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Suddenly Significant Rule

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This is when a rule or law that is usually not given much thought is suddenly invoked. This can happen because:

  1. The rule is obscure and outdated or little used, but it's dusted off because it can allow or disallow a course of action.
  2. The rule is well known, but is given little thought because it's expected that everyone will follow it—and then it comes into play when someone doesn't.
  3. A Rules Lawyer uses the rule as a trump card.
  4. The circumstances of the rule coming into play are unlikely.

This is distinct from Loophole Abuse, which deals with getting around the rules, while this deals with following them, but there can be either overlap when invoking one rule allows someone to get around another, or exclusion when this means that a loophole that seemed to exist actually doesn't.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • A bit spoileriffic example from The Law of Ueki: The characters get special powers to participate in a tournament to decide who's gonna be the next God (since the current one wants to quit). There are two rules: If a participant attacks a normal person with his powers, the attacker loses one sai (talents, unique qualities of every person), and losing all your sais means you stop existing; but after a tournament fight, the winner gets a new sai. This becomes irrelevant after the first stage, since the rest of the tournament is held up in Heaven, there's not normal humans outside of contestants, and everyone who got that far already won a lot of sais.
    Cue to the climax, the Big Bad gets cornered and gets out of the tournament, meaning that every time the Hero attacks he loses one sai. Meanwhile, the Hero ends up down to one sai, with another hit he will win the fight but also his existence will end. He attacks anyway but doesn't disappear because in the middle of the fight he accidentally blasted away a poor Comic Relief, which gave him an additional sai.

    Audio Plays 
  • In The Eleven-Day Empire and Shadow Play, the first two Faction Paradox audios, Lolita, a Homeworld agent, conspires to have the young Faction Cousin Justine granted the unique shadow of the Faction's Grandfather. However, it turns out that under the Faction's laws, "the shadow is more important that the flesh", automatically making her guilty of the Grandfather's crimes and giving her the perfect opening to Logic Bomb the Eleven-Day Empire out of existence.

    Comic Books 
  • In Fables, the position of Mayor of Fabletown is technically elected, but no elections have been held since King Cole has been chosen Mayor at the town's founding centuries ago. Then Prince Charming calls for an election and runs for the position, thus throwing everything into turmoil. However, Charming then becomes a victim of this trope himself because he did not do enough research into what exactly the Mayor's powers were. Most importantly he did not realize that the witches' help is voluntary and cannot be compelled by the Mayor. They will help in emergencies but their magic is in limited supply and they refuse to use it to help Charming fulfill his campaign promises. King Cole only asked for their help in emergencies so they never had a reason to refuse before. Thus only a few Fables were aware of these restrictions and they chose not to warn Charming because they did not like him.
  • In an Archie Comics scene at Veronica's backyard pool, Veronica is scheming to get rid of Betty so she can have Archie all to herself. When Betty pushes a fully dressed Archie into the pool, Veronica promptly has her banned from the pool area for the day, citing a "No horseplay" rule. Betty agrees, but slyly points out that Archie has to leave with her, since he violated a rule against being in the pool with his clothes on!

  • Embers (Vathara): No one has used the Shelter of Dragon's Wings rule for over 200 years, but it was still on the books. This allows Iroh to use a Fire Navy ship as shelter, despite several very good reasons they should burn him down where he stands.
  • In Project Delta, Jane has a lot of trouble getting the proper training due to an ancient law about outsiders being permitted on an asari colony.
  • A Diplomatic Visit: In chapter 5 of the sequel Diplomat at Large, Twilight invokes a law dating back to the first Noble Council - "In the time where our allies are under attack, all those who deliberately deny or delay Equestria's support on their own volition and actively act against the principles of friendship that our nation was founded on, shall have their wealth and citizenship revoked, and be held prisoner until such time that the conflict is over as to not pose as a potential enemy within our own nation." In short, it lets her legally remove a majority of the nobles from power so the Princesses can declare war on the Storm King and his armies without interference. This rule is literally over a thousand years old and is still on the books, but she found it and made use of it. It later turns out that it wasn't actually ratified, though by that point Blueblood's gathered enough evidence of wrongdoing to have them all legally removed soon enough anyway.

