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While I've never had a problem discerning between rulings and houserules in previous editions, as most games don't rely on DM opinion so much, I find that 5th edition is problematic regarding this terminology. The game gives the DM great leeway to interpret the rules and the game, and provides no written alternative to giving an opinion-based ruling in many situations. It also provides the DM with multiple options for how to represent things, which are treated as being within the intent of the game. With all of this going on, I keep on hearing people refer to regular situational rulings as being houserules... But houserules are generally a replacement or extension of the core rules, not just an interpretation of what to do in a given situation. Are people just using the word houserule wrong, or does 5e force DMs to invent houserules left-right-and-center?

In other games which are very strongly dependent on individual interpretations, abstract reasoning, and situational rulings, people almost never call a GM's decision a "houserule" unless they're actually changing something about the mechanics. But in 5e, I've encountered people saying that everything from a simple yes/no answer to a question, up to representing the damage of falling ship spars with the rock fall trap are all house rules! Is this just people used to more strict rules systems having difficulty understanding the concept of a DM ruling?

Definitions:

rul·ing

noun: ruling; plural noun: rulings
1. an authoritative decision or pronouncement, especially one made by a judge.

adjective: ruling
1.currently exercising authority or influence.

House Rule's official definition is very loose and variable between sources. Generally it refers to a rule which applies only to a set group of people in a set place or situation. However, it still specifies that a house rule must be a "rule", meaning it would include the definition of rule.

rule

noun
1. one of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct within a particular activity or sphere.

Remember Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and answer with more backing than just your own personal opinion please.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is purely a matter of semantic preference, I think. This could be an interesting discussion, but no one can authoritatively answer this as a question. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Oct 17 '16 at 15:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @nvoigt Most large communities tend to arrive at common meanings for terminology. The problem is that there are tons of groups that play RPGs that aren't active in any large RPG communities, and they often have their own meanings for terminology (if they use terminology at all). \$\endgroup\$ – Oblivious Sage Oct 17 '16 at 16:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've asked a meta question about the "ruling" tag that was created for this question. \$\endgroup\$ – Oblivious Sage Oct 17 '16 at 16:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ I also think this is answerable; there's not 100% human race agreement on any specific term but it's certainly answerable from common practice (which in the end is the same with all linguistics). I have a friend who always uses "exquisite" to mean "explicit" but it's fair to discuss whether that's right or wrong by general usage on ELL. Here, we can certainly discuss what the difference between a ruling and a rule is. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Oct 17 '16 at 16:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ I have reopened and added a warning to use more Good Subjective backup than just "how I likes to says it." \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Oct 17 '16 at 16:33
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I've noticed the same thing, that is people using the term "house rule" in contexts that seem to be outside the lines I consider them to cover.

GMs do a lot of things - they set down rules acknowledged to be always in effect, they make judgement calls when using existing rules ("Is my familiar an animal for purposes of thing X or does it not count because it's a 'magical beast'?"), and they create new content for the game (among others).

Generally, a difference is drawn between rules, even house rules, and rulings, and content creation. Let's investigate what some games explicitly say about it. Most comments about house rules come from D&D and its variants, one might speculate that it's because other games have a surrounding culture that is a lot less, uh... discriminating... about the exact pedigree of a specific bit of game. These quotes are from recent versions but they reflect the convention in Basic/1e/2e to my recollection and experience.

Pathfinder talks about house rules and rule arbitration as two different but related activities:

In addition to these roles, the Game Master might also fill a handful of others. Many groups maintain a set of house rules for their games, and the Game Master has the final say on particular interpretations and arbitrations of rules (though everyone in the group should be aware of any house rules beforehand). - Pathfinder Gamemastery Guide, p.8

Establish House Rules: If your house rules differ from the main rules, make sure everyone knows about it. Also, be sure to let your players know that this isn’t a sport, and that you reserve the right to bend or break the rules for the sake of the game from time to time, with the understanding that your intention isn’t to be unfair, but rather to make things more fun for the group as a whole. - Pathfinder Gamemastery Guide, p.76

4e strikes a stark contrast between rules arbitration and house rules:

Creating House Rules As Dungeon Master, you wear several hats: storyteller, rules arbiter, actor, adventure designer, and writer. Some DMs like to add a sixth hat to that stack: rules designer. - D&D Dungeon Masters Guide (4e) p.189

There the section on creating house rules calls out being rules arbiter as a separate, required activity, and then has a whole section on house rules as a discrete optional activity.

