Of Coolness and Idiocy

It appears that I ruffled some feathers with yesterday’s The Rule of Cool – Only for Idiots. So let me expand on why I think the ‘Rule of Cool’ is bad advice for GMs.

Note: None of which follows is an attack on Chatty DM, he has merely written something I disagree with.

Defining the Context

Here is the definition used by Chatty DM in his original post.

The limit of the Willing Suspension Of Disbelief for a given element is directly proportional to its degree of coolness. Stated another way, all but the most pedantic of viewers will forgive liberties with reality so long as the result is wicked sweet and/or awesome. This applies to the audience in general, as there will naturally be a different threshold for each individual in the group.

Chatty DM goes on to say

Which basically makes me think that my efforts as a DM should not so much be on far-reaching World Building and tight nitpicking-proof plot lines and such.

I should go all out for encounters and role playing that will swamp my players in coolness. Think combat on ice Bridges, negotiating the release of prisoners in a flooding underground prison, hopping from floating island to pieces of flying ruins in order to catch the thieves of the Star jewel of Radnia…

From the wikipedia entry on Cool

Cool is an aesthetic of attitude, behavior, comportment, appearance, style and Zeitgeist”

What is Cool?

A commenter on my post pointed out that I “automatically equate the Rule of Cool with explosions and CGI”. One of the two reasons I did is because Chatty DM did – Ice Bridges, flooding prisions, floating islands falling to pieces – all of these would be CGI-fests in a film.

The second reason for linking CGI & explosion with cool is because coolness is an expression of sensory pleasure and predominately linked to visual stimulus. Exactly the sort of stimulus you see in action movies with explosions and slow motion gun fights.

What is not Cool?

No one would describe an Agatha Christie book or film as cool. They are slow moving with a lot dialogue between irritating Belgian’s and crusty upper-class murderers. Yet this style of whodunit is an important aspect of fiction whether it is books, films or role-playing games.

In a similar vein, no one could describe Frodo & Sam’s grueling slog across Mordor at the end of The Return of the King as cool. It is the slow, emotional progress of two souls coming to terms with their fate. It is a vital part of the story, without which the character’s rescue by the giant eagles would mean nothing.

How Much Cool?

My starting point was Chatty’s own comment that he “should go all out for encounters and role playing that will swamp my players in coolness” (highlights are mine). What Chatty is proposing is that games (or at least his games) should be full of CGI-fest type scenes and this is what I consider idiocy.

Notice that I’m not saying that these scenes should never occur or even that they should be rare. My point is that unrestrained use of coolness is patently self-defeating. Players will get desensitised and they lose their impact. As I stated in my original post, ‘The Matrix’ was cool is because the cool bits were preceded by long periods of character and plot development. Compare this to ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ where no cared about the characters, especially the Littlest Cancer Patient, because no time was invested in letting the audience get to know them.

Cool and Fun and Good GMing are Different Things

Some of the commenter seem to equate doing cool things with fun and good GMing. More than one commenter expressed the idea that “As long as everyone is having fun, it’s OK”. Role-playing (at least how I see it) is not about having fun, it is about entertainment.

How a GM entertains his players depends on how long the game is likely to run. If it is a single session then there is no reason not to go mad with big scenes and other ‘fun’ things. But if you are running a campaign lasting months or years, every week cannot be ‘fun’. Some weeks the party have to miss a clue or a secret door and spend the session going round in circles. Other weeks a character may die. Neither of these are fun but they have pay-offs that increases everyone’s enjoyment. When the party finally spots the clue and catches the bad guy, they will saviour it all the more than if the GM had handed it to them on a plate. The death of a character makes all players more worried and nervous about combat which increases the excitement and makes victory even sweeter.

When to use or not use coolness and fun is the secret to good GMing. Players need to be rewarded with cool for being inventive, even if it sometimes breaks the consistency of the game. Players having a bad session, for whatever reason, need to be pulled into the game with fun events. Balancing these and all the different aspects of a game is nothing to do with the rule of cool, it is simply good GMing.

So Who Are The Idiots?

Well not Chatty DM I’m sure. Judging from his writing he clearly understands about plotting, character development and all the other aspects of good GMing. Even when writing about swamping his players with coolness I’m sure his adventures are closer to ‘The Matrix’ than ‘Matrix Revolutions’. However the Rule of Cool is still bad advice.

Movie producers and GMs who think that it doesn’t matter what they do as long it is cool are destined to fail. Where as those who understand how coolness works and use cool appropriately will create blockbusters.

17 comments

  1. Hmmm. Like any other advice, if it’s the only advice you take, you’re using it wrong.

    For example, “eat more vegetables” is good advice, but one one is suggesting that you continually eat veg until you die of….. uh…. a vegetable related illness.

    Similarly with the Rule of Cool. As I’ve said before, if you try to make everything cool, nothing is. The Coolness has to have a Context and a Place.

    Using Lord of the Rings as an example, because you did. Sam and Frodo’s trip through Mordor isn’t cool. It’s not supposed to be. As you rightly point out, that’s a part of their emotional and soul-racking journey. But, right at the end being rescued by Giant Eagles? That’s freakin’ Rule of Cool, right there!

    It’s one of the tricks of a great GM, but far from the only trick.

    greywulf´s last blog post..Speeding up 4e D&D Combat

  2. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, however two of your ideas make your argument hard to swallow.

    1) Your inflexibility to accept ‘coolness’ as being anything beyond CGI-like stuff. This speaks more to your limitations than those you are trying to put forth, and I mean that in a completely neutral tone. The movie Prestige is not a CGI-fest, but I found it exceedingly cool. I am sure a lot of people have varying tastes of cool, and while Chatty DM used some visual ideas to showcase this, it is nothing new. The DMG has been suggesting a similar approach to spicing up encounters for editions now.

    2) You actually said,”Roleplaying is not about having fun . . .” Come on, it is a game. Games = fun or at least they should.

    Keep up the good blog work, and we can agree to disagree on this one I imagine.

  3. Bah! Bah! I say to you all! Clearly, the “cool” is in the eye of the beholder (or well, the player in this case). I happened to like Agatha Christie. The plot intrigue is fascinating. It’s particularly entertaining when presented on the stage or screen. You know…when it’s role-played. I think what needs to be done here is to broaden one’s since of what’s “cool”.

    Obviously, it doesn’t matter what kind of “special effects” you might have in your adventure, if the plot and continuity aren’t there, it’s gonna suck. Simple as that. To Chris’ point, Chatty’s work has that, so all that’s left to do is add the “cool” explody leaping about parts.

    This is why I entertain my players with fiddly bits like dungeon terrain and miniature effects so they’ll be distracted if a certain portion of my campaign begins to take on the suck.

    Rousing discussion, kids! πŸ™‚

  4. Last Rouge,

    1) I’m not inflexible in what I define as cool, I’m just primarily using the same context that Chatty did as it would be unfair to criticise him whilst using a different context.

    I also included the wikipedia definition of cool to indicate that coolness is predominantly a sensory issue and mostly visual one at that. Something can be good, and indeed it can be excellent, without it being cool.

    2) ”Roleplaying is not about having fun…’
    Did you actually read the rest of that paragraph and the next? πŸ™‚

    Chris

  5. Dead Orcs,

    Obviously coolness is in the eye of beholder simply because it is an aesthetic judgment but as noted elsewhere this means its driven by our senses.

    So clever dialogue or intricate plots (such as in Agatha Christie [oops, just noticed the spelling mistake, now fixed]) do not fall under ‘cool’ merely because they are predominantly intellectual exercises. This isn’t to say they are not good reads, it just that cool is not the same as good.

    Chris

  6. greywulf hit it right on the head. Deus ex machina (which the Rule of Cool is) is a plot device that can be used effectively if done well enough. The Giant Eagle rescuing Frodo and Sam from Mount Doom? Where did it come from? Was he following them the whole time? How did he know were they were? If he was following them the whole time, how did he stay out of Sauron’s view? How did he stay out of the orcs view? If he was far enough away to stay out of sight, how did he get there in time?

    You know what? I don’t care. It was cool and a great dramatic climax to the scene. THAT is the Rule of Cool in use. Not CGI. Not explosions. A plot device that, in normal regards, would be laughed away and the audience would just roll their eyes. But since it’s cool AND it fits in with the rest of plot and is dramatic enough, the audience lets it slide.

    Tony Law´s last blog post..It’s been a busy year. Here’s to next year!

  7. BTW, I know you don’t mean to berate Chatty but that’s what you’re doing. Rather than pick apart the definition of the Rule of Cool you presented on your other post, you’re picking apart how it is implemented solely by Chatty. And then you call the people that use it idiots. That’s not fair because, as far as I can tell, you haven’t tried to figure out how others use it and come to a conclusion that way. Maybe if you had said “I read 5 articles on the Rule of Cool and everyone used it the same way” then I would take this more seriously. And calling people “idiots” when you’ve only seen it in use ONCE is really petty.

    Tony Law´s last blog post..It’s been a busy year. Here’s to next year!

  8. Tony,

    Deus ex machina = The Rule of Cool

    I think not.

    Deus ex Machina is a contrived device that resolves an element of the plot, generally a element that cannot be resolved by anything except by something external to the plot, e.g. the god from the machine.

