Why the Rule of Cool Is Not Cool

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.


22 responses to “Why the Rule of Cool Is Not Cool

  1. Well said.

    Imagining the character running up the trail of arrows in Warhammer only to receive a new groin that leaks interesting liquids put a smile on my face.

    Thank you.

  2. You’ve manged to articulate my argument a lot more intelligently than I manged.

    An excellent article.

  3. Using film examples compare ‘Batman Forever’ with ‘Batman Begins’.

  4. I know what you’re driving at, but I think it depends on each persons definition of “cool”.

    Using Darrens example, I think BOTH of those movies rely on a complete suspension of belief; however the former was NOT cool while the latter was. Neither one was realistic, Batman Forever just sucked. 🙂

    This subject is so subjective, I can’t see have a productive discussion, just opinions.

    P.S. Why ya gotta “hate” on DnD? Can’t us gamers just all get along?

  5. “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.” completely disagree here. Rule of Cool wins, even in a sandbox game. Unless of course sandbox means to you everything is spelled out and expected and unsurprising before hand. Sandbox to me does not mean this at all, and I believe you may be missing the point of sandbox – that is that the players are in control of the game’s “direction” more so than the DM. Storyteller games (or “adventure arc” games for that matter) are the other way around. In a sandbox game, if something wickedly cool and unexpected happens – but that doesnt quite make sense given the current conception the players have about the setting – then it is simply a “Mystery”. Have fun with it. Move on, its a sandbox game — what are the PCs going to do with the fact that over in Hex 324,213 there’s a giant rampaging robot that is digging up all the hills looking for something? Now admitedly this could be abused and ruin the game; this is where the Gygaxian Naturalism come into effect. Everything is connected in a sandbox game, nothing can be isolated. If there IS a giant rampaging robot in Hex 324,213; then expect to see refuges in the adjacent areas. Expect to hear rumors of why the robot is there. Expect that there actually IS a reason the robot is there, and after the players (and IF the players) dig deep enough they will find the answer.

    “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.” Hahah! this is great. I’m definitely going to have to use this term. However… many of us in the Ghetto don’t want anyone’s pity. We’re happy with what we’ve got. Many of us have seen what else is out there and have decided to return to the “Ghetto”. After all… does the game system really matter when come to _roleplaying_? I would argue no it doesn’t. What matters is setting and fluff. For players who prefer the swords, dragons and fantasy hack crap of D&D (like me; save for maybe SW or SR)over other settings then its just fine. Happy to be here.

  6. Well articulated and said.

    Adjust the game to your group’s liking.

    As mentionned many times, my group usually likes high cool over logic but they have moment when the trends reverses and I adjust accordingly.

    Thanks for writing this!

  7. Realism in a game of exception based fantasy…

    Rules trumping cool…

    Cool being a bad thing?

    Why do I suddenly feel like I am doing it wrong? Further that, why havent my players quit or lynched me?

    Attacking a trope is fun and all, but methinks all you folks are reading a little to deeply into said rule.

    To me, it means that the rules can be fudged occasionally to make the GAME cooler. See, until a couple of anonymous internet folks decided it wasn’t, cool used to mean good. When did this change?

    I agree that walking up a stream of arrows is dumb. IN MY GAME

    The rocket launcher thing is dumb too.

    Giving an Ochre Jelly the absorb ability 7 rounds into combat just to shock your players a little? Where does that fit?

    Letting characters make a KEG of alchemists fire, and casting an illusion of it being a female troll in heat? What about that?

    I simultaneously agree and disagree. The rules are shit. They are nothing more than the walls of the much storied sandbox so many folks like to play in. IMO, climbing those walls, or blowing them up shouldn’t be frowned upon.

    And to close, if you want a good example of the rule of cool in cinema, I challenge you to find a better example than the Grindhouse double feature, Planet Terror in particular. I would kill my mother with a chainsaw to play a D20 modern game like that.

    Otherwise, a well articulated (if wrong 🙂 ) post that has done it’s job – made people think.

    In Respectful disagreement,

  8. Pingback: Tales of the Rambling Bumblers » Blog Archive » The Rule of Cool: A Useful Tool

  9. Here’s an example of The Rule of Cool in practice.


    Now, that’s cool. Dinosaur steampunk robots. Come on… you KNOW you would play a dinosaur steampunk game, right? Ok, what about one with Battle Toads?

  10. Good comments all. I think some of you, though, are not reading the initial Rule of Cool. Again, it’s not “put some cool stuff in your game.” Sure, we can all appreciate that. What it says is that the more cool stuff you ladle on, and the tvtropes page makes it clear that cool means “kewl”, as in exploding ninjas not as in “things you aesthetically appreciate,” the more you can let the realism slip in other departments.

    Therefore the Rule of Cool *does* militate against the Gygaxian Naturalist school of thought. Because it says there doesn’t have to be any reason, or any internal consistency.

    It’s fine to formulate an alternate “Rule of Cool” that is different, but the specific proposed “Rule of Cool” listed/linked above is very specific about what it means.

