RAI vs. RAW: a new convention

Rob over at Warhammer 39,999 recently ran a poll to track his visitor’s play styles.  I responded, as did many other people, and I have to say I was surprised at the result.  I expected that an internet poll would result in many more Rules As Written/competitive votes, given the er . . . . intense nature of many of the people who comment on gaming online.  Rob discusses the possible reasons for this upset in depth, so there’s no need to go into it here.

What I do want to talk about today is my own take on Rules As Intended vs. Rules As Written.  In the case of a dispute, should a game be played according to how we interpret the designer’s intent, or exactly how the rules are written?  I have my own thoughts on this, and I am squarely in the camp of Rules As Intended.  Not only that, I have a suggestion to make playing to the RAI more palatable and fair for everyone.

First of all though, some background to my suggestion.  I think if you play the GW’s flagship games long often enough and you are at all involved in the endless rules-debates on the internet, you’ll be aware that there are normally certain conventions on how rules are played.  Most rules never seem to come under debate.  Actual controversies are quite rare, and they normally only take place when to interpret the rule one way or another would result in a concrete advantage or disadvantage for one player or another.  No one is going to argue about the designer’s intent for a rule that won’t change the situation at hand either way!

This means that there is an underhanded aspect to the RAW/RAI debate that often goes unsaid, but is quite obvious: many RAW/RAI disputes are not genuinely about discovering the designer’s intent, they are about seizing an advantage by pretending the intent is less clear to you than it actually is.

Secondly, the RAW approach suffers from exactly the same lack of clarity that its proponents accuse the RAI approach of having.  Words do not have fixed meanings.  In everyday language (as opposed to formal logic) we interpret every word we read according to the meaning attached to it in our minds.  In linguistics and the philosophy of language this is called semantic content.  The thing about semantic content is that it is not shared between people to any precise degree.  What I think a word means is not exactly what you think it means – we both bring all of our own experiences to every word.  When we communicate we compromise, and pretend that our meanings are identical when actually they differ to some extent.  It sounds confusing I know, but that’s the mystery of language.

What I mean basically is that when we read a rule, the very act of reading the rule is interpreting what the writer means by it.  RAW are RAI.  There is no such thing as some objective standard for interpreting Rules As Written. If there was, then we would all be able to understand instantly and perfectly what the writer intended and there could be no argument in the first place! The intent would be obvious from the words.  So if we think it’s possible to play by the Rules As Written at all, then the Rules As Written are the Rules As Intended by the writer.  There’s no way to escape interpretation.  That’s what reading is.

OK, so now I’ve shown that the idea of being able to play by the RAW is an impossible logician’s dream and there is only RAI, how do we deal with the real problem of RAI: people arguing the writer’s intent to defeat their opponent? That is the real problem after all.  They’re called Rules Lawyers for a reason.

Here’s a thought:

If the intent that you are arguing for works to your advantage, then you are not allowed to play by that interpretation.  All discussions over intent must defer to the opponent’s advantage. If you still can’t decide, roll for it.

Simple.  If we played our games according to that convention, I would wager the vast majority of rules disputes would disappear overnight and everyone would suddenly, magically know what the designers meant all along.  Either that, or there would be a lot more rolling off!

And no, the above convention does not imply playing to lose or somehow not giving your all.  It works both ways.  The only people who would lose out are Rules Lawyers and/or bullies, both of whom win games based mainly on their ability to persuade their opponent to bow down to them.  I for one don’t think that’s a respectable way to win.

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5 responses to “RAI vs. RAW: a new convention

  • GDMNW

    I think many disagreements concerning rules are motivated. Very few people discuss rules without emotional involvement. When was the last time a couple of marine players started to argue about how Hydras work while playing each other?

    45% of rule arguments revolve around someone blatantly trying it on. The rest are usually minor things people just hadn’t thought of before.

  • Warhammer39999

    I’ve not heard it proposed that way, but essentially that’s the way I typically play. If there’s any dispute, just let your opponent decide how it should be ruled. That way, you can’t ever be blamed for gaming it to your advantage, since your opponent made the call. Of course, you’ll find some people that abuse that system–in which case–I just found someone who I might not want to play with in the future.

    Of course, that model wouldn’t work as great in tournies though.

    I also like where you’re going with the “Rules as the author intended,” argument, though I’m not sure I agree 100%. Your reasoning got me to thinking about Constitutional law (not that I’m a lawyer, or anything). We can’t know what the intent of the founding fathers was, so (very often) they’re very literal in how rules are interpreted.

  • James S

    GDMNW, I agree. Most of the time when I come up against cloudy rules issues it’s because it’s never come up before for me, and I can normally agree with my opponent or roll. How far people are willing to argue seems to depend on how much they feel they need to win.

    @Warhammer39999, not only am I not a lawyer, I’m Australian so I don’t know much about US Constitutional Law at all!

    It seems like a good analogy though, it really shows how murky such issues are. If judges try to base rulings purely on the founding father’s literal words, I wonder how they account for the accepted meaning and connotation of words changing over time? Do they assume the words have their current accepted meaning, or something like the meaning the founding fathers would have used? If the latter, then surely that is interpretation of intent anyway, and they can’t claim any sort of objectivity for their rulings.

    It’s a bit worrying actually, those same issues in the context of law affect real life, not just little plastic dudes!

  • Thor

    I have to agree with you. As you said, if things really were that black and white then these arguments wouldn’t arise to begin with and we are indeed reading rules as intended by the author.

    I also agree about differing to your opponent. In a tournament where it really counts, as opposed to playing for fun, that’s where judges come.

  • James S

    Good point Thor. This convention works well for friendly games, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for tournaments too – fencing for example is an Olympic sport, and it has rules of precedence and etiquette built into the competition. If people did have problems though, then as you said, that’s what judges are for.

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