund. A first-time violator in a 5-year period pays 22.5% of how much they exceeded the cap, a second-time violator 30%, and a third- or more-time violator 40%.
    • The NBA has the craziest cap rules. There are several exceptions that a team can use to get over the cap, including:
      • The mid-level exception, which is used for signing a player (or players) for up to the average NBA salary (combined salaries if used on more than one player).
      • Rookie scale exceptions for signing 1st-round picks.
      • Various exceptions for a team re-signing their own players; these vary based on how long the player has been in the league.
      • The minimum player exception, where anyone can be signed to a league-minimum contract regardless a team's cap situation.
      • The traded player exception. Ordinarily, a team over the cap cannot take on more than 125% of the salaries it's trading away. If a team makes a trade where the player(s) they get back count less against the cap than the ones being traded away, the salary difference "X" can be used in a future trade or trades up to one year later to acquire player(s) whose salaries are up to "X" more than they should normally be allowed to trade for. The exception can only be used in single-player trades.
      • The disabled player exception, which allows a team to replace an injured player with one whose salary is up to 50% of the disabled player's.
      • And in addition to all these exceptions, the NBA also has a luxury tax for teams that go a good deal beyond the soft cap, and the cost for exceeding the tax level is complicated. The NBA salary cap rules are so byzantine that there is an FAQ which attempts to explain it by answering over 120 questions.

American Football

  • Most such rules are either buried in the rulebook until a controversy uncovers it (e.g., the Tuck rule, the "ineligible receiver" rule), or through subjective over-enforcement (e.g., "Defenseless Player" rulings).
    • The Calvin Johnson rule, which states a ball cannot be considered a catch if the receiver loses control of the ball going to the ground. It's one situation where If It Looks Like A Duck does not apply. Since the 2014-2015 playoffs, it became unclear among the general public on what a catch is, which led to fans saying, "What is a catch?"
      • Before the Calvin Johnson Rule, there was the Bert Emanuel Rule.
  • The "targeting" rule recently added in college football. If a defensive player hits an offensive player in the head or neck area and is deemed to have been "targeting" a player (i.e. having intended to hit him in the head or neck area), a 15-yard penalty is assessed, and the player is ejected from the game (and suspended for the first half of his next game if the infraction occurred in the 2nd half). One problem is that this call is always reviewed, and if overturned, doesn't involve any penalty at all, even if the hit was still clearly unnecessary roughness. Then there are the borderline hits where a player was launching himself at another player's midsection, but that player ducked or dove and got hit in the head instead.
  • One example by obscurity is the "Fair Catch Kick". A team receiving a kickoff can call a fair catch and immediately try a free kick-style field goal from the spot of the fair catch. To say the rule is rarely utilized is an understatement: It's only been used 24 times (that we know of) in the NFL, and was last used successfully in 1976.

Association football (soccer)

  • The offside rule. The rule is of course very straightforward (basically, if you were behind all the defendersnote  when the ball was passed to you, the move is ruled illegal and the defending team gets a free kick); it's just tediously worded and has a reputation for being so complicated that newcomers declare themselves confused without even trying to understand, and those who understand it feel the need to explain it in as complicated and detailed a way as possible. This in turn gets people annoyed and, well, it merits That One Rule status, anyway.
    • There is one slight complication. You can't score if you're behind all the defenders but one, with the goalkeeper counting as a defender. This only matters when the play has gone past the defending goalie, but there's another defender between the player who got the ball and the goal. Which is to say, hardly ever.
    • Actually, there are a few more complications:
      • If you were behind the ball when it was passed to you, you're onside regardless of where any defender was.
      • The same is true if you were in your own half of the field when it was passed to you.
      • A more common complication is that every offensive player is onside during a corner kick, goal kick, or throw-in until the ball is first touched by a player.
      • Another rare complication is that, sometimes, an offside player doesn't even need to touch the ball in order to be offside, which happens if he is interpretated as being involved in the play in some way (like letting the ball pass through his legs or blocking the field of vision of the goalie).
    • The inability of anyone to explain the offside rule is gloriously parodied in The Little Book of Mornington Crescent. The explanation of Mornington Crescent's offside rule is half a page of dense, jargon-filled gobbledegook. Which concludes "This should not be confused with the offside rule".
    • The rule isn't just difficult to explain, but even more difficult to enforce. To call someone offside an official must keep track of the position of the ball, the position of the defending player(s) and the position of the attacking player(s), all of whom are in motion. In close situations offside calls are essentially arbitrary and without any ability to use video review on calls the offside rule in Soccer essentially becomes a Rule Zero that officials can use to put their own stamp on the game.
    • It's most ludicrous when compared with the numerous sports that use a "zone" system for offside rules which have nice thick lines on the playing surface and linesmen with the sole job to observe when and how the line is crossed.
  • The lack of goal line technology could perhaps be called That One Lack Of A Rule. Every fan knows the pain of having a good goal disqualified (or a bad goal by the opponent let through) thanks to a ref's poor vision. FIFA's refusal to consider change hit its nadir during the 2010 World Cup — after news that fans in the stadiums were upset after watching ref screw-ups on big-screen monitors, FIFA's initial solution was a ban on in-stadium goal replays. Further controversies at the 2012 European Cup led them to finally accept goal-line technology starting with the 2014 World Cup.
  • Similarly, the Brazilian championship of soccer had the tradition of always changing the formula. Sometimes yearly (and if a big team was meant to be relegated, there would be an Obvious Rule Patch to keep it in the top level). In 1999, the relegation was similar to an Argentine rule, based on the average points between 1998 and 1999. But it got worse when a team who suffered a last-minute downgrade started a lawsuit...

