Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Rule of Cool (for be67): Changing the Game outside the Rules?

We are meeting regularly right now to play-test The Rise of Robo-Hitler (which is tons of fun , just so you know), and something came up during play a couple of sessions ago, that should be in the rules as well: the Rule of Cool, or, in other words, a 'soft rule' to inject some grindhouse-awesomeness. Turns out, people have been doing this for decades now (shocker!). Still worth looking into, still what I'm writing about today. Lets take a look.

The Rule of Cool in other Media

So the (mostly?) great wiki TV Tropes defines The Rule of Cool as follows (find the whole entry here):

The limit of the Willing Suspension of Disbelief for a given element is directly proportional to its awesomeness.

Another great (and short!) way to put it, is 'rad herring' (see whole entry linked above). I like that a lot ...

Either way, we almost already have an idea what that means or what that might look like. It's when you lol in cinema, it's when a director or writer go out of their way to (consciously or not) visualise something absurd with glee, with a wink to the audience (when done well, even with a nod to the audience).

You know it ... [source]
I love the Expendables franchise for shit like this. Anime is having fun with this, like, ALL THE TIME, generating memes like crazy. The Rule of Cool is adding lots of spice to pop-culture and nerd-dome and we love having those moments in our games (me and my players do so definitely, but I assume this to be generally true?). 

That said, for this being relevant in gaming, it is important to realize that while we certainly applaud what's cool when we are surprised by it on the screen (or in the game or on the page ...), it is always the creator's intention to test the boundaries of the Suspension of Disbelief for that specific effect (successfully or not, even consciously or not!). Moments like this need a stage and preparation AND perfect execution (through several instances, if we are talking film).

Let's take a look at how to manufacture that in general.

So, artificial spontanity, or what?

We should start by comparing the techniques used to evoke The Rule of Cool with jokes, as those two actually seem to use some of the same mechanisms. Working towards a joke needs a lot of things that are relevant for gaming as well. There is precision and focus to it, as well as deception, it needs to establish a scenario that makes a sleight of hand (the punchline) possible. If you ever listened to comedians talking about their craft, you quickly get an idea how much work it is to get a presentable result. That includes, incidentally, enough practise to have the jokes come naturally.

If they are any good craftsmen (talented or not), they come extremely prepared to appear spontaneous. If they are brillant, they bridge the set pieces with improvisation according to the live feedback they receive on stage with ease. Which is, or so I have heard, the reason why sets presented without an audience don't work that well ...

And those things matter, because they show that those moments are orchestrated as well as tapping into the immediate moment of the presentation. You set the tone, but the tact will differ from audience to audience, and while a movie just has to assume that the attempt will work in general, good immediate crowd work allows for a different kind of setup and direct manipulation. As you'd have a good DM do in a game. Come prepared, work yourself towards the best delivery of your highlights you can manage under the circumstances.

So it takes more than some good ideas to surprise an audience into laughter or to get them engaged enough to integrate something strange into their suspense of disbelief just because it's cool. That sleight of hand, that surprise attack needs you to tap into something deeper hidden in our ways to communicate than mere originality (as execution can kill almost all good attempts at something like this, as you'll be well aware if you DM regularly).

This is just ... epic?! [source]
In a way, it actually needs to be spontaneous to have a lasting effect. I know there are games out there that evoke this with either fancy art or some stylish set of abilities/items/feats/what-have-you that will create "cool" moments in the game. However, this is limited to using the rules as part of the game and not necessarily related to actually playing, if you get my drift.

Ideally, the game should inspire players to create awesome moments and offer spaces for that as well, one would think. While artwork and templates can go a long way, it's having that room to allow for the players to come up with it on the fly during the game that really transports The Rule of Cool from the rule-book to the table.

So, how would one codify something like this into a rule book, one might ask.

Soft rules versus hard rules ...

Here's a good rule of thumb: the setting formulates the soft rules of any role-playing game. Social norms, physical/magical/technological/other anomalities, laws, all those things often help navigating characters through a gaming world without immediate involvement of the rules.

To communicate this, genre forms easy markers that allow translation of ideas and concepts between the participants of a game (offering hints, like, for instance: "Imagine Japan in the Edo period, but in Space!", or something like that). To some degree it allows players to make conclusions about a setting without actually knowing it very well. If the stage is set like that, the set-pieces of a setting will accumulate over time and allow for a unique "feel" of a setting.

