“Rules as Written” (or, Hate the Playa, not the Game)

I was loitering at my friendly local gaming store (patronize it with money!) lately, and a conversation sprouted about play styles. Specifically, we discussed a particular style of play formed around building powerful characters and having them do powerful things. Some at the table discussed some animosity to this style of play, a position I can understand. Eventually one participant pointed at me and said something to the effect of “I know this guy has the same reaction I do to the phrase ‘rules as written’ in a non-ironic context. It makes him want to reach across the table and throttle someone.”

Hang on now.

“Rules as written” (often abbreviated RAW) has gotten something of a bad rap over the decades. On its face it just means that we’re talking about the information as it exists in the book, distinct from house rules or our interpretation or the designer’s intent. Following the rules as written is a fairly important part of any gaming system; if we ignore the rules and allow wizards unlimited spells per day or let monsters move and still take a full attack, we have a different game than the one presented. Rules give us an ostensibly stable framework on which to build a game.

I’ve had plenty of occasion to say “rules as written” in a non-ironic context. I’m a DM. It’s our job to read the rules, interpret them within the framework of the vision we share with the players, and use them to keep the game running. If a player asks “Can I do X? The rules are unclear.” I’m as likely to rely on “How are the rules written?” just as much as I am “How ultra sick awesome would this be?”. Because if I wanted everything to be all awesome all the time, we’d go outside and play make-believe. Throwing out the rules is something that needs to be considered carefully if sometimes quickly, and keeping in mind how they’re written is important to keep everyone on the same page.

But that’s how DMs read rules. That’s probably how game designers read rules, too. Players are different, at least some of them. The stigma around RAW isn’t because DMs are tired of using the system they choose. The stigma is because there are players, a (probably) small but vocal subset, who wield the rules like a bludgeon. They don’t use the rules as written, they abuse the rules as written.

I own a copy of Complete Adventurer, a rulebook with options for skill-based characters in D&D 3.5. In this book is a prestige class named the vigilante, which is pretty much exactly how it sounds. A vigilante gets a certain number of spells per day of different spell levels. Somewhere along the line, the typesetting in that table broke.

An ordinary person would look at this and say “Ah, the typesetting broke. The second character in the ‘3rd’ column belongs in the ‘4th’ column.” A designer or editor might say “…frick.” But the sort of player who abuses RAW instead says “Awesome! A vigilante gets twenty 3rd-level spells per day at L7, and thirty-one at L8! Too bad they don’t get any 4th-level spells, but that’s a trade I’m willing to make.”

This is an extreme example, though not one so extreme that I haven’t seen it posited. When citing RAW, the speaker is trying to be free from intention or interpretation. Sometimes it’s helpful and clear. Other times it’s an excuse to exploit a loophole, error, or unexpected design consequence. The latter is the sort of behavior that inspires DMs to physical violence.

Since I love examples, imagine a character who threatens a critical hit on a roll of fifteen or higher with a scimitar. This is core, so it shouldn’t sound that unusual. You can even dual-wield them with the right build. But there’s also a fairly mundane feat that gives a character a free attack whenever they roll a critical threat with light maces. There’s a weapon enhancement in another book that lets scimitars count as maces. Using a prestige class in a third book, the critical threat range of maces (which are scimitars now) triples. In short, sixty percent of the character’s attacks generate a free attack, which in turn can generate another free attack, and so forth.

If this sounds powerful, you’re right. If it sound ridiculous, you’re exactly as right. And I see the appeal of building it as a thought experiment, or for a one-shot where everybody comes in with similar builds. One of my most fun characters sprang from a similar thought experiment, after some tweaking. But if you read the above and thought about how great it would be in a normal campaign, you are provably wrong.

See, a character like this is fun for one and only one person at the table. Nobody wants be in a party where they have to watch the critlomancer roll dozens of attacks, stretching their turn out far longer than anybody else’s and monopolizing the campaign’s combat time. Nobody wants to be in the party with the wizard who solves every problem effortlessly. Nobody wants to be in the party where the rogue runs off and slits the enemies’ throats before anybody else can interact with them.