Australian Rules Football

  • The advantage rule, which is also used in soccer. (Ice hockey also has a similar rule called the "delayed penalty".) The officials are given the ability to wave off a foul if the team that was fouled would be in a more advantageous position if the foul isn't given — in footy, you'll often hear the announcers call "play on" when advantage is paid. Of course, because the rule is a matter of high-speed interpretation, fans on both sides of an advantage call will often be puzzled — if not downright angry — about the call. The loudest yelps will be given if the team that played on immediately loses the ball after the advantage call, as their fans now believe they were victimized instead of helped. It's far less controversial in soccer and ice hockey because in those sports, change of possession is far more common and expected. What's more, in soccer, the team that was fouled gets the ball for a free kick; ice hockey gets a faceoff instead, and the team that fouled has one less player on the ice, so in both of those sports the advantage rule rarely benefits the opponents.


  • The infield fly rule. This rule is simpler than its reputation — an infielder can't deliberately let a fly ball drop in order to get an easy double play by picking off runners who would otherwise be forced to advance.note  If there are runners on first and second base or the bases are loaded, there are less than two outs, and the umpire feels the ball would be caught with "ordinary" effort by an infielder, the batter-runner is automatically out and all force outs are negatednote . The reason why the rule requires a runner on both first and second (or bases loaded) is that, if there were just a runner on first, because the batter is running to first as soon as he puts the ball in play (assuming he didn't just give up in disgust), it is assumed that he would beat out any double play attempt if an unscrupulous fielder tried to get them bothnote . Whether or not the fielder catches the fly ball, the net result is the same: one more out and a runner on first. It is possible that the team on defense would prefer to have one over the other be called out (i.e., one of them is a better base-stealer), but such strategic use of outs is outside the umpire's concern.
  • The balk rule. Balks are relatively simple to understand, but hard to actually call. Balks are when the pitcher makes a motion towards a base, but throws to a different base. So a pitcher can't act like he's throwing a pitch and then throw to first base to pick off a runner, which is why when trying to pick off a runner, the pitcher will almost always move their front leg towards the base. The problem is, how do you classify a "motion"? Is it when the pitcher starts his windup? When he lifts his leg? When he moves his arm? Balks are almost always controversial at the Major League level. Balks can also be called for similarly deceptive moves by the catcher.
  • The Posting System. Basically if a Japanese player wants to play in America, teams must first commit millions of dollars in collateral in a sealed-envelope silent auction. In addition only the winner of the auction is allowed to negotiate with the player. They get 30 days to negotiate a contract (at which point, the auction fee is delivered) or the player must return to Japan (in which case the posting fee is refunded). The system actually would allow a team to promise a higher fee than a rival who could really use the player, with no intention of signing him, just to delay said team from getting him — and pay nothing (as was claimed when Daisuke Matsuzaka entered negotiations with the Red Sox, when the Yankees seemed much more interested, though Matsuzaka was indeed signed by Boston).

    Thankfully, this one's been patched. The silent auction aspect has been replaced with a flat fee for posting (set by the Japanese team, but capped at $20 million), and every MLB team gets a chance to negotiate with the player, with the fee only paid if a team signs the player.