  11. @ChattyDM – thanks for dropping by! And I hope you take this in the spirit it was intended – not that some groups, or even just some specific campaigns or whatnot, should not be high cool. To each their own, and actually I prefer a little of both in turns.

    I just wanted to point out that this is a “rule” that isn’t true in the general case, only in the “we want high cool in this instance” case. And also to explain what I think the root of the backlash is to the Rule as stated among some groups.

  12. I appreciate the distinction you make, but the key word is ‘proportionate”. Not saturated.

    Besides, what about peeps who like exploding ninjas by the dozen? They’re not cool here, idiots at 6D6, and disowned by LotFP.

    Very lonely having an overactive imagination these days…

  13. Oh, they’re cool – in a game where I want that kind of cool. You’ll find few who have played as much Feng Shui as I!

  14. The one thing I disliked about your post is that you failed to mention that

    Tropes are not good
    Tropes are not bad
    (which is part of the basics of using TVTropes)

    There i s nothing good or bad about subverting the rule of cool, deconstructing it, inverting the trope or averting it (though I think averting the Rule of cool completly makes for an uncool game.)

    In summary,
    How the writer uses the tool is what makes it good or bad.

    rite publishing

  15. Yeah, ’cause criticism on the Internet is *wrong.*

  16. Well said. Well said indeed.

  17. The important part of the Rule of Cool is the factor of *Cool.* And this is very much a Your Mileage May Vary area. Even if you accept that “cool” here equals “kewl” (which I’m not sure I do), you can only take that bucket to the well so many times before it just becomes ridiculous, no matter WHAT the original reality-to-coolness factor was in the game. Rule of Cool isn’t – or at least shouldn’t be – a license to have (to use the common image) exploding ninjas on every street corner. Essentially, it is an acknowledgment that yes, every game and every setting has an agreed-upon level of reality. However, sometimes it’s ok to stretch that a little (and “a little” can mean a lot of different things depending on how you’re playing), so long as you make it cool.

    And as any hipster can tell you, true cool requires a light touch. Pour it on too thick, and you’re just a wannabe.

    Case in point: I play in a vampire LARP. (Yes, yes, I’m one of *those* people. Make your silly comment and move on, please. Thank you.) About a year back, we got a new Storyteller for our game. He hadn’t been in charge for very long before new plots began appearing – ones which very much followed the Rule of Cool.

    And they WORKED. And I believe that part of the reason why they worked is that not all of his storylines ran this way. Sometimes there would be months worth of standard plot – not boring, but expected within the genre. And then out of nowhere, something straight out of silly-season. A steady diet of it would have put us off in no time, but having these ridiculous-awesome plots crop up once in a blue moon gave us the occasional needed break.

    And even within those plots, reality was still MOSTLY followed… but it pushed the envelope just enough that most of us wouldn’t have gone along with it unless it had been absolutely awesome. A less-deft ST would have had us leaving the game in disgust. Instead, the stories are still being told. (“YES. Cats. FORTY of them. No, I’m not making this up.)

    So yeah, I think the Rule of Cool can be a valid one, but you have to understand what it is – and what it’s not. It’s not a license to do anything you want and claim “But it was cool!” Chances are, if you’re having to make that argument… no, dude. No, it wasn’t. It IS a license to be cool first, and worry about it making sense later.

    Rule of thumb: if your players are separate enough from the action to be asking themselves, “Is this jackass really gonna try and justify this via the Rule of Cool?” …it wasn’t cool enough to invoke the rule. Real RoC scenarios are never identified until long after the fact, because at the time, it was too awesome for you to worry about it.

  18. Pingback: The Seven-Sided Die » Skill systems are sometimes a good idea

  19. to be perfectly blunt, i don’t think YOU understand the concept of the rule of cool. Coolness is not an individual thing. Even games that absolutely suck can have cool elements. the “Rule of Cool” is not worried about that at all. The “Rule of Cool” is about the entirety, the sum, the final answer of the equation, not the elements in it. If the Sum of the equation is cool, then whatever lack or logic or failure (or purposeful diversion from the laws of physics or reality) is present can be disregarded, because to the person watching the show, movie, or playing the game, they don’t mean anything in the face of the over arching coolness of the game.

    walking up a stream of arrows doesn’t make something cool, fine, even if the individual act or element could be cool done correctly. but when that element is properly combined with everything else that makes up the game, and end of the game successfully results in “cool” then the rule of Cool can apply, and the deviations from reality don’t matter.

    but again, as someone pointed out before me, this trope is so freaking subjective that no solid discussion or argument can be made. to me, what i described above is how i understand TV Tropes’s “The Rule of Cool.” it does not appear to be how mxyzklk interprets and understands it.

  20. Richard Cheimison

    I read hard science fiction, practice HEMA and MMA, and like physics in my superhero movies. I can’t stand most of the trash that gets put out. Reality is more interesting than the nonsense hack writers and normies apparently enjoy. I refuse to suspend my disbelief. It’s your job to sell it to me, not mine to pretend stupid nonsense is something awesome.

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