This meta exists to explain some issues with the RAI acronym. It has a couple of issues with its usage, and often get asked to clarify it. You've probably been pointed to this meta in relation to a request to clarify some usage of the acronym in a post. It attempts to summarise a couple of issues people will regularly have to cover in requesting such a clarification — this meta exists to save them the effort of re-explanation when it's difficult to explain in the size of a comment what's going on behind their request.

If they've pointed out which issue's going on, please refer to that section.

First issue: RAI can mean two completely different things.

It can stand for either of these:

  • Rules As Intended — an assertion about what the person who wrote the rules meant by them.
  • Rules As Interpreted — what you think they say.

It can also have other readings, and some readers may not be aware of the reading you intended to convey.

Rather than use the "RAI" acronym, it's often better to say “rules as intended” or “rules as interpreted” in full so that people know what you mean. If you do want to use the acronym, please make sure it's very clear in context, such as by only using the acronym as shorthand after you've already spelled out those words.

Bear in mind that while we're a site by experts, we're also trying to assist and guide beginner and intermediate audiences. They may be unsure what you mean based on their colloquial experiences.

Second issue: Making assumptions for Rules As Intended.

There's lots of precedent for errors in RPG writing. An author picks some ambiguous wording which reads differently to what they intended; mechanics get changed or dropped during production which changes how a feature functions; an editor “helpfully” makes a revision which breaks something; or an author has a deadline of ten spells to finish by sundown and are focused on quantity without time to spare on polish (as RPG designers sometimes describe in podcasts).

If we're honest, we usually really don't know what designers intended for the words we're reading.

Despite that, there's a common trend in RPG advice: an expert will make an educated guess about what the writer intended, conclude their guess is correct because it makes sense, and then provide advice asserting what they guessed is the case. That's done with the best of intentions, but really, there's no guarantee the guess is correct, so doing this can be misleading and problematic.

We prefer (and may require) that if you make an assertion about an author's intentions, you back it up with evidence of their intentions: a reference to the game text discussing the game's philosophy, a quote from the designer, etc. Doing so improves confidence in your answer and teaches people more about the game they're playing. If you can't produce such a citation, it's probably best to drop the part where you're asserting about their intentions, and focus instead on working with what you do know for sure. It's okay if you don't know for sure what they meant.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't remember seeing RAI standing for "Rules As Interpreted", even if (because of the second problem you describe) it certainly could sometimes be. \$\endgroup\$ – Anne Aunyme Oct 20 '17 at 13:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AnneAunyme This acronym list even mentions only Rules As Interpreted, and not Rules As Intended. :) It's usually the first result on a google search for rai acronym, too. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Oct 20 '17 at 13:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1000 if I could. This is one of my personal bugbears, and you very clearly lay out the issues with the acronym \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs Oct 20 '17 at 14:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ Related: rpg.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/3690/… \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk - SE stop being evil Oct 21 '17 at 12:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ Related: rpg.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/6271/… \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk - SE stop being evil Oct 21 '17 at 12:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a low grade problem that's recurred over time as a cursory survey of Meta indicates. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk - SE stop being evil Oct 21 '17 at 12:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ In my experience, rules as interpreted is used (intended?) vastly less often than rules as intended. It seems to exist solely as an attempt to redefine RAI to mean what people mean when they use it, which is nice except that it doesn’t have a whole lot of acceptance and most people still assume RAI is used to refer to intent. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Oct 23 '17 at 14:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan It's also my experience "interpreted" gets used considerably less often. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Oct 23 '17 at 14:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Could someone clarify the difference between RAW and "rules as interpreted"? The rules have to be interpreted to be understood, so isn't RAW the same as "rules as interpreted"? This is distinct "rules as intended" which usually comes in the form "a designer said on twitter ..." \$\endgroup\$ – jgn Oct 18 '19 at 0:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @jgn That sounds like a [terminology] question for mainsite. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Oct 18 '19 at 17:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Good idea: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/158028/… \$\endgroup\$ – jgn Oct 18 '19 at 17:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener My circle of RPG players/masters recently had a discussion around this same subject. We settled in using RAIA (Rules as intended by author) and RAIM (Rules as Interpreted by myself) acronyms instead of the ambyguous RAI. We also use HCU (Houserule currently in use) when talking about homebrew or variant rulesets that are "valid" for a given game. \$\endgroup\$ – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Oct 30 '19 at 14:37

I agree.

While I personally have never heard "Rules As Interpreted" for RAI, and always knew it as "Intended" - ironically, people generally substitute their own opinion for "intended" anyway. Unless the question is asking for developer citations and is tagged , "RAI" is a signpost saying to me "look at this question and see if it needs to be closed as opinion-based."

If you really want to know intent ask a question that fits the tag. If you are just looking for a reasonable interpretation or you are just saying "how you read it" - say that, you don't need an ambigious abbreviation for it.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you referring only to RAI as the basis of a question, or also as part of an answer? If the former, I understand this answer. My initial objection to this meta was (in part) the spray paint rather than brush paint approach to the use of the acronym generally. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 24 '17 at 18:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Korvin The 'people substituting their own opinion for "intended"' thing mainly happens in answers. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Oct 25 '17 at 15:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hmm, now that designer reasons have been put off limits ... this answer seems to have been overcome by events. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 18 '19 at 21:48

One does not have to ask the author to analyze their intent

If that were the case, studying Shakespeare would be pointless (or more pointless if you are of a scientific rather than humanities bent :-))

There are some ways of thinking of this that may (or may not) bring clarity:

Literary Theory

If the rules are to be considered as a literary work then Rules as Intended is a function of how to deal with Authorial Intent.

These range from the New Criticism view which holds that the intent of the author is irrelevant "the text is the primary source of meaning, and any details of the author's desires or life are secondary". This is essentially what we mean by Rules as Written

To the Cambridge School contextualism which states that we need to consider the social environment in which the work was made - for role-playing games this would include the prior works that influenced it and the social norms of the community at the time it was written. This is possibly what we mean by Rules as Intended but it spreads the net wider than authorial intent.

Weak Internationalism which says that both the readers' response and author's intent must be combined - generously this could be what the OP refers to when saying "an expert will make an educated guess about what the writer intended".

And then there are the strange ways of looking at it - I would love to see a Marxist interpretation of D&D.

Legal Theory

Alternatively (or as well as), RPG rules could be thought of as akin to laws and the techniques that courts use to interpret them can be applied. The primary methods are:

  • the literal approach - our RAW.
  • the golden rule - reject RAW if it results in an absurdity or is inconsistent with the rest of the rules.
  • the mischief rule - what is the problem this rule is trying to fix? This is really only applicable to errata.
  • purposive approach - what are the rules trying to achieve? Interpret them so that is achieved.

In a legal context, these rules are applied in the context of looking beyond the statute to the "intent" of the legislators to the extent that this can be determined (e.g. from speeches made or press releases explaining the new law etc.).

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    \$\begingroup\$ This seems to be discussing the concept of RAW/RAI₁/RAI₂ rather than discussing or responding to the proposal/instruction of the meta post. Am I missing something that's leading me to misunderstand this? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Oct 23 '17 at 17:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie I think the (implied) point is that it's reasonable to discuss the intended meaning of rules even without designer quotations via the techniques of literary analysis, which is something I agree with. I think this is a response to the potential pile-on effect of our agreeing with the idea that people are using 'RAI' badly that it becomes unfashionable to discuss RAI without establishing authorial intent solely via Word Of God rather than all the other cool well-established tools for doing that literarily. \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil Oct 30 '17 at 6:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @thedark That's possible. If it's saying that, I think it would be improved by stating that thesis explicitly. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Oct 30 '17 at 6:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ I do agree that all of those ways of looking at things are helpful. However, "rules as intended" implies some sort of proof that you have the intent correct. Literature isn't rules, so it's a bit more flexible. And even the legal concept of intent tends to be debatable, with people taking two different side. There's no harm in looking at these things, but I think the phrase "rules as intended" should be reserved for when we are sure. \$\endgroup\$ – trlkly Nov 1 '17 at 21:32

For D&D 5E, the term is defined in Sage Advice Compendium. RAI means Rules As Intended by the game developers:

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.

