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.

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