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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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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
  • \$\begingroup\$ Apparently, the question was edited. Could you please update the beginning of the answer? "No" doesn't seem like an answer to "What does “Rules As Interpreted” mean" \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Jun 16 at 18:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor Honestly, I’m not really interested in doing so. I had a very unpleasant interaction with the OP over this answer and I don’t really feel like putting more effort into it. The slight discrepancy over the lede is clarified easily by the rest of the answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Jun 16 at 18:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor The question was not edited in a way that might invalidate this answer, and it is still related towards the question as it originally stood. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 16 at 19:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ In the absence of such an edit, some context for future readers: The last line of the question originally asked, "With that said, does that mean Rules As Interpreted is functionally identical to RAW (Rules As Written)?" That's what the "No." was a response to. (This claim is still in the last paragraph of the question, just no longer phrased as a question: "To me this means, does that mean Rules As Interpreted is functionally identical to RAW.") \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Jun 16 at 19:36
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"Rules as Interpreted" doesn't mean anything.

Rules do not exist in a vacuum. The rules of various games are applied at the table, and these applications of rules are always and forever some person's interpretation of those rules. So the issue with "rules as interpreted" is that it means everything and nothing at the same time:

  • When a GM applies a rule to a situation, that is "rules as interpreted" by that GM.
  • When we claim to be applying "rules as written", that is still our (personal) "rules as interpreted".
  • When we apply a rule in a way that the game's designer intended, which is often called "rules as intended", that is "rules as interpreted" by that game designer.

When we read a rule, it gets filtered through our knowledge and experience of the game, and produces a table application that is our interpretation of that rule. Everything is "rules as interpreted" (by someone), which means it is an entirely useless phrase that contributes nothing to our understanding of anything (except possibly more confusion).

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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 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\$ Oct 19 '19 at 1:08
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Neither form of RAI is a really useful term

The three are at best means to argue, but not actually useful terms.

  • Rules as Written is the plaintext rules text and a method to derive a solution from it. Technically, a rule as written does (or should) not allow any interpretation. However, in practice, each person will add some interpretation in how they read it.
  • Rules as Intended is far beyond what is written but what the designer wanted to be there. This is a hellhole to dig into and would require documentation and designer commentary to find out. Often this commentary just doesn't exist, so technically there is no means to actually know this, and so "RAI" is just a veiled opinion of what the designer might have wanted.
    • One of the few cases where we have such a commentary is for example the Nun Approved Files for , which has clear text about what the translator and designer actually wanted.
  • Rules as Interpreted is clear that it is an interpretation, but it needs to tell us who interpreted the rule. In some ways, it is a leftover from the early days when the GM is always right was codified and D&D was young. Back then, the interpretation of the rules by the Judge was the final arbitration at a table, and Dragon Magazine did actually at times discuss how one or another GM did interpret a particular passage or another. Nowadays it pretty much has lost all the meaning, safe for the very few instances where we have someone with some authority interpreting rules.
    • The Sage Advice twitter for at times did hint to what might have been the intention of the design team but in most cases, it is more the interpretation of the tweeting person. And since sage advice was put into PDF-form, those are not even persuasive anymore.

As a result, none of the terms actually is a good term to discuss rules, unless you go very strict on the Rules as Written one and only allow the written text of the rules.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Pedantry, but “neither” means “not either” and applies to two options; you address three here. More relevantly, there is a Q&A dedicated to the meaning of “RAW” where you might want to contribute an answer. As you can see from my own answers here and there, I disagree with your assessment of the usefulness of “RAW,” though I agree about either version of “RAI” in the overwhelming majority of circumstances. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Jun 16 at 18:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan there was a RAI missing on the neither line. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Jun 16 at 18:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan about the RAW part: mostly agree with your answer over there. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Jun 16 at 18:39

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