Rules are a big part of what makes D&D a game, rather than simply improvised storytelling. The game’s rules are meant to help organize, and even inspire, the action of a D&D campaign. The rules are a tool, and we want our tools to be as effective as possible. No matter how good those tools might be, they need a group of players to bring them to life and a DM to guide their use.
The DM is key. Many unexpected things can happen in a D&D campaign, and no set of rules could reasonably account for every contingency. If the rules tried to do so, the game would become unplayable. An alternative would be for the rules to severely limit what characters can do, which would be counter to the open-endedness of D&D. The direction we chose for the current edition was to lay a foundation of rules that a DM could build on, and we embraced the DM’s role as the bridge between the things the rules address and the things they don’t.
In a typical D&D session, a DM makes numerous rules decisions—some barely noticeable and others quite obvious. Players also interpret the rules, and the whole group keeps the game running. There are times, though, when the design intent of a rule isn’t clear or when one rule seems to contradict another. Dealing with those situations is where Sage Advice comes in. This column doesn’t replace a DM’s adjudication. Just as the rules do, the column is meant to give DMs, as well as players, tools for tuning the game according to their tastes. The column should also reveal some perspectives that help you see parts of the game in a new light and that aid you in fine-tuning your D&D experience.
When I answer rules questions, I often come at them from one to three different perspectives.
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. Whenever I consider a rule, I start with this perspective; it’s important for me to see what you see, not what I wished we’d published or thought we’d published.
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 not with another. When I write about the RAI interpretation of a rule, I’ll be pulling back the curtain and letting you know what the D&D team meant when we wrote a certain rule.
RAF. Regardless of what’s on the page or what the designers intended, D&D is meant to be fun, and the DM is the ringmaster at each game table. The best DMs shape the game on the fly to bring the most delight to their players. Such DMs aim for RAF, "rules as fun." We expect DMs to depart from the rules when running a particular campaign or when seeking the greatest happiness for a certain group of players. Sometimes my rules answers will include advice on achieving the RAF interpretation of a rule for your group.
I recommend a healthy mix of RAW, RAI, and RAF!
Written by Jeremy Crawford