2013 WFTDA Rules Analysis

After a too-long revision cycle and a six-month delay, the WFTDA has officially released its new rule set for flat track roller derby.

Although this is something that probably should have happened in 2011, that it’s finally out now is good news no matter how you look at it. Just about everyone had something negative to say about the outgoing 2010 rules, or specifically, the kind of game those rules created on track once teams and players began to understand what kind of loopholes existed between the lines.

With the new ruleset, which will become officially active on January 1, 2013, some of those loopholes have been tied off. However, because of the popularity of some of the newly discovered tactics, some of them have remained in the rules.

Still, regardless of what the general public may think about the rules and the resultant gameplay that is created from them, they were a consensus of the 159 WFTDA member leagues who voted on virtually every bullet point in the rulebook. So whether the new rules ultimately turn out great or wind up being just as spotty as the outgoing ruleset, it’s the rules the skaters wanted to play by.

But let’s not get ahead of things. The 2013 WFTDA Rules of Flat Track Roller Derby, as well as a multitude of official and unofficial resources for getting up to speed on the newly updated rules, can be found below:

Official Resources:

2013 WFTDA Rules of Flat Track Roller Derby – Online Version | PDF Version
MRDA-Branded Rules of Flat Track Roller Derby (PDF)
WFTDA Rules Central Page
Change Summary for 2013 WFTDA Rules
Minor Penalty Reclassification Guide (PDF)
WFTDA Rules Reporting Database
May 26, 2010 WFTDA Rules (PDF) (for reference)

Official Resources – Coming Soon:

Official German Rules Translation – January 2013
Official Spanish Rules Translation – Mid-2013
Official French Rules Translation – Mid 2013

Unofficial Resources:

Derby News Network Rule Changes Overview
Roller Derby Rule of the Day on Facebook
Comprehensive Line-by-Line Rule Changes from RDRotD (PDF)
Zebra Huddle WFTDA Rules Forum

I have personally gone through the rules to take a look at the changes and see if I could get an idea of how the game might be played next year, compared to how it has been played in the last couple of years. Below is a comprehensive analysis of what the updates might translate to in terms of actual gameplay, based on past history, current strategy trends, and the overriding competitive nature of doing whatever it takes to win.

So without further ado, let’s jump right into it, starting with…

The Pack

The pack is arguably the most critically important function of the game of roller derby. Get it right, and you’ve got a solid base with which to build from. Get it wrong, and you’re going to have a lot of problems to patch up in other aspects of the game.

It seems as if other roller derby rulesets have picked up on this, and have changed their pack definitions to better-suit the realities of competitive play. The WFTDA has had a lot of time to examine their pack definition description and all the gameplay consequences that come out of it. From all that time to look at improving it, the rule has ultimately been changed to…

Section 4 – The Pack

4.1 – Pack Definition

4.1.1 – The pack is defined by the largest group of in bounds Blockers skating or standing in proximity and containing members from both teams.

Wait … what?

Although the rule has been enforced like this for nearly two years, the member leagues of the WFTDA just went ahead and made it official: Standing in place is an acceptable way to form a pack.

As the main driver of gameplay, it’s disappointing that something wasn’t done to address pack definition in a meaningful way. Changing what drives the pack would solve a multitude of issues all at once, but instead of tackling this problem—and it is a problem—the WFTDA decided to stand pat for at least another year.

This is particularly troublesome because of public enemy number one with this style of pack definition: The no-pack situation.

4.1.2 – When two or more groups of Blockers equal in number are on the track, are more than 10 feet (3 m) from one another, and no single group meets the pack definition, no pack can be defined. Skaters will be issued a penalty for intentionally creating a no pack situation, or destroying the pack…

Like pack definition, this rule remains intact. Despite it and the warning of penalties it brings, teams have had no problems whatsoever in inducing no-pack situations without any of their blockers getting sent to the penalty box. Convenient for them, especially because they’re always at the back of the pack when that happens, watching their jammer get to go through the opposing wall at the front of the pack for free.

