More the start of a conversation than a real question. It's a wall of text, so I thank you in advance if you reach the end.

So hear me out: I've lurked on this site for months, learning hidden rules, exploring audacious interpretations and studying new mechanics: the honeymoon is not over yet and I'm very grateful to the community. But I also have a bone to pick with ya all: under most questions I often find this mantra, repeated mindlessly as premise for any reasoning:

Rules do what they say and nothing more.

I get the intent: don't interpret the text beyond its scope, or you'll end up unbalancing the game. Absolutely. But most of the times it's used to stop the conversation instead of providing a fruitful contribution.

Case in point: in my first answer regarding the uses and limits of Mage hand, I said:

[The spell's text] mentions manipulate an object, open an unlocked door or container, stow or retrieve an item from an open container, or pour the contents out of a vial; is this all it can do? I don't think so, because it adds later that the hand can't attack, activate magic items, or carry more than 10 pounds. The description remains generic on the things you can do, but is very strict on what you cannot. Could the Mage hand hold a light living creature, like a mouse? It's certainly not an object, but it wouldn't make sense to forbid it. As I interpret it, it's a phantasmal hand with very little strength (therefore no attacks or any effort beyond 10 pounds) and which can't complete complex tasks (therefore no activating magic objects): beyond that, the player's fantasy's the limit, and it should be rewarded [...].

I later realized that my example concerning a mouse was not as blatant as I thought, and in fact made for a different can of worms altogether. I can hear the rebuttals in the back: "The text says you can manipulate an object, so you can't manipulate a mouse, your example is dumb and all that follows is voided". I'm sure some agree with my non-existent, pesky alter ego, but let me add something. If you can't hold the mouse, what happens when a player tries anyway? The manuals don't offer an easy solution, so perhaps you could simply:

  1. Have the cantrip stop and the hand disappear; or
  2. Have the living creature fall through the ghostly limb; or maybe
  3. Have the hand become unresponsive for as long as it's interacting with incompatible things (in this case, creatures).

I'm sure you can come up with any number of different solutions, and at the moment your ruling may seem to harmonize the rule with the situation.

Then again your mischievous mage player could exploit your ruling in any number of ways. Case by case:

  1. If any living creature interrupts the cantrip, couldn't another player simply highfive it and interrupt it at every turn? "AntiMage hand maneuver is a go, let's go clap the lil' bugger".
  2. If living things fall through the hand (and in a world with constructs and undead, have fun deciding what is living), could you also use it to scout for mimics? Actually, can the ghostly hand normally go through walls? How is the feeling of having the mage hand cross your body? Could the mage use the Mage hand to convince the king he is the ghost of his great grandfather, who eternally cursed his lineage by not adequately paying a party of adventurers for their services, and the spell can only be broken by emptying the royal treasuries onto the hand of the first random party of adventurers that show up at his presence? (I know there are easier ways, but we are squeezing all possible uses out of a measly cantrip just to make a point, come on).
  3. Could you use your otherwise useless adventuring gerbil Jeremiah as a reliable counter to stop very specifically worded spells and magic items which can't possible operate with living creatures, displaying "Error 403, forbidden" when interacting with any?

You see what I mean, any number of possible interpretations both in line with and beyond the text has an infinite number of unforeseen ramifications, and even though every DM can come up with a different answer, I think the only wrong answer would be "You can't do that at my table because rules don't give a definite answer, so change your action or lose the turn". That's how everyone's morale wilts and how one disincetivizes any experimentation, to the detriment of the game as a whole.

Beside, shouldn't we stop pretending the manuals were some kind of holy text providing every answer to every situation, a perfectly calibrated machine which was as frail as to crumble at the flimsiest of pokes? Let's be honest here. Many spells are situational at best, same as several subclasses (and I don't want to touch upon the OG ranger) and races (there's a special place in hell for human variants); many (if not most) feats are borderline useless, and several of the conjurable creatures from find familiar are best left at the end of the PHB where they belong. The list could go on and on. And I'm not proclaiming that playing optimally is the only sensed way to (that discussion would need an other post twice as long), but for a player there's no worse feeling than being locked up in a useless choice and drag behind the rest of a more traditional party for the unforgivable sin of experimenting with existing mechanics. Shouldn't a DM touch up the weakest parts of the books to improve everyone's experience at the table? After all, the first page of the contents of the DMG says:

The D&D rules help you and the other players have a good time, but the rules aren't in charge. You're the DM, and you are in charge of the game.

