The term "rules as written" (or RAW) gets thrown about fairly often in RPG circles, especially around D&D. But what does it actually mean?

Is RAW an analysis technique? A playstyle? An entire parallel game system? What key aspects or attributes would allow one to recognize something as RAW or non-RAW?

(This question is distinct from What does the abbreviation “RAW” mean?, since that one is just asking for an expansion of the "RAW" acronym, and does not address its meaning.)


6 Answers 6


Rules as written is first-and-foremost an approach to understanding the rules text of a system. As an interpretation of the text, it has the following goals:

  • Accessibility. A rules-as-written interpretation should be one that anyone reading the rules can come to, and so is based solely in the published rules, without injecting any external knowledge that may be unavailable. Examples of external knowledge that are eschewed include developer commentary (unless that commentary is given official rules-status, as in errata), historical precedence (unless that precedence is found within the rules), narrative concerns, balance concerns, or anyone’s idea of “common sense.”

  • Universality. A rules-as-written interpretation should be one that everyone who reads the rules text and rigorously applies the literal interpretation of that text (even up to or beyond any limits of absurdity) comes to. If the text is irreconcilably ambiguous, then the RAW interpretation would then be a list various possible interpretations based on different interpretations of any ambiguities.

  • Officiality. A rules-as-written interpretation should endeavor to incorporate the entirety of the “official rules,” as defined by the game’s publisher, with the exception of those tied explicitly to adjudication by any player or players (e.g. a Game Master).

Thus, the ideal RAW understanding of the rules is one which everyone reading the rules will come to, without needing to know anything outside the rules, and that this understanding is, say, “official-compatible.” This ideal is, of course, rarely achieved. Rules text is often ambiguous, some contextual understanding is simply required to understand any language (and English arguably more so than most), and the official rules may explicitly contradict some of the other goals (i.e. Rule 0, enshrining developer commentary as official, and so on).

The purpose of this exercise is not necessarily for play; while someone could blindly adopt RAW interpretations as the rules they will actually use for a game, and thus RAW could be called a “playstyle,” this is really a twisting of the term. For one thing, it tells us nothing about what the style of play will actually be like, which is the sort of thing that a “playstyle” would ordinarily indicate, and for another, in many cases it’s not actually possible (if for no other reason than that RAW is an ideal to pursue rather than a goal to achieve in many cases).

Rather, the purpose is to facilitate communication about the rules. Historically, rules-as-written approaches to understanding the rules became far more prominent with the rise of the Internet, and that is no coincidence. While RAW interpretations are prone to many, many flaws when it comes to actually playing the game, ideally RAW provides a foundational basis of the rules that everyone can at least agree on. This is important when you are talking with people with whom you have never played, and who bring entirely different assumptions, history, and preferences to the discussion, and there is no one with a DM’s authority to decide things between you. That’s when RAW becomes useful. Online, we can’t make any assumptions about how someone else’s DM will rule, so in a sense, RAW is intended as a way of minimizing assumptions that may not be true (and, when the rules are well-written, it serves this function well—but RAW tends to only get a lot of attention when the rules are not well-written and the RAW is surprising).

Compare this to actually sitting at a table, particularly with a stable group that has played together for a long time. Within individual groups, such a drive for “objective” understanding is unnecessary; the goal within a group is to play a fun game, not necessarily to come to some perfect understanding of the rules text. And when the rules as written offer results that are counterintuitive, imbalanced, or just nonfunctional, you have a DM there to adjudicate things.

The language of the rules, interpreted literally, also becomes a vehicle for changing the rules and communicating those changes—in short, RAW provides a way to understand what the rules are and a language for indicating what your houserules are as well. By using the language of RAW to change the rules of the game (particularly those places where the rules of the game are unsatisfactory as written), the goal is to add clarity to one’s game, and avoid miscommunication and the resulting social fallout that can come with it (arguments about what someone said and what that meant, disappointment or frustration when things don’t work as expected, etc.).


It is the baseline assumption of how the game would be played in the absence of GM rulings.

Essentially, it is the notion of understanding what is written in the book (or supplement, errata, official ruling by developers, etc.), and how the game is "normally" considered to be played. Ideally, these are things that if the GM does it differently than what is considered "Rules As Written," then the GM would indicate that this is a house rule, or some Rule 0 situation. Its useful to understand as many GMs would choose to be consistent and use the rules as they are written, rather than try to adjudicate on the fly and then ensure that each ruling is consistent and good throughout the game.

Why do we care about Rules as Written?

Largely, outside of our own groups of players and GMs, without some baseline on how to discuss play, there would be little common ground. RAW provides that by giving "expected" rules. With that, people can ask questions on places like RPG.SE and get answers that likely can work in their home game.

Also you have game formats like organized play, where GMs are expected to run far closer to RAW than if they were running their own personal games.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you sure you want to make that strong a claim? As an example, some set of rules could be "as written" complete nonsesnse. Not merely unplayable, but litterally jibberish. RAW would admit that the rules here are nonsense (maybe because of something as simple as a typo). But the RAW being jibberish says nothing about the "baseline assumption about how the game would be played"; nobody actually assumed you'd play with literal jibberish rules. \$\endgroup\$
    – Yakk
    Commented Jul 25, 2017 at 19:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Yakk in such a case I bet you'd see people referring to unofficial errata with the typo fixed as the RAW. I have some experience not doing so (instead attempting to clearly specify such house rules as "the 'they're' on page 123 is instead a 'their'" ) and people frequently tell me that the rules after such houseruling is still the RAW because "everyone" understands the text to mean that thing-- such people clearly consider RAW==baseline assumption rather than the literal text. Now, I think that that's morally objectionable, but that doesn't mean it's not a common definition. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 26, 2017 at 3:24

The term "rules as written" (RAW) is often contrasted with "rules as intended" (RAI). You'll most often see these terms come up in the context of a rules dispute or an attempt to understand how a rule should be applied.

People in favor of a RAW interpretation of any given rule only want to use the rule as it is written on the page. On the other hand, people in favor of a RAI interpretation of the same rule would want to include additional information such as the purpose of the rule or what the creator of said rule was trying to accomplish.

For example, let's take a look at the resting/spellcasting rules in D&D 3.5. Keep in mind, I'm recalling this from memory so these might not be the rules verbatim. In this system, a player's character regains all of their spell slots after resting for eight hours. There are some exceptions to this, but that's not important.

A person who interprets this rule, as it is written, might be in favor of taking such a rest after each encounter, to regain their spell slots. There's nothing in the rule that says they can't take such a rest.

A rule as intended approach might not look kindly on that reading of the rule. The rule is intended to limit the power of casters by giving them a resource that only recharges once a day. If it can be recharged after every encounter, then one of the primary drawbacks for casters is eliminated. However, there's nothing in the rule that says taking such a rest is limited to once per day. This interpretation is based on what the reader thinks is intended by the rule.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Jul 25, 2017 at 16:59

Rules As Written (or RAW) generally refers to the absolute literal reading of the rules, without allowing any interpretation of what the intent behind them might be. It is somewhat synonymous with "rules lawyering".

There's nothing that would allow one to recognise the difference between RAW and not RAW without going and reading the corresponding rules and seeing if it matches the statement made. The reason it comes up so often in RPG circles is a combination of non-native speakers not understanding the linguistic subtleties of the rules, the plethora of revisions, rulings and erratas and the breadth of material in many systems, which can have an influence on different rules.

It's a valuable starting point to understanding how to interact with rules and can give a player some backing when proposing an idea to a GM, but it is usually a tedious way to play as most systems have a large amount of rules for a GM to keep track of and no rules system is perfect.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I am not at all convinced that RAW comes up frequently as a result of non-native language issues. \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Commented Jul 25, 2017 at 19:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ There's a lot of subjectivity in this answer. Claims like "synonymous with rules lawyering", "nothing...would allow one to recognize the difference between RAW and not RAW" don't seem like objective statements. It's not bad enough for a downvote, but this doesn't seem like a good answer. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 25, 2017 at 23:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've definitely had a few friends suffer due to that @Novak, English can be a weird language of contradictions. Johnathan Gross, I feel like you're taking both quotes out of context. Objectively, there are close similarities between rules lawyering and reading rules as strictly RAW, also I can't think of another way of telling if a ruling is RAW without reading the rule in question. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 26, 2017 at 8:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Novak English is a very high context language. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 29, 2017 at 19:51

RAW describes a variety of things, several of which you list.

To say something is RAW or is done by RAW is to take the text of the rules as the entirety of the context that informs decisions on the matter. If it is not in the text of the rules, then it is not RAW; if the text is ambiguous or wrong or clearly acts in unintended ways it is still RAW. RAW can often be misunderstood, intentionally misinterpreted, or even obviously incorrect. It can also be tremendously useful as a bare-metal approach to simulating things that would otherwise be tremendously complex; indeed, RAW is generally the reason we play with rules at all rather than making up our own as needed.

The term RAW is used in contrast with RAI, Rules As Intended. In most cases, when the rules are providing a sufficient level of simulation, the two are identical. Sometimes players dislike (for any number of reasons) something as presented in the rules text. In this case, the people in question interpret the rules with more context (such as common sense, a desire to base things in something resembling reality, or an understanding of grammar and syntax errors) to attempt to identify what the author of the rules had in mind when they were written. This is applied widely in situations where there are clear issues with RAW, such as ambiguity, missing information, clear errors, or special circumstances. While more intuitive, RAI still requires more time and mental effort to apply than RAW, since a layer of interpretation and mental simulation is necessary. (Even though this layer is normally present when roleplaying, it still takes additional time and effort to integrate the interpreted rules into the simulation rather than just finding the correct numbers/dice to apply.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Jul 25, 2017 at 23:21

RAW is a way to understand the rules

When attempting to understand a rule, the first thing to do is read the rule. Once you have read the rule, you (hopefully) now understand the rule as written (RAW).

RAW has no "goals" other than to understand the rules

Accessibility, universality, and officiality aren't goals, they are advantages. Everyone has access to the same official rules, and anyone can pick up the rules and read them. Whatever argument someone is making about a game, if it isn't grounded in RAW first and foremost then it is invalid. Even an argument about RAF, RAI, or houserules need to first address RAW.

Is RAW an analysis technique? A playstyle? An entire parallel game system?

You might call RAW an "analysis technique", but that technique is to "read the rules". It isn't exactly advanced or complex.

It is by no means a playstyle or a parallel game system. If you are playing a game then you should be reading the rulebook, otherwise you are not playing that game.

What key aspects or attributes would allow one to recognize something as RAW or non-RAW?

If someone is explaining how the rules work, using quotes from the rulebooks then that is RAW.

If someone is explaining how the rules work, but they are using quotes from game designers, quotes from twitter, saying "is is more fun", "it is more realistic", or some other justification coming from anywhere other than the rules, then that is not RAW.


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