Same thing with 3.5e:

CHANGING THE RULES Beyond simply adjudicating, sometimes you are going to want to change things. That’s okay. However, changing the rules is a challenge for a DM with only a little experience. Altering the Way Things Work Every rule in the Player’s Handbook was written for a reason. That doesn’t mean you can’t change some rules for your own game. Perhaps your players don’t like the way initiative is determined, or you find that the rules for learning new spells are too limiting. Rules that you change for your own game are called house rules. Given the creativity of gamers, almost every campaign will, in time, develop its own house rules. - D&D Dungeon Masters Guide (3.5e) p.14

But it's not always so simple. I've heard people refer to GM content creation as "house ruling," which I always thought was just plain wrongheaded, but in OSRIC, I noticed that while they refer to house rules in the usual "rule mod" sense (e.g. removing demihuman level limits) they also refer to creating a new magic item not in the book as "house ruling" an item.

if the GM chooses to house-rule a magic item or spell which has the effect hold undead(...) - OSRIC p.237

This is very interesting because it can be seen to use an expanded definition of house ruling - it's still net new "written down" stuff but expands it past where most people do.

In a game, there's "the world as the characters experience it" and there's "the stuff written down in the books." In that sense, you can interpret any gap between the two - which consists of a) rulings and arbitration around existing rules, b) net-new rules or modifications to rules, and c) content created that's not in those rules (even though the rules allow for creation of content) as "house rules..." But in the end that's not super helpful because those three activities are very different and most games acknowledge them as different.

  1. Rulings happen all the time - they have to. It's like the fundamentalist fallacy - that there is such a thing as a pure literal reading of the Bible. There's not, it's impossible, human language and each person's understanding of it is a variable filter. If you say you're using rules without a filter of rulings, no you're not, you just maybe don't know a lot about human cognition.

Rulings aren't always "for forever," they can be situational, though of course the characters (and the players) do tend to start interpreting the world in the light of rulings so they are as powerful in crafting the experience as new rules. I had a player who got grabbed by a choker, which grapples around the neck and the victim can't talk/spellcast. I let him use his two-handed weapon while grappled since the grapple was described as "around the neck." When it happened to him again later, I had to decide whether that ruling was really going to stand every time or whether it was situational.

  1. House rules is generally meant, as is proven by game book quotes, to be a more codified and permanent set of larger scale changes to the game. "You should let new players know about house rules" doesn't mean "you should let them know about every rule interpretation ever conceived of by the group," that's silly. The general use of this term clearly implies "large chunk" rules - these rules are gone or significantly modified (e.g. no demihuman level limits), rules options off limits or whatever.

  2. Content creation is content creation; lumping it in with the other two is really unhelpful as the processes are completely different. It's like saying you're modding Fallout 4 when you're using the settlement building system to build settlements - it's just misleading. "Home brew" is the more correct term to use to indicate self-generated content - e.g. "my homebrewed catgirl race."

So while I've also heard people use "house rules" to mean both rulings and content creation, I think that interpretation is provably fringe/"wrong" as much as any human usage of language can be considered to be "wrong".

