RDCL 2016 Rules Analysis

It took three years, but the banked track rule set has finally gone through enough changes for us to scrutinize it.

The Roller Derby Coalition of Leagues, America’s banked track roller derby organization, is in a pretty nice spot with its rulebook.

Three years ago in 2013, the RDCL published a major update that completely changed the game, literally overnight, from slow derby to go derby. As banked track leagues and teams came to grips with the nooks and crannies of the rules and the strategies derived from them, the speed and pace of play increased significantly, even during mismatches, much to the delight of both skaters and fans.

There have only been incremental updates to the rules since. Nothing has really required a major overhaul, with the majority of changes primarily clarifying in nature. Even the recent release of the current RDCL banked track roller derby rulebook doesn’t have many earth-shattering changes in it. Nor have those changes increased the size of the rules text. The PDF document is only 40 pages, and the lion’s share of the text has remained constant for years.

However, enough changes have been made from 2013’s v2.3 release to the v3.1 document in 2016 for us to give finally give the RDCL way of defining roller derby another full-blown rules analysis. Links to the rulebook and all relevant rules documentation are below, as well as some of our own unofficial resources.

Official RDCL Rules  v3.1 (2016) Resources

RDCL Banked Track Roller Derby Rules v3.1 (2016) – PDF
RDCL Rules v3.1 (2016) w/Highlighted Changes
v2.5 (2015) RDCL Rules Clarifications (May 2015)
RDCL Rules Appendix A – Track Specifications Diagram
RDCL Minimum Skills Requirements (June 2015)
RDCL Officiating Hand Signals Document (2013)
RDCL Officiating Paperwork
(June 2015)
RDCL Rules Website

Unofficial RDCL Rules Resources

Roller Derby Notes RDCL v2.3 (2013) Rules Analysis (For reference)
The RDN Banked Track/Flat Track Rules & Strategy Guide
— Our 3-page PDF download details key rules and strategy differences between WFTDA, RDCL, and USARS roller derby, using plain English and video examples.

The overall list of changes are pretty neat and tidy, with only one or two major changes affecting gameplay since the last time we snooped around. We’ll get to those changes toward the end. First, here are the highlights of some of the more significant smaller changes.

The RDCL Numbers Game

Everyone’s jumping on the skater number bandwagon! The WFTDA did it in 2014, and USARS did it in 2015. Now in 2016, the RDCL is looking to standardize how skaters are identified on the track.

But the banked trackers are doing things differently. Unlike the two flat track bodies, which both adopted a numbers-only format, the RDCL is keeping it old-school. Or at least, taking a small step towards new-school.

RDCL Rules v3.1 (2016)
Section 3 – Players

3.8 – Uniforms
– 3.8.1 – Skater numbers may be up to four (4) characters long.
– 3.8.2 – Skater numbers may contain a number from 0-9, or a letter A-Z.
— 3.8.2.1.1 – Skater numbers must contain at least one
numeric digit.
— 3.8.2.1.2 – Letters must be capitalized.

These rules are new to the RDCL for 2016, but they’re really just the old WFTDA numbering rules used before 2015. Not much of an upgrade, is it?

But it is. Banked track roller derby leagues, particularly the L.A. Derby Dolls, still have lingering bits of the “we don’t give a bleep” attitude that defined the very early days of modern roller derby. Most of that went away around the time the penalty wheel got mothballed,1 but its echoes persisted through to today via some of the skater numbers employed by banked track veterans.

Alphanumeric combinations are nothing compared to what some skaters adopted. Some had five numbers (#90210), others had non-standard numerals (#2½), and one of them even uses a literal candlestick (#🕯, aka #i) as their “number.” Lordy!

Though these very non-standard identifiers were starting to dwindle with more and more of the old guard retiring, they were still there, and were a bit of a hassle to deal with in leagues looking to modernize penalty tracking, like the electronic system in use in San Diego. So the RDCL moved to officially standardize numbers for everyone, though only by a small increment.

The Coalition is giving plenty of time for the the weird-numbered vets to transition, allowing anyone with a non-conforming number two more years (2016 & 2017) to keep using them provided they registered and cleared them with their home leagues in advance. Newly drafted skaters in 2016, and everyone in 2018, are required to abide by the new numbering rules immediately if they wish to play in interleague games.