It’s a DM’s job to step in and say “This character is hurting the campaign, the other players, and the mood at the table”. And it’s here where RAW gets its bad name, when a player’s primary, often sole, defense is that the rules allow it and thus they can’t be doing anything wrong. In this argument, cheating is a moral offense but actively harming other real, breathing, within-melee-range people is natural and expected. As far as I’m concerned, any position that manages to violate Law #0, Law #1, and Law #4 at once is provably wrong.

I can’t understand the sort of people who play cooperative games like D&D this way, in the same way that I can’t understand Twilight fans or I can’t understand not liking Sonata Arctica. I don’t even know how to approach it beyond forcing the player to acknowledge it. I’ve met people who played this way, at least when they started gaming. Some have developed into players who build living characters with faults and hard-fought triumphs, so I know such a transformation is possible. But I’ve met far more people who can’t or won’t accept that there are D&D tables where it’s not appropriate to wantonly abuse rules for a personal power trip. Those people are conspicuously not invited to the sorts of games our circle plays. It’s possible that given sufficient elucidation, cajoling, or alienation (in order of preference), this crowd might see how their fun comes at the expense of others, but until then I expect their gaming opportunities to dwindle smaller and smaller.

“Rules as written” isn’t a bad phrase, and it doesn’t have a bad meaning. It’s a victim of guilt by association. As the biggest arrow in the quiver of negative, selfish play, it’s subject to a Pavlovian reaction through no fault of its own. Instead of condemning the words, we need to return the concept to the DM’s toolbox. The next time you get a chance, use RAW non-ironically and start bringing it back into civil parlance. Until we do, it will remain the rallying cry of the players who have co-opted it for a very different type of D&D. The rules as written deserve better than players who abuse them.

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3 Responses to “Rules as Written” (or, Hate the Playa, not the Game)

  1. Dave says:

    I think you’re 100% correct about characters that disrupt play or the party balance, and why they’re bad. I’ve written on this before (scroll down to the heading “It says so in the rulebook”) and my take is a little different; I’m definitely a “rules as intended” guy for the same reason I hate Constitutional literalism. Sometimes it’s useful to determine why the designer(s) put something in, or whether they intended two things from different sources that have obvious broken synergy to actually work together. But at the end of the day, regardless of what approach you take, it is definitely all about Law #0 and everyone at the table (including the GM) having fun.

    • MssngrDeath says:

      Oh, I’m a fan of “rules as intended” too. But I’m a bigger fan of “this is freaking awesome” at times. Normally when I cite RAW, it’s because there’s some weird confluence that popped up organically at the table and it’s not clear one way or the other what was intended.

      Here’s one of my favorites, from the Dungeon Master’s Guide: “Acid and sonic attacks deal damage to most objects just as they do to creatures; roll damage and apply it normally after a successful hit.” By “normally”, do we mean “normally for objects, which means we reduce damage by the object’s hardness”, an important distinction since the rest of the paragraph says that we halve or quarter damage for other energy types? Or is it “normally for creatures, which means acid and sonic ignore all damage reduction by special caveat”? Do we take the line by itself or in the context of the rest of the paragraph? The intent is up for debate, so we default to RAW, which suggests ignoring hardness (…usually).

      • Dave says:

        You’re correct about RAI not always being obvious. I’m spoiled on small indie games where the game itself can be taken as a whole (and the designer consulted) to determine intent, and on 4th Edition, which is explicitly RAI and aggressively errata’d by Wizards to maintain consistency. Not to mention that 4th’s “exception-based” rules also tend to have less game-breaking synergies than 3.x/PF’s.

        When you’re dealing with a weird confluence of odd things found in multiple splats by different authors, it’s much harder to figure out what should happen, and much wiser to fall back on “would this be awesome?” (Though I still tend to fall back on my mantra of “if you have to ask the answer is probably no”.)

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