Unfortunately, this is a practice that looks set to continue into the new rules environment. It’s all because of what this years-old loophole, also in the 2013 rules, means for the entire game:

Section 6 – Penalties

6.10 – Out of Play Penalties – The rules do not define pack speed. Illegally destroying the pack penalties shall not be given for gradually deviating from the speed of the pack as established through game play, unless said deviation is sudden, rapid, and marked, leaving the opposing team no opportunity to adjust and maintain a pack.

This is the rule that guarantees that “the sausage” and other variants of pack-splitting strategies are not going to go away anytime soon. As long as a team can “gradually” slow the pack down while hanging at the rear, they will not be penalized even if it was their intention to split the pack all along.

This mechanic guarantees that the blockers that are towards the front of the pack, with all of the opposing blockers behind them, will continue to be at a massive disadvantage. There are exceptions, but in general the rear 4-wall is still going to be disproportionately advantageous during regular jams to the blockers holding that position, for the usual reason: Once the pack (legally) splits, the team in the rear can skate up to reform the pack and keep blocking the opposing jammer, while the team at the front cannot.

Of course, there have been other rule tweaks and penalty changes to try and address this. However, because the core workings of the pack and the major loophole that makes it easy to make it disappear, and how it permeates throughout all phases of the game, it may create some unintended consequences with other aspects of play.

Jam Starts

Let’s start with a change that’s been a long time coming in all derby rule sets, not just that of the WFTDA.

Section 2 – Game Parameters

2.4 – Jams

2.4.2 – A jam may last up to two minutes. Jams begin at the jam-starting whistle and end on the fourth whistle of the jam-ending signal.

One simple change from a split-whistle start to a one-whistle start eradicates many issues from WFTDA roller derby.

Delayed jam starts or two-minute non-jams are now completely impossible. Also out the window is the major reason for slow-starts, the conflict between one team burning off of penalty time by standing around and doing nothing, and the other team not wanting to get out of position by pushing forward to force a split-pack jam start.

Immediate jam starts were pretty much par for the course over the last two seasons, thanks to the knee-down no-pack start. That should mean that knee-down starts will go away, right?

Well… – At the jam-starting whistle, Blockers are permitted to be either upright or down on one knee.

That’s curious, isn’t it? The reason why players did the knee start, presumably, was to get the jam to start immediately. But now, every jam is guaranteed to start immediately. So why add the language in that allows blockers to start on a knee anyway?

Let’s back up a bullet point in the rules to find a clue to help answer that question: – Blockers must be in a position pre-jam so that the pack will exist behind the Pivot Line and in front of the Jammer Line at the jam-starting whistle, or immediately after the jam-­starting whistle should the jam begin with a no pack.

The wording of these two rules make it likely we’re still going to see some knee starts in the new rules. Logically, the only reason why the rules would still make knee-starts kosher and keep language stating that no-pack starts are still possible within a single-whistle jam start environment is because teams voting for this specific language were still wanting to start they way they’ve been starting for the last two years, down on a knee. Otherwise they would have simply mandated a standing start to close any and all remaining jam-start loopholes.

The reason for this seems to tie directly into the rear-wall advantage afforded to teams due to the pack definition rules.

Knee starts started life as a jam insta-starter, but evolved into jammer line crowd control. By sticking out knees across the jammer line and interlocking arms, a team can ensure no one from the other team can line up next to them back there. Four standing blockers can’t cut off access to the jammer line as easily as four kneeling blockers can, and it’s much harder to make a solid back wall when someone from the other team can get along or inside of it from the start.

Past that, the updated jam start sequence is one one of the first dangers I see with the 2013 WFTDA rules. One-whistle jam starts, or in fact any rule updates this go-around, will not prevent players looking to gain the rear wall advantage to do so in potentially dangerous ways.

As I’ve been seeing happen more and more throughout 2012, teams that are desperate to line up their blockers on the jammer line will do crazy things between jams to guarantee the location. As observed in my WFTDA Westerns 2012 Diary, this entails blockers belly-flopping onto the track directly into the path of players winding down from the end of a jam, creating a tripping hazard. There have also been occasions of players knee-sliding at speed into the lower legs of skaters coming right at them, just because they happened to be skating in the vicinity of the jammer line at the time the fourth whistle sounded.

