RAW is an acronym frequently used in tabletop role playing games that means “Rules as Written”. It describes any rules for a game, as they are written in a rule book or manual. This is how most people start with tabletop role playing games. You pick up a player’s handbook, read through the rules (or at least part of them) and then get a group of friends together, make characters, and play.
This is where things get murky, though. Almost nobody plays these games one hundred percent RAW. Groups are filled with little quirks or modifications to the rules. Game masters tweak the rules to their liking, or fill things in when RAW has a gap. The truth is, because of the frequent use of house rules in these types of games, almost nobody plays them RAW.
Admittedly, I’m a bit of a rules lawyer. I’m the type of game master who leans heavily on RAW. I find that the more I stray from RAW, the greater the chance that I’m potentially going to make the wrong call or a controversial call on a rule while playing. I like to be fair with my players, and the goal, first and foremost, is to have fun. Consistent rules means that player expectations get met, and it’s rare that somebody is unhappy to see a rule as written in a book.
Lately though, there’s been a trend. I’ve seen heavy criticism against game publishers who don’t fully flesh out every nook and cranny of their rules system so that every possible situation can be handled. I think this is unrealistic and has the chance to make things un-fun very quickly. Too many rules in a game makes things overly complex. It means players spend more time hunting through rule books trying to find just the right rule to handle a specific situation than actually playing the game.
The goal is to have fun, after all.
I think if a publisher can give a framework for a system, and fill in some of the details, or give examples, it leaves a lot of flexibility open to the game master to decide how to handle things. So long as the game master doesn’t have to basically invent the whole rule system themselves, I think this makes for a decent system. Give the high-level overview of the rules, and enough detail to run a smooth game without getting mired in the details. Then let the game masters fill in the rest. In my experience, that’s what good game masters do anyway.
As a player, trying to insist that every game master adhere strictly to the rules as written can lead to arguments, and potentially robs the game of its fun. Most tabletop systems specify that it’s ultimately up to the game master to decide what rules they do and don’t follow, and many systems offer optional rules that game masters can choose to use. It’s about flexibility, because not every player and game master experiences the game in the same way.
One of the first questions I ask game masters when I join their group is: are there any house rules I should know about? I don’t like surprises, and finding this out up front means that I can be comfortable when I want to try something, or use a specific attack or ability, and won’t get blindsided by a house rule that could derail my attempt to play my character the way I want to play them.
Ultimately, players and game masters find a balance. Some groups are very strict with RAW, and others are very loose. Making sure your players have appropriate expectations means fewer surprises during game play, and less potential for hurt feelings when things inevitably don’t go their way. The dice are sometimes cruel.
Always remember: no matter what, the goal is to have fun, and if you’re a game master, to make sure your players are having fun. Whether you follow RAW, or make it up as you go, I hope all of your die rolls end up in your favor.
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