Again, art can go a long way here to establish a base-line, but it's language you'll need to elevate all of that into something that can produce peaks of "cool". It also usually needs the build-up during a session to really come to fruition, so consecutive time is one aspect to consider here.

Sometimes a gif is more than 1000 words ... [source]

What's more, it's usually not the DM that should evoke The Rule of Cool in a game, it's the player. Actually, DMs going for The Rule of Cool will most likely have him lose credibility if they do so, unless it is not only very cool but also very beneficial for the players. The Rule of Cool is, in a sense, about subversion as much as it is about being impressive. The DM can barely act in that realm without seeming like a show-off*.

"Gaming the system" actually has a long and celebrated tradition in role-playing games. If you need any examples, look at creative uses of D&D/AD&D spells or for stories where the "soft rules" a DM offered where successfully used in-game to circumvent the "hard rules" (that's mainly the DM allowing access to some powerful tool or circumstance the players are bound to abuse as much as possible ... without the DM participating it beforehand).

Knowing this gives gives a skilled DM an opportunity to open the game into the meta-game. Because willfully done, leaving (or even provoking!) those (say) windows of opportunity for the players to exploit can actually help evoking certain genres. In a way, you play the players for them to "game the system" as part of what would actually be expected. HackMaster 4E excelled at integrating that kind of thinking into AD&D, imo**.

You'll never know for sure ... [source]

I think the above describes all the pieces we need to come to an understanding what The Rule of Cool can be in be67 - A Game of Extraordinary Splatter ...

The Rule of Cool in be67 (D&D goes Grindhouse)

The rules we play with are an extension to your Basic D&D rule-set. As such, people will lose limbs and gain extra xp for extra carnage. It's a bloody mess, literally. And comically excessive, of course.

The characters are quotes of the classic tropes the sploitation genre can offer. The Veteran, doing one last favor for the president, the convict doing something dirty to get his freedom, the spy doing James Bond things ... but they also experience great bodily harm.

Since all this happens in the pseudo-reality that is Grindhouse movie features, D&D magic is replaced by movie logic: The Rule of Cool! While D&D might offer a spell or miracle to recreate a lost limb, The Rule of Cool allows for a montage where a crazy scientist builds a new arm for the character (although with a twist, of course!). Or (as it happened in our game) the player gets to have a machine gun for an arm. Or mutants help a character to grow a new limb ... but it's a tentacle!

That's one way. Another twist in the rules is that characters do damage according to categories instead of weapons. If a player wants to, their fists are as deadly as a machine gun or they are able to do as much damage with a spoon as they would with a sword ... Again, movie logic helps explaining it. The result is that players can summon The Rule of Cool to do some very creative damage.

The Rule of Cool, for sure! [source]

In a sense, the soft rule here is more of a mind-set. Players can do what they want within the setting (if it makes sense at all, that is), but it comes with a disadvantage that matches the benefits while not really altering the "hard" rules.

The hard rules accomodate this to some extend, the rest is provided by a setting that might have a werewolf fraternity doing the dirty work for some corporate lizard people by fighting some eco-witches while the characters move between the lines to save some spirit of the forest (or something like that ... I'd add some possessed lumberjacks and laser guns). It's wild so the character can be as well.

It all seems so obvious now ...

 ... has it been done before? I haven't seen something like this written down in a role-playing game yet ... but it is implied, for sure. As a matter of fact, many lite-rules systems completely seem to rely on something like a "rule of cool" to compensate for the lack of rules. "Movie logic" seems to be replaced by "rpg logic" that way. No judgement, just an observation. A good DM with some creative players can definitely make that work (although not for any kind of long-term campaigning, I presume).

Anyway, it's not necessarily a big leap in innovative game design, but I thought it might offer some interesting perspectives on something every rpg-player might have experienced one way or another, why that might be, and how I aim to exploit this for the supplement I'm working on.

If you have seen other games implementing something like this, I'd be happy to hear about it! Always interesting to see how other designers handled aspects of the game like that.

I'd also love to hear stories where you guys made The Rule of Cool apply. I'm sure there are thousands of stories like this out there.


In other news, I managed to publish a cyberpunk role-playing game and you can check out a free preview of the book right here (or go and buy it here).

If you need convincing, maybe this post will get you there. If you already checked it out, please know that I appreciate you :) It'll certainly help to keep the lights on here ...