Engage

In its 2013 rules update, the RDCL nuked the passive offense strategy through a series of smart rule changes related to pack reformation and the definition of the engagement zone. Since then, the most effective strategy for a team looking to score points on a jam became engaging in active offense—the only kind of offense there ever should be.

This has not changed in the 2016 rules, nor is there any reason it would need to. Even so, the RDCL added a new sub-rule to this area that reinforces the notion that worrying about what your opponent is doing takes precedent over worrying about whether or not the rules will allow you to block them. It helps make it clearer to skaters that they are allowed to engage their opponents within the engagement zone—even when no pack can be defined.

Section 4 – Pack

4.2 – Engagement Zone
— 4.2.2.1.1 – All blockers within the engagement zone may block and assist during a split pack, but all blockers must simultaneously and immediately attempt to reform the pack or risk penalties.

A refresher on how RDCL pack play works: There is no such thing as a “No Pack” on the banked track. Instead, when the pack becomes undefined, usually through pack destruction—which is completely legal and very common on the banked track—a “Split Pack” is called. Both teams must start an attempt to reform the pack within 2 seconds, and only after that are penalties issued.

The other key difference with a Split Pack is that a 20-foot engagement zone almost always exists, generally measured from the foremost blockers in the split.2 As a result, no matter how a team tries to manipulate pack definition to their advantage, the other team may always legally engage an opponent, even if they often have to slow down (or speed up) to reform while they do so.

This addition strengthens the idea that the first priority for blockers in the pack is to play offense and defense—keeping the pack together is a secondary concern, one that they only need to worry about when advised to do so by an official.

The Continued Death of Pre-Game Gear Check

Referees and officials are experts on the rules, and it’s their job to see skaters adhere to them to the best of their abilities. Some of these rules, like 3.10 and 6.19.2 in the RDCL rulebook, require skaters have all the necessary safety equipment on their person during gameplay. If they don’t, a referee has the responsibility to issue illegal procedure penalties so that the skater corrects it.

Refs are not experts on whether or not said safety equipment fits the personal needs of every single skater on the track. Yet for some reason, referees were tasked with checking skaters to make sure all of their safety gear was present and properly fitted before every game.

That’s a bit redundant, isn’t it? The rules handle the equipment checklist for skaters, and skaters should be coached to be responsible enough to gear up to their level of comfort without needing officials to do a mandatory double-check.

So the RDCL went ahead and eliminated the mandatory pre-game safety gear check. The WFTDA killed it last year, so it’s unsurprising that others downstream are also doing away with it. However, although RDCL refs are no longer required to check the gear of the skaters, they will still be required to give skaters the time to check it themselves.

Section 9 – Officials

9.3  – Duties
– 9.3.3 – The referees will ensure that the players have sufficient time to verify they are wearing required safety equipment, the correct uniforms, and the correct player designations.
— 9.3.3.1 – Referees may notify skaters of insufficient or unsafe safety equipment before game start, but are not required to uniformly perform a check of safety gear for skaters.

Compare this section to what it looked like in previous RDCL versions:

– 9.3.3 The referees will ensure that the players are wearing all required safety equipment, the correct uniforms, and the correct player designations.
— 9.3.3.1 For liability purposes, referees may not adjust players’ equipment. Players must make all adjustments themselves and clear them with a referee before being allowed to play.

The phrase added to 9.3.3, which ensures players have sufficient time to verify their gear, cleverly changes a dodgy mandate into a good practice that gives everyone the time they may need to double-check things without the physical intervention of officials.

The old 9.3.3.1 underscores how dodgy that mandate actually was. A ref used to have to go through all the gear check motions, but in the end was not allowed to really do anything about it until the skater took care of things herself. That the rules had to go out of their way to explicitly forbid referee intervention here was a big red flag.

The new 9.3.3.1 has effectively become the new pre-game gear check routine, an informal visual double-check instead of a mandatory physical one. It’s okay for referee to give a verbal heads up to a skater that a knee pad or elbow pad strap is loose so the skater can fix it herself, for example, which is what any derby-friend would do anyway.

There will still be the occasional pre-game wardrobe malfunction, yes. But with where roller derby is today, it’s safe believe they won’t be frequent enough to have to have to force referees to scrutinize every single skater before every half of every game. In the end, a skater must be responsible for her own safety when it comes to gearing up, and it’s nice that everyone is starting to acknowledge that through the rulebook.

Multiplayer Blocking: Easy as 1-2-3

Now for one of the bigger changes this year. Like everyone else, the RDCL has for years been trying to pin down clear and concise language for what constitutes multiplayer blocking.

