The Language of Games


To a certain extent, I see rules as a language. The strength of having clear, well-defined rules is that two players who have never met before can come together and play a game without any arguments about what their models do.

This is why I will never condemn a player for wanting the rules to do exactly what they say. Only when players interpret the rules as they are written, not as they think the rules *should* be, can a game accomplish that level of clarity. This goes back to the old argument of Rules As Written (RAW) vs. Rules As Intended (RAI). A player who wants to play the rules exactly as they are written is a fan of RAW, where a player who tries to guess what the designer intended is a fan of RAI. The issue with attempting to guess another person’s intent is that not everyone’s interpretation of that intent will be the same, so house rulings and patches crop up, making it more difficult for gamers from two different groups to play a game together. In other words, as time goes on and more house rules are made, those two groups of gamers will slowly evolve separate rules languages until they are ultimately unable to communicate.

Now, I have no issue with house rules, so long as players recognize them for what they are. If it isn’t obvious, I’m more of a fan of RAW than I am of RAI, although I would never judge another person for how they choose to play the game. I just think that playing the game as it is written leads to the least amount of confusion.

This may be a bit of a surprise to some of you, after all, I wrote the rules (well, good portions of them, it’s a group effort). Why wouldn’t I want people playing the rules as I intended them? And haven’t I been seen on the forums calling for a “common sense” interpretation of the rules? Doesn’t all of this point to more of a RAI point of view?

Not necessarily. While I most certainly would like the rules played as I intended them, I find that when people guess at my intentions they are rarely correct (no hard feelings – I probably wouldn’t be able to guess about your intentions either). Also, in my experience, telling the difference between RAW and RAI can actually be more difficult than it seems. Rules As Written tends to have the bad reputation of being the most lawyeresque, strict, knit-picking interpretation of the rules possible. I would argue that this isn’t always the case and that, frequently, Rules As Intended arguments end up being far more strict and counter-intuitive. Let me give you an example.

In this thread the following question came up: Does Lilith need to be able to draw Line of Sight (LoS) to a Silurid in order to target it with a Ca Action?

The reason for this question was that Lilith and the Silurid have the following abilities:

On Lilith: Master of Malifaux: This model is not affected by severe or hazardous terrain and does not need LoS to target models with Charge or Ca Actions.

On the Silurid: Silent: Models cannot ignore LoS or cover when targeting this model.

Taken at face value it would seem that Lilith would indeed need LoS to target the Silurid, as her Master of Malifaux ability is negated by the Silurid’s Silent ability. This makes the most intuitive sense, because otherwise there is seemingly little reason to have the Silent ability at all.

On the other hand, the argument was made that Silent stops models from ignoring LoS restrictions, but Master of Malifaux simply states Lilith does not need LoS. In other words, Lilith doesn’t ignore LoS, she simply doesn’t need it, therefore she can target the Silurid. At first, this would appear to be the proper RAW interpretation of the rules. However, I would argue that it is not.

This entire argument is predicated on “ignoring” a restriction being different than “not needing to adhere to” a restriction. Although slightly different wording is used, they do indeed mean the same thing, and that’s the important part. Because they mean the same thing in the literal sense of the English language (although not necessarily the exact wording used) the two rules do interact with each other, and Silent will effectively negate Master of Malifaux, forcing Lilith to draw LoS as normal. The best argument against this interpretation is that if the designers had intended these two rules to interact, they would have been sure to use the same language; in other words, it’s a Rules As Intended interpretation (and an incorrect one) which is the more strict and counter-intuitive of the two arguments.

I think I have shown how trying to guess the designer’s intent can actually lead to the less intuitive conclusion. But it begs the questions, why don’t we just always use consistent wording to avoid this? And when does strict wording matter?

Strict wording matters when you are dealing with game terms. Game terms are definitions which are strictly outlined in the rulebook and which have a different definition than the usual English definition. For example, in Malifaux, “killed” is a game term. When a rule says that a model is “killed,” it does not mean the model’s heart stopped beating, it means the model is removed from the table and drops any applicable markers. This is very different than the English definition, so we spell it out in the book, and it means something entirely different than other terms (like sacrifice). Placement is another game term (call out box pg. 51), because in Malifaux “placement” is different than “movement” (when in the literal sense placing something is generally going to involve moving it). Reducing damage is different than preventing damage, etc. When the rules use a specific game term, they are speaking very strictly about that term, and that term will be defined in the book. However, when the rules use the English language, they are referring to the literal definition of that language, but the exact phrasing isn’t as important (this is why “ignoring” a restriction is the same thing as “not needing” a restriction).