* Irritatingly so, content creators have found ways to provide DMs a good excuse to evoke The Rule of Cool by offering "artsy" and "edgy" content for them to recite instead of having them create content themselves, furthering that one way of playing role-playing games that reduces the DM to a form of entertainer (not to say "clown") by becoming the mouth-piece of the author.

** You want to know my opinion why? Read this.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Adventures in PoD publishing

Getting a book published in the OneBookShelf family of sites (drivethrurpg et al.) is relatively easy, all things considered. Style Sheets, guides and all the data one can think of are readily available and the team is quite fast and capable as well (not a sponsor, I'm just happy with them ...). When it gets down to the nitty-gritty (interesting little sidetrack on those words, btw) it can still get tricky. Especially if you have strange ideas like going Print on Demand only, like yours truly did. So here I write about my failings for you to avoid in the future (or something like this).

Why only PoD, though?

It needs a justification, of sorts. I think (and people asked, so there's that). Short answer: this was layouted with print in mind, so that's what you get. Claiming that there isn't much of a difference between a print book and a pdf shows a lack of understanding of both forms of media, imo. A proper book will make less sense as a pdf and vice versa.

Arguably, they should be two very different entities, considering how differently they will be used. Print will need a format that is limited by what a reader can handle, digital is limited by the device it is read on. Print needs a very different structure for the information it present than digital does (print references pages, for instance, digital might have searchable terms, and so on). Print is an object with a certain usability, look and habtic, pdf can be a living document with lots of possibilities to change and expand, actually - unless you try acting like it's a "printed book" ... I guess you see my trajectory at this point.

Epubs actually already show what's possible, or at least a direction. Text isn't ficxed to pages, but conforms to the display instead. Font size can be adjusted, you can have comments written into the book, there is a metastructure to access different information clusters. But Epubs aren't "objects". They are an arrangement of files and it's difficult for such a format to be anything other than a collection of information. No art, no layout, just interconnected words. However, that's not only totally alright, it's an important distinction.

Now, when we are talking novels or stories in general, plain text is all you get, so going Epub is perfect if you are going for content alone. With a good reader it's almost like reading a proper book. But we all know that there is a difference. Even at that basic level a printed book can be far superior to the same content presented in an e-reader (or, worse yet, on a computer screen). With a little care put into layout, paper and cover, reading can be a joy unmatched by the digital experience.

To have a rpg book like that, right? [source]

To some degree this is taste, but there are so many options a printed book has that are superiour to what digital can do right now, that taste really doesn't cut it as an argument. And as far as I'm aware, people are still buying far more printed books than digital ones. Significantly more (check the US market alone (here at statista): 675m printed versus 191m epub!).

Furthermore, print is not only its own thing, it's also an object you own and to do with whatever you want. It's not in a cloud that might go kaputt or be corrupted or change ownership, it's protected from being altered by anybody other than the owner after the fact (even the author, but also big corp or politics), you can borrow it to others, you can read it again 20 years later, actually, your children might be able to read the book after you are long gone ...

Printed books are objects that can have character. We have in our library the version of Goethe's Faust I my wife's grandfather had with him during the war. I own several different prints of the Tao Te Ching, same content but with nuances that make each publication unique and worthwhile. You just don't have that with digital files.

Life goals ... [source]

And that's just as classic an argument as you can get in this regard. Today it's even more distinct. In a society that tries to tell you that you don't have to own anything other than (maybe) the rights to use something (and even that limited to time or number of users or format), owning a printed book is a form of autonomy that gets more and more threatened by big businesses that really don't want you to have any form of agency at all. 

This trend is already so imminent in the digital sphere that people actually start going back to buying DVDs/Blue-Rays and games and all that as hard copies, just to be left alone at home (while streaming services are trying to have your living room scanned for the number of viewers and bullshit like that, I kid you not). Google listens to everything and not only reads your mail, but also offers to correct it for political correctness, facebook films your face to see what mood you are in and sells that information to advertisers, game companies want you to pay for every minute you play and some extra for good measure.

There's also a flood of content, and not only the newest or "best", but also bullshit content that gets offered for no other merit than that someone wanted you to be pestered with it. Look at Netflix, for instance: a sea of mediocre content that you can't really structure or control yourself, with shifting licenses and even occassionally alterted scenes for good measure. So bad, it's unbearably difficult to find even casual entertainment, never mind something resembling quality.