  • The NBA once had a technical foul for "illegal defense". Zone defenses were disallowed, since it allowed centers to simply camp under the basket. After a few years without this rule, they decided to make a rule that disallowed defensive players to be in the key (the painted area directly underneath and in front of the basket) for more than 3 seconds... which matched up nicely with the same rule for offensive players.


  • The Duckworth-Lewis Method was devised as a totally fair way to decide matches affected by rain. Unfortunately it's an extremely complex mathematical formula the results of which change every time a ball is bowled, a run is scored, basically every time anything at all happens. Since its introduction, matches (one of them famously a World Cup semifinal) have been decided by one team's players and/or coach misinterpreting the results table and settling for fewer runs than they in fact needed.
    • There are those, of course, who argue that the whole of cricket is in fact a case of Loads and Loads of Rules and it's difficult to deny... but Duckworth-Lewis is infamous even among those who understand everything else perfectly.
  • The LBW (Leg Before Wicket) rule is well-known for being one of those cases where the judgement call is generally in favour of whichever cricketer is the best boxer.
    • A batsman is out if he is hit by a legal delivery, which is not pitched outside the line of leg-stump, has not hit the bat and is going on to hit the stumps. If it strikes the batsman outside the line of off-stump he is not-out PROVIDED he was playing a shot at the time. Recent use of infrared and computerised video replays to follow the line and trajectory of the ball has made it much easier for spectators to see if the decision is in fact out.
    • In Stephen Baxter's Time's Eye, British soldiers from colonial-era India try to explain cricket to the army of Alexander the Great. They manage to get most of it across with gestures and broken Greek. They give up trying to explain Leg Before Wicket.
    • In SF Debris' review of the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Persistence of Vision", a vision of his disapproving father asks Tom Paris several difficult trivia questions, which Tom successfully answers, until he asks him to explain the Leg Before Wicket rule, which Tom fails to do, causing the vision to dismiss him as useless.
    • In many games of informal (backyard, beach, street, etc) cricket, the LBW rule is ignored. One informal form of the game, known as "French cricket" (though its ties to that country are dubious at best) dispenses with stumps, and the batsman is out if the ball hits him on the leg.


  • Stop hits and time hits in fencing are in theory incredibly simple, as they are counterattacks which retain priority over the initial attack because the initial attack is too "long-winded" and so it was interrupted. For example, if A's attack is legal, but consists of four movements, B can stop hit A by counterattacking during that fancy, silly wind-up. Good luck with getting fencers and judges to agree on what is a stop-hit and what doesn't count in the heat of swift-moving competition.

Ice Hockey

  • Buffalo Sabres fans are the only hockey fans that know the rules on players in the goal crease, the result of Brett Hull scoring a scoring a controversial Cup-winning goal off his own rebound in the third overtime period of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals. Video replay showed that Hull's skate was in the crease (i.e. the area in front of the goal, reserved for the goalie), which the Sabres argued was a violation of a rule then in effect that disallowed goals if an offensive player was in the goal crease. However, the rule stated that a player can enter the crease, as long as he has control of the puck, and the refs ruled that since Brett's shot rebounded to him, he had never lost control of the puck. After that disaster, the rules were changed, so that the player could now be in the goal crease, as long as they do not touch the goaltender. This led to some angry goaltenders as opposed to some angry Sabres fans.
  • The NHL has a few rules that vie for the title. The consensus champion, though, is the "puck-over-the-glass" rule. Specifically, following the 2005 lockout, the NHL made it an offence to shoot the puck over the glass from the team's defensive end, netting the offending player a two-minute penalty for delay of game. It's suspected the rule was implemented to boost scoring by boosting penalty minutes (since teams on the powerplay score more), but it does so by penalizing something that is usually an accidental action and which causes no more of a delay than icing the puck (which is not a penalty). Few things are more frustrating than watching your team take one of these penalties (even worse, because icing is legal while on the penalty kill and many players try to bank the glass off the puck and out, this penalty usually gets called on teams already down a man, leading to a 5-on-3 penalty).
  • The "loser point" (also known as the "Bettman point" - the two words are largely interchangeable in NHL fan circles), where teams that make it to overtime and lose still get a point in the standings, is widely hated by NHL fans, as it slows down close games in the third period (when teams will play defensive hockey to try and bank the point rather than risk going home empty-handed), makes some games worth more than others, demonstrably makes the playoff races worse, and overall makes a mockery of the standings from a statistical point of view. Moreover, a key technical reason for the loser point was so that players would push for a win in overtime instead of playing defensively for a tie, but in 2005, shootouts were introduced, making ties impossible. Unfortunately, NHL executives love it, because it makes the playoff races look more exciting, so it's unlikely it's going anywhere any time soon.
  • The "Intent to Blow" rule, in addition to being one of the most unfortunately-named rules in all of professional sports, tends to cause huge amounts of fan-rage whenever it comes into play. Simply put, an NHL referee can nullify a goal after one has been scored by saying that he intended to blow his whistle (thereby stopping play) before the goal was scored. This justification can be used even if the ref made no motion suggesting he was going to whistle the play dead. Worse, what tends to happen with this rule is "phantom penalties", where the ref will see a borderline penalty and choose not to call it, but if a goal is scored a few seconds later, he can whistle the play dead and claim he was about to call a penalty.
  • Hybrid icing. Intended to reduce injuries, it says if a defender is closer to the puck than any member of the opposing team at the faceoff circle, icing is called immediately. Problems arise when you consider that a forward and defenseman will almost always be skating towards the puck at different angles, making it difficult to properly assess who's closer to the puck and leading to controversial calls. There's also the fact that a fast forward could still beat out a defender at that point, resulting in offensive opportunities being lost in an era where most fans already think scoring is far too low.


  • "No forward passes" is an integral part of both codes of rugby, but casual fans - and even some long-time fans and commentators - have been confused by passes that travel forward, but are ruled as "flat" or "backward". This is because the laws take into account the effect of the player running forward while releasing the ball (sometimes called "the Momentum Rule"). Even if the ball is caught further forward from where it was released, the pass isn't forward as long as the player doesn't propel the ball forward. This misunderstanding is common enough that World Rugby, the governing body for rugby union, released a video clarifying the issue.

    Video Games 
  • In World of Warcraft the armor penetration stat ended up so confusing and defining some classes to such a degree that in the Cataclysm expansion, it was removed from the game entirely. Armor penetration was of course distinct from but interacted with abilities that reduce enemy armor, abilities that bypass enemy armor, and amount of enemy armor.
    • Another problem with Armor Penetration was that its effectiveness increased exponentially, making it vastly superior to other stats for physical damage dealers.
  • Early games in the Super Robot Wars franchise included a stat called "Limit". Intended as a nod to Mobile Suit Gundamnote , Limit would throttle a character's Accuracy and Evasion if they were too high for the machine they were using, forcing the player to spend extra upgrade money just to make machines perform as they're supposed to. Limit lasted all the way up to the original Super Robot Wars Alpha before quietly disappearing, with absolutely nobody mourning the loss.
  • Baten Kaitos had the Turn Timer. As you class up in the game (meaning you could hold more cards in your hand) a timer was introduced where if you didn't complete your turn in time, you'd forfeit it. It starts at 30 seconds but by end game you have only seven seconds to look at your cards and decide on a move. Unsurprisingly this was replaced with a better system in the sequel.

    Politics: America 
Politics, like games, generally operates under a system of rules, and in many countries—especially liberal representative democracies—most of the rules are simple enough to be taught to children. However, even the simplest systems can get into a snarl now and then.
  • Every amendment after the tenthnote  can be seen as either this trope or an Obvious Rule Patch. Many who turn to the Constitution for guidance may find themselves confused by the fact that the Articles as initially written do not align with current practice, with the most famous example being the "three-fifths compromise," which remains in the text despite being later nullified (by the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery). Amendments have been passed out of philosophical harmony (e.g., the decision to have Senators directly elected by the people rather than chosen by a state's congress), necessity, as an "undo" functionnote , and, sometimes, because someone realized that there was no set procedure for a specific issue. The last amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1992 (and first proposed over 200 years prior) and addresses congressional salaries.
    • This last amendment has caused a surprising amount of trouble in times of partisan gridlock in the legislature—while it was initially intended to discourage Congress from raising its salary too much (by allowing voters the chance to vote out legislators who did so before the change took effect), it also had the effect of preventing Congress from keeping itself in line by cutting its own pay.
  • The Twenty-fifth Amendment, specifically Section 4 (the part that gives the Cabinet the power to declare the President incapacitated), whose complexities are so interesting for writers, we gave it a trope. Somewhat ironically, the amendment was drafted because there was no explicit procedure for transfer of power in the event of inability to serve and the subsequent presidency of someone who had never been elected to any office.
  • The Electoral College. This one is relatively simple to explain and extremely easy to adjudicatenote , but it still gets Americans in a tizzy every time it becomes relevant. The Constitution stipulates that the President and Vice President are elected by an absolute majority of a special body called the Electoral College, composed of electors chosen in each state in a manner of the state legislature's choosing. Each state gets a number of electoral votes equal to its representation in both houses of Congress, i.e., the size of its House of Representatives delegation plus two (for its Senators); this gives us 535 electors for today's Congress. The Twenty-third Amendment grants Washington, D.C. three electoral votes, note  giving us 538 electors. To win an absolute majority and thus the presidency, you thus need 270 electoral votes.
    Simple enough, right? But of course, the states have all chosen to choose their electors by popular election—i.e., the electors are chosen as slates of individuals honor-bound (and in some states, legally-bound) to vote for the candidate of the people of that state's choosing. In most states, except Maine and Nebraska, the slates are chosen on a winner-take-all basis: whoever gets the most votes wins all of that state's electoral votes, even if it's not a majority. Even if you win a plurality in, oh I dunno...Florida by 537 votes out of nearly 6 million cast, you come home with all of Florida's 25 (at the time) votes, and your opponent, none. Most of the time, the person who wins the "popular vote" (i.e. the majority of the nationwide total) also wins the electoral vote and therefore the Presidency, but there are rare occasions when these do not line up, as with the famous 2000 election, above; along with the recent 2016 election. Americans get extremely confused by this, the news has to spend hours explaining the process, an explanation that often only makes people angrier.
    • An important note: majority does not mean 50 percent or more of the total popular vote. Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan are the last two presidents to win two terms with a popular vote total above 50 percent in both elections. Even if the electoral college and popular vote are in harmony, expect quite a bit of discussion over what constitutes a "mandate." Since an enormous number of ballots of haven't even been counted by the time the election winner is announced, the percentages announced on election night are often wrong. Moreover, you don't actually need to wait for a recount unless a state is decisive (Missouri held a recount in 2008, though it received little attention, as Barack Obama had won far more than the necessary 270 votes). And now that America has adjusted, somewhat, to the electoral college — the 2000, 2004, and 2012 elections were a prolonged lecture on the topic — there's considerable debate over the need for an Obvious Rule Patch. Electoral college votes go to the winner of the state, but selecting electors by county, as Ohio's Secretary of State suggested, would have given the majority of Ohio's votes to Mitt Romney, despite the fact that President Obama received more than 50 percent of the total vote share. And then some partisans simply hate the electoral college for failing to return their desired result, even when doing away with it would not benefit their party. Eventually, any debate will devolve into a modern remix of the initial federalist vs. anti-federalist debates.
    • In addition, due to the fact that some states are significantly more densely populated than others, and thus have far more representatives, as of 2016, the eleven most populated states control exactly 270 electoral college votes, which means that in theory, those states could decide the presidency even if the other 39 unanimously vote for the other candidate.
    • If no one gets the votes, it gets worse. The House picks the President, and the Senate picks the Vice President. Thomas Jefferson (1800) and John Quincy Adams (1824) were both elected this messy way; fortunately, both had the most popular vote, though Adams was second place in the electoral college. This system is one way it's possible for us to return to the days in which the President and Vice President are from different parties if differing parties control each chamber.
      • Actually, in 1824, there were four candidates, and Andrew Jackson had both more electoral votes (99 to 84, or 38% to 32% of the 231 total) and more popular votes (151,271 to 113,122, or 41% to 31% of the total) than John Quincy Adams. But, since the subsequent House of Representatives "run-off" election was restricted to the top three contenders, the fourth-place Henry Clay, who just happened to be the current Speaker of the House, was able to convince his supporters to back Adams.