    The Rule of Cool is that the audience will put with something as long as it is cool enough. With cool being a subjective judgment based on aesthetics. This may be a major plot device or it may be something really minor like the type of car the hero is driving

    There certain is a overlap in a venn diagram of the two but they are not the same.

    The eagles, by the why, turned up to join help Gandulf to fight in the big final battle but once Mount Doom erupted, Gandulf sent them to find Frodo & Sam. Eagles, having great eye sight, had no trouble finding the Hobbits. It is all in the film and yes it is a bit contrived but it is no Deus ex Machina.

    For real Deus ex Machina see the end of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale where a character you thought had been dead for 20 years suddenly turns up alive having been living next door pretending to be a statue (no I’m not making this up).

    One of the problems with discussing the RoC is that people try and make it fit anything they want. To read some of the comments on the subject it covers everything from rewarding players with interesting gadgets to occasionally trying to make your adventures exciting and all the way doing what you like via Deus ex machina.

    These opinions may be valid but it makes it impossible to argue against.

    This is why I picked on Chatty.

    He stated exactly how he was going to use it. He also described it as “a cornerstone of what i stand for in terms of tabletop roleplaying.” I disagree strongly with him so my post was about how he interpreted the rule. How other people interpreted it was not the issue.

    Admittedly the term ‘idiot’ might of been a bit strong and unfair on Chatty but this was a repost, a post he highlighted as being significant to his blog and he then posted a follow-up article.

    This wasn’t an off-hand remark by Chatty, this was something he was shouting from the roof tops. Consequently he has to expect an equally strident response. As I thinking that ‘swamping his players with coolness’ is a stupid thing to promote I described it accordingly.

    Chris

  9. But one cannot help wonder, why Chatty’s enthusiasm for this style of player justifies the use of “idiot” and “stupid”. There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with people, but it is quite another thing to start calling them names.

    Futhermore you haven’t really validated why it is a stupid thing to promote, as Chatty is demonstrating how his is using the Rule of Cool, and demonstrating that it works. You’re just stating that it don’t. Care to back up your claims with examples that are derived from play (examples from Hollywood doesn’t have much to do with actual play), or are you just complaining that people are doing things differently from you?

    Or should this debacle just end with namecalling, as you seem to want a strident response, since you’ve posted twice about the subject?

  10. “No one would describe an Agatha Christie book or film as cool.”

    Gripping plot, one of the best detectives after Sherlock Holmes, clichΓ©d reveals – Christie is fricken awesomely cool!
    Not as cool as Arthur Conan-Doyle’s books but then being as cool as a morphine-addicted polymath genius is very hard.

    On topic, I did disagree with your previous post as well.

    The Rule of Cool isn’t a rule, it’s a guideline. It’s there to remind you that your players want to be traipsing through somewhere that isn’t the real world – it might be just subtle changes in World of Darkness, or it might be something fantastic like Forgotten Realms, but a forest will always be more then just a forest.

    We also have to remember, quite simply no plot is perfect, no explantion for magic, or vampires or mutants or whatever else is without it’s holes. And these are nearly always covered by the rule of cool – even in Tolkien πŸ˜‰

    Hammer´s last blog post..New Year’s Gaming Goals and Resolutions

  11. The eagle thing is not cool. No one would pick up “Return of the King” just to read the eagle section again. Cool is the tense fight with Shelob or the orcs annihilating each other in the tower or watching the Oliphaunts go by.

    In my personal approach to Return of the King, I skip reading the boring slog across Mordor. The cool parts are just as cool without it.

  12. Martin,

    One of the reasons for avoiding game table experiences is because they only have real meaning for the half-dozen or so people around the table. Film references are something we have in common.

    But as you ask.

    I’ve played with GMs (and some players) who have been driven by the rule of cool. People who would see something ‘cool’ in a film and then apply to whatever game we were playing at the time.

    The result was always the same. A promising campaign would break down because in doing something ‘cool’, the party would become unbalanced. A too powerful magic item would be given out or more likely a character would be given a special ability that put them head & shoulders above the rest of the characters.

    Either those left out would leave the group (causing it to collapse and depriving everyone of a game) or the GM would recognize their mistake and have to hand out powers or items to the rest of the group.

    It is also notable that GMs who favour adding ‘cool’ things to favour players who share the same ideas of what is cool. Players with different playing styles would be disadvantage or ignored, damaging the groups dynamics and everyone’s fun.

    As I note elsewhere, this doesn’t matter if you are doing a one-off adventure but if you are trying to build a campaign with a steady group of players it is, in my experience, bad news.

    None of this is against making games exciting or playing the games how you like but there is a lot more to good GM than doing whatever is cool.