  • During the final duel of The Gamers: Hands of Fate, the Big Bad seems to forget the small rule that a player may give away the reward for a quest they just completed to their opponent, who has no way of refusing it. This way, Cass gives away his Apple of Life to the Big Bad—which "resurrects" his entire undead army that promptly starves to death since it never had or needed any food production before.
  • In The Princess Diaries 2, Genovian law apparently says that women have to be married to take the throne, though this has never been upheld in practice. The villain brings it up because his nephew-by-marriage is next in line after Mia.

  • In A Brother's Price, such a rule is part of the villains' plan. They hire someone else to kidnap Jerin, so that they can then steal Jerin back from the criminals they hired, invoking a law that says that they're then allowed to keep the man they rescued from his kidnappers, as a reward for their victory over the criminals. Of course, for this to work, the hired helpers have to be killed (as the rule wouldn't apply if it was known everything was planned by one and the same family) but the villains show no remorse about this.
  • In Dragon Bones, Ward is told that a slave has fled to his land, Hurog, and is hiding somewhere under the castle. The nobles who lost the slave would like to get her back, but Ward tells them that there is no slave, invoking an ancient law that says that a slave who sets foot on Hurog land is automatically free. Ward's father and grandfather were jerks who would have happily assisted the nobles in their search for the escaped slaves, but Ward decides to revive the tradition. The nobles are quite annoyed.
  • From The Elenium, Berit is a Novice, so he's not entitled to wear armour yet. When Sparhawk and company head off to Zemoch, they dust off the seldom-used rank of Apprentice Knight for Berit, which means he's not a full Knight, but is allowed to wear armour.
  • Discworld:
    • Sam Vimes comes from a poor family, that had been noble until his ancestor became a regicide, and has nothing but contempt for titles as a result (technically he's a knightnote , due to the title coming with his rank of Commander, but only the very brave or stupid would actually call him that). So when Vimes is trapped in Ankh-Morpork during the events of Jingo, Vetinari sends him a letter that only says "Samuel Vimes, Knight". Vimes doesn't get it... until he realizes that it means he's entitled to form a regiment under his command, allowing him to sail to Klatch and prevent a war.
    • In Unseen Academicals, one of the more absurd-seeming of the foot-the-ball rules is "The ball is the ball that shall be known as the ball". This comes in handy in the big match, when Trev Likely, who has never practiced with a spherical ball but is a master of kicking a tin can, uses it to say that, as long as the team treats the can as the ball, it's the ball.
  • In By the Sword, a Valdemar novel by Mercedes Lackey, there's an old rule that says that a mercenary company that has lost enough members can call the Captaincy to vote. The Captain of the Skybolts, Ardana, gets the boot after a disastrous campaign.
  • In The Belgariad, there is a clause in the Accords of Val Alorn with Tolnedra that says "Aloria shall maintain Riva and keep it whole." Thing is, at the time the treaty was signed, Aloria (the ancestral kingdom of the Alorns) hadn't existed in centuries: what was once that nation was split into the kingdoms of Riva, Drasnia, Cherekh, and Algaria. The last three each have peace treaties with Tolnedra. This clause comes into effect much later, when the Emperor, angered by a disastrous expedition to Riva, prepares for a full-scale invasion. The Cherekh ambassador (fully aware of the accords) sends a letter to the Emperor saying that if this invasion happens, Aloria will fulfill that clause and end Tolnedra. The Emperor realizes that while Drasnia, Cherekh, and Algaria have signed individual treaties with Tolnedra, collectively they are Aloria, with whom Tolnedra has no treaties at all. The fear that the Alorns might band together to make war haunts the Tolnedran government for centuries—and then Nyissan assassins murder the Rivan King, and Tolnedra's nightmares come true.
    • One of the clauses in the Treaty of Vo Mimbre is that a Tolnedran Princess must come to Riva and await for the King to return. Ce'Nedra is ready to go through this formality that pays homage to a long-extinct dynasty and discovers that Garion is the rightful Rivan King.
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire, the Ironborn people have restored their old tradition of Elective Monarchy, when the kings are elected on a council called Kingsmoot. A Kingsmoot is assembled, and a tyrannical evil sorcerer wins the election. Said sorcerer's niece and rival Asha Greyjoy goes into exile to the North, and one of her followers suddenly reminds her of one rule of Kingsmoot about which everyone forgot: if a Kingsmoot was assembled and at least one candidate with a significant claim to the crown was absent, it is invalid. Thus Asha decides to rescue her brother Theon from captivity in order to invalidate the Kingsmoot through him.
  • In The Knights of the Cross, when all other ways to extricate Zbyszko from his pending execution fail, princess Anna remembers a little known law that a young man cannot be executed if a pure maiden claims him as her betrothed. Resulting in an iconic scene of Danusia doing just that.