Alright, now we know when to adhere to strict wording and when not to. All that said, what about the first question, why not just use perfectly consistent wording in all rules which the designers intend to interact? Why use “ignore” and “does not need” at all? Why not just choose one and stick to it? Part of the issue is sheer manpower and deadlines. With enough people and enough time, we could certainly do a better job of this. But, even with infinite time and manpower, there are still very good reasons to rely on the English language definitions as opposed to making everything into a game term. I give an example of this in the thread I linked above:

This is hardly the only example in the rules (NOTE: speaking about the Silurid/Lilith debate), it’s just the one the forums have latched onto for the moment. For example, a model which is inflicting damage usually “deals” damage. A model which is taking damage usually “suffers” damage. Ideally, these would have been the exact same term. But it would have lead to weird sentences like this:

“When another model is suffering damage, this model may discard a card to force the target to suffer 1 additional damage.”

Compare this to:

“When another model is suffering damage, this model may discard a card to deal 1 additional damage.”

You can see the economy of space there, if nothing else. And, before people pick this apart and start trying to show how they could have used the exact same wording while saving space AND making sense, keep in mind this is only one example. You would have to do that hundreds of times, no two the same, and screwing it up even slightly means nobody understands the rule.

The dealt/suffer wording in regards to damage is just one example. And it’s one which could have a weird rules interpretation, if the RAI route is taken. For example, the Armor ability states:

Armor +1: Reduce all damage this model suffers by +1, to a minimum of 1.

This could lead to the argument, “If the designers had intended Armor to reduce damage from this *insert action or ability here*, they would have used the wording ‘suffer’ instead of ‘dealt.’”


Clearly this is not the interpretation we wanted (nor is it the correct one) so why did we leave ourselves open to it? Two reasons: grammar and card space.

Depending on which model is the subject of the sentence, the appropriate word changes. For example, if the model taking damage is the subject, then “suffers” is the appropriate word to use (i.e. this model suffers damage. The model being damaged is the subject). However, if a model is inflicting damage, then “deals” is the appropriate word to use (i.e. this model deals damage. The model doing damage is the subject). Keeping the wording consistent for all situations would have involved some creative writing to change the subject of the sentence, which would have led to some strange (but totally consistent) wording. Unfortunately, this wording makes less sense in the context of the English language, and English wins, because it’s what we speak. Ignoring the language we speak makes this game a lot less accessible to new players.

Economy of space is equally important. Ultimately, a card is a pretty tiny space in which to write a complex rule. You have no idea how many hours I have spent tweaking, rewording, and adjusting kerning to make the rules fit. That extra line or two does, absolutely, matter.

And, at the end of the day…nobody has ever (to my knowledge) made this argument about Armor (yes, I know, they will now. Shut up.) The rules are intuitive, players get it. And that counts for a lot.

Armor cat

Armor cat laughs at your rules arguments.

I think I have made my position about as clear as I can, but there is one more question I would like to address. Why don’t we just add a few extra lines to make the rules as absolutely clear as possible? Well, first is manpower and deadlines, of course I wish we were better at this. Even with unlimited resources, we still run into the card space issues I mentioned above. However, there is one more reason we don’t always do this: Every line is a line that can be misinterpreted.

I almost want to get that tattooed on me somewhere. It would just be awkward quoting myself.

Every line is a line that can be misinterpreted.

-The dude who’s elbow this is

I could write paragraphs about how each individual rule works. But somewhere buried in that paragraph would be a line that is either ambiguous or which people really want to mean something else, and a whole new argument starts. When writing rules, you just need to keep them succinct, clear, and then encourage the player base to interpret them with a grain of common sense.


After thought: how many pages are the official Magic the Gathering rules? If you don’t already know, take a guess before you click.


  1. Kadeton says:

    I realise it’s a bit semantic, but the usual way I’ve seen “RAW” and “RAI” used would be exactly the opposite to how you’re using them here.

    The argument “Well the word used in this rule is clearly different to the word used in this other rule, so obviously that means they interact like this,” is an absolutely classic RAW argument. RAW arguments are generally hinged on semantic logic.

    RAI arguments, in my experience, are usually based around game balance concerns, ie “Which option seems the most fair? Use that one.”

    Really though, the whole RAW/RAI classification can DIAF – calling something a RAW or RAI argument is almost always a rhetorical device rather than a useful classification. It’s a way of belittling the other side’s argument.

    In almost all cases that I’ve seen, rules arguments eventually boil down to some people trying to gain an unfair advantage via a particular interpretation, and some people who are trying to stop them. If you come down on the side of “no unfair advantages,” that will – in my experience – almost always be confirmed by the designers as the “rule as intended”. You could also call this the “common sense” argument.