It’s extremely disappointing to see nothing was done about this. Also disappointing is that eight-a-stern jammer line scrum starts don’t look like they’ll be going away, either. (Sorry, pivot line, but you’ll be staying irrelevant in this rule set for at least another year or two.) Although other rules improvements may make the pack more liable to move forward after the start—more on that in a moment—that doesn’t change the fact that blockers may be putting each other’s health in jeopardy between jams just to make sure they line up 2 inches closer to the jammers.

Despite this annoying carryover, there will probably be more standing starts than knee-starts in the WFTDA next year. Thank goodness for that. Adding in a few loophole-closing bullet points for some off-the-wall jam start happenings (, all blockers starting behind the jammer line; and, blockers starting a jam in a dog-pile to prolong a no-pack start) is nice, too.

But because of the pack definition rule that rewards a team for maintaining a rear position—a position they don’t need to engage the other team’s blockers to gain—there may not be as much improvement in the area of jam starts as there appears to be on the surface.

No More Minor Penalties

The most sweeping change in the 2013 WFTDA rule set is the implementation no more “minor” penalties. Long story short, a player that does something that is illegal and is deemed to have an impact on gameplay will be immediately whistled off to the penalty box, with no “in-between” type offenses that accrue to a player’s account.

There will be no more ticky-tack fouls that don’t really affect gameplay. There will be less of a gray area for referees to judge fouls upon, theoretically making penalties much easier to pick out. NSOs will have fewer things to keep track of, simplifying their jobs and (hopefully) making that large and ugly infield penalty whiteboard obsolete. It will be more clear to everyone that a whistle and a hand signal means a penalty, eliminating confusion during already-hectic jams.

Most happily of all, there will be no more poodling—taking an intentional fourth minor penalty as a blocker to clear a jammer of her penalty burden at a convenient time. Good riddance!

For a look at what else a no-minors environment might mean, click here to read on the WFTDA no-minors beta tests of 2011.
For a look at what else a no-minors environment might mean, click here to read on the WFTDA no-minors beta tests of 2011.

But more than any other change in the rules, what no-minors will do is keep games moving. Maybe not the “everyone in the pack has a reason to skate forward” kind of moving, but it will definitely make games and tournaments flow much better. For instance, there should be fewer stoppages and timeouts spawning from situations that arise from minor penalties, such as minor vs. major penalty clarifications.

From the spectator perspective, this is good news. To them, nothing kills the tempo of a good game like a bunch of people standing around for extended periods of time while waiting for the action to resume. So while there’s nothing the referees can do about those power jams (hah!) at least they can move proceedings along with what should eventually add up to fewer zebra huddles in the long run.

From a gameplay perspective, however, it’s somewhat more complicated.

Consider the 2012 WFTDA playoffs, which was final played using minor penalties. It turned out to be the second straight year that penalty totals increased from the year before; through all 80 playoff games this past year there was a per-game average of 40 major penalties and 163 minor penalties committed.

This worked out to approximately 73 box trips per game, with more than 30 of those being attributed to accumulation of minor penalties alone.

Obviously, previous penalty statistics will now need to be looked at with a grain of salt now that the no-minors environment will change how blockers and jammers attack things. But for players (blockers in particular) who were used to playing with minors—and at over 160 minors a game, they were REALLY used to it—they may go through a harsh transition as they cope with the no-minors environment for 2013 and beyond.

So at least initially, there could be games featuring more whistled penalties than ever before. Whether or not that normalizes as teams get to grips with the new rules will take time to discover.

There’s also an unknown in if no-minors play in general is compatible with the rear-of-the-pack slow game that has become a staple in the WFTDA. Remember, the no-minors beta tests of 2011 took place at a time when players were still playing “Fuck You Get Past Me” derby, and we haven’t heard about further testing since then; internal WFTDA testing (which one must presume has been happening since then) is no replacement for live, sanctioned interleague gameplay, especially if teams are playing for something of significance.