And we are not even starting to talk about how hard it got for small content creators to be "just" seen ... 

Big Corp being nice to you ... [source]

Anyway, I digress. The bottom line is, if it's digital, it's in constant flux AND control is out of the hands of those creating as well as those owning (if you are even allowed to own it). If it's digital, you almost expect that it is an unfinished product, that some update will come along, some form of alteration will happen sooner or later. So why bother? Why care beyond superficial browsing?

I have several GB of rpg pdfs on my drives. Haven't really looked closely at more than 2 % of them, but have seen the art in all of them! And those I really like, btw, I want in print ... So that's just that. Take all the above into consideration and you know why I went for PoD only. There is a rarity I really like to the fact that this is only available as print. It's also finite in that it won't change easily, and that comes with a special pressure to make it as solid a book as possible (for reading, for use at the table, etc.).

If you get this book, you'll hold in hands what I imagined it to be (for as far as that's in my control, that is). The fact that it's an actual object as well (an object you invested into, no less), will additionally make it far more likely that you will, at some point, actually sit down and give this some attention. I like my odds there.

It's just not what you'd expect, right?

At least that's my impression from my interaction with OBS. For one, while it is possible to sell PoD only (thank god! ... that'd been awkward), it's not possible to have a preview, as no actual pdf version was approved (print pdf does not count, for that matter).

That's actually a conundrum, since how are people supposed to know what they will get into without a preview. Artistic choices are all nice and dandy, but no one will buy a cat in a bag with price tag but no way to know what they'll get for the money.

The fix for this ties in nicely with reasons for why  and where pdfs can be useful after all. I'm long enough in the hobby to remember a time where you took your role-playing book to a copy shop to get some character sheets printed right out of the book itself.

No one is doing this today, or should be expected to do so, which is why I planned from the beginning to offer a pdf compilation of all the files you'd might want to have printed (they are still in the book, if you feel nostalgic about going completely old school about it). For someone actually aiming to be able to play this game at some point, it'd be a must-have download that had to be free anyway. Furtermore, it needn't be hidden behind a "mature content" curtain, as the game itself is, and the same is true for the book preview (if done properly). So adding the book preview to the supplement was an easy fix of the problem.

It's a separate file, so if you came for the supplement you can just ignore the preview. And if you came for the preview, you get files you'll need anyway if you decide to actually buy the game. It's a win-win, imo, so I went for it and you can check that out here.

One note on that publication as well (all resulting from self-made problems, for sure): I had already made the cover for the supplement as DIN A4 horizontal, but that isn't supported by OBS. Instead, it needs to be vertical to be displayed properly.

Here's the cover that didn't work ...
 Fixed easily enough, still worth knowing and noting that the cover-display file is a thing in its own right, and mustn't relate to the downloaded file at all. If you followed my line of thinking about pdfs above, you know what I'm playing at here: it's the arrangement of digital files that creates the illusion of an object while its utility and strength are actually in its fexibility.

Anyway ...

You've probably guessed it, I'm a fan of the physical book. That's a lot of my reasoning for this project, I wanted to hold it in my own hands and marvel at it. There is a whole lot more to it, however. The whole satire of the thing, the title no one will type without looking up some of the types used. The book is making it difficult and I hope you see the humor in that (I sure find things like that funny ...).

Some might be wondering if this is a viable tactic to begin with, and that's a valid question. I think the dice are still in the air about if this works out or not. That said, I make myself no illusions about the chances of one more role-playing game out there, competing with the rest (I talked here about why you might consider buying the book).

There's a flipside to that coin, though: there are people out there, trusting my work enough to get the book. Some of them might even consider making their evaluation of the book public (by sharing their enthusiasm, by giving it stars, for instance, or by writing a review) and that's just the amount of influence I have on the matter. I have no reach or clout beyond that, so those are the people I will concentrate on. If you are an indie publisher, grassroots is all you can do.

So I don't need a thousand people downloading a pdf they will skim for the art and forget about it soon afterwards. I need meaningful connections with people trusting in my work. If I manage to deliver and people end up liking my offer, it'll convince more people over time, so I'll give it my best and take my shot.

I know that at least two reviews are inbound on this (not sure how they'll take it, just knowing that they aim to share their thoughts). So stay tuned, if you are still on the fence about this.

You can get the book HERE and the supplement with the book preview HERE.

Next up, posters and mugs :)

Motive for the mug? Maybe ...