    • And there's the other weird rule that no one understands: An elector from any specific state can either vote for a presidential candidate that resides in their state, or a vice-presidential candidate that resides in their state, but not both. This is usually misunderstood to mean that both candidates can't be from the same state, but that's not actually what it says at all. All it controls is each individual elector's vote. This means no one would lose any electoral votes if the state was going to vote the other way anyway.
      • OTOH, candidates are usually expected to carry their own state, and that probably would be doubly true if they both were from the same state.
      • And to throw in more confusion, this obviously doesn't require the electors to vote for 'the other guy'...they can just vote for some random schlub. And of course they can do some strategic voting...if the state had six electoral votes, and in the end the totals were close enough that the winner of that state need three more electoral votes to win, three of the electors could vote for their guy for prez, and some random guy as VP, and the other three could do the same for their party's choice of VP and some random guy as prez. OTOH, if he needed four votes, we might end up in the same silly situation as 'Congress deciding', where we have 'non-compatible' prez and VP, where they vote for their party's choice of Prez so he wins, but have to vote for someone else as VP so the other guy's VP wins.
      • However, this rule obviously has the potential to become incredibly confusing and stupid, so basically all parties have just decided to pick candidates from different states to avoid it. (There was actually a minor flap about this in 2000, as George W. Bush was of course resident in Texas, but it wasn't clear whether Dick Cheney, who had lived in Texas for some time by that point while he was running Halliburton, had effectively changed his residency back to Wyoming.)
    • And let's not even get into the whole idea of 'faithless electors', where electors pick someone beside their parties' candidates. States have attempted to outlaw this, but it's generally accepted that such laws, while they might, or might not, allow for punishment after the fact, cannot change the actual vote itself. (And one wonders if they include some sort of exemption from the problem above with both candidates being from the that state, where electors are literally barred from voting how their party wishes. Or the unwritten 'George Washington is the only president ever elected unanimously by the electors, so if anyone else ever gets all the electors, one of them should defect' rule.)
    • And then there's party delegates in the Presidential nomination process. One of the reasons Barack Obama won in 2008 was that his campaign understood the Democratic delegate system and Hillary Clinton's did not. This conflict was repeated during the 2012 nomination process by the Republican candidates, complete with compromises and negotiations regarding delegate votes.
    • The 2012 Republican Party primaries had a lot of states giving electorates by percentage (i.e. if you win 75% of a state, you get 75% of the delegates). This is being seen as problematic because it has contributed to the dragged-out nature of the primary and Republicans are worried about how much the candidates are needling each other. Other people are just bored with how much news coverage it's getting.
    • After those primaries, GOP leaders pushed through a party rule change just before the national convention in a transparent attempt to keep libertarian insurgent Ron Paul from being entered into nomination (even though Mitt Romney had long since clinched the party's nod). Previously, a candidate had to receive a plurality of the delegates in at least five states to be entered into nomination. It was changed to require a majority in eight states, a criterion that only Romney met in 2012. However, that rule created the potential for a complete meltdown in 2016—with no fewer than 16 officially declared Republican candidates, it's at least theoretically possible that nobody would be eligible for the Republican nomination! (Of course, the rule would almost certainly be changed, but the possibilities for chaos at the convention are endless. Unless the field thins out considerably by then, which is extremely likely.)
    • In an episode of Alf the titular alien muppet stated that the thing he found most insane about Earth was the Electoral College.
  • The United States Constitution can be changed in two ways: by Congress, or by an "Article V" Convention. An Article V Convention has never happened, partially because the laws that govern it are so vague and untested that a convention for an amendment to change the voting age might produce a completely new Constitution instead.
    • Some states have similar rules regarding their Constitutions or require a meeting of the people or for the people to vote to have the current state government appoint a committee to review the state's laws. In the modern era, this guarantees that the Constitution will never be evaluated by the people, who want to change the state Constitution because it's horrifically inefficient and outdated and requires them to form an assembly to review the Constitution, and repeat.
  • In 2012, Ohio was targeted as the state most likely to be decisive (i.e., produce an unbreakable margin of victory and to exert considerable pull on other swing states) and the world was introduced to two laws that fall under this trope: the prohibition on counting absentee and provisional ballots until November 17th and a recent law mandating that voters (or advocacy organizations) must challenge federal election procedure in federal courtnote . In a worst-case scenario (or perhaps just in 2016), neither presidential candidate has 270 electoral votes and the number of uncounted absentee and provisional ballots is sufficient to eliminate one candidate's lead, but counting won't begin for at least ten days after the election, leaving the winner unknown well into December. The latter law, meanwhile, has turned into That One Law for those who passed it, as it was widely seen as an attempt by the current party in office to circumvent challenges to procedure and to provide the 2012 administration with a great deal of power in determining "valid" ballots. This became a case of Hoist by His Own Petard for the Secretary of State, who had served in the statehouse when the bill was drafted. In the end, neither of these rules has had game-breaking effect, but if you enjoy election news at Christmas, it's entirely possible that 2016 or 2020's winner won't be declared until then.

    Politics: Canada 
  • The Westminster System of electing a Premier or Prime Minister in Canada is often misunderstood by large portions of the electorate, who will sometimes confuse elements of it with the Presidential System used in the US. One of the significant differences is that under the Westminster System voters do not directly elect the leader of their province or country; instead they elect their local representatives (MLAs or MPPs at the provincial level, MPs at the federal level) and those representatives choose a leader to govern. The leader can also be changed or removed at any time should the representatives decide to support someone else and this will not trigger a new election. The leader need not be an elected official and occasionally isn't if there's a change of leadership between elections (though, for various reasons, the leader typically seeks election as soon as possible after they are chosen if they do not already hold a seat). The whole system tends to cause much grumbling if a leader retires or is forced out in the middle of a term and a new one is selected (leading to cries of "We're being governed by someone who we didn't even elect!", ignoring the case that that is always technically true).
    • Another caveat of this system which seldom comes into play, but is similarly poorly understood, is that the leader need not come from the party with the most seats in Parliament/the Legislature. This was most recently displayed in 2008, when the federal Conservative Party held the most seats in parliament, but not an outright majority. The Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, was nearly forced out of his job when the opposition parties - representing a majority of the seats in parliament - agreed to form a coalition government, supporting the Liberal leader for the Prime Ministerial post. Since the majority of parliament would have expressed confidence in the Liberal Leader over the Conservative one, this was technically legal, and the coalition members represented a majority of Canadians, giving it democratic mandate—at the end of the day, more Canadians had voted for the Liberals, NDP, and BQ together than had voted for the Conservatives (and considering the typical leanings of NDP and BQ voters, would probably prefer to have a generic Liberal PM over a generic Tory one if they had to pick between the two, although the personalities actually involved complicate matters considerably). However, the attempt to seize government generated significant protest from the electorate and ultimately the coalition collapsed before the vote could be held. The furor over this was a significant factor in Conservative Stephen Harper's gaining a majority in the next election despite his lack of personal popularity.
    • The Governor General of Canada has the sole authority to inaugurate a prime minister yet the decision-making role the governor general can or should play in arbitrating situations where the prime ministership is contested is vague, unwritten, and lacks much helpful precedent. In ordinary times, the governor general is supposed to be an obedient rubber-stamp and always obey the prime minister, but in situations where the prime minister's hold on power is being contested, such as in the coalition situation described above, it's hardly clear what he or she should do, and can actually create a sort of paradox. Since there is always an incumbent PM, and the incumbent PM was always installed through some sort of democratic process, it will always be possible for an incumbent PM to argue it would be a violation of Canada's democratic norms for the governor general to disobey him, and install a different prime minister — even when the would-be alternate prime minister has a persuasive alternative argument regarding why the incumbent PM should be fired. Things get even more complicated when we consider the incumbent PM technically has the power to fire the governor general, a structural flaw some have described as "mutually assured dismissal." Technically the Queen could overrule the governor general and prime minister, but then we'd be in an entirely different can of worms.

    Politics: Australia 
  • The voting system for the Australian senate. For each state, six senators are elected at each election (or twelve, in the case of a Double Dissolution), under a preferential voting system, where if a candidate makes the quota needed to secure a seat, their excess votes are redistributed to other candidates. To make things worse, the number of candidates standing often means the physical ballot paper is huge. No wonder many Australians' brains bleed at election time.

  • In Euclid's Elements, after describing his definitions for the basis of Geometry, he describes five Postulates, fundamental truths about the nature of the geometry he was trying to describe. They are things that you can do or things that are true no matter what. They are 1. To draw a straight line from any point to any point note . 2. To produce a finite straight line continuously in a straight line note . 3. To describe a circle with any center and radius. note  4. That all right angles equal one another note . 5. That, if a straight line falling on two straight lines makes the interior angles on the same side less than two right angles, the two straight lines, if produced indefinitely, meet on that side on which are the angles less than the two right angles. Called the Parallel Postulate, it says that if two lines intersect a third and make less than 180° (two "right angles") on one side, then the two lines will, if extended, eventually intersect on that side, to form a triangle. Euclid, and other mathematicians, tried for several thousand years to prove the Parallel postulate from the first four and their consequences, but eventually it was shown that there are geometries where the first four are true, but the fifth is not.