Still, with both jammers on the track I expect the no-minors gameplay environment, combined with some good common-sense changes in penalty enforcement and points scoring, to be noticeably improved. However, the single biggest change in the no-minors penalty environment, coupled with the likely ramifications of that change, may create a wildcard in how games play out.

General Gameplay and Scoring

Let’s take a look at how a typical jam might play out under majors-only gameplay that the 2013 WFTDA flat track roller derby rules bring to the table.

Part of the thing that made scrum starts scrummy was having eight blockers on defense, refusing to let the two jammers go forward to play offense. Despite the 2010 rules stating that stop-blocking or clockwise blocking was illegal, it still happened all of the time owing to the fact that such blocking fouls were generally minors. Pack referees doing their best windshield wiper impressions and calling all those direction of gameplay minors—33.5 per game in the 2012 playoffs, the most-called minor by a whopping 40% over other minors— didn’t deter packs from blocking against the grain during jam starts.

But in the new rules, all such contraflow blocking is an instant major penalty:

6.9 – Direction of Gameplay Penalties

Major Penalty

6.9.15 – A block by a stopped skater that includes physical contact which forces the receiving opposing skater off balance, forward, backward, and/or sideways, but does not cause the opposing skater to lose relative position.

6.9.17 – A clockwise block that includes physical contact which forces the receiving opposing skater off-balance, forward, backward, and/or sideways, but does not cause the opposing skater to lose relative position.

6.9.18 – A skater who comes to a stop while blocking an opposing skater but does not begin counter-clockwise skating and/or stepping again at the first legal opportunity.

Major penalties are now immediately assessed to players who stop or skate backwards if they make meaningful contact to opponents, even if the receiving player doesn’t lose position. Players will also get a sit-down if they stop on the track as a result of a block but don’t immediately skate forward again.

It’s a huge change to how slow-blocking penalties are enforced. The mere threat of individual players getting sent off for physically bringing an opponent to a stop should help get the initial scrum moving at a more decent pace than it has been.

Though keep in mind, tippy-toeing forward is still moving forward. There’s an equal chance we’ll see scrums that legally barely inch forward as opposed to illegally not moving forward, as has been the case in RDCL’s banked track rules for years. Their rule that requires constant forward motion doesn’t prevent teams from going as slow as possible when convenient; I don’t see why a rule that effectively mandates forward motion while blocking would make it any different in the WFTDA.

This change in penalty enforcement also gives the rear blocker wall a new advantage. If the front wall makes any significant contact against the rear wall before it gets up to speed, blockers in the front wall will likely be whistled off the track for a direction of gameplay penalty. This means they can’t rock back to try and punch a hole in the rear wall for their jammer—that’s a major penalty now.

So right from the start, an isolated front wall is pretty much powerless to assist their jammer, even if they wanted to. That’s not good. Still, if the rear blockers get too cute with keeping the pack slow it they’ll be sent off, which would then thin the wall out and give the rear jammer some more room to operate. At least that’s an improvement.

Even though blockers will have fewer tools at their disposal to stifle jammers physically, they may have picked up on strategically thanks to more relentless cutting penalties:

6.11 – Cutting the Track

Major Penalty

6.11.10 – A skater cutting any opposing in-­play skater.

6.11.11 – A skater cutting more than one in-play teammate.

It used to be that jammers could trade a minor cut of a single opponent within the pack to make it easier to get through to the front. With the 2013 WFTDA rules, that’s no longer the case. A track cut of one opponent or any two teammates will immediately send them off the track. (This also applies to blockers cutting other players, of course, as does it to players returning to the track from the box with illegal procedure penalty 6.13.16.)

The cutting major is an extremely harsh penalty upgrade, one that gives a lot of power to a defense that can smash an enemy jammer over the track boundary and retreat quickly. Though the defender retreating will need to be extra-careful not to initiate contact with an opposing blocker—that’s an instant major penalty now, remember—the jammer getting pinned out has no choice but to recycle, seeing as how giving up a power jam isn’t a desirable alternative.