    Live Action Television 
  • Reality TV competitions and Game Shows in general have many, many more rules than a casual viewer needs to know. Little-known and usually behind-the-scenes rules often only come up when they're about to be broken. For example, if The Amazing Race reminds viewers about requirements for teams to take a certain mode of transportation, you can be sure someone is about to mess up.
  • For someone to be in Canada's Worst Driver in the first place, they must be a legal driver, having both license and insurance. Thus, the only attention those rules usually get during the rest of the show is mere mentioning. But in Season 6, Scott Schurink's nominator (who let Scott drive on his insurance) realized what an ass Scott was and cancelled Scott's insurance during filming. Since Scott couldn't pay for his own insurance (which would cost him $1,200 per month), he got kicked off the show.
  • The Commish. In "Sleep of the Just", a rapist has Diplomatic Impunity, so the police harass him by ticketing for obscure and long-obsolete violations of the law, like sneezing in public (it frightens the horses). When he tears up the ticket and throws it away, he's cited for littering, which is illegal in any century.
  • In Kaamelott, King Arthur, who lusts after a knight's wife, avoids a deathmatch with his knight by using an outdated law that allows him to swap his wife for the knight's wife.
  • In the Doctor Who serial "Paradise Towers", the Doctor does this by making up a rule; he exploits the Deputy Chief Caretaker's simultaneous hyper-bureaucratic nature and imperfect knowledge of the rulebook by claiming there's an obscure rule in his rulebook which requires the guards to stand down, walk five paces away from the prisoner, close their eyes, put their hands over their heads and wait a minute and a half. This, not coincidentally, is exactly how long the Doctor needs to find the right keycard and escape.
  • Forged in Fire, like the name suggests, is a forging competition, meaning that the blades created for the challenges must be forged into their final shape. This rule went unnoticed for the first season and most of the second, because the metal used usually had to be forged to make a viable blade (and none of the contestants were stupid enough to try not forging it). However, in one late episodes where lawnmower blades were used, a contestant decided to grind the blade into a knife shape, instead of forging it. The resulting knife was not valid under the rules, resulting in the contestant's elimination.
  • In Game of Thrones, Yara Greyjoy expects to succeed her father, Balon, after his murder and become the first queen of the Iron Islands, since her brother has been castrated and failed so badly at a military campaign that he does not feel himself worthy of the throne. However, she is taken aback when she learns she must get the support of the islands' other nobles at the "kingsmoot", where her uncle Euron is chosen king instead.