The v3.1 rules have nearly doubled the amount of text in the subsection that describes the penalty. The additions were done in an attempt to break down the three components of blocking with a teammate illegally and to define those components, using them to explain under what circumstances a penalty be issued.

Here’s that new subsection, and the three subrules that try to put it all together.

Section 6 – Penalties

6.9 – Multi-Player Blocking (MB)
– 6.9.1 – Players may not grab or link with teammates’ bodies, clothing, safety equipment, or the handrail to form a connection to block an opponent or impede their progress.
— 6.9.1.1 – Three criteria must be met for this penalty to be issued:
1) a link 2) a connection and 3) an active block.

—- 6.9.1.1.1 – (1) The link is the part or parts of the player(s) that is used to hold them together; most frequently a grasping hand or hooked arm. The link strengthens the connection.
—- 6.9.1.1.2 –
(2) The connection is the place or places where the bodies involved in the multiplayer block are touching. Frequently the connection and the link are the same place.
—- 6.9.1.1.3 –
(3) An active block must occur on the link and the connection.

Picture the classic and very illegal multiplayer block: Two defenders interlock their arms behind each other’s backs and waists as an opponent tries to break through from behind them.

In this situation the RDCL would define (1) the link as the wrapped hands and arms, which helps the blockers pull themselves against one another with additional leverage; (2) the connection as the backs and sides of the blockers where they are physically touching each other, presenting an impediment for the opponent; and (3) an active block being defined (in the glossary) as the actual physical contact of these blockers to an opponent challenging them, in this case on the link and the connection.

If (1) or (2) is happening by itself, no amount of (3) can result in a penalty. Neither a weak link that can be easily broken with a physical challenge, nor a touching connection that ceases to exist upon the moment of impact, can be considered an illegal block.

But if all three of them are happening? If it causes an opponent to lose position or impedes their forward progress for more than a second, that’s a multiplayer blocking penalty and a trip to the penalty box in the next jam.

This is a pretty simple system for determining what a multiplayer block is. Separating one illegal action into two parts that are easier to define may eliminate a lot of confusion, on the skater side of things in particular.

Unfortunately, there’s a slight bug in (3) which may muddy the consistency of these new rules. In defining the connection in (2), the RDCL points out that the connection and link are frequently in the same place. But that doesn’t mean they are always in the same place. The infrequent times when the link and connection are separate creates a loophole here.

Consider a situation where the same two blockers playing defense instead wrap their arms around each other’s torsos, across their stomachs, on the side of their bodies opposite the incoming jammer. (1) The link would still be their arms and hands, which are being used to squeeze their bodies together. (2) The connection is still the shoulder-to-shoulder space behind and between the blockers.

For the penalty to be applied, an incoming jammer would need to physically engage (3) on the link and the connection. Problem is, she would need to break through the connection before she can get to the link. But the connection is being strengthened by the link, so it’s likely the jammer will won’t be actively (physically) being blocked by both at the same time.

If link and connection are not both being blocked upon by the opponent, (3) would remain unfulfilled. By the letter of the law, a penalty cannot be issued—despite it unquestionably being a penalty in spirit.

So yeah, that’s a rules oopsie. But at least it’s one that was caught pretty quickly. We understand this discrepancy has already been spotted by the RDCL, which will hopefully patch it up in a near-future incremental rules update.3 Until it does, though, some blocker walls may be really hard to get through.

The Last (Jam) Question

There’s no other way of putting it: The other significant update to this year’s banked track rules is epic.

Okay, not really. To be honest, though it’s a wonderful change and has significantly improved game flow, it’s not an update that will move the needle in the greater derby community.

But to in the land of the banked track, these new rules are the equivalent of Frodo Baggins throwing The One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom.

Seriously. The RDCL has been wringing its hands trying to completely solve this rules problem for a very long time. Like, almost eight years a long time. It’s persisted for so long, it was an issue before the RDCL even existed!4

It is one unique to the RDCL and its forebearers, a consequence of its penalty enforcement system. All other forms of roller derby immediately whistle penalized skaters off the track to serve a uniform amount of time in the box. The RDCL does not send players to the box until after a jam is completed. Players instead serve their untimed penalty during the next jam. When the jam is over, so is the penalty.