Getting back on track, what I meant is: no amount of text could cover every possible mechanic and interaction in the game. As a real life law student (please be lenient in the comments), I can assure you, however you spell a rule, it will be always be open to abuses both in favor and against its subjects, which is why one of the often underestimated roles of a DM outside homewbrewing is to do metaruling, that is to rule on rulings: when to strictly enforce a rule, when to extend its bounds and when to forgo it entirely precisely for the sake of balance. That is why we need human judges to interpret and apply laws in real life (for as long as machines will become smart enough to take that role): whenever the text falls short, understanding why a rule exists and interpreting its intent in a fair way is the way to apply both Rules As Written and Rules as Intended. They are two sides of the same coin after all. Blind faith on the manuals simply can't solve every problem arising on the table, and even the most conservative interpretation must withstand possible future complications or be overruled when its blindsides have been exposed. No amount of tweets from the almighty JC (which I think are both a blessing and a bane since, again, the game is not perfect at all) can solve any situation in one optimal, definitive way. So let's stop pretending there is this authentic way to play D&D vanilla.

Sometimes one has to think outside the box to understand what the box was all about.

Do you agree?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I went with closing this over migrating to our meta site, as I'm unsure it'd be well suited there and migrating can lead to messes (I'd welcome input on others on that). As it stands this isn't a question that works on the main site, it is a forum-like discussion. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil Mod
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 13:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Altight, I'll migrate then, thanks for specifying. \$\endgroup\$
    – OmniVictor
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 13:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Someone_Evil There's a serviceable meta question in here, but I think it would take some workshopping, and the place to do that is on meta :P \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 13:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Someone_Evil I recommend migrating this to Meta. I can't find a question here for the main site. Also, is this question sufficiently respectful of other playstyles? (That's not me reporting the post or anything—I wasn't offended by the accusations of inauthenticity—, but it left me wondering how close to the line it is.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 13:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well, Imma migrate for you. Let's hope nothing breaks in the process. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil Mod
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 13:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ THe "And nothing more" is the problem; it reflects a particularly narrow way of thinking in that it is an attempt to treat the rules text as computer code.... But most of the times it's used to stop the conversation instead of providing a fruitful contribution Yep. It also comes off, to me, as both lazy writing and sloppy thinking. One of the better cliches is "there are no secret rules" because that's actually necessary to explain: in earlier versions of D&D, specifically AD&D, there were 'secret' rules that the DM had that players didn't have. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 14:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I think that phrase is often to head off surmising that a spell like fireball also blinds anyone nearby, because it's a fireball and it doesn't say it doesn't do that. \$\endgroup\$
    – GcL
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 14:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ The rules don’t say that fighters can’t use the rogue’s sneak attack feature, so they can, right? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 14:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GcL There's the seed of an answer in that comment. 😎 I am working on my own at the moment \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 14:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GcL That’s how the phrase should be used, and to be sure, we do get questions like that sometimes so sometimes that is the best answer. But I have definitely noticed a trend of trying to restrict this site to pure rules-text analysis and it’s wrong. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 14:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan + eleventy-three for that comment. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 15:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ Omni, I'm not trying to be mean or anything but, as currently written, this really seems like ½ rant, ½ actual question. Can I suggest trimming it down a bit to be more direct in what you're actually asking? For example, the examples/questions you provide for what Mage Hand can or can't do aren't actually relevant to this meta question so could probably be cut. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 23:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Purple Monkey, you're not wrong there, I rambled a little in a virtual exchange between me and what I expected would be the RAW-only apologists that would try to debunk me - they would have made that part retroactively relevant, trying to find a impossibly solution more consistent with the rules and with unexpected implications trickling down all over. Apparently the crowd on meta has very different leaning than the one on the main site, and my rant just remained that. But isn't it a funny rant? \$\endgroup\$
    – OmniVictor
    Commented Feb 27, 2021 at 7:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PurpleMonkey I have been told that meta is a little looser on the tightness of scope that we ask for in main ... but I do agree that a little liposuction won't harm the question as posed. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 15:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've read this a few times now. Maybe this is a bit late, but that is a lot of text. If it's possible to reduce the text a bit, maybe throw in some headings, that might help to clearly make your point. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Commented Mar 11, 2021 at 22:38

8 Answers 8


Yes, "we" should stop repeating that phrase


In part because it comes off as passive-aggressive

The "and nothing more" piece is the particular problem in that regard. That's an unhelpful coda to the original points that were offered up by the game's developers as summarized in this Q&A. Succinctly put...

if a feature was meant to work that way, it would say so.

... is how Mr Crawford has often responded about particular spells, feats, and features in the game in answer to questions from players. Why has he had to do this? For a variety of reasons, but in part because people (myself included) have frequently brought other edition assumptions to this edition. If players and DMs are used to a feature named golem salsa dancing doing or meaning something, in particular when based on another edition, whether it works that way in this edition is a common inquiry.

What's the point of this throwaway line in the first place?