Many fifth edition players are new to the game, and cargo-cult terms (same thing with RAW and RAI, we saw a lot of confused misuse of them in early 5e questions) without fully understanding them. I don't think it has much to do with 5e being more ruling-friendly except inasmuch as the topic comes up more than if you're playing a more legalistic game. House rules were much rarer in 3e/4e than in previous eds, so it's also possible that becoming less used to the term over the last 15 years has contributed to its misuse now that it's revived.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Regarding GM-created content: It is also my experience that people usually refer to that as "home-brewed" instead of "house-ruled" content. However, home-brewed content might often come with house-rules attached. That's usually the case when they have effects not covered by the normal rules and thus require house-rules to work. \$\endgroup\$ – Philipp Oct 18 '16 at 8:10
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No. Not automatically.

Most RPG games have rule sets that cannot and do not achieve infinite granularity, which means that there will be some edge cases and gray areas. Each RPG game will have its own issues and areas of difficulty.

What is a ruling?

Since you used DM as the example, then I'll use a Dungeons and Dragons 5e example in the case of the Paladin's Find Steed mount and rider situation for what triggers a smite spell. Looking at the three ways it could be read, a given DM could rule, for his table, which one makes the most sense due to the lack of specificity for that case in the text. That's where, in D&D 5e in particular, the "rulings over rules" philosophy is meant to give the DM freedom to choose, and to rule, and thus interpret that interaction.

DMG p. 5
The rules don't account for every possible situation that might arise during a typical D&D session. {snip} Part 3 of this book offers a wealth of information to help you adjudicate the rules in a wide variety of situations.

The rulings fulfill an important role: they fill in the gaps in the rule system that are inherent in the limitations of scope and development time for any published rules system.

What if there isn't a GM?

In a DM-less/GM-less game, rulings tend to be arrived at by consensus among the players at the table.

Scenario:

  • Player A: I do this!
  • Everyone else: Huh? That doesn't make sense/that's novel/how does that work?
  • Players(some or all) try to figure it out: (Figuring out now in progress)
  • Consensus: Yeah, it makes sense, since the rules don't allow or forbid that, and its cool!

    In this case, you can see the overlap. The table then either agrees that:

  • "Going forward, we agree that it always works like this at our table," or

  • "This time it works, but there are some places where it doesn't make sense/fun."

    The distinction between the ruling and a house rule in such a case can be difficult to discern, or even be present.

What is a house rule?

Providing all examples is beyond the scope of this question, but a house rule will cover something that either isn't addressed in the rules, or (as is more common) is a choice to change or ignore a rule that is written down. Frequently this arises when players, GMs, or both don't care for a particular design decision in the published game.

Example from 5e: allowing a Goliath Fighter to dual wield using two-handed weapons. (Whether or not that is a balanced idea, or even a good idea, isn't the issue here).

At a given table, a 5e GM can decide that since a Goliath has a racial feature that lets it carry more, and it is inherently stronger in many ways, that this feature will be applied to the ability to handle a weapon that for all other races can only be wielded with two hands. The published rule is "two handed" feature of a given weapon (p. 46 Basic Rules).

This becomes a unique, one-table case of "specific over general." The weapon feature that applies to all players (general) is overwritten for a Goliath (specific) and no others. Any player coming to this table needs to know this house rule as it is at odds with the rules that are generally used.

Is there overlap? Yes.

Is a ruling automatically a house rule? No.

The designers for 5e made an explicit allowance for a ruling in the DMG, as well as in the Players Handbook, and in the Basic Rules. Rulings are expected, and as rulings are rules as written.

Final example: Determining Advantage(5e).

Advantage reflects the positive circumstances surrounding a d20 roll, while disadvantage reflects the opposite. (Basic Rules p. 4)
{snip a bit, brother ...}
The DM can also decide that circumstances influence a roll in one direction or the other and grant advantage or impose disadvantage as a result. (Basic Rules p. 57)

Based on a circumstance, the rule is that the DM makes a ruling to either provide advantage, disadvantage, or neither. This is a clear case of a ruling NOT being a house rule. The DM is called on to make a ruling in the rules as written.