It’s a swell system. Penalties are not whistled during banked track games, which cuts down on distractions for fans. It also simplfies penalty tracking for NSOs, who do not need to worry about juggling stopwatches with their paperwork.

However, this method of enforcing penalties raises a question, one that has haunted banked track roller derby for a very, very long time:

If a penalty is committed during a jam, and it is to be served in the next jam, how can a penalty committed in the last jam of a game be properly enforced if there is no next jam with which to serve it?

The path that the RDCL has taken to get from this question to the answer is fascinating. We here at Roller Derby Notes have been around long enough to see the rules surrounding the last-jam penalty evolve over the years, and thought it would be neat to cap off this rules analysis with the story of how the old rules tried to address the problem, the issues they faced, and how that process eventually lead the RDCL to see the light with the 2016 update.

2009 – L.A. Derby Dolls House Rules5

Players that received a penalty in the last jam of a game would indeed serve their penalty in the next jam that their team played—which was the first jam of their team’s next game!

It was quite the odd sight seeing players start a game from the penalty box for an infraction they committed months ago. There were a couple of first-jam power starts/power jams too, the result of a jammer carrying a penalty with them into their next game. Awkward.

This method of penalty enforcement didn’t really address the question, though: What happens if a player commits a penalty in the last jam of the championship game? They can’t force you to serve a penalty after you’ve retired!

2010 – WORD v1.3

The precursor to the RDCL, the World Organization of Roller Derby took the first stab at a unified banked track roller derby rule set. It was obvious that L.A.’s last jam/first jam system wasn’t a long-term solution interleague play. (This rule was retained in 2010 for some reason.) Working toward resolving this, the Last Jam Major was born.

Any jam that started within the final 60 seconds of the game would be declared a “last jam” by the officials. During a last jam, any player committing a major penalty6 would automatically become a ghost point, but remain on the track. If a jammer got a major, they would instantly lose the ability to score points or call it off.

This system was immediately abused by jammers. Though a penalized jammer could no longer score, they could still play defense effectively. Too effectively, actually, remaining outside of the engagement zone to play jammer-on-jammer D indefinitely, messing up the other jammer’s scoring run. That wasn’t very fair, so…

2011 – WORD v2.1

This was the year where they finally abolished the last jam/first jam penalty system, moving to serve all penalties within the same game they are committed. To stop jammers getting cheeky after being penalized in the last jam, it was decided to whistle them off the track at the time immediately, as was standard practice in flat track.

The weird thing about this was that it only applied to the jammers. Blockers would still remain on the track as ghost points. Banked track teams at the time were still resisting the idea of leaving the track during play to go to the infield penalty box, citing safety concerns. To minimize the potential hazard, they made it as infrequent a happening as they could.

But like the jammers the year before, the blockers were finding they could abuse their not-a-ghost ghost point status. After their first penalty, any subsequent penalty committed had no further consequences, potentially leading to unfair situations.

2012 – RDCL v1.1

Once the RDCL formed, it took the next logical step and required any and all penalized skaters to leave the track and report to the box immediately after a last jam penalty. By this time the skill level of skaters was a lot better than it used to be and the logistics of crossing the infield referee lane had been sorted out, so doing this now wasn’t so much of a problem.

This method was solid enough that it would ultimately be used during the final minute of banked track games for the next four years. Still, some loose ends of the original problem had not been fully resolved, particularly what to do when both jammers got a penalty and needed to leave the track. The situation was understandably rare, but led to a strange inconsistency when it did happen.

If the jam ended due to a regular call-off with time remaining on the clock, another last jam would be played under the same penalty rules like nomral. However, if a last jam ended due to both jammers being penalized (or the solo jammer during a last-jam power jam) and sent to the penalty box, the game ended immediately. Even if there were 30, 40, or even as much as 50 seconds left on the game clock. Huh?

2013 – RDCL v2.3

Realizing this completely defeated the purpose of having a countdown clock that went to 0:00, the RDCL moved to instead just kill the current jam when both jammers were sent to the box, allowing another last jam to take place with the time remaining. Much better.

So after five years, the RDCL had finally gotten to a place with last jam situations where all the loopholes and areas of potential abuse were eliminated. However, this came at a cost elsewhere.

The first 59 minutes of a banked track game are often fast, fluid, and fun for fans. The last minute of a banked track game was generally slow, clunky, and sometimes a chore to get through. Due to the different penalty enforcement rules in place during the last jam—often, the last jams—games had to come to a screeching halt to ensure all the Ts and Is were crossed and dotted.

