Iceberg Cool

The Rule of Cool – Only for Idiots

The ‘Rule of Cool’ brings everything that is wrong with Hollywood and consumerism to the gaming table.

WTF!

The ‘Rule of Cool’ is best explained by Chatty DM here (and the follow-up here) but in short it is the same motivations that produce films like ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ and other CGi driven tripe – Make it Big, Make it Flashy.

The reason for bringing this to the gaming table is because players don’t notice the time the GM spends slaving over “watertight and internally consistent adventures”. Therefore it is more important that adventures be ‘cool’ and by that they mean showy with big explosions and stupendous stunts.

Missing the Point

Because we all play different games and adventures, it is hard to give examples from the gaming table but as the ‘Rule of Cool’ originated from TV Tropes I will use examples from the movies.

‘The Matrix’ is a film most people would describe as cool. It has great CGI that produces truly amazing scenes with big explosions. Everyone watching that film wanted to be Neo (or Orpheus or Trinity or even Agent Smith). Everyone remembers the big gun fight scene in the lobby or Nero dodging Agent Smith’s bullets during the rooftop showdown. Every GM would love to run a game that was as cool as ‘The Matrix’.

However, the sequels to ‘The Matrix’ sucked. They had the same characters with a bigger CGI budget and even longer fight sequences so why did they fail? According to the ‘Rule of Cool’ the Matrix 2 & 3 should of been better films than the original but they weren’t. Critically and financially they were flops compared to the original. GMs who pursue the rule of cool on their tabletops are going to make ‘Matrix Revolutions’ and not ‘The Matrix’

What People Remember and What is Important are Different

The reason why people remember those great scenes in ‘The Matrix’ is because they happened after two hours of carefully plotted, internally consistent build-up. Those big fight scenes would be meaningless if we didn’t know and care about those characters but it is the fight scene and not the build-up that people remember.

Hollywood and consumerism play on basic human nature, the desire to get as much pleasure as possible as quickly as possible. Whether it is high-fat sugary foods, instant credit for that plasma screen TV or big budget CGI fests the principle is the same, the principle the Rule of Cool promotes, and yet it fails time and time again. Obesity, credit crunch or polished turds like ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ are always the result.

Great Things take Great Effort

Players may not notice the GM’s efforts to build a consistent, thought-out world but it makes a difference. Good films and good games don’t do something because it is cool, instead they do it because it is right for the situation. ‘The Matrix’ was cool because the creators had a deep understanding of the characters, their world and above all how to develop those ideas through the movie.

If you live by the ‘Rule of Cool’ you are doomed to create shallow copies of other people work. But if you want to be remembered, whether it is for gritty realism or high fantasy, the GM and the players need an understanding of the world they are in and that takes time and effort.


Image Credit – Iceberg by Lonnie Hartley – CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0

26 comments

  1. If everyone’s having fun, who cares? This is kind of a pointless argument, really. It’s like trying to argue about what system is best – when the answer is that the best system or rule or idea is the one that everyone enjoys.

    As for the Rule itself, I use cynematic effects when players roll really amazingly good roles (like say… 6 10s in a row in a system with a d10 skill roll). They’ve earned those flashy effects when that happens and if it’s not internally consistent, or it vilates the law of physics, no one cared. Years later, they’re still telling stories about that game because of that effect. And anything players are still talking about 15 years after the game was played cannot ever be a bad thing.

    I don’t think I personally would enjoy an entire game of that, I kept it rare for a reason, but tastes do differ and no one is making you play it.

    Viriatha´s last blog post..House Rules

  2. Viriatha,

    If you are using the Rule of Cool only rarely then you aren’t using it. What you are doing are things that are appropriate for your game, not because it is cool. People remember an event 15 years on, not because it was flashy, but because it stood out against the consistent background.

    Does it matter if everyone is having fun?

    Yes & no.

    No because this is a hobby and it should be about fun.

    Yes because people who don’t understand how ‘cool’ works can spend years trying to recreate it until they and their players get bored and leave the hobby.

    To be a good GM you need to understand when things should be kept small and slow and when they need to be big and fast. Turning everything up to 11 doesn’t work.

    Chris

    Chris Tregenza´s last blog post..4 Ways of Cheating at D&D (and other Roleplaying Games)

  3. Rule of Cool — for idiots?

    Bwahaha. Excuse while I’m banging my head against the wall.

    It seems like you really don’t understand what the Rule of Cool actually means.

    Let me quote:
    “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.”

    In other words: Players will forgive inconsistencies in the plot, as long as the game as a whole is good. Some players will forgive more, some less.
    That’s all the Rule of Cool says. In one sentence: As long as everyone is having fun, everything’s alright.

    No way is this a recipe for disaster or bad adventures. Remember: Roleplaying is about having fun. Some people love going shopping with their characters and burn hours of real time doing that. As long as everyone is having fun, it’s perfect. Some gamers like big explosions and furious fights, all night long. Well, as long as everyone is having fun, it’s perfect.

    Norbert G. Matausch´s last blog post..Nichts wert: Spielbalance.

  4. Norbert,

    The problem here is that the Rule uses the words ‘coolness’, ‘wicked’ and ‘awesome’ but these are not the same as something that improves the film / game.

    By improving it, I mean that more people will have fun over a longer period of time and remember it with more affection.

    For example, it may be ‘cool’ to have your fantasy party encounter a bunch of 20th century humans who got lost in the Bermuda Triangle. But once the fight is over and the party is left with firearms or knowledge that undermines the overall enjoyment of the campaign the ‘coolness’ of the encounter will be forgotten.

    A good GM knows when to use big budget, cinematic, reality breaking, CGI ‘coolness’. A really good GM knows when not to use it.

    Chris

  5. Chris,

    see, you interpret the RoC completely differently. Playing an rpg means, to me, suspension of disbelief (I call myself an immersionist, and I demand as much acting from my players as they can possibly give me) is key.

    Introducing 20th century earthlings into my Midgard campaign would completely and totally break our suspension of disbelief — it’s simply not part of the “classic medieval fantasy” genre we’re playing. IT IS NOT COOL.

    Norbert

    Norbert G. Matausch´s last blog post..Nichts wert: Spielbalance.

  6. I usually love your stuff, man, but this comes off as nothing more than “the way you’re playing is wrong-bad-fun.” If some want to play using the “Rule of Cool,” so be it. If others don’t, then so be it. The “Rule of Cool” is not ruining the industry and is not going to harm the genre in any way. RPGs are made to be played the way that the people at the table want to play it.

    With that said, I think you’re using the “Rule of Cool” in the extreme. I’ve never read about it before yesterday in Chatty’s follow-up. Here’s how I looked at it:

    Let’s use your Matrix example. According to you, the Matrix did not use the “Rule of Cool.” I disagree. Every Matrix movie used the “Rule of Cool.” The problem is that the sequels let the story fall by the wayside and let the “Rule” take over. In the Matrix, it was a good balance.

    From the “Rule:” 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. The entire original Matrix movie used this philosophy.

    Humans can’t live in gel for all their lives. Human consciousness can’t be transferred into a computer simply by shoving a cable in the back of their heads. And I’m sure there are other things any person willing to point out the flaws in the movie would be able to discuss. But do most people care? No.

    They were willing to forgive the liberties because it was cool. But that’s only because it had a really good story to go along with it. Matrix 2 and 3 did not have that and people noticed. So rather than say the “Rule of Cool” is only for idiots, you should say something like the “Rule of Cool” should not be a substitute for a good story and a good plot. It still allows for the scenes like Neo dodging the bullets for the first time on the rooftop while still providing for a well-rounded story-driven campaign.

    But if the players at the table don’t care, or they want it to be a “Rule of Cool” campaign entirely, then that’s their prerogative. As long as they’re having fun, that’s all that matters.

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

  7. Norbert,

    You are making my point exactly.

    A GM doing something to be cool runs the risk of getting it wrong and breaking the players suspension of disbelief. In one man’s campaign, encounters with a group of 20th persons would be ‘cool’, in another it is a travesty.

    A GM who lives by the RoC runs a huge risk smashing player’s sense of disbelief.

    A GM who understands how important plot, pacing and a consistent world are to the gaming will create scenes that add to the long-term enjoyment of the game.

    Chris

  8. Tony,

    My problem is not with anyone’s playing style, it is people who confuse cause and effect.

    I know someone who dressed just like Neo from the Matrix because they believed it would them ‘cool’ but of course they weren’t. They looked like an idiot. Neo looked cool because a team of highly skilled costume designers etc worked out what fitted and worked well for both the actor and the character.

    This is the danger of the Rule of Cool and why I’m against it as the basis of good GMing.

    Following the Rule of Cool leads GMs into doing something because ‘it is cool’ rather than because they understand the what makes something cool.

    This has nothing to do with realism either. All films and all works of fiction are abstracted from reality. In fact the best drama can be found performed on the stage where reality is chucked out of the windows and the audience has to imagine nearly everything. Forgetting the Rule of Cool doesn’t condemn GMs to slaving over the creation of water-tight plot lines or forcing gritty realism on their players.

    A GM should aspire to understand what makes a good story good and why Matrix 1 was cool when the rest were pants. A GM who thinks that they can make something cool by mimicking other peoples coolness is an idiot.

    Chris

  9. Again, you’re taking it to the extreme. You’re assuming that anyone who follows the rule of cool will allow it to overshadow every other aspect of the game. You’re not assuming that the rule of cool will be used by a GM for a scene or two.

    Like I said, you’re basically saying that if anyone uses the rule of cool, they’re doing it wrong. You keep calling them idiots. I think you’re acting like a intolerant fatbeard who doesn’t like the way some folks play and, therefor, it’s the wrong way to play.

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

  10. Chris,
    you wrote:

    “A GM doing something to be cool runs the risk of getting it wrong and breaking the players suspension of disbelief. “

    This is true. But so is everything else a GM does. Take OD&D, for instance, a game I really like. As the GM, it is your task to cope with the creative mayhem your players come up with. This includes, among so many other things, assessing any bonus or malus to hit. If you blow it, suspension of disbelief is broken. Game over.

    Breaking suspension of disbelief is not a danger that is inherent in the Rule of Cool. It’s part of everything game-related a GM does.

    You wrote:
    “In one man’s campaign, encounters with a group of 20th persons would be ‘cool’, in another it is a travesty.

    Exactly. But this has NOTHING to do with the RoC. Again, it’s your duty as a GM to make sure everyone is on the same page. This is something a GM usually does before the game starts: “Hey folks, are we gonna have interdimensional gates and time travels in our fantasy game?” If yes: it’s COOL to have 20th century persons in the game. If no: it’s definitely NOT COOL, a no-go.

    The RoC tells you to introduce cool stuff. And what’s cool and what’s not — should be defined in the group contract.

    You wrote:
    “A GM who lives by the RoC runs a huge risk smashing player’s sense of disbelief.”

    Not true. Definitely not true. I live by the RoC, ask my players. I think I bought about 5 commercial adventures in my 25 years of GMing, everything else was improvised, except a couple of relationship maps (called “family trees” back in the days), and a couple of “plot nuggets” (stuff I wanted the players to experience). So, at least 95 percent of my GMing was and still is improvisation and Rule of Cool.

    You wrote:
    “A GM who understands how important plot, pacing and a consistent world are to the gaming will create scenes that add to the long-term enjoyment of the game.”

    Sorry Chris, again I disagree. For long-term enjoyment, all you need are things/encounters/actions that push your buttons. I know that one of my players is a gadgeteer, he loves to fiddle with the gadget rules, and he loves to equip his characters with new toys. I gave him some very memorable (sometimes wicked) toys to play with, and guess what? He/his character go so involved in the game that everyone still remembers. Adn I’m talking about scenes that happened 10, sometimes even 20 years ago.

    The moment you involve your players, you add tremendously to the long-term enjoyment of your game. The Rule of Cool does exactly that.

    Norbert

    Norbert G. Matausch´s last blog post..Nichts wert: Spielbalance.

  11. This isn’t an opinion, it’s bait for traffic. I think that any further comments or responses to this article would be fruitless. I don’t think the rule of cool needs to be defended. Last time I checked there was no such thing as the fun police so why not let people play how they want to play? Or is there some sort of master method for gaming that makes all other methods inferior and therefore less than unnecessary or for idiots and idiots only? If so then that sucks…

    kaeosdad´s last blog post..Session 7: Choosing Sides part one

  12. I notice that you automatically equate the Rule of Cool with explosions and CGI.

    I wonder whether this says more about the Rule, or about you? Do you believe that only explosions and special effects can be cool? It isn’t so.

    If you place consistency of plot or of world above fun in every case, I have to say that I can’t imagine your game being much fun, or you a very flexible GM. Some people might prefer a more rigid style, I guess; I’m not one of them.

    If you don’t do so in every case, congratulations. That’s the Rule of Cool you’re following.

  13. I’ll add your voice to the ‘opponents’ of the RoC.

    Any argument based on premises like ‘not using the RoC full blown is using it wrong’ automatically fails in my eye. That’s dogmatic crap I don’t adhere to.

    But eh man, agree to disagree is my motto.

    You know what though, I guarantee that were you to play in one of my adventure at a Con, I’m sure you’d enjoy it and not see into it the RoC idiocy that you imply here.

    But hey, thanks for calling me an idiot. Always nice!

    The Chatty DM´s last blog post..The Rule of Cool takes flak

  14. Further reading of your comments, I see that you advocate not becoming a slave to the RoC… That I agree wholeheartedly.

    I see the RoC as a spice rack you have nearby when you GM. To be used sparingly in the scenes that need it. Its not there to make everything taste like burning hot peppers all the time.

    The Chatty DM´s last blog post..The Rule of Cool takes flak

  15. Chatty,

    I’m not sure if you’ve seen my follow-up post, your comments appeared shortly after it went up. Read it and you’ll see that our views are very close but my original post, like your original post, may of been misleading.

    You commented about ‘not using the RoC full blown is using it wrong’. I’m not sure where that is directed but I would highlight that you wrote about “swamp[ing] my players in coolness” strongly suggesting you do think the Roc should be used fully blown.

    I still disagree strongly with the idea that ‘cool’ should be an objective of a GM.

    Cool is the end result. The sum of all the parts.

    Someone who sets out to develop good taste in clothes, to keep track of the latest fashions and to invent their own panache will be cool. But someone who just sets out to look cool will end up looking like an idiot.

    The same applies to GMs who want to run cinematic style adventures.

    GMs should aspire to running quality adventures that are fun, fulfilling and exciting. If the GM gets the ingredients right, then the result will be cool.

    Chris

  16. Yeah Chris, sorry about that… some of that was morning grumpiness and insufficient reading.

    I think we’re just sitting on different sides of the same fence yet not that far from it.

    I tried to redress that in my linking to your post on my side of the debate on my blog.

    Peace man and happy new year,

    The Chatty DM´s last blog post..The Rule of Cool takes flak

  17. Chatty,

    No worries. My original post was also influenced by morning grumpiness and insufficient reading.

    All the best

    Chris

  18. One of the underlying themes I see if anti-RoC posts really seem to stem from the definition of “cool”. Or at least an objection to the what they see “cool” (or awesome or wicked or etc.) actually defining.

    Cool is going to be defined by the group and individuals there in. It may in fact /be/ big CGI explosions and laser guns or it may be something simple and understated like an NPC that shows up again and again. *shrug* Honestly, I think it’s a lot of hooey over semantics.

    (And on a non-gaming note, I tend to feel Matrix 2-3’s biggest flaw was that they were sequels. The story was shakier in application, and perhaps concept, than the first but they both suffered from it not being “new”. The Matrix broke ground and spawned a number of visual copy-cats. That saturation made them “not cool”. But that’s a separate issue from the whole gaming thing really…)

    justaguy´s last blog post..Curb stomping quaists for fun and profit

  19. Its all about semantics. What does the word cool mean to the people actually playing the game?

    If the DM and players feel that “cool” is anime, gravity defying action and non-stop explosions, than fine – put some in the game.

    Personally (and for most people I play with), “cool” means unexpected (but believable) plot twists as well as creative solutions towards problem resolution.

    For us, using RoC means that we are willing to bend the rules to allow some of these cool things to happen.

    If “CGi driven tripe” isn’t cool for you and yours, then RoC doesn’t want you to put it in.

    If find it hard to oppose a rule that only serves to remind you to add a bit of the stuff you like in the game you like.

    (And I definitely do not feel like an idiot for doing it)

    Eric Maziade´s last blog post..The Rules of Sharing Narrative Control (and Improv)

  20. Justaguy,

    I think you are 90% right. Cool is such a subjective term

    There is also a real split between how people use ‘cool’ & ‘awesome’.

    Some, such as surfers, use these words to describe anything that gives a pleasurable reaction. Whether it is the taste of a hot dog or winning $1 million on the lottery.

    Other, and I include myself in this, have access to a larger vocabulary and use ‘cool’ to mean something remarkable or enviable. e.g. a ground break special effect (back to the Matrix and Neo dodging bullets).

    Chris

  21. Eric,

    There is nothing you’ve written I disagree with.

    Telling people to put suitably exciting scenes or plot twists in your adventure is good advice.

    However, that isn’t what Chatty’s original post was about. He was talking about ‘swamping his players with them’. Now that I think is bad advice.

    Combine that with the terminology of ‘cool’ and ‘awesome’, and it becomes really, really bad advice. Though it is clear how I use those words seems to be different from a large number of other people (see my answer to Justaguy above).

    Chris

  22. @Chris:

    I don’t think Chatty would advocate “swamping” with cool – except, of course, if that’s your favorite style of play… I’ll have to re-read to see which part gives that impression.

    We touched on that subject on his blog post and agreed that “cool” cannot exist without “mundane”. Its all a matter of contrasts.

    If everything in your campaign is “cool” then, by definition, nothing really is.

    Eric Maziade´s last blog post..The Rules of Sharing Narrative Control (and Improv)

  23. I think the main problem here is that you’re assuming “cool” is some kind of unintelligent, unchanging mass of cliches—it’s not. It must constantly reach new levels and explore unexplored territory, just like anything else.

    Let’s start with your Matrix example. I think you’re completely wrong about the Matrix in that its fight scenes and bullet-time action are not cool only after a climactic build-up of its thought provoking plot, but because Matrix IS, in fact, a film that seeks to be particularly thought-provoking, it’s not a very good example for this.

    Let’s take another film I would assume most people would hold in regard as cool: Star Wars.

    Star Wars: A New Hope is not philosophical. At least, not particularly philosophical, and parsecs away from being realistic or practical. No, the elements of the film that capture its allure are things like lightsabers, John William’s legendary compositions, the witty lines from Kenobi, the force, R2-D2, Darth Vader, etc. Like I said, all of these things are far, far away from being practical or in the least bit factually correct. But not only were they “cool,” but they expanded the limits of our imagination as to what “cool” was. There was nothing like it before. Not a bit of it attributed to some kind of intelligent storyline. All the story had to do was “not suck” and leave room for the film’s engaging technology and exciting battles to shine. And this all happend BEFORE Vader dropped one of the largest plot twists in history.

    Which brings me back to my previous point: The Rule of Cool isn’t some kind of excuse for a lack of creativity, using cliches to fill in gaping plot holes. It’s quite the opposite. If the author of a work manages to pull off a feat so amazing, so creative and so interesting that other flaws of the work or the feat incorporated pale in comparison, it’s a liberty well-earned.

    There’s an entire genre of entertainment willing to validate this point: Martial Arts.

    Bruce Lee openly admitted that he would never use a flying kick in a real martial arts situation. Jackie Chan would sooner beat the living crap out of a person with his fists than toy around with a shower curtain to dodge their moves. John Woo pulls off these amazing fight scenes that you would never see in any actual situation involving guns. But it works. Why? I don’t know. It’s just cool. It’s interesting to see just what they can accomplish with the human body, so we just take it in.

    Saying that the Rule of Cool simply means you should stick explosions into your gaping plot holes is like saying that all you have to do is stick the same plot twist into every film to achieve the same result as its predecessor. The field of “awesome” demands as much creativity as any other.

  24. Tatsu,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment so fully on this issue.

    Cool and creativity are not the same thing. The ‘Day After Tomorrow’ was creative (e.g. no other film has had New York flood & frozen) but was not cool. In fact it sucked.

    Cool and creativity are interlinked but what Chatty’s original article was suggesting is that you ‘swamp your players with cool’ which to me demonstrates a lack of understanding of what cool is.

    Cool is not something that can be bottled and dished out whenever you need it. Cool is the pay-off for a lot of hard work and creativity that often goes unnoticed.

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