When constructing my survey of terms in the RPG space, The Rule Of Cool (a.k.a Rule Zero) was one I nearly didn’t put on the list.
It seemed, and I wasn’t wrong, a full 80% of participants understood what the rule of cool was, with the most succinct version of it being phrased as:
“When the gamemaster allows something which would normally be against the rules, as it makes for good storytelling.”,
I like that as a statement of intent. Most RPG core rule books have something similar inside. And I think on paper it sounds like an important and useful rule.
Of course, we have to have a way of moving and bending the rules of the game to allow for narratively satisfying and creative play. But it’s often deployed in an ineffective and quite frustrating way. Ways that make some players feel sort changed or as a way of denying the extant reality of the setting.
So there are a number of things we have to think about when we run into a situation where we shift the rules to the side and simply play.
Does The Ruleset Already Do The Thing?
Ok, this is maybe the most frustrating thing I have encountered as a player. When a ruleset does a thing, a player requesting to do the thing and the GM instead just makes up something or handwaves something that actually already exists within the ruleset and does it in a way that makes it harder for someone skilled to succeed.
Let me give you an example. It’s a D&D game. Sarah is playing a rogue who has maxed out acrobatics and can dash as a bonus action and has taken a feat to allow them to move more freely. Dave is playing an Aragorn-like ranger who he wants to be an action-orientated hero.
Dave describes his hero taking a flying leap across a room, sliding across a table, colliding with a villain, and attacking. It’s cool description. It might be really fun.
But Sarah spent a lot of time building her rogue to do those things. Dave has maxxed out his strength score but has only a +1 in Dex and isn’t proficient in acrobatics. If you let him do this and make him roll, he’s gonna fail. But if he doesn’t roll and you ignore the dice every time he thinks up something cool, why did Sarah bother to pick acrobatics as a skill, make Dex a primary stat and take a feat?
Suddenly the rule of cool starts to take on a more complex edge.
This is why I like having mechanics like inspiration or hero points that allow us to ignore the rules – for a resource cost – giving you space to say to Dave ‘I will allow to do that, but you have to spend an inspiration’ is technically both of you breaking the rules as written.
But it is a really useful framework that allows Dave to get what he wants, Sarah to feel like she could do the thing without the resource cost, and you, as GM, get to run a balanced game. Yes, it isn’t how inspiration works as written. But maybe it should be.
Rube Goldberg Implosion
I would also bear in mind that if you are going to create a way of doing things, maybe try and make it work within the existing ruleset rather than just bolting a whole extra rule thing on the side or just handwave it.
The ruleset you play with is a kind of connected network of things that all work together. If you remove one cog, there’s a chance that you might actually set a series of things spinning out of position.
Often just ignoring any old rule or all of the rules means you aren’t engaging really with the game at all.
In some respects, we could play, for example, D&D without any rules. Just a series of narrative decisions, and the DM tells you if it worked or not. As long as you trust each other. So why does that feel ‘off’ as a way of playing? Why do we feel the need to use a ruleset?
Because when we get down to it, the game rules do more than just resolve a conflict. They also generated unexpected variables within play.
Often a critical success on an unbelievable madcap plan means it goes without a hitch, and the player feels like they succeed against incredible odds because the dice mechanic told them it was difficult to achieve.
Often a failure on something routine forces us to think of WHY a failure happened and come up with a narrative spin that we otherwise wouldn’t.
Exact combinations of narrative and being forced to submit to the whims of impartial dice is the act of roleplaying. The moment we abandon a rule in favour of narrative, we must understand that our interpretation of the narrative is more important than an unbiased storytelling device.
Which sometimes is exactly what is needed. But we need to be clear about what is happening because sometimes, there are side effects.
The Limits Of Reality
One of the things I hear a lot is, ‘I wish my games were all this deep, but I can never get players to take things seriously. While that sentence is loaded with a lot of assumptions about what good play looks like, I often wonder if the reason why a lot of these GMs don’t get the serious response they are looking for is that they are prepared to entertain any scheme, waive any rule, as long it serves the purpose of ‘everyone having fun’.
I tend to allow a lot in my games, but I am also quite clear about where the physical rules of a reality begin and end. While it isn’t the only reason I have some quite densely layered games (player input is massive in this, as is the fact that I think tragedy is high art), it helps the players suspension of disbelief if you occasionally say ‘no, that is implausible, even the rules say so’.
It means when a player turns up to the session with a fully mathematically worked out plan on how to create an iceberg and a way to use it as a ranged weapon to drop from a height on the enemy, you can say yes, and it seems even more impressive because they’ve stayed within a ruleset that exists, which is more rewarding than just handwaving the rules.
I guess what I am trying to say is it is easy to just throw a rule out. And sometimes, it might be the best way to handle things. But as the GM, you are the living avatar of that ruleset. It might be worth trying to work out a way to make things work within that framework. Because an important thing for you to maintain is consistency, once your world lacks it, the chance of things being taken seriously is low.
Just make sure that every time you choose to leave the rules, it’s to deliver an expected in-universe outcome instead of just allowing Hi-jinx.
Next, we start a two-part look at how we form these terms from two very different perspectives.
And by the end of that, I might even admit that occasionally, I am wrong.
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