To bring attention to what is available to assess - that which is in the rules text, which ideally is followed by giving a useful answer for how to apply this {thing} at the game table. That's the key value proposition of RPGSE: how one applies "X" while playing a TTRPG is the core problem to solve in the variety of cases where a situation, or an interaction of multiple rules, or an absence of clarity in rules, leaves the players (to include a GM or DM) at a loss as to how to proceed. I'll yet again offer up one of my favorite BESW quotes:

We aren't here on the Stack to read the rulebooks to people. We're here to help people learn how to synthesize the mechanics, the non-mechanical text, the social context, our personal experience, the learning of the broader community, to apply all that to a particular real-life problem someone's having and find a solution for it. (emphasis mine)

The tone behind the throwaway phrase that you (and others) find objectionable doesn't live up to that value statement, and, that phrase isn't necessary to achieve the site's main goal in any case. (I do relaize that we do not promulgate a style guide here).

It comes off (to me) as very rude to non-native English speakers.

A variety of users come to SE sites with English as a second, third, or perhaps fourth language. The tone set by the canned response contains a veiled insult (perhaps unintended) at their ability to parse rules presented in English. Given that I, as a native speaker and a one-time writer and editor of technical manuals, am now and again puzzled by how the rules in D&D 5e are written and how they interact, I find that aspect of this blunt, preemptive throwaway utterly lacking in helping the querent (or any reader) in solving the problem - not to mention its condescending tone.

Can "we" enforce a change?

Probably not, given how few people read meta. But I'd like an opportunity to have this meta remain open as a linkable nudge to someone who is adapting that tone in an answer.

What's your suggested alternative, Korvin?

A three step process as part of an answer, which allows for a more engaging tone.

  1. Here's what the rules do say {cite/explain}
  2. Here's what you are asking about that the rule's don't cover {identify elements}
  3. Expand the answer beyond that to cover gaps, refer to similar rules, show how to make it work at the table, or provide other elements and recommended rulings that make for a high quality answer that solve the asker's problem. This is a grand opportunity to share experience with a given rule or situation, which is one of the ways that we support an answer.

It achieves the same result without being rude.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Great answer! I do think you can improve by adding that 3 requires support with experience. But I do like that you separated the language from the meaning. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 15:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I added a coda to 3, thanks for the nudge amigo! 👍 \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 15:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ A stellar answer which may even surpass its quote, thanks @KorvinStarmast. I am a non-native english speaker myself, and I can confirm we have an other hurdle to jump: confronting the translated manuals with the english ones! A single variation can bring out many unintended consequences that the translator shouldn't bring over, if possible (or should he address the most criticizable wordings? That's a different problem altogether!). Keep up the good work! \$\endgroup\$
    – OmniVictor
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 15:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ Another phrase that is steeped in passive aggressive flippancy and which ought to be retired for the same reasons is "Homebrew content requires homebrew answers." I'm guilty of using it myself. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rykara
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 20:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Rykara That is a tougher one, but all of these fast phrases can be tossed and we can use our actual words again :) \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 20:33

We need a great deal more acknowledgment of the fact that it isn’t entirely true

D&D 5e dominates our questions these days—as the most recent and popular edition of the most famous and popular role-playing game, this is no great surprise. One of the more common formulations of this sentiment—“there are no hidden rules”—comes from Jeremy Crawford, a lead designer of 5e. And this, I think, is part of the trouble:

People often come to this site because D&D 5e does have “hidden” rules.

—or at the very least, it seems to.

D&D 5e, in contrast to other recent editions of D&D, is rather light on details. Enormous portions of the game are left up to the DM to decide on an ad hoc basis, often with relatively little guidance from the rules text—which means both players and DMs are left with questions about what the ruling should be. When there are details, they’re often vague or descriptive, and it’s not at all clear whether that description does or should have ramifications beyond those that are spelled out. Moreover, sometimes things left undetailed initially, in fact wind up receiving more detail later or elsewhere. This has advantages—it keeps initial presentations simple and makes things less daunting to get into—but it leads one to never feeling quite sure that you’ve read all there is to read on a subject. And all too often, even if you have, it still leaves you wondering “well, OK, then what should I do?” because often when you feel uncertain you’ve read everything, it’s because you expect there to be more than there is.

We should absolutely be clear on what rules are or are not actually published. No answer should ever be ambiguous about what is an official rule and what is a personal ruling. But with 5e being what it is, we have to recognize that this often isn’t good enough to make a full, complete, and good answer.

We also have to recognize that the need most querents here have isn’t “read the book to me,” it’s “read all the books, synthesize their disparate parts, and based upon that expertise, help me, because I haven’t and can’t do that.” That’s what it means to be an expert in this field, and our expertise is why people care what we answer.

So this applies both to answering questions, and to asking questions, and to refining questions that get asked: there must be recognition of what querents’ needs are, and what the expertise we offer is, and that a “good question” is one that elicits “good answers,” and “good answers” are the ones with demonstrable expertise that help the querent.

