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I've heard from several places that the D&D 3.5 FAQ is generally a bad place to find information about the rules of the game. I don't really understand this distrust, since it's an official document from the company that makes the game. Why is it that many people feel that the D&D 3.5 FAQ is not a valid source for rules clarifications?

I'm not necessarily looking for a list of every single thing that's wrong with the FAQ; such a list could be prohibitively long for this format. I'm mainly looking for an overview of the main perceived issues with the document. If such a list exists elsewhere, I wouldn't mind a link to such a list, though.

I've spent a few minutes trying various google searches for this topic, and everything that I could find was either not applicable, clearly biased, or required reading dozens of forums in order to find anything useful.

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The D&D 3.5 FAQ inherited the reputation of its predecessor, the “Sage Advice” column in Dragon magazine. The Dungeons & Dragons product line has long had two channels for rules corrections and clarifications: errata and Q&A. Rules errata are edited into the rulebooks themselves and published in later printings. The Q&A channel was originally a regular column written by Skip Williams in TSR’s in-house magazine. Over time, the game evolved and grew, products changed hands, and Williams moved on from Dragon to the core design team. Wizards of the Coast shifted Q&A to their customer service department, which released selected questions as the FAQ.

The common problem with the Q&A articles, both “Sage Advice” and the FAQ, is that they were written by second parties with no better judgment than a good DM or StackExchange contributor. Yes, Williams and his successors were employees of the game publisher, and hypothetically had inside knowledge, but in practice they mostly worked from the rules and first principles like the rest of us do. Overall, their rulings were decent, but they also published quite a few screamers. As a result, online forums and Usenet groups like rec.games.frp.dnd regarded the Q&A folks as no more reliable than a smart player, and rejected arguments that used “Sage Advice” or the FAQ as authorities on the game.

Thus, there’s a bit of confusion between folks who reasonably expect an official rules document to be authoritative, and folks who’ve been in enough online rules debates to realize that you need to take the FAQ with a lot of salt — mostly because it wasn’t written by anyone with any kind of special authority or oversight or quality control.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great answer! It's got me wondering about how we should be interpreting the 5e successors of "Sage Advice", that is Tweets from the designers (sometimes contradictory) and Jeremy Crawford's Sage Advice web column which WotC have started this year. \$\endgroup\$ – harlandski Apr 24 '15 at 8:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @harlandski Yeah, I was wondering the same things as I was writing this. I am not actually all that familiar with the current Q&A channel, but from the little bit I’ve seen of it, it seems that even having the primary developers involved leads to this situation. Which I guess is not too surprising, as I’m a creator myself, and I know that me today is not the same person as me yesterday, and my creations often have unintended interactions and side-effects. \$\endgroup\$ – Bradd Szonye Apr 24 '15 at 23:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @harlandski and Bradd: the answer to this question has one man's thoughts on how to handle twitter vs. Sage Advice. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jan 10 '17 at 22:02
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In brief, the problem with the FAQ is that it often answers these frequently-asked questions incorrectly. Even though it is an “official” publication of Wizards of the Coast, it is not, and was never intended to be, a source of authoritative rulings or carefully-considered implementation suggestions. It was intended to be a quick source of clarification, as any FAQ generally is, and answers were generated quickly – and so errors crept in.

Due to these errors, and the FAQ’s status as an FAQ rather than errata, its use in debates about the rules is generally regarded as pointless. It lacks both the authority and the credibility to serve as useful evidence for any position. That isn’t to say that good rulings cannot be found there – I agree with many of the rulings in the FAQ – but rather that a ruling in the FAQ has to stand on its own merits; it gains little-to-nothing for being “from the official FAQ.”

For more detail, I feel it is necessary to expand on just what the FAQ is and is not, what the rules themselves say about it, and thus develop an argument for why it is important to not give the FAQ undue weight.

It is perhaps worth noting that everything in this answer applies equally-well to the Rules of the Game articles found on Wizards’ website. Those articles are in a very similar category to the FAQ.

The purpose of the FAQ is to explain the rules – not write them

The purpose of the FAQ is to answer questions about the rules, based on those rules. It is not the place for fixing, caveating, updating, qualifying, or editorializing about the rules. Wizards of the Coast provided the FAQ as a hopefully-helpful source of expanded clarification on the rules.