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    \$\begingroup\$ We're not D&D 5e Stack Exchange though, and we're not expecting our D&D 5e readers to have familiarised themselves with this glossary entry. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Nov 20 '17 at 21:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Should we then explain that HP means Health Points and XP means Experience Pointes, DEX means Dexterity? Really? \$\endgroup\$ – J. A. Streich Nov 20 '17 at 21:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ No, since those are described in the manuals they're using, and used consistently colloquially. We can however just spell out "interpretation" or "intention" given the community uses this acronym colloquially in more than one way and the definition you quote is in supplementary material beginners are unlikely to have come across. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Nov 20 '17 at 21:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @J.A.Streich If there are other common meanings relevant to a question or roleplaying in general, yes, those should be expanded. However, I'm unaware of any ambiguity regarding HP, XP, or Dex, and haven't observed any practical problems on the site caused by posts using those acronyms. This reflects our site's philosophy that 1) practical site problems are those that need addressing, and hypotheticals can be ignored until they become non-hypothetical, 2) an RPG's publisher solving a practical problem for their readers might not solve it for our readers, who are overlapping but separate. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Nov 20 '17 at 22:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Besides "thefreedictionary.com" is there any source, particularly a rpg gaming source that officially states RAI as meaning "rules as interpreted"? \$\endgroup\$ – jgn Oct 18 '19 at 0:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ @jgn It exists in the wider RPG community, and taste enough to have to accommodate it. We’re a pragmatic site, so we have to deal with the state of the wider RPG community as it is, rather than an idealised version. As a sample of descriptivist attestation, here are 8 questions and 19 answers just on this site that for one reason or another use the term “rules as interpreted”. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Oct 18 '19 at 17:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ The question remains whether or not people using "rules as interpreted" actually mean "rules as intended" and they are just misheard, misread, or learned the term wrong. I am asking if there are any sources that use it because I am questioning if it is a real thing. I came to this question after reading every one of those questions/answers and realising they are all about D&D where RAI has already been officially designated to mean Rules As Intended. Could it be this confusion is just because some people created a mistaken reverse-acronym? There are hundreds of correct usages of RAI. \$\endgroup\$ – jgn Oct 18 '19 at 17:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ ", since those are described in the manuals they're using" So is RAI for D&D.... \$\endgroup\$ – J. A. Streich Oct 24 '19 at 15:48

Perhaps "Rules As Interpreted" needs to be discouraged or never written as an abbreviation.