  • Ask the questions you actually want answered—try to be clear what the problem you need to solve is rather than homing in on a particular facet of the rules that you think might be the place where you might find a solution.

  • When clarifying questions, get at the actual need the querent has—make sure the question reflects what they need, not some checklist or personal idea of what a good question looks like. If what a querent needs isn’t something we can provide, then the question will be closed. If what the querent needs is something we can provide, our value as a site is providing that, not anything else.

  • And when answering questions, don’t just quote some koan about hidden rules or the lack thereof, and say the rules don’t say anything—they often don’t say anything, and going beyond that is part of why we are here. If you are unable to go beyond that, and back it up, reconsider whether you should be answering the question at all.

And back this up with your votes:

  • A perfectly-accurate, but perfectly-useless, answer to a question, is a bad answer.

  • A detailed, thorough description of how a problem was handled is probably a good answer, even if it skims over the lack-of-rules that led to the rulings in question (inaccuracies, including about the provenance of a rule or ruling, may well mar an otherwise-excellent answer, though).

  • A question that clearly describes a problem and seeks assistance is quite-likely a good question. Always, always, always, the foremost criterion for a question is, “can we, experts at RPGs, provide good answers to this question?” If we can, then in almost all cases, that is a good question, and most certainly shouldn’t be closed. If we cannot, then it may still be a good question—or not—but either way we must close it. Meta discussions, policies, consensus, and so on, all fall secondary to this overriding concern.

Questions are allowed and encouraged to seek our expertise and judgment. And “there are no hidden rules” isn’t expertise.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I believe you have recognized the same problems I have, so I value your feedback on whether this answer has captured things appropriately—I’m not very confident in my wording here. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 18:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ My first idea, on word smithing, is "our duty is to provide that" can be phrased "we offer value when we provide that" since this is a site being contributed to by volunteers when we can spare the time. "It is our duty" may come off as a bit heavy handed. Similar phrasing of the same idea. That's one thought. I also recommend breaking your last block of text into bullet points, since those appear to be action steps that you are recommending. Your last bold sentence and its following sentence I'd separate out from the rest as a bottom line, or closing line. The white space between them ... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 18:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ .... and your recommended actions will offer a touch more hitting power as you close out the answer. I'll look in again, just got a phone call ... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 18:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Great stuff, thanks. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 18:54

We use the Rules As Written because we must

When people say "Spells do only what they say they do and nothing more" or some similar phrase, they use it for a number of reasons. Though I'll drop the following links as you may find them helpful:

Answers to these give some excellent origins/explanations/uses for both the "spell do only what they say they do" and "Rules As Written" phrases. These two, I believe, summarize them best:

[...] We on the internet can only tell you that spells do what they say they do, because we are not DMing your game. We cannot change or expand upon the rules and say “this is part of what the spell does.” We do not have that authority; the DM of the game does, and we aren’t that. [...]

[...] The purpose is to facilitate communication about the rules. Historically, rules-as-written approaches to understanding the rules became far more prominent with the rise of the Internet, and that is no coincidence. While RAW interpretations are prone to many, many flaws when it comes to actually playing the game, ideally RAW provides a foundational basis of the rules that everyone can at least agree on. [...]

We use it because it establishes expectations and allows us to, at least for the most part, agree on how things do work, though perhaps not how they should work.

The rules are not at all the only thing we use

We, as a group, share only the rules-text and there isn't anything else we can work with to adjudicate a ruling from those rules. The other things we have, which are not shared, are our own personal experiences and knowledge with the game. People regularly use their knowledge and experiences in writing answers (as they should), to suggest houserules and explain how things have gone at their own tables. This helps to fill in the gaps when the rules-text is incomplete or just plain wonky. These experiences might not be shared between all of us, like the rules-text is, but it is still valuable in answers.

How things should work is primarily opinion-based

When wondering how something should work, this enters the territory of the GM, to make houserules, to make their own answers to the questions that the rules left unanswered. And while we can certainly provide our own experiences with these situations and how we have (or would) rule at our own table, this does not speak to your table. That doesn't mean we shouldn't explain how we would rule, but it does mean that we would only be explaining one possible ruling, though a valuable one.

The "problem" is if a question simply asked "How should I houserule when a party member tries to use mage hand on a rat?" This has answers all rooted in opinion, informed opinions, yes, but I certainly believe such a question would be closed on the main site.

And that said, I think you will find that there are plenty of answers with "These are the Rules As Written, they are awful and woefully incomplete so here's how I would rule at my own tables". These improve an answer, but they depart from the shared wording that we can both attempt to interpret. You are suggesting a houserule that is, in your experience, a good one.