  • The Soviet Union was technically a confederation. When Mikhail Gorbachev relaxed the restrictive policies of the USSR, the constituent republics remembered this and split off.
  • Surprisingly, many U.S. constitutional crises are ultimately due to this. Either a rule was formulated once and then largely forgotten or a rule was worded very unclearly and its interpretation in modern times makes for endless debates. Just take the Second Ammendment or whatever a "natural born citizen" is supposed to be.
    • The constitutional crisis is caused by a lack of stable/generally accepted leadership that allows many somewhat powerful politicians to either claim leadership for themselves or reject the leadership of someone else. The reason obscure laws or unorthodox interpretations are used is because if they say "screw it, all power to me" and ditch the rulebook (the constitution) alltogether, then it is a legitimate free-for-all for everyone, meaning their seats are contested as well. They want to get to the top of the pyramid without bringing it down.
  • In the last years of the Weimar Republic none of the governments had a positive parliamentary majority behind them. However, the chancellor was appointed by the President and the President was allowed to make "Emergency Orders" (Notverordnungen) under Article 48 of the Weimar constitution. While they could be thrown out by a majority of the parliament voting against them, the President also had the power to dissolve the parliament at any point he pleased and call new elections. When parliament was not in session, the Emergency Orders could not be voided by it and hence Brüning, von Papen and Schleicher (the last three chancellors before Hitler) could in essence govern without parliament so long as the President supported their agenda. This backfired hard and the Nazis got more and more votes until eventually (after the Nazis got 45% of the vote and could get a majority with a coalition with another far right party) President Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor. Hitler proceeded to introduce and pass a law giving him the power to make any laws he wished, including those going against letter and spirit of the constitution. The question of whether the "Ain't No Rule" justification the Nazis used was legit has never been conclusively answered, but suffice to say the constitution of The Bonn Republic and The Berlin Republic (which is the same document in essence) is anally retentive about none of that ever happening ever again.
  • Prior to the treaty of Lisbon there was no rule for leaving the EU (which is not to say it did not happen, both Greenland and the former French territory that is now Algeria were technically part of predecessors of the EU at some point in time), however that treaty explicitly introduced a rule, mostly summed up in article 50. Article 50 establishes that whatever the new relationship between the former EU member and the "rest-EU" is going to be has to be negotiated within two years, otherwise the new relationship will be the "default" of the EU relations to any non-EU country with no special rights or obligations. However, there is a way around the two year deadline, as Britain showed in light of the "Brexit" vote. The referendum technically being non-binding, Article 50 is not triggered until Parliament (the only body in Britain that can make laws) explicitly makes a law to leave the EU under article 50. And there Ain't No Rule that they have to do it now - or at any point from now until the sun turns into a red giant. So while Article 50 as originally worded provides for a (in political terms) quick and clean divorce, a loophole nobody seems to have foreseen enables countries to leave and not leave the EU at the same time.
  • In the 2004 U.S. presidential election, a Minnesota electoral college voter pledged to Democratic candidate John Kerry voted instead for Kerry's running-mate, John Edwards to be president. It's still unclear whether this was intentional or not, but the state legislature responded to this by changing electoral college votes to being public instead of anonymous, and barring electors from voting for candidates other than whom they were officially pledged. Come the 2016 election, another Minnesota elector tried to vote for Bernie Sanders instead of Hillary Clinton (who had come dangerously close to being the first Democratic candidate to lose the state in 44 years), but thanks to the change in state law, was unable to do so.

  • On July 24, 1983, Major League Baseball slugger George Brett of the Kansas City Royals hit a two-run home run with two outs in the ninth inning, giving his team a 5-4 lead. Then, New York Yankees manager Billy Martin brought to the attention of the umpire that Brett's bat had too much pine tar on it. Explanation  Martin had known that Brett was using more pine tar than the rules allowed for quite some time, but nobody else noticed and Martin kept it to himself until it proved useful during a game. The umpire ruled Brett out on an illegally batted ball, which meant the Yankees won. After the game the Royals protested to the league, and the AL president upheld the protest, so the game was restarted on August 18th from the point of Brett's home run (the Royals won 5-4, but not before Martin tried to have Brett called out for not touching all the bases - his intent was frustrated when the umpire pulled out a signed affidavit from the umpires of the first game saying that Brett did in fact touch them all). The rule was later modified to say that if nobody complained before the batter hit a ball, the violation doesn't nullify the play. See the whole thing here (Brett makes a particularly nice Dynamic Entry at 2:40 when he's called out).
  • The 1999 Cricket World Cup had a rule to decide which team would go to the final if the semi-final was tied: the team that won the match played between the same opponents in the earlier stages. Rather dramatically, one of the semi-finals between Australia and South Africa ended in a tie, thus invoking this rule and letting Australia enter into the finals since they won the said previous match. South Africa would have easily won that previous match, if not for one of their best fielders, Hershchelle Gibbs dropping a catch letting off Australia captain, Steve Waugh, who went on to win the game for Australia. South Africa had dominated the World Cup until then, so the dropped catch and the defeat was considered mostly insignificant as South Africa were expected to win the World Cup anyway.
  • In Olympic Gymnastics, it was technically possible to get a 10/10 score—but this was so unlikely that scoreboards only went up to 9.99. Then Nadia Comăneci to pull off a perfect score in 1976—which, due to the technical limitation, was displayed as an abysmal 1.00. After that, scoreboards went up to 10.
  • Keith Olbermann makes a point that "Merkle's boner", a famous mistake by a rookie in 1908 that won the Cubs the Pennant and ultimately their last world series until 2016 was this. See this video