  1. It's a synonym for RAW. When explaining how a rule is written, what you are explaining is how you interpret the rule. There is no difference between "Rules As Written" and "Rules As Interpreted."
  2. Very few people have ever heard "Rules As Interpreted", few even seem to use it. On rpg.stackexchange searching "Rules As Intended" gives 238 questions, "Rules As Intended" gives 27 results. "RAI" is used 784 times, 94 times in dnd-3.5e, 15 in dnd-4e, 516 in dnd-5e, 3 times in dnd - making up more than 80% of RAI usage. We can conclude that the vast majority of usage of RAI means "Rules As Intended". Even discussing "Rules As Interpeted" only serves to confuse people because of the similarity to "Rules As Intended".
  3. "Rules As Intended" is official WotC terminology. There are more than 25,000 questions about dnd. Maybe the the popularity of the franchise and its dominance on this board should lend some favour to not confusing askers with terminology that only really exists here.
  4. Rather than telling people not to use RAI, it would be less hostile to new users to let them continue to use common terminology on the site.
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    \$\begingroup\$ We can't retire a term we don't have control over. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Oct 18 '19 at 13:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener But you can mandate that people can't use "RAI"? I don't think you have any more control over "RAI" than you do "Rules As Interpreted". At the very least you can discourage the use of "Rules As Interpreted" or using "RAI" to mean "Rules As Interpreted". \$\endgroup\$ – jgn Oct 18 '19 at 13:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ I haven't mandated anything. I wrote this meta asking people to be careful using an acronym we found ourselves often having to ask for clarification over. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Oct 18 '19 at 13:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ Nothing can be mandated because no language can be controlled. If you tell people not to use RAI then you have to correct 100% of uses. If you tell people not to use RAI to mean "Rules As Interpreted" you have to correct maybe ~10% of uses. Isn't that a huge improvement? \$\endgroup\$ – jgn Oct 18 '19 at 13:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Unfortunately only a small portion of the userbase reads meta (many don't even know it exists yet), and only some users will have seen this thread. This means the vast majority of our users will be completely unfamiliar with such a declaration and will continue to use RAI however, perhaps or perhaps not meaning “as interpreted”. So we still have to check. I wrote this meta as describing the issues so that people could link it while checking if they needed to. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Oct 18 '19 at 14:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ This advice was written in response to actual incidents of confusion, where RAI did get used for the rarer “Interpreted” and it caused problems for the asker. It became clear that we could not always assume what the TLA meant when Jane Random Asker used it. It’s a “no glass bottles sign” situation, not a “no elephants sign” one. That’s the kind of uncertainty that results in questions being put on hold, so it had to be addressed—and a page like this helps quickly convey that need in a comment to Jane R.A. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Oct 18 '19 at 15:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ Very often, here and elsewhere, “RAI” is used for “not RAW.” “Rules as interpreted” is a backronym (kinda) for that sense of it, though most people still say “intended” even when they have absolutely no basis for the claim that their interpretation was actually what the authors intended. A lot of people seem to genuinely think that they really do know what was intended, and it just so happens to match their personal interpretation. Hence arguments. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Oct 18 '19 at 15:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ At any rate, the rampant misuse, the difficulty backing up any intent (and the off-topic nature of questions about it), and the fact that we default to looking for interpretation so there isn’t any particular need to specify “not RAW” when that’s the default all add up to the conclusion that it’s just a term best avoided. It adds little-to-no value and causes miscommunication and arguments. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Oct 18 '19 at 15:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie perhaps instead of making a Meta declaring that confusion caused by a tiny percentage of users should be fixed by having everyone change their behaviour, it would be easier to tell the users "RAI means 'Rules As Intended' in D&D so using RAI to mean anything else can be confusion, please be explicit"? \$\endgroup\$ – jgn Oct 18 '19 at 16:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @jgn The former is a gross mischaracterization of the statements being made and I think you know that. I have strong objections and problems with how segments of this community treat the rules vs. their interpretations vs. their personal preferences, I have strong objections to how certain users have expressed and pushed those positions (objections strong enough to see me temporarily suspended, to be clear). But you are overstating things by a significant margin. And yes, RAI should be treated that way, but history has shown that it isn’t, and it becomes too large a moderation burden. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Oct 18 '19 at 16:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @jgn No, users are supposed to back up why they think that approach works best—answers that just say “this is what I would do” are typically downvoted and may even be deleted. A good answer would include rules support, observe any failings in those rules, and justify any divergence from the rules via backed-up argumentation: demonstration of balance or narrative concerns with the official rules, description of personal experience trying the official rules and how things improve by deviating, etc. and so on. Some form of backing up is required. Poor backing up leads to poor votes. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Oct 18 '19 at 17:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @jgn We have a large, detailed architecture for how the site works, and you’re poking at and accidentally asking permission to disassemble load-bearing parts of it, sometimes for reasons it already solves for in another way, due to honest unfamiliarity. You might want to observe the system a bit more before vigorous attempts to change things, to avoid reinventing the wheel. The FAQ Index for RPG.se is a start. Browsing various meta tags related to your concerns is also helpful to get oriented. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Oct 18 '19 at 17:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @jgn Yes, I described the very-best answers, the ideal that is strived for. Most answers fail to live up to the very best of our ideals—but the way the system works is that the closer to that ideal that an answer gets, the more votes it receives; the further from that ideal that an answer gets, the fewer votes it receives. There are other factors in voting—whether you think it’s a good idea or not, for example, regardless of how well backed-up it is—but for the most part the mechanism for encouraging better evidence for things is voting, and for the most part, voting accomplishes that. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Oct 18 '19 at 17:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @jgn Yes, this is hand-wave-y. Yes, it’s not perfect. Yes, there are cases where things get badly misaligned, where votes for something undeserving happen. But it’s the best system that anyone’s come up with in my experience. What other mechanism would you have? Having moderators delete things that aren’t sufficiently backed up in their opinion? No. The system is intentionally decentralized, both to reduce the burden on the volunteer moderators and to limit how much influence they have. Only the most extreme cases should have moderator intervention. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Oct 18 '19 at 17:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @jgn second observation on that hyperbolic mischaracterization. Is this the kind of first impression you want to make: "Hi. I've been interacting here three days, everyone else is wrong, I am right." (Not saying you have done that, but it's a risk). Seven Sided is giving you some great guidance/advice. I appreciate the passion you bring to your participation, regardless of what we will agree on, or disagree on. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 18 '19 at 21:56

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