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While discussing what constitutes RAW with NautArch in the comments on this question he claimed that the Starter Rules aren't considered RAW. While I'm aware that they are incomplete, I can't believe that they are publishing wrong rules. His argument is that the rules were not written in their final version when the Starter Set was published. (My Starter Set copy was published 1 year after my copy of the PHB.)

So I'm confused: how does one check his claims regarding what is actually RAW and what is not?

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The Rules as Written are based on the official rule books: the Dungeon Masters Guide, the Monster Manual, and the Players Handbook. The Starter Set is, as you noted, an incomplete presentation of those core rules, as are the Basic Rules (and the SRD) that are freely available on-line. If there is a conflict between them, the core rules (MM, DMG, PHB) will generally take precedence1.

  • A caveat to the above is well summarized in paragraph 3 of this answer. D&D 5e has tried to move toward "rulings over rules" since the developers are aware of how (regardless of the amount of effort put into perfecting a rule set) the play of the game is the most important aspect of an adventure or a campaign.

To get the most out of a RAW reference, the official errata as posted by WoTC on their web page is directed at the Players Handbook, the Dungeon Masters Guide, and the Monster Manual. Official errata, because it corrects and updates the core rule books, need to be accounted for during a RAW discussion. Any reference to a rule that does not take into account the errata will be incomplete. (And quite possibly wrong). A more recent printing (which usually includes errata from a previous release) will typically take precedence over one lacking that update/correction. (@Sh4dowPlyr, thanks for making that point).

Whether or not the Sage Advice compendium meets "rules as written" isn't as clear, since within Sage Advice WoTC points out the three levels of rules: Rules as Written, Rules as Intended, and Rules as Fun. I've noticed that most folks treat it as within RAW, but some folks on the GITP forums (for example) spell out why they don't.

As a caveat, for Adventure League play it is important to check for that season's rules treatment, since certain published material either is or isn't eligible for AL play. A RAW issue in AL must account for a given season's boundaries and limitations. This may include official published material like Princes of the Apocalypse/Elemental Evil, The Curse of Strahd, Sword Coast Adventure Guide, and other officially published material. Draft rules and play test like "Unearthed Arcana" are admitted by WoTC to not be in finished form and as such are least likely to be acceptable as a basis for RAW.


1 At a given table it is similar to the AL case: it is common to see some optional rules included or not included based on a DM's decision. For example, in my first 5e campaign the Variant Human rules, and Feats, were closed down by the DM for character creation. (No feats until 4th level). That was RAW for us, as were selected spells from the published Elemental Evil material from WoTC. In our second campaign, the optional DMG rules for facing/flanking/being surrounded were included. This was made explicitly clear by the DM in both cases and, being published rules, were there for reference in published material in case questions/conflicts came up.

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There is no "official definition" of what sources count as RAW, mainly because that's not a concept the 5e game creators adhere to or one that 5e defines, but instead an external expectation placed upon the game by some people in the play community. Therefore to a given person, RAW might mean some or all books, it might mean Sage Advice, errata, FAQs, Crawford tweets, etc. or not, it might include Dragon+ or not. That's why if you're asking a RAW question and really concerned about book scope you should state the scope that's acceptable to you explicitly.

RAW as a formal construct is not common in games. Really only D&D 3e-4e bothered to try to define canonical rules, and so their play communities generated strong norms around it.

5e is new so those norms haven't been set yet, and are likely to be less rigid anyway because of the designers' approach being somewhat hostile to the concept ("Living Rules"). It was like this in 1e-2e days, there was less concern about whether something Gary or Len or whoever wrote in Dragon (the venue for all this before the Web) was "official" and more on "use it if it helps you /is cool."

In the end you don't really need to care about RAW as an external concept. What does YOUR table want to accept as rules sources? If playing in Adventurers League then you'd need to adhere to whatever sources they accept (which varies by season), etc. In any event there is no canonical list of what is RAW for 5e so you should specify what set of sources you consider RAW if looking for a "strict-RAW" answer for whatever reason.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Apr 20 '16 at 20:50
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Wizards of the Coast LLC are the copyright owners for dnd-5e, wizards.com is their official website. As such, they define what is RAW, or at least Rules As Written By Them, since they are the owners and "writers". Not everything they write are official rules and rulings -- they themselves say that certain ideas are trial balloons they are floating. But they provide a clear answer as to what of their writings they consider to be "official".

According to the Sage Advice Compendium published there, dnd-5e has 3 official rulebooks, and sources of official rulings.

Rules References

The fifth edition of D&D has three official rulebooks, each of which was first published in 2014:

  • Player’s Handbook (abbreviated PH)
  • Monster Manual (abbreviated MM)
  • Dungeon Master’s Guide (abbreviated DMG)

Official Rulings

Official rulings on how to interpret unclear rules are made in Sage Advice. The public statements of the D&D team, or anyone else at Wizards of the Coast, are not official rulings; they are advice. One exception: the game’s rules manager, Jeremy Crawford (@JeremyECrawford), can make official rulings and usually does so in Sage Advice and on Twitter.

That same source points out that there are separate rules covering Adventurer's League.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Crawford posted in the January 2016 SA column that he sometimes overrules himself (the Twitter responses) and uses the case of his Twitter barkskin ruling from 2015 as an example. That makes tweets very low in the order of precedence, though Sage Advice rulings are called by Crawford "official" since he's the head rules guy at WoTC for D&D. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 20 '16 at 15:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Completely agree. I had the impression that he can make official rulings in tweets, but tweets are not official per se. Personally, I treat them as an epsilon short of RAW, often explanations of RAW by the W-er. \$\endgroup\$ – SorcererQzot Apr 20 '16 at 17:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SorcererQzot not everything the Pope says is ex cathedra. \$\endgroup\$ – fectin May 22 '17 at 22:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ The Sage Advice Compendium link is broken. \$\endgroup\$ – Gram Jun 12 '17 at 0:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Gram I've edited the most updated version of the Sage Advice Compendium into the answer: media.wizards.com/2017/dnd/downloads/SA-Compendium.pdf There's also the previous version (media.wizards.com/2016/downloads/DND/SA-Compendium.pdf), but the 2017 version has the changes from the 2016 version highlighted. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Nov 30 '17 at 23:30
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For us to determine whether something is RAW it seems that it needs to fulfil several criteria.

  • Must be from a first-party source
  • Must be part of a publication (Though this is probably the part that needs to be debated, does informal word from the developers count?)
  • Must not be contradicting any other first-party source prior to its publication (holding exception for explicit Revisions and Errata)

With these guidelines we can rule that the core rulebooks, Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual are all clearly RAW.

This particular definition does include Dragon magazines, but not developer tweets and not the Starter Rules

To a great degree there is always going to be some debate as to what is RAW and what isn't.

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