Here is an example of such an answer, and this one is especially good as it mentions how different tables and different playstyles can come to wholly different conclusions even when the text is clear:

We know the rules have flaws

I think you will also find that people do not put the books onto some sort of Holy Mantle. In fact, I regularly have fun making fun of the rules and their unceasing problems both with friends and just in the TRPG chat room. The reason we use these flawed, broken, human rules is because we really don't have anything else we can use. They are the unifying factor that actually lets us communicate about the game and have a shared basis for constructing arguments and conclusions.

The phrase in question, regardless, does not come across well

This is expanded much more upon in Korvin's answer, so I would suggest reading that. But the way the phrase comes across and is often used is... bad. It can read as "This was so obvious" or "duh" or in any number of similar ways. Ideally, when this phrase is used, people would also explain the rules because clearly, if somebody is asking about them, there is confusion to be found in them. How the rules are saying what they say should be explained in these cases and this often means the phrase could never have been used in the first place.

There's no need to come across as condescending, which this phrase can certainly come across as, and probably does with some regularity. Of course... there's also the rabbit hole of "anything can be condescending" but I'll swiftly avoid that as it doesn't help anybody.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is—almost entirely—incorrect. While it is true that we should take care to be clear about what the rules actually say and not claim that they “are” more than they say, it has always been the practice on this site to go beyond that as appropriate. Backing up “opinions” on what the rule should be is usually quite simple—what have you personally done in your games, and how did that work out? have you ever been in a game that did things differently? how did that compare?—and is exactly the kind of “good subjective” answer that this site is here for. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 14:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan I reworded parts of the answer, I guess? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 14:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ The phrase “primarily opinion-based” is, or was, a term of art on Stack Exchange, since it was for a very long time a close reason (which is now just “opinion based,” which is pretty awful in my opinion since we don’t choose questions merely for involving opinion), so your choice to use it here may be causing confusion. By using it, you suggest answers including that information are bad and wrong, and questions seeking it are also and should be closed. Neither is true. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 14:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ Actually, for that matter, “rules as written” is also a term of art, not on Stack Exchange but within RPGs in general, and I’m not sure you’re using it at least as I understand it (and I wrote the canonical answer we have on the subject, and it’s one of my most-highly-rated answers). Your quotation of me about being clear on what the rules actually say is not saying we should stick with strict RAW, which how I read your answer around it. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 14:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan +1 vis a vis your last comment. Medix, I would rather see an answer that doesn't launch into RAW as its point of departure, given that we actually have a very nice answer on site (that KRyan composed and that is highly up voted) that explains why and how we use RAW as a basis for dialogue and engagement. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 14:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for answering @Medix2. Despite my overtly critical tone, I hoped someone could in fact confirm there are benefits in the driest RAW. I mean, I still think there are situations with no universally correct solution -see the rat problem- and even if lord Crawford himself answered in an official Sage, I still would ignore the official answer if it was dumb or uninteresting. I believe that well-supported experiences and solutions do in fact have a role in solving problems that any member of the community could face, but now I'd disapprove less a "rules don't mention that". Thanks! \$\endgroup\$
    – OmniVictor
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 14:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ All of you, feel free to write your own answers, nothing is stopping you from doing so and I do believe your own answers, with justifications and explanations of these points, would serve much better as answers than as comments \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 15:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @OmniVictor If an answer contains well supported experiences, that's a great answer! But as a warning, I've submitted those and been downvoted because they aren't the rules (or that's why I think I was downvoted.) \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 15:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the tip @NautArch, but to be honest I'm not too much into the metagame of votes. Even f I get only downvotes but learn something from other people's answers, it's still a win in my book! As long as I can still post stuff, I don't really care for shiny trinkets \$\endgroup\$
    – OmniVictor
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 15:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ On that note, you have different answers what you want to share, by all means! Let's keep this conversation afloat, I think it may interest anyone on the site \$\endgroup\$
    – OmniVictor
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 15:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ I did just that, and I am offering you a constructive criticism of a well intentioned answer that in my view strays from the core point. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 15:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ nice edit, and good call on not going down the rabbit hole. 😎 👍 \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 1:42

Yes, we should, and often do

Often being somewhat loosely defined. There are a few trends I've observed which tend to promote the unfortunate recitations of "rules do what they say and nothing more".

1. The stack is currently in a phase which favors ease and consistency of site curation

Both in terms of community (votes by users, and discussions on meta) and, perhaps more consequentially, the decisions of people doing community-mod tasks (like closing questions) that seems to be the dominant paradigm right now. This promotes clear-cut rules and common standards over more subjective approaches. You aren't going to run into much trouble, in terms of interacting with the community, by hewing to what (seems like) an objective rule. Including a nod to the "rules do what they say and nothing more" in your answer can save you a lot of heat and irritation even though that is not usually the basis of a great answer.