    Urban Legends 

    Video Games 
  • Halo: First Strike: The Cole Protocol is a series of rules drafted for human fleets listing numerous steps they must follow to prevent the Covenant from finding Earth, such as never hyper-space jumping directly to Earth, destroying navigation intel, etc. One of the rules, Subsection 7, said to never bring back a captured Covenant vessel without throughly checking it for tracking devices first. However, it was mostly ignored because not until the 27th year of the war did anyone ever capture a Covenant vessel without its crew hitting the self-destruct.
  • In Fallout: New Vegas, one of the rules of the Brotherhood of Steel, "The Chain that Binds", ensures that the chain of command within the Brotherhood is always adhered. It's mostly just invoked when a lower ranked member is insubordinate to a higher ranked one, but it also requires those of superior rank not to give orders to those who do not report directly to them, and can be grounds for having a Brotherhood Elder demoted and replaced, if you decide to support Paladin Hardin's attempt to depose Elder MacNamara.

  • The framing device for Cobweb and Stripes is that Betelgeuse has been arrested for an unspecified crime. Rather than serve out his sentence in the normal way, he invokes an ancient and rarely-used magical law which enables him to be bound to a living human until his trial. He figures that Lydia sort of owes him for not going through with their marriage like she agreed, and so he volunteers her for the task. She can't get out of it, so she goes along with it, and they're both surprised to find that they actually like each other - enough to continue the relationship even after they're no longer bound.
  • In Gunnerkrigg Court the threat of this is used as leverage on Antimony's father to force him to return. The Court caught Antimony cheating on her schoolwork, but rather than address academic dishonesty in any normal fashion they instead threaten to pretend to not have noticed until the last moment, then use it to expel her immediately before graduation. There's minor evidence that this is a pattern. They employ obvious obstacles students can get around while also surveilling them through subtler methods, then they do nothing about any rules they break - but if the Court wants something suddenly those rules can be very important.
  • Used to literally save the world in The Order of the Stick: Just before the vampire-dominated dwarven council can finish a vote that would have resulted in the gods destroying the world, one of the non-dominated elders suspends the session because the rules require them to meet at a table with certain specifications— and Durkon's thrown hammer has just caused a falling rock to destroy said table. This prevents the vote from taking place until they can replace it, which gives the heroes plenty of time to deal with the vampires.
    Sigdi Thundershield: Were ye really so dumb ta think fer one second tha ye could beat Durkon— Durkon o' all the folks in this great big beaut'ful world— in a fight tha revolved around followin tha rules?!?

    Western Animation 
  • In one episode of The Jetsons, Cogswell bribes a crooked commissioner to enforce the B.E.B.O.P law (Basic Electro Bionic Operations Permit) as part of a plan to shutdown Spacely's factory to prevent him from making a million sprockets for his millionth cog (the paperwork needed for Spacely to go back online would take four weeks). One of the side effects of the trick was that Rosie had to marry Mack to prevent him from being melted down.
  • An episode of The Simpsons hinges on this. When several vocal townspeople protest alcohol consumption and demand prohibition, the city officials are ready to dismiss them out of hand until a clerk in the room happens to find a 200 year old prohibition law that was noted but had never been enforced. Funnily enough, this is inverted at the end of the episode when the same clerk finds on the same parchment that the law was repealed a year after being put in place, invalidating Homer’s crimes.