RPG Rule of Cool Maybe Not So Cool After All
Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted read between the lines of tabletop roleplaying game rulebooks and discuss the unwritten rule, at least insofar as fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons is concerned — the Rule of Cool. While it may be implied in text and encouraged in practice there is really no codified passage on how to implement this concept. I vacillated on my perspective with this notion, especially since it comes on the heels of a recent video about Rule Zero. On the one hand when it comes to storytelling games like 5E D&D I rather enjoy both aspects — the storytelling and the game parts. On the other, the distinction between the two best I figure is one relies on a game’s rules from which to make a ruling and the other essentially ignores the rules completely.
What’s so cool about ignoring the rules of an RPG?
For me it is fun to conceptualize what I’d like my characters to do within the frame of the rules. When it comes to 5E D&D this is pretty easy for me since the vast bulk of my tabletop RPG experience stems from D&D across all the editions (but if I’m honest I’ve played more 5E D&D than any earlier editions). This extends to other games too, including first plays of systems new to me.
In a recent game session playtesting a really cool RPG called Maximum Apocalypse the whole group (except for the Game Master) learned how to play in real time. Describing what each of us would like our characters to do and then making appropriate dice rolls as directed by the GM resulted in terrific fun all around. With limited knowledge of the game system itself I can only assume we abided by the rules of the game or at least the rulings of the GM.
While working on this post I really struggled to differentiate the Rule of Cool from Rule Zero and you know what? The best I can come up with is the former leaves the rules out of the equation completely. This passage from the 5E D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide introduction under Part 3: Master of Rules helped crystalize my perspective:
“The rules don’t account for every possible situation that might arise during a typical D&D session. For example, a player might want his or her character to hurl a brazier full of hot coals into a monster’s face. How you determine the outcome of this action is up to you. You might tell the player to make a Strength check, while mentally setting the Difficulty Class (DC) at 15. If the Strength check is successful, you then determine how a face full of hot coals affects the monster. You might decide that it deals 1d4 fire damage and imposes disadvantage on the monster’s attack rolls until the end of its next turn. You roll the damage die (or let the player do it), and the game continues.”
Rule Zero informs us this DM calls for a player to make a check, and applies results based on rules knowledge. There’s a DC for the player to overcome and a mechanical effect on the target. How would the Rule of Cool handle this any differently? If the concept means giving players agency to do things not specified in the rules and simply awarding success, then I’ve got to fall on the side of folks who wonder, what’s the point of playing a game?
In both scenarios players are free to suggest and try all sorts of actions and activities, trusting a GM’s sound ruling in one case and enjoying a GM’s carte blanche offer in the other. Sometimes it could very well be rules knowledge making the distinction. A great example is jumping in 5E D&D. I can’t tell you how often I read, hear or see players seeking for their characters to perform an act of jumping whether its across a pit or up to a ledge and there’s a Strength (Athletics) roll involved. I played in a session once and a fight broke out inside a feasting hall. An enemy stood several feet away (let’s say 20 feet) with a low table between them and my paladin character I fancied a dragoon. On my turn I described my character running 10 feet towards them, jumping clear over the table and closing the distance to the enemy on the other side.
I made a Strength (Athletics) check with a result somewhere in the low teens, and the result was not clearing the table and falling prone upon it instead. Is this the Rule of Cool in play? Or even Rule Zero? I use this example specifically because it’s neither! The 5E D&D Player’s Handbook chapter 8 clearly spells out how long and far a character can jump, with a few edge cases suggesting a check. As a player I need not rely on either conceptual rules because there are defined rules about doing the cool thing I wished to do.
The term Rule of Cool bothers me all on its own. It sort of implies doing things by the book is not cool, and its purely subjective. If the GM thinks your idea is cool, you get to ignore the rules in the instance. What’s so cool about that? Much more cool is working within the framework of the rules for whatever game you’re playing and doing awesome stuff anyway. Players can begin to stray into the murky area of simulating reality too much in games of make believe. Smart wording prevents many spells and abilities from breaking their intention but this doesn’t stop players from wondering if they can create food and water inside a creature to drown them. Omission of rules for something like a coup de grace hasn’t kept players from growing upset they can’t one shot a helpless creature either. Those things are cool, right?
Unless there is nuance I’m missing, following the Rule of Cool means allowing characters to do things not only outside the rules but likely in direct opposition to them, and if I’m honest I don’t think this is very cool at all. That being said I’m a very easy going GM and I encourage players to try different things all the time. But I certainly fall more on the Rule Zero side of things, striving to earn players’ trust in whatever ruling I’ll make. For the most part those rulings will always be couched in the rules.
Do you have any insights to help further differentiate Rule Zero and the Rule of Cool? Do I come across as a harsh GM? (I’m not at all!) Care to share examples of these concepts from your own RPG experiences? Let me know — please! I’m quite curious and eager to hear some other perspectives. Before wrapping up I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention our own Out of the Box: Encounters for 5th Edition. One of the design goals we had in creating this collection of 55 encounters was including guidance for GMs when players think outside the box when confronted with problems. While no means comprehensive because that’s, you know, totally impossible the encounters consider player perspective heavily and give a foundation from which to make rulings. Sounds cool to me! Check out Out of the Box here.