To be clear, this is not in and of itself a terrible thing, exactly. The community-mod activities are carried out by a relatively small number of users (and I am aware that I am not one of them who does a lot of it, so I'm not throwing shade at anyone who does). A harder-edged stance might encourage this type of answer, which has some drawbacks, but also helps to promote the stack as a straight-laced Q&A site. It's a tradeoff, and reaching a perfect balance forever is unlikely. But it seems to me that we are in a period in which the community overall, as represented by the people who do a lot of that curation, prefers answers in specific forms (even if they are less-great answers) over answers which are harder to parse and categorize.

2. Explicitly rules-based answers are easier to write, more concise, and easier to defend

Offering a citation and excerpt which clearly expresses a definitive answer to a question is pretty easy, if you're familiar enough with the relevant game system. And since everyone works from the same core rules an answer based entirely on those rules is applicable to everyone, at least in theory.

More subjective answers (even the good subjective answers which are so valuable to the stack) tend to be longer (they have to explain their context and be self-contained, as there often is no external reference for their content) and more conditional (you have to explain how and why you are departing from the published rules). They tend to be held accountable for any and all consequences for departing from the official rules, whether related to the question or not, and so the upside potential of such an answer (this fixes problem X!) is often less than the downside potential (this fixes problem X, but complicates situation Y.153, subsection 19, and completely ruins theoretical occurrence ZZ17i!). And even when you do cover those situations in the answer, that can't prevent someone from skimming it inattentively, downvoting, and leaving a nasty (even if permissible) comment.

That can be pretty unpleasant to deal with. Offering a citation from the core rulebook doesn't leave much open for debate. A specific, subjective ordering of priorities and preferences in pursuit of fun is different.

3. Authority matters, whether you think it should or not

Citing the rules cloaks an answerer in the authority of the rules. To argue against the baldest possible citation is not to argue with a person, it's to argue against the game itself! An otherwise mediocrely-written answer, judged by its own content, will probably get a better reception if prefaced with something like "Matt Mercer does it this way". A high rep user may (may) be less harshly judged by the community at large than Johnny 1-rep for a less-than-elegantly-written answer. This creates a kind of perverse incentive where newer users less familiar with the site and its conventions draw extra scrutiny for their answers unless they borrow authority from someplace else. And a strict reading of published rules and errata is an easy way to do that.

4. There is a long tradition of debating legality of attempted actions in specific games

I find that many questions which draw the answers described in the question are posed in that form: "can I catch an object with Mage Hand?" is fundamentally a request for information about the rules. A direct answer to that may well be "no, the rules don't allow for it". Even if a better answer is more expansive, along the lines of "no, because of these consequences" or "yes, if you're OK with the following caveats", a question with a rules-legal focus may omit information needed to focus those more expansive answers. You essentially never find "rules do only what they say and nothing more"-type answers on questions that ask "what are the impacts of allowing Mage Hand to catch objects?".

tl;dr: We shouldn't be leaning on this reasoning to write answers. But there are reasons why it is so prominent, and it will probably continue to be prominent while those reasons continue to be true.

I don't know how much influence users who read Meta really have on all of these. Modeling better behavior may help at the margins but I doubt it will prompt a big shift. And the hard-edged, literalist approach to what rules do and do not say is both technically permissible and often the most appropriate response to what a question is asking, so it can't easily be forbidden or even strongly discouraged. Many questions even specifically seek that kind of answer, and they shouldn't be punished for wanting an answer in that mode. And many of the incentives people respond to will probably continue to favor these answers to some degree, regardless of other factors.

My only real idea that seems useful is, whenever you see such an answer to a question which you think has room for broader answers, to write such an answer. It may not prevent these answers from appearing when they can be problematic, but at least they won't be the only thing that people see. These answers are at their worst when they're the only thing site visitors see, and that really is something that each of us has direct influence over.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Your last paragraph is pretty darned good stuff, particularly the last sentence. +1. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 16:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for taking the time for answering with such an accurate state-of-affairs answer on the whole balance of stack @Upper_Case. I'm new to the site, but I had the exact impression that you so meticulously described, with one notable mistake: I wrote my first post on a question relating the uses of Mage hand because one of the only two answers was exactly "rules do only what they say and nothing more", and the other I thought was too strict; that gave me the incentive to come out of the closet and tell my 2 cents. As you foretold, the votes weren't too generous, but I don't regret it \$\endgroup\$
    – OmniVictor
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 16:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ For reference: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/154357/… (although I don't want to bring too much hate on Dale M now, I just think he's part of a pernicious trend on the site) \$\endgroup\$
    – OmniVictor
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 16:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Btw, where do you guys suggest i should post questions about possible homebrewn solutions to gripes I have with the game, and possible revisions to some of its mechanics? Strictly on meta or can i dip my toes into the main site? \$\endgroup\$
    – OmniVictor
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 16:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @OmniVictor If they are possible homebrew solutions and not something you've tried, then take a gander at this meta. That should help guide you in what we look for in those types of questions. You can also hop into Role-playing Games Chat and ask prior if you want faster feedback on prepping a question. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 17:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch you are a good man, I'll vouch for your entrance into paradise \$\endgroup\$
    – OmniVictor
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 17:05

Sometimes people ask questions for which this phrase (or its equivalent) really is a key part of the answer.