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Whether a ruling becomes a house rule is entirely up to the DM. There is no rules for this. The intention, however, is that a DM will be fair and just to all players. Ideally, a DM should make it clear whether a ruling applies to only this situation, or to all situations.

For example, one of my players has a character that is a dwarven druid. He wanted to know, during the middle of a session and in combat, if the poison damage he took while wildshaped was subject to his dwarven resistance. I could not find the specifics in the rules quickly, so I told him that for this session, no it did not as his physical body had changed (much like he lost the darkvision his bear form didn't have), but I would do a thorough search after the session to determine if it should in the future. I don't recall off the top of my head whether my ruling was correct or not, but it worked well for my group because I gave a clear ruling, I gave it a scope, and I then did what I could to ensure we were following the rules of the game afterwards and clarified the ruling into the standard rule.

To summarize, if you have to make an ad-hoc ruling at the table, be sure to make it clear whether this is a one-time ruling, or will apply in the future. If you intend to make it a one-time ruling, be sure to clarify in the next session what the official rule should have been, and what it will be going forward, or if you are making it a house rule.

I'll provide a second example. Flanking is an optional rule in 5e, and one that is largely left up to the DM. Since most of my experience is in 3.5, and we were using a grid, I told all my players in the first session how flanking worked (using a traditional 3.5 method, where you had to be on opposite sides of the monsters). Since then, while encountering larger creatures, some questions about how flanking works were asked, and at the beginning of a later session, I updated how we handled flanking, making the new rule two characters who were adjacent to a foe, but not adjacent to each other, were considered to be flanking that creature. In both cases, this was a house rule, but I made sure everyone understood it clearly, and readily answered questions about the ruling if asked.

I will also mention that a DM is under no obligation to explain all the circumstances around an outcome. There are things the players simply wouldn't know (especially if it involves people more powerful than them). One of my favorite responses to a player who says "shouldn't X have happened?" is to say "Yes, it should have" and smile. As long as you aren't pulling it out of thin air, and there's actually a reason, it doesn't need to be revealed at that time (though avoid it in player vs player situations, as it looks like playing favorites).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Super example illustrating this issue. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 17 '16 at 15:53
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Definitions
This is a confusion about basic English, which has nothing to do with role-playing games specifically. The basic English (and confusion thereof) translates directly to the usage of the words in role-playing games.

A rule is a specific instruction, meant to be obeyed.

A statement that tells you what is or is not allowed in a particular game, situation, etc.

A ruling is a one-time judgement that's typically based on rules.

An official decision made by a judge, referee, etc.

A house rule is a specific type of rule. It is not any type of ruling.

A rule (as in a game) that applies only among a certain group or in a certain place.

A ruling can certainly lead to a house rule, but they're different types of things.

Examples
Scenario 1: For example, we're playing a fast-paced game, and the DM isn't really familiar with grapple rules. The party's monk decides to forcibly take a potion from an ogre in the middle of combat. The player notes that he has multiple feats, skills, whatever related to grappling because his monk is an unarmed fighter, and that he's trying to be dexterous about it. The DM says, "Ok, dexterity plus whatever bonuses on your sheet versus the ogre's strength." then moves on with the fight. That's a ruling.

Scenario 2a: Later, the DM looks up the official grappling rules and finds out the earlier ruling has no relationship to the proper grappling rules. At this point, he studies the official rules and learns how they work. Now, any time the monk wants to grapple, they use the official rules. No house rule has been created.

Scenario 2b: Later, the DM looks up the grappling rules and decides they suck. He decides to assign specific grapple bonuses to each of the monk's feats and skills (maybe the same bonuses he used in his ruling earlier, or maybe not), then uses his simplified version of the rules any time a grapple event happens. In this case, a house rule has been created based on the earlier ruling.

Scenario 3: The DM is starting a new quest chain. He starts looking up stats on various elemental monsters. He discovers that certain elementals have a particular weakness that would allow the party's mage to destroy all of them in like two rounds. So he decides that, for any adventure chain where elementals are a primary bad guy, elementals don't have this weakness. Here, we have a house rule, but no corresponding ruling.