    Chris

  13. Hammer,

    I think you and I are using the word ‘cool’ very differently. Cool is not the same as good.

    The Nazis wore lots of cool leather trench-coats but I wouldn’t describe them as good.

    Agatha Christie book are good but I wouldn’t describe them as cool.

    I think this is a source of a lot the dispute over the RoC, and I’m as guilty of that as anyone.

    If “The Rule of Cool” isn’t a rule bit a guideline, why isn’t it called “The Guideline of Cool”? Because that is something I would support.

    I also have to disagree with the idea the Rule of Cool covers absolutely any minor illogical plot point or inconsistency. That is the suspension of disbelief, an essential part of all fiction in all mediums. It what allows us to ignore the fact that characters don’t go the toilet or mumble or mix-up the words like real people doing real things would.

    Combining those last two ideas, I suggest the following replacement for the Rule of Cool

    The No Toilets Guideline
    If your players ever wonder where the toilets are in the dungeon then it is time to remind them that it’s only a frakking game by having a herd of wildebeast to stampdede out the nearest room. To put it another way, if the players have time to pick holes in your plot, you need to liven things up a bit.

    Chris

  14. Noumenon,

    Thank you for demonstrating why doing something that is ‘cool’ is bad advice.

    What one person find cool is another person’s boring bit.

    A GM who follows the rule of cool, rather than the rule of doing what is appropriate for his party to optimize everyone’s enjoyment, runs the risk of alienating players.

    Chris

  15. Poirot is totally fucking cool. Hist first name is Hercule, that in of itself is cool.

    Death can be cool and fun. Chatty, I think in the comment section of his post on this, described how character jumped on the back of the dragon and subsequently died. The rule of cool part came into it because he died by being thrown from dragon back and crashing through the roof of building. Player said he knew he was gonna die but did it anyway cause it’s what his character would do and (I’m guessing here) cause he knew even death would be fun cause of RoC.

    You seem to be trying to disingenuously link (or have conflated in your own mind) the rule of cool with rule of “wuss DM that doesn’t let bad/hard stuff happen” with “if the GM had handed it to them on a plate”.

    I and I believe most agree with you that the rule of cool should be infrequent.

    “Movie producers and GMs who think that it doesn’t matter what they do as long it is cool are destined to fail. Where as those who understand how coolness works and use cool appropriately will create blockbusters.”

    The Rule of Cool is all about the 2nd sentence. It helps explain when/why (and by exclusion when/why not to) to use coolness. From this post it really sounds like you support and use the Rule of Cool.

    The anti’ists I think are stuck on “The limit of the Willing Suspension Of Disbelief for a given element is directly proportional to its degree of coolness” which I understood to just be a bit of artistic license to make the RoC rule sound cool. Rather than a commandment that you must make every second of your game ridiculously suspension destroying but with lots of explosions.

  16. I would have to say that Noumenon draws attention to exactly why this has gotten as charged as it has.

    Who is anybody to say that the eagles scene wasn’t better than a bunch of people stabbing each other…those crappy, overly long books had a TON of that, and yet it is “cooler” than something that is, I daresay, original.

    Not to talk smack πŸ™‚ I am just SOOOOOOOOO tired of all the various flavors of “Yer doin it wrong” that has become so prevalent these days.

    If I want a game with zombie ninjas vs. Robodinosaurs both armed with 20mm Gauss rifles…why am I suddenly an idiot, or a bad gamer?

    Besides, even fail is a matter of opinion
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Matrix_(series)#Box_office

    1.5 billion worldwide is a pretty far cry from fail, even with such cultural powerhouses as rotten tomatoes calling the shots πŸ™‚

    Donny_the_DM´s last blog post..Too Cool For School? When did awesome become lame?

  17. Donny,

    “Yer doin it wrong”

    Everyone is free to game how they like. The beauty of RPGs is that they allow everyone to develop their own style of play.

    However, when you offer advice to gamers, you are implicitly saying that their game is not as good as it could be. This is as true for people advising “Use the RoC” and it is for people saying “Don’t Use the RoC”.

    My problem with Chatty’s original approach is that he was advocating swamping players with a particular gaming style. I think that is very bad advice because too much of any style will ultimately ruin any game. Chatty has since clarified his remarks to indicate that he to things ‘cool’ should be an occasional aspect of the game.

    I looked at the Matrix on Wiki before writing my article (I like to get my facts straight) and I was surprised how much money they made. What I felt was more relevant to the ‘coolness’ of the film was reviews that consistently panned the second and third films.

    Also on the box office takings, the second film did a lot better than the first, presumably because ever one was eager to see it after the amazing first film. But the third film did worse than the first, presumably because everyone was so disappointed by the second.

    Chris

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