This change may not make much of a difference for the jammer that manages to get out of the pack first and grab lead status, since they would have had to legally pass all players in-bounds to begin with. But I foresee this making life more difficult for trailing jammer, especially if they’re behind a rear 4-wall. Taking a minor cut to make a break was always worth it once lead jammer status was awarded to the jammer in the lead, but now the only options an isolated jammer could be faced with would be to give up a big jam with her behind a big wall or while sitting in the penalty box.

Okay, so a jammer manages to get out of the pack and loop around for a scoring pass. To make sure they get every point possible, jammers will have to watch out for tweaks made to the “hips passing hips” parts of the rules that deal with situations where their skates aren’t touching the ground:

Section 8 – Scoring

8.3 – (Scoring Passes) … In order to receive a point for passing an opponent the Jammer must:

8.3.1 – Pass opposing skaters’ hips while in bounds and upright, legally, without committing penalties.

8.5 – Points

8.5.8 – In order to earn points for passing while airborne, the Jammer must maintain in bounds and upright status after landing.

These provisions require jammers to stay on their skates if they want points officially credited to their tally, meaning they can no longer knee-slide their way to a few extra points while calling off a jam. This seems as much as a safety thing as much as it gives a fair chance for blockers to block, seeing as the rules disallow initiating a block on a downed skater. Now a downed jammer cannot score, which balances things out nicely.

Also a nice add to the rules is this little gem: – The Jammer earns a point for each opposing skater who is not on the track immediately upon scoring the first point on any opposing Blocker in each scoring pass, including those opposing Blockers who are physically on the track but have been directed to the penalty box.

Previously, a blocker that got penalized just before a jammer scored on them would immediately be considered “in the box” for scoring purposes, meaning they wouldn’t become a ghost point until after said jammer passed another opposing player further up the track. Annoying, especially when that player was worth an extra 1 or 2 points due to other penalties being served.

In the updated rules, that blocker is still considered “on the track,” as it were, if the jammer physically passes them in the normal manner. Doing so will immediately count as a legal pass and award that point (and any additional ghost points) on the spot. This is something that I noticed every time it happened, and wondered why it wasn’t this way to begin with. But now it’s that way for good.

Finally, we come to the end of a regular jam, and the one rule change that I feel is amazing that it’s taken this long to finally get in writing:

6.13 – Illegal Procedures

No Impact/No Penalty

6.13.9 – A Jammer attempting to call off a jam without establishing Lead Jammer status and the jam is not called off.

Of all the minor/major changes, this one makes the most sense of them all. Now a jammer ref that sees a not-lead jammer trying to call it off will just look at them curiously, not issue a minor penalty as has been the case previously. (A jammer successfully ending a jam without having the privilege to do so will still be penalized, per 6.13.25.) And really, it should be that way. It’s like if a blocker smacked hands on the hips to try and call it off; who cares that they’re trying to? They can’t end the jam anyway, and neither can a jammer sans lead. Both situations are now treated accordingly.

So from the looks of it, the WFTDA has greatly improved things for general gameplay during regular jams. The threat of an immediate box trip should prevent blockers from stopping opposing jammers in their tracks, though that will be counterbalanced by tighter cutting penalties. And closing a few scoring loopholes points will make sure every point is earned on-skates, like they should be.

However, these changes may not necessarily compel blockers on a team to engage opposing blockers or directly assist their jammers. A team at the rear of the pack will still be able to take advantage of the no-pack situation and get their jammer out without assistance; a team at the front of the pack will not want to retreat to the rear to assist, as that would just make their forward defense that much easier for the forward jammer to defeat.

What the 2013 WFTDA rules may ultimately wind up causing during 5-on-5 gameplay is pretty much what we’ve been seeing 5-on-5 during the last year of gameplay under the outgoing ruleset, with the exception that individual blockers will need to choose between moving the pack while blocking jammers or going to the penalty box for not doing so. On the surface, this seems like a change that will move the game positive direction.

But unfortunately, the same penalty changes that may get two-jammer regular play moving forward will make one-jammer power plays come to a grinding, penalty-filled halt.

~ ~ ~ Continue to Page 2 – Power Jams, Additional Changes, What it All Means ~ ~ ~