Before the last jam, the game clock was stopped to allow referees time to  communicate to each other that last jam rules were in play. The announcers had to explain last jam rules to the audience, and why they were different than the rules used up to that point. After a last jam, officials had to take a few moments (sometimes, several moments) to confirm when penalties happened to calculate the correct amount of ghost points. If there was another last jam to be played, the officials had to go through the rigmarole all over again.

For fans, the sudden stop in the action blunted the momentum of close games nearing their conclusion. It was also extremely annoying for regulars to have to sit through the last jam rules speech for the umpteenth time. We know, we know, just get back to the roller derby already!

The fact was that there was ultimately a completely different penalty enforcement system in use at the end of the game left a gaping inconsistency in RDCL rules overall. Though it worked fine and is still a perfectly fine system on a technical basis, it wasn’t completely ideal from a practical standpoint and could stand to be improved from the perspective of the bleachers.

Eight years was enough. It was time for a complete tear down and rebuild.

2016 – RDCL v3.1

And here we are. Like many of the massive improvements to banked track roller derby over the years, the new rules for penalty enforcement during and after the final jams of the game were arrived at after mostly abandoning the flat track principal they were originally co-adopted from.

Skaters will no longer be whistled off the track during the last jam. Instead, any penalty committed harbors the potential for the game to be extended—only under the one scenario in which it is competitively necessary to do so.

Section 7: Penalty Enforcement

7.5 Penalty Jam
– 7.5.1 – A Penalty Jam is an additional jam that is played after the game clock has expired.
 – 7.5.2 – A Penalty Jam is declared if, and only if, the team with the higher score accrued at least one penalty in the jam when the game clock expired AND the team with the lower score did not accrue any penalties in that same jam.

The penalty jam, an extra jam played after time has completely expired, is not an overtime jam. Those only happen if the score is tied after the end of the game. A penalty jam can only happen if the score is not tied at the end, and only under a very specific condition.

Think about the original problem that this rule is trying to address. How do you serve a penalty in the next jam, if it’s the end of the game and there is no next jam? Well, do all of those penalties really need to be served? If they do not, why complicate things?

Once the provisional final score is calculated, if the team that is leading committed a penalty of any kind in the last jam, AND the team that is trailing skated cleanly, an additional jam must be played in order for the penalty committed to be served. The jam would be played as normal, and after it the procedure would repeat. This could potentially lead to additional penalty jams, or overtime jams if the game becomes tied.

Most roller derby games don’t end with a score close enough for a last-jam comeback to be possible. However, there is a universal understanding that the trailing team should be given a fair chance to make up the gap, no matter how large it is, because anything can happen in roller derby.

The RDCL penalty jam system gives the trailing team that chance if their opponent commits a penalty in the final jam, forcing them to serve that penalty in the next jam as normal. This can allow the trailing team to take advantage of that penalty, but only if they didn’t commit a penalty themselves.

If both teams commit a penalty, they cancel out and the game is over. If neither team commits a penalty, nothing needs to be served and the game is over. If the trailing team commits a penalty and the leading team skates clean, there is no real need to compensate the team fouled upon; they’ve already won the game!

This rule change has done away with pretty much all of the end-of-game delays that happened under the old last jam penalty system. The final minute of play is now exactly the same as any other minute of play. The only difference is a quick referee huddle after the last jam to verify who got a penalty and if an extra jam is necessary.

As it turns out, it’s not necessary in more than 90% of the games we’ve been to this year. Only two games out of two dozen needed a penalty jam, and they happened pretty seamlessly. There has been, and will continue to be, some confusion on the part of the fans as to why they’re still playing roller derby after time has expired. But these instances are few and isolated. It’s way better having to sit through a delay and explanation during EVERY game!

Still, it doesn’t come without its issues. For one, the number of penalties committed is not a factor when considering if a penalty jam should be awarded. If the leading team commits 10 penalties in the last jam and the trailing team commits only one, those still cancel out and end the game. Also, there yet may be issues down the road with players realizing both teams have committed penalties, and abusing the knowledge that there will be no next jam to do the time for extra crimes.

We wouldn’t be surprised if this new way of answering The Last Jam Question may yet have to be shored up in future updates. However, so many good things have come from this change, and the potential Whac-A-Mole problems are so small, that we might as well say that the RDCL’s quest to solve this problem has finally come to a successful end.