This was not a high-value purpose for Wizards; mostly, it was a bit of community-outreach. The FAQ was written by one person, who had other, more significant responsibilities, and appears to have seen little-to-no oversight or editing.

Wizards of the Coast did have an official channel for updates – errata

On the other hand, official errata files were released for many books (though far from all, sadly). These officially update the rules, changing the wording here and there. These were released as downloadable .pdf files, and the tone and style alone conveys the difference between the errata and FAQ: the Sage muses about the rules in the FAQ, but the errata is all business, surgically editing out and adding in text.

As such, the FAQ was given no authority to change the rules under the rules

The errata documents themselves include an explanation of how they work, and how rules discrepancies between different D&D products were to be determined. Most relevantly here, the default rule for separate publications that contradict one another is that the “primary” source trumps all others – except its own errata.

For example, from the errata from Player’s Handbook:

When you find a disagreement between two D&D® rules sources, unless an official errata file says otherwise, the primary source is correct. [...]

Another example of primary vs. secondary sources involves book and topic precedence. The Player’s Handbook, for example, gives all the rules for playing the game, for playing PC races, and for using base class descriptions. If you find something on one of those topics from the Dungeon Master’s Guide or the Monster Manual that disagrees with the Player’s Handbook, you should assume the Player’s Handbook is the primary source.

Thus, errata documents were given the authority to change the rules.

The FAQ is not mentioned explicitly in the errata, but it is clearly not the primary source on anything – the books it is discussing are. As such, any contradiction between the FAQ and a published book is always going to officially be in the book’s favor.

Which makes sense, because the FAQ consisted of quick answers to questions, not carefully-considered design changes the way errata were (supposed to be). Instead of the book’s authors and editors reconsidering their work, the FAQ was one guy skimming the appropriate rules and making a quick judgment. Many FAQ entries weren’t even made by any of the book’s authors.

Finally, the FAQ itself was often inaccurate

As I’ve already established, in any contradiction between FAQ and a published book, the book was always primary and therefore “won.” But contradictions of this sort were very common – which means that even when the FAQ is right, you have to double-check it against the actual rules, to make sure it’s not a case where the FAQ was wrong. That makes the FAQ worthless for its stated purpose—since it cannot be relied upon and you have to double-check it against the published rules anyway, you might as well just start with the published rules and ignore the FAQ entirely. That saves you time and eliminates being misled by poorly-considered answers.

Ironically, the FAQ is at its best when it admits up-front that the official rules don’t cover a topic, and suggests a houserule. These avoid misleading readers, and occasionally provide useful ideas.

But in other cases, the FAQ gave no notice that its statements were in contradiction with the official rules – and indeed, the author was probably unaware of that – and then those statements, if applied in a game, cause problems.

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Many find the Main FAQ a poor source for rules clarifications because sometimes it's wrong, changes the rules, or suggests impractical solutions

The Main FAQ should be your friend. It should be helpful and trustworthy. But, sometimes, what the Main FAQ says or suggests is just so out there—so unbelievably weird or wrong—that its credibility withers.

Known Issues

The following questions or answers challenge the Main FAQ to some degree or another.

Note: This answer is a repository of RPG.SE questions and answers that struggle with the Main FAQ. Feel free to add others.

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The primary complaints against the D&D FAQ (and identically to the Sage Advice column and the Rules Compendium) come from a certain perspective on gaming. Since folks are trying to draw analogies to how the 5e design team's advice should be taken, I think it's worth unpacking these perspectives a little.

Legalistic vs Practical

There are two primary approaches to rules-heavy RPGs. Brian would call them nomothetic and idiographic. I don't have a Ph.D so I'm just going to call them legalistic and practical.

In 3e-4e, a very legalistic mode of play emerged as a predominant approach that was very concerned with the "rules as written," aka RAW, and what rules were official and which aren't. From this perspective, the FAQ (and even other books like the Rules Compendium) are illegitimate sources of rules clarification and update because the original books state that they may only be updated by errata. Whether WotC's intent is to update them or not is therefore irrelevant from this perspective.