I'm not attached to the exact phrase "rules do what they say and nothing more," but sometimes people do ask questions where part of the answer needs to say basically that.

The pattern I'm talking about is:

  • Querent notices something in the rules where, if they squint hard enough and import enough extra assumptions, they can kind of imagine that it might imply something that isn't in the rules.
  • They have some reason to believe or want that to be the case: Maybe their DM frequently imports physics-simulationist assumptions into their game so they expect the Commoner Railgun to work; maybe if the answer turns out to be "yes" it would enable their build in some important way.
  • So they ask "Does [rules observation x] imply that [questionable outcome y]?"
  • ...but the answer to that question is pretty clearly "no." Whatever squinting they were doing when thinking about the question is too much squinting, and the rules don't actually imply the outcome they're asking about.

This question, and my answer to it, are a straightforward example of what I'm getting at here. I didn't explicitly use the phrase "rules do what they say and nothing more," but the spirit of my answer is the same. The question is fundamentally a question about the rules, the correct answer is "no you can't do that according to the rules," and the core reason that's true is that there aren't any rules telling you that you can. I don't think there is a way to answer this question well without appealing to that principle.

I endorse the other answers' positions that this phrase shouldn't be used to shoot down helpful suggestions for how to rule in cases where the rules are underspecified, or to provide correct-but-useless answers to questions where the querent's real question is something more like "how should I rule on X?" But I think we should remember that this phrase became a cliche for a reason, and there do exist questions for which it's a genuinely useful insight.


Yes, because that statement encodes bad gameplay advice.

(So as not to type out "(Spells/Rules/'Things') do only what they say they do" more times than necessary, I'll refer to that statement as "the Deplorable Words".)

The way the Deplorable Words get used here is to impose a "default to no" assumption on the rules. Just taking the top linked questions to the one about the Deplorable Words:

The theme is "can't, doesn't, never, doesn't, no, nothing, (counterexample), can't, can't".

To have a well-understood concrete case, I'm going to take a classic example, the D&D grease spell.

Slick grease covers the ground in a 10-foot square centered on a point within range and turns it into difficult terrain for the duration.

When the grease appears, each creature standing in its area must succeed on a Dexterity saving throw or fall prone. A creature that enters the area or ends its turn there must also succeed on a Dexterity saving throw or fall prone.

There's a tradition of treating the grease as flammable (sometimes unreasonably, hilariously flammable). However, the spell describes the grease only as "slick". Its flammability is not addressed.

So if someone asks the question here "Can the grease from the grease spell be set on fire?", the only correct rules-as-written answer is "The spell doesn't say."

A more useful answer, by our standards, would start with the text of the spell and then consider table experience ("Every group I've played with has done this" / "We tried allowing that and here's how it got abused") or deeper analysis of the mechanics ("Immobilizing multiple enemies and also setting them on fire is out of line for a first-level spell").

An unhelpful answer, though, would be one that starts and ends with the text of the spell: No, it does literally nothing other than what it says, because [Deplorable Words].

This approach to the rules is nigh-useless for actual play, because most real RPG sessions are full of interactions that the rules didn't anticipate, and so reflexively defaulting to "no" means blocking most of player agency. After a couple decades of wrestling with this as a community, the expert consensus in running RPGs has settled mostly on "Try to find a way to say yes."

Now, I don't care about grease. "No" might well be the better answer in this case, based on gameplay impact or verisimilitude or other factors. However, it needs to be based on those factors, not just a refusal to think beyond the rules text.

Think about the intent behind the question.

Most "Can X happen?" questions are really asking, in a situation where it looks like X could happen, how a GM (or someone in a rules-interpreting position) should rule. "If someone casts grease and then tries to ignite it, should I allow that?"

If your answer to them is "No, because [Deplorable Words]", then you're telling them that they ought to run their game on the basis of the default "no". The rules don't cover this case; therefore you should go with the boring outcome where nothing happens.

The "How should I rule?" question requires a lot more thought and contextual knowledge than "Do the rules say?" and may not be something we can answer in full. But if you want to use the rules as written as a starting point, then it's important to clearly state where the rules end and the creative interpretation of the players begins.

We need to learn to say "The rules don't say", as distinct from "No."

But of course we're not actually doing that at the table.

Maybe not, but consider how we're training people to think.

The answer of "No, because [Deplorable Words]" gets a bunch of upvotes.

