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From Sage Advice: PHILOSOPHY BEHIND RULES AND RULINGS

RAW. “Rules as written”—that’s what RAW stands for. When I dwell on the RAW interpretation of a rule, I’m studying what the text says in context, without regard to the designers’ intent. The text is forced to stand on its own.

RAI. Some of you are especially interested in knowing the intent behind a rule. That’s where RAI comes in: “rules as intended.” This approach is all about what the designers meant when they wrote something. In a perfect world, RAW and RAI align perfectly, but sometimes the words on the page don’t succeed at communicating the designers’ intent. Or perhaps the words succeed with one group of players but fail with another.

There is a third less common acronym that is used outside of D&D: Rules As Interpreted. As far as I know this is not official terminology of any system, I am not sure of its exact meaning which makes comparing it difficult.

  1. What does Rules As Interpreted mean?
  2. How is Rules As Interpreted different to RAW and RAI?

To me 'reading' a rule necessarily means 'interpreting' it. Otherwise explaining a rule would be just repeating it. At some point you have to parse what you have read and form some understanding. To me this means, does that mean Rules As Interpreted is functionally identical to RAW.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I've edited this question to be asking more explicitly about what the difference is instead of leaving the majority of the question to be implied. I don't see this as POB since this question is about definitions of terms that have a lot of history in the RPG community and which expertise will be essential in answering. So I've also reopened the question. If problems with answer quality arise later we can always close it at that point. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Oct 18 '19 at 18:35
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No. The rules-as-written interpretation of the rules text is just one way to interpret it, a very particular way to interpret it. See this Q&A for more on precisely what rules-as-written implies.

In particular, there is no expectation that the rules, as written, will necessarily be balanced, match people’s narrative or simulationist expectations, or even make sense. They’re supposed to be, but mistakes get made—frequently, it turns out, with more complex rules systems. The goal of RAW is to be as “interpretation-free” as possible, but as you note, that’s not actually possible—so then the goal is to remove as many subjective factors as possible from the interpretation.

Other interpretations do not have any particular goal of eliminating subjectivity or maximizing objectivity, at least not if it comes at the cost of balance, narrative or simulationist expectations, and/or the interpreter’s idea of what “makes sense.” In most cases, the goal of reading and interpreting the rules isn’t to achieve some quasi-philosophical, quasi-legalistic “objective knowledge” of what the rules say—which is what RAW is usually getting at. In most cases, the goal in interpreting the rules is to maximize the fun had by the table. RAW makes no attempt to do that.

The primary purpose of RAW is to facilitate discussing the rules, particularly without any arbiter (e.g. a game master) present to decide ambiguous situations. That is a useful and valuable purpose, in my opinion, but it is not going to automatically also be the best approach for achieving the best gameplay. “Rules as interpreted” then would be an interpretation of the rules with an eye towards maximizing the quality of gameplay. Which is necessarily a subjective thing, since everyone has different tastes and has different opinions on what the best gameplay is going to look like.

Also note that “rules as interpreted” isn’t a widely-used term, and primarily exists as an attempt to re-define the problematic “RAI” abbreviation to something closer to the way it’s often used—because despite using “RAI” to mean “rules as intended,” many people make no attempt whatsoever to actually establish what the authors’ actual intent was. Instead they just label their own interpretation as “RAI,” which is really problematic for communication (and is on occasion quite rude, to boot). So people tried to “salvage” the term with a “more accurate” definition—but it never really caught on. Instead, it’s widely recommended that you just not use “RAI” in the first place. It rarely, if ever, adds anything to a conversation.

Using “RAI” as meaning “rules as interpreted” can also be problematic when you actually are talking about intent—as sometimes does happen, for example when you have developer commentary outside the rules text. The Sage Advice column that you quote is an example of this, as are the “rules as tweeted.”


For an example of the difference between rules as written and “rules as interpreted,” see this answer. There, I establish what strict-RAW says—that hunger of Hadar applies permanent blindness to every creature ever fully within its area—but then go on to discuss the “interpretation” that the blindness should only last as long as they remain fully within that area. Strictly speaking, it’s permanent, but since that yields an overpowered spell, reconsidering it from the lens that it is actually temporary—which would be balanced—is worthwhile.

This does lead to a semantic argument about what is “an interpretation” and what is “a houserule.” I would defend the above case as “an interpretation” because “creatures fully within the area are blinded” is ambiguous in English, and spells are allowed (and expected) to make exceptions to the general rules. Others will defend far more divergent “interpretations” as being such, rather than a “houserule,” and I may well disagree, even strongly, with that usage. But unfortunately, no one can authoritatively and definitively delineate the distinction, so all I can do—all anyone can do—is make a case for defending their usage of either term. And while I would like for the terms to be clearer—and, ya know, for everyone to automatically use my definitions for them ;) —there is no realistic way for that to happen. It makes communication harder—and sometimes people get defensive about it, as if a “houserule” would be lesser, which I wish they wouldn’t since a houserule is a fine thing—but that’s just how it is. Communication can be hard, particularly if you’re trying to make fine distinctions. Putting care into your language and engaging with your audience is the best—only?—solution. No one gets to dictate terms’ definitions, and spending too much time and effort arguing about them is rarely, if ever, worthwhile.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Oct 19 '19 at 14:46
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Assessing any piece of writing requires multiple levels of interpretation. Interpretations can be correct and incorrect, reasonable or unreasonable. Each interpretation is also inherently subjective. However, over the last half-a-million years (give or take), we've developed logical reasoning, which allows us to meaningfully exchange ideas and improve the quality of our interpretations. That's why we attempt to assess rules in terms of RAW, RAI, and homebrew solutions to problems with RAW and RAI.

I don't think that addressing Rules as Interpreted distinctly from RAW, RAI, and homebrew adds anything helpful to the discussion.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think 'any piece of writing" would be a better opener than "any piece of literature" since we are not discussing literature in the OP's question. I am wary of editing that since I am not sure if you'd agree. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 18 '19 at 18:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast "literature" doesn't just mean artistic literature, in this context. We often refer to "the technical/scientific/legal literature," to mean journal publications, law review, conference proceedings, etc. In this context, it literally means "any piece of writing." \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Oct 18 '19 at 18:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Novak Fair point; I am thinking, though, that since we have an audience that ranges form the erudite to the mundane, and plenty of people without English as a first language, it might be useful to use plainer terms. (The Churchill ideal on communication) But no change is needed. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 18 '19 at 18:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think you have some good information, but I'm not sure it really connects together. "Text can be interpreted on multiple levels, all interpretations are subjective, logic is used to try and make good interpretations" - that's all well and good, but what does it mean for RAW/RAI/Rules As Interpreted? Is "interpreting" text different to just reading it and thinking about it? Is applying logic imply interpreting? Are you saying RAW/RAI are supposed to be specific kinda of interpretations and that Rules As Interpreted is just too broad? \$\endgroup\$ – pllpnakjlx Oct 19 '19 at 1:08

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