This kind of approach to the rules wasn't unknown previously, but the predominant mode of play in earlier D&D was more practical and concerned with the effects and playability of the rules and not their completeness or provenance. The rules used under this approach are more of an organic combination of the rulebooks, FAQs and errata, magazine articles, pet theories, and group preference. The weight assigned to book vs errata vs FAQ vs Sage Advice is variable and largely based around the individual case in question. From this perspective, if WotC issues something not as errata that they intend to update the rules, then well of course you'd use it, or at least consider it as authoritative as anything else.

You can read more about the development of the relationship of rules to groups across the history of D&D in: How has D&D changed over time in its guidance to DMs as to when to extrapolate from written rules and when to improvise?

I am not saying either approach is "right" or "wrong," though I am personally a devotee of the practical school. Understanding these two perspectives, however, is crucial to understanding the depth of the two attitudes towards the FAQ.

The FAQ

Because WotC explicitly and implicitly seemed to encourage the legalistic approach to the 3.5e rules, and the D&D FAQ didn't align with those expectations, it started to be considered poorly. Sometimes it changes a rule, or proposes a house rule, and since it's not an official rules channel it's "not supposed to" do that. And some of the FAQ rulings seem to misapprehend previous rules, or contradict each other. This is completely unacceptable from the legalistic approach and tends towards having it completely disregarded.

Approaching the FAQ from a practical viewpoint instead, each of its claims is treated as a suggestion. Some seem to be useful clarifications of intent or helpful suggestions. Other entries seem a little weird or misguided, and contradictions need to be judged individually in light of personal wisdom. But from this perspective, probably 80% of the FAQ is useful on its face and the rest might be wrong or undesirable to one's group.

So how should you use the FAQ? It depends on your personal gaming approach and that of the group you are engaged with. If you are more concerned about which rules are official because you engage in a gaming group (or online debates) that are extremely concerned with RAW, you would mostly disregard it. If you are more concerned with practically running a game that works, you would read it and take its advice into account as much as you take other rules text into account (possibly very little, possibly more).

You can compare both @KRyan's answer and @Wyrmwood's answers to see how their approaches to the game are what are driving their reaction to this question. And in a nutshell, that is the history of both "what's wrong with the FAQ" but also the controversy over the subject.

Implications Moving Forward

The interesting thing about 5e is that the designers have been very explicit in defining it as a more practical and less legalistic ruleset. The rules are positioned initially as suggestions that are at your discretion to use or change, and designers' clarifications and tweets very often embedded in statements of "but you can play it how you want of course." See the D&D Sage Advice article Philosophy Behind Rules & Rulings and other recent publications from 5e about how they approach this in general.

Of course, you can play 5e in a legalistic manner, that's your right, but if that approach isn't being adhered to by the designers it'll probably be somewhat messy to do so. The designer clarifications and Sage Advice for 5e are explicitly unconcerned about being "official" and are settling for "helpful." They indicate there may be some more-official updates coming eventually but since that's still couched strongly in a "we don't expect you to adhere to RAW" perspective, it's unclear how well defined their legal provenance will be.

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Nothing. It is what it is. If you view it as an attempt to help you understand, it is quite good at that in most cases, and as KRyan points out, in answer to some questions reveals areas where the official rules are silent and suggests house rules (and some of these made it into official rules in Pathfinder, Tower Shield for example).

Why is it that many people feel that the D&D 3.5 FAQ is not a valid source for rules clarifications?

Because it isn't in the official rules channel (see KRyan's answer)*. This is different with Pathfinder, where FAQ and forum comments from designers are viewed as "official". As such, where the 3.5 MAIN FAQ differs or adds to existing rules is viewed as invalid.

There's been quite a bit of discussion on this in comments on se, but those are typically removed. There's also some in meta.

What are appropriate sources to reference in questions tagged [rules-as-written]?

Change the definition of "rules-as-written" with respect to D&D 3.5

*In my opinion, this blurb was not intended to establish a legal channel that prevents future publications from changing rules, rather to cover mistakes like in the example given (a table and it's associated text).

You can also search on the Rules Compendium, which has a similar controversy surrounding it. Oddly, all the sourcebooks it pulls from don't get similar treatment.

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