The equally correct answer of "Yes, because why the hell not?" gets downvotes and comments to the effect of "But what about the Deplorable Words?" and "Have you tested this house rule?"

We've created a community culture here where defaulting to "no" is safe and defaulting to "yes" gets challenged. This is a bad habit for roleplaying and we should stop modeling it.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I don’t know where you have encountered this “tradition,” with respect to grease, but many editions of D&D are quite explicit about it not being flammable, provide higher-level spells that are “grease but flammable,” and in any event, the spell is, in several editions, extremely strong for its level and doesn’t need improvement—and wise DMs (of those editions, at least) don’t. So that makes it really hard for me to upvote this answer (at present I have no vote on it). \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 3:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan To be clear, I don't care about grease. My point is that the right approach to a question like "Is grease flammable?" is to consider its gameplay impact (such as whether it would then be overpowered for its level, or would replicate the function of other spells). The wrong approach is to read the text of the spell in isolation, see that the answer is not to be found there, and round it down to "no". \$\endgroup\$
    – Mark Wells
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 3:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ Then I think your answer could be clarified significantly, because I’m not getting that from the text, and as-is it seems like something of a rant—a rant I’m somewhat sympathetic towards, but it feels hard to vote for. Your comment, on the other hand, is absolutely A+. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 3:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan It is something of a rant, yes! However, I've edited to try to clarify the issue you raised. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mark Wells
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 4:16

The problem here is low-quality, opinion-based answers

Rules as written provides a consistent baseline for all players. Calling out that this is what the rules say, and pointing to the rules do what they say reference, creates a solid consistent answer that the overwhelming majority of players would be able to use at their tables (Though some GM's may reject those answers under rule 0). Thomas Markov has a fantastically written response here that explores the idea of table expectations.

If you can't point to a rule, or even a RAI reference like Jeremy Crawford's old tweets, then the answer is going to be hard to defend as anything other than opinion-based. Other answers may have have conflicting results, and opinion-based answers will have a harder time being accepted at any given table.

If we actively discourage the idea of writing posts that follow idea of 'the rules only do what they say', I predict that we will see an increase in answers that are low quality and only contain opinion based answers. A better option would be encouraging people to do longer, multipart answers that include both a rules first section exploring what the rules actually say, perhaps a second section exploring rules as intended sources such as Jeremy's old tweets, then if needed a final rule zero section that explores how a GM could rule and calls itself out as only one possibility that may not be accepted at all tables.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I talk a bit about the rules setting expectations here: The rules are the primary tool a player has for aligning their expectations with realistic outcomes. The formula you give in the last paragraph is my standard procedure when I find reason to make a ruling that contradicts rules-as-written, for example, see my answer here: Does the Spirit Guardians spell hurt friendly creatures if they were not visible at the time the spell was cast? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 19, 2022 at 18:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov Both those are very well written, I've added a link in my answer directing people to read that first item. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 19, 2022 at 18:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ While generally good, I deny that Jeremy Crawford ever was able to speak for the designers and that his word has any weight until it is put into RAW via the official sage advice - until that moment he is only speaking how he himself would adjudicate something. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Commented Jan 19, 2022 at 21:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Trish The lead game designer isn't able to speak for the intent of the designers? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 20, 2022 at 6:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ FWIW, I don't think the point of this post is to discourage carefully reading and understanding what the rules actually say. Rather, I think the point is not to discourage players (DMs especially) from creatively filling in what the rules don't say. Put differently, no one is suggesting that we just throw out the rules, but simply that we should explicitly treat the rules as what they are -- the starting point for what happens in the narrative, not the ending point. \$\endgroup\$
    – screamline
    Commented Jan 20, 2022 at 6:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @That_Knight_Guy Jeremy instituted the idea that his tweets aren't RAI because he so frequently contradicted himself (due to understandably forgetting particular rules interactions while writing a tweet), but also because RAI in a twitter feed is a bad place to keep it (hence the Sage Advice document explicitly laying out RAI). \$\endgroup\$
    – illustro
    Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 11:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ So he can give his interpretation as to how a rule should work (in the context of him reading a tweet about it), but that doesn't equate to how the rule was designed to work when it was written (with all of the context, playtesting and analysis that occurs when you do such a thing) \$\endgroup\$
    – illustro
    Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 11:30

I detest the phrase.

Mostly because it is condescending and patronizing. I also think that would be the only legitimate reason to ban it in most contexts.

Besides that I also find it unhelpful and wrong. That can be dealt with by downvoting.

Wrong because it is nowhere stated that „spells only do what they say“ (as far as I know, and that’s the same problem. There very well might be other rules stated other then the spelldescription). Quite the opposite, the book specifically says that the dm adjucates everything that is not described. (Or even stuff that he can’t find the rule for during play).


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