Scenario 4: The party's fighter wants to dual wield a throwing dagger and a short sword. In the middle of the fight, he decides to throw the dagger at a goblin across the room, while still having his short sword active. The official rules make it difficult to decide whether he is a "ranged" character, or a "melee" character, so the group isn't sure whether he provokes attacks of opportunity or whatever. The DM rules (makes a ruling) that the main-hand weapon determines ranged vs. melee, so the fighter behaves as normal, and states that the rule is permanent1 unless it becomes a problem. Here, we have a ruling and a new house rule at the same time, but it is the permanency of the ruling that creates a house rule, not the ruling itself.

Caveats
Despite the difference between the terms, there is some overlap. In general, if the DM makes a ruling about specific things, whether it's a translation of the official rules, or a made-up idea on how to handle a situation, there is some expectation that the ruling has created a house rule. The longer the DM continues to make the same ruling under similar circumstances, the stronger the de facto house rule becomes. But you generally wouldn't say it's a house rule unless the DM either says so, or it's a regularly recurring ruling.

Similarly, you could narrow the concept of "certain group or certain place" to a very specific idea of "certain", and say that a ruling always creates a one-time house rule for the certain place of "right here, right now".

Additionally, you'll sometimes hear the idea that a ruling made mid-session automatically creates a house rule for the duration of the session.2

But again, that's not the way the word is typically used. Normally, "house" rules, are talking about rules that extend over an entire campaign, or any game run by a particular DM. As in, "when we're at his house, goblins are immune to metal-eating-acid". Not, "that one time at his house, goblins were immune to metal-eating-acid".

As related to D&D 5e

But in 5e, I've encountered people saying that everything from a simple yes/no answer to a question, up to representing the damage of falling ship spars with the rock fall trap are all house rules! Is this just people used to more strict rules systems having difficulty understanding the concept of a DM ruling?

Well, it's both. If your DM specifically decides that for this and future sessions with this ruleset / party / whatever, the answer to the question is "yes", it's a ruling and a house rule3. If your DM decides that this time only, the answer is "yes", it's just a ruling.

But houserules are generally a replacement or extension of the core rules, not just an interpretation of what to do in a given situation.

An interpretation of what to do in a given situation is an extension of the core rules. The distinction between terms is whether we're talking about a one-time decision (a ruling), or a permanent extension (a house rule).

I don't have a full copy of the real DMG (just the free PDF that doesn't talk about DM-ing at all). But from what I could find in a borrowed copy, the book uses the terms "rule" and "ruling" just as I've described above.

To referee the rules, you need to know them. You don't have to memorize this book or the Player's Handbook, but you should have a clear idea of their contents so that, when a situation requires a ruling, you know where to find the reference.

Notice how the rules are something that you refer to when making your ruling in a specific situation.

I can't find anything about "house rules" (though I didn't search the entire book in pain-staking detail), so unless there's evidence to the contrary, I would say there's no official definition of the term that's contrary to the standard definition.

1Of course, "permanent" is somewhat imprecise. The rule can be changed in the future, but is valid so long as it hasn't been changed. And it's not expected to change often, if ever.

2A better way to describe this: there's a house rule that says "mid-session rulings are considered canon for the duration of the session (or until a reasonably-long break)".

3There is an interesting philosophical question here about whether it was actually a "house rule" if it turns out the ruling actually matches a more careful examination of the official rules. But that's probably beyond the scope of this question.

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Short answer:
A House Rule might be something like Adventurer's league which has a rule that only the stat array or point-buy is valid, and that rolling for stats is not allowed. House Rules might be written or just known.

A Ruling is more situational and not likely to come up again. For example, we had a situation where a character tried to grapple while outside in snow/ice, and the target was inside an open window. The ruling was to give them disadvantage, and if they fail, make a dex save to see if they fall on the ice. The group thought that seemed reasonable.

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