Rules As Written Vs Rules As Intended?

when we say “I believe this is how the rules were intended” what we are really saying is “I believe this dynamic is what the designer intended/didn’t intend to exist”.


Hi, and welcome to my blog.  This is my first blog post, ever, and what an issue to tackle. If you didn’t know by the title what I’m talking about, then what I’m talking about is whether or not tabletop games should be played rules as written (RAW) vs rules as intended (RAI).  Before I get started though I’ll just go ahead and say that rules as written is what I do myself.  So that will be the reference point for my post here.


Games Workshop Guy knows!


I think that it would be more helpful to define some words I like to use before I go much further so here we go.

  • Mechanics:  If you are new to tabletop gaming, this simply means the rules of the game.  For example if rule X states that you roll a single six sided die to see how far you move that’s a mechanic.
  • Dynamics: This means the behaviors that players may exhibit because of the rules but aren’t explicitly stated by the rules.  For example in the second edition of the miniatures game Warhmachine  players could not measure an action before taking it, such as moving.  However, each Warcaster (a certain type of miniature you could take) was able to measure it’s control area (which extended from the miniature) at any time.  So players would use that rule to gauge the distances they normally couldn’t pre-measure for.
  • Game Aesthetics:  This one may sound sort of counter intuitive, but it has nothing to do with looks, instead it is defined as the emotional output that players have when they play a game. Something a little deeper than “it was fun” of course.  For example many players feel that the turtling dynamic of risk is unfair and imbalanced.

So what does this have to do with RAW vs RAI you might ask?  Well everything, because when we say “I believe this is how the rules were intended” what we are really saying is “I believe this dynamic is what the designer intended/didn’t intend to exist”.

Game aesthic
Now that’s the kind of game aesthetic that designers want to produce!

In my opinion though, that’s nearly impossible to discern.  We’d have to know how much play testing went on.  We’d have to assume that the specific dynamic didn’t show up in those play tests or that if it did the designers didn’t notice it or were too lazy to fix it. That all seems unlikely to me, especially since I’m a design student and an aspiring designer.  Designers don’t strike me as the lazy type or as the type to lack attention to detail, very much the opposite. I might be bias though so here’s something else to think about.

When a designer makes a game they experience it like so

Mechanics —-> Dynamics —-> Game Aesthetics

When a player experiences that same game they experience it like this

Game Aesthetics —-> Dynamics —-> Mechanics

So in essence a player may have already formed an opinion long before he really understands the mechanics behind it.  For instance a common complaint you may hear is “well the rules may allow it but it violates the spirit of the rules and is unfair”, what they are really saying is “that dynamic causes me to feel a game aesthetic of unfairness and I don’t think the designer wanted me to feel that”.  To be honest I don’t think they did either, but a designer designs not for anyone person but for a certain milieu (a fancy way of saying social environment).  Not only that but as I said the designer experiences the mechanics first, because before he can play test it those have got to be on paper.  During the play testing process he or she will be watching for dynamics and how those dynamics make players feel.  Ultimately every designer (at least the good ones) wants to make things people enjoy and love to play.

Hard working game designers.jpg
Could you imagine putting in this much work just to be like “Muahahahaha I hope they hate this one”

It’s for these reasons that I almost always play strictly rules as written.  To me it’s just too hard to know what the designer was thinking, what they play tested, how many iterations it went through, etc etc.  As a friend of mine said, the only thing we know for certain is what they put on paper which is the rules.

Before I go though I do want to add one more thing, games at the end of the day are about having fun.  If you and your friend get together and decide playing a game differently than what the rules as written specifically say is more fun for you, there is nothing wrong with that.  As an aspiring designer I would just be glad that you are having a blast with my creation and hey I’d probably take notes of your house rules and perhaps incorporate that in a future design or edition.

Thanks for reading and I hope you all enjoyed this blog post. If you are interested in reading more about some of the concepts I talked about in this post I highly recommend reading Players Making Decisions: Game Design Essentials and the Art of Understanding Your Players by Zack Hiwiller.

Take care,

Kevin M. Hamrick