    The Lilith thread was interesting because there was, in my opinion, no clear imbalance in either interpretation of the rule – if it had gone Lilith’s way instead, I doubt anyone would have felt that now Silurids were utterly worthless models and Lilith was totally OP – nor have many people, I assume, now cast Lilith aside as a useless and feeble Master (all implications on the pickiness of semantic precision in future rulings aside). In the typical contrariness of human nature, the basic insignificance of the ruling meant that it was hotly debated, with everyone grasping at the flimsiest of straws in order to push their interpretation.

    • Justin Gibbs says:

      That is usually how people classify RAW vs. RAI, but part of the point of this post was turning that on its head. Because RAW arguments are usually semantic, they have to ignore the literal meaning of the words they are arguing over, which means they are, essentially, arguing about the intent of the person who used those words.

      While RAW vs. RAI may have become a way of belittling people’s arguments, I think they are both valid ways of seeing a game – I just think it’s beneficial to look at them a bit more closely. I also think that the Malifaux community, as a whole, is a pretty decent bunch of people. So I have seen very, very few rules debates where people were just trying to unfairly gain an advantage, and I most definitely would not classify any of the people in the Lilith/Silurid thread as doing so.

      Quite a few rules debates, particularly on the internet, are purely academic. Gamers are analytical people who enjoy delving deeper into things – this includes the interpretation of rules. And that’s fantastic, it really is – but we’re not going to have 200 pages of rules because of it.

      • Kadeton says:

        Ah, I see. If your intent was to expose the inherent arbitrariness of the RAW/RAI labels by subverting them, then good on you. :)

        The Malifaux community is absolutely fantastic in regard to rules arguments, to be sure. In terms of people seeking to gain an advantage, it’s extremely restrained and moderate, which is largely why it’s such a joy to be part of it.

        That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen – I’ve certainly seen more than “very, very few” such cases in the time I’ve been on the boards – but in general those attempts are quickly met with a lack of support and the disagreement shakes out in favour of common sense and fairness.

        I think a large part of the credit for that is the direct (or nearly direct) interaction with the designers that Wyrd has fostered. It’s very difficult for arguments to rage out of control when the person who actually wrote the rule can step in and say “Hey everyone, it goes like this.” Of course, it also helps that almost everyone in the community is friendly, agreeable and reasonable. ;)

        I’m not sure I believe in “purely academic rules debates” – as soon as any person with a vested interest gets involved (which could be that they like using a particular model and don’t want to see it “nerfed” or would like to see it “buffed”, or even just that they don’t feel that the obvious interpretation suits the fluff) it introduces an agenda that others must either support or oppose. (Even the position “Rules should be interpreted according to common sense” is an agenda.)

        I work in a university, so the idea that any debate is “purely academic” – even at the highest levels of academia – is an illusion that I’ve long been disabused of. ;)

  2. Derek says:

    I noticed one thing in the Magic rules that could be adopted to Malifaux and might actually be intended (dangerous word!) by the M2E rules.

    101.2. When a rule or effect allows or directs something to happen, and another effect states that it can’t happen, the “can’t” effect takes precedence.

    In the case of Lilith/Silurid interactions, it would seem to be the correct interpretation – not sure if it would apply in all cases. However, it is a new rule to add to the ruleset which just adds to the possible complications.


    • Justin Gibbs says:

      Yeah, that was actually in the 1.5 rules and we took it out. While it would work 95% of the time, it really needs to work 100% of the time.

      Case in point, a model can’t take interact actions while engaged. “Don’t Mind Me” is a special ability that allows models to take interact actions while engaged. If we implemented that rule we would, technically, be invalidating Don’t Mind Me entirely (along with a few others).

      It also wouldn’t really help the Lilith/Silurid debate, as that was largely based on semantics (ignore being different than does not need) rather than on can/can’t.

      Good thoughts though.

  3. Patrick says:

    The things that drives me nuts is the more rule stating that a more specific rule takes precedence. In this case, which is more specific?

    • Justin Gibbs says:


      That rule is useless to the point of obsolescence. I wish it wasn’t there. To certain extent it doesn’t hurt anything, because it doesn’t do anything, but it’s fairly pointless.

      During the beta, people were arguing for a system to interpret which rule takes precedence when two rules contradict each other. The issue is that, when two rules contradict each other, it’s almost always entirely clear which one should take precedence (again, keeping in mind that the Lilith/Silurid debate was purely semantic and wouldn’t have been helped by any rubric or system other than rewording the abilities). In the example above, it’s pretty clear that Don’t Mind Me is supposed to do something. However, including a system for deducting those situations (like the MtG Can’t trumps Can) actually leads to more contradictory situations.

      I think the correct answer would have been to ignore the call for such a system entirely. Instead we put one in that is vague to the point of uselessness to satisfy the playtesters. It was a mistake.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *