I’ve been following the debate about the so-called “Rule of Cool.” It’s a “TV Tropes” concept extended to RPGs by the Chatty DM, (original post “The Rule of Cool” here, and clarification “The Rule of Cool Takes Flak” here). A number of people gave it drive-by disses, but I think the most on topic one is from 6d6 Fireball, with Rule of Cool – Only for Idiots and Of Coolness and Idiocy.
In short, the Rule of Cool states “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.”
If you interpret it very loosely as “Hey, toss in some cool stuff to spice up your game” it’s fine. But the way it’s stated is setting up “cool” as being carte blanche to roll over realism/suspension of disbelief. “If it’s cool enough, it can be incoherent and it’s all good.” This naturally bugs the pretty large contingent of people that have suffered through movies, TV shows, or games that were intolerable because they followed this rule. For most people, there’s only so much incoherence that coolness can cover over, and also often people overestimate how cool their “cool things” are. Let’s use Mortal Kombat II (the film) as an example. MKI successfully used the Rule of Cool. It had cool, and though the plot was tenuous you knew what was going on at least. And as a movie based on a video game, you weren’t expecting a lot in the realism department. MKII tried to forgo any coherence at all, and simply crank up the CGI stunt/explosion factor to make up for it, and it sucked hard.
But most of the discussion about this ignores the fact that media (TV/film/comic/etc), and especially RPGs because of the social contract involved, really work off an agreed-upon level of realism. People expect the level of realism (versimilitude, for you pedants) to be constant throughout a work, generally. If you’re watching Naruto, you expect mystic ninja shit. If you’re watching The West Wing, you don’t. (There are exceptions for parodies, which derive humor from the sudden shift, or deliberate “reality gets weird” transitions like The Matrix.) And you get pissed off if that is violated.
Some people complain that “Oh, but I find political intrigue ‘cool.’ Sure, but the Rule of Cool, if you go read it and see all the examples on tvtropes.org, is very not about that. The “cool” it’s talking about is usually worded as “kewl” in polite circles.
Anyway, the point is that people expect a certain level of cool-to-realism that you should understand and not jack with. And it can vary from game to game/campaign to campaign.
As an RPG example, I love the game Feng Shui. It’s a game largely based on the Rule of Cool, and its system encourages cool, its characters are based around cool, etc. When you are playing Feng Shui, you are explicitly allowing “running up a stream of bullets and kicking you in your bitch ass face” as part of your worldview. And I have lots of fun doing that.
However, there are other games that are set up to be more realistic or “serious.” If you tried to run up a trail of arrows in Warhammer FRP, the only “cool” you’d get is a lengthy description of how your new groin wound drips a variety of interesting liquids. In my group’s current campaign, the Curse of the Crimson Throne, our gaming metaphor is reasonably simulationist, enough that though there are certainly “cool things” in it, small plotting problems and inconsistencies do get to me.
D&D presents a special problem. The vast majority of gamers are stuck in what I call the “D&D Ghetto.” It’s the only game they know, or the only game they’ve played, or the only game they can find a group to play. It is the alpha and omega of roleplaying and cannot be escaped. As a result, many different groups try to get their favorite jones – deep immersion, or gritty realism, or cinematic cool, or gamist challenge – using it. There’s a surprising amount of difference between many D&D players and groups’ styles. So realism junkies that love “sandbox” gaming see the Rule of Cool as a burning bag of poo that would run their game,and it is. (As it’s stated as a “rule,” and not a “hey if you want this kind of thing here’s what you can do…” it deserves the criticism.) If you take an existing game full of “Gygaxian naturalists” and ladle in a bunch of exploding ninjas, they are going to think you’re an assmaster.
In fact, I think the biggest failing of the Rule of Cool is it setting up plot/realism/consistency and cool as opposing pairs. They’re separate factors that different media have more or less of, and there are other factors. In a way, it’s just saying that “any medium, to be enjoyed, needs *something* enjoyable in it.” Maybe that’s “wrestling a panther under water, driving a motorcycle on top of a train and jumping out of a burning aircraft with a rocket launcher and somehow managing to turn around and blow up several missiles headed straight for his ally’s helicopter with it.” Maybe it’s a tight, coherent plot. Maybe it’s some hot ass babes. Maybe it’s compelling characters. Whatever. You can decide to work with some of these at the expense of others. But in general, people want/expect a certain level of it, based on their impressions going in. Trying to mess with the cool/disbelief ratio, either up or down, will get people upset with you.
So run a game with high Cool, or something else compelling – but know your group, and make sure people have aligned expecations about the tone of the game. I like high Cool and high realism in turn, as long as I’m in the right mode.