Aug 302010

I’ve been running quite a few games lately and the one common theme between them all is outlandish actions.  We’ll be in the middle of a combat or negotiation and one of my players will invariably ask “can I blow up the car with a shot?” or “can I convince this villain that my spellbook is really just a book of Orcish mating rituals?”  They’re actions and suggestions so off the wall and awesome that I have to stop and sputter a bit.  And after thinking a bit I smile, say yes, and sometimes call for a roll.  Because some actions are just so awesome that they have to work.

These outlandish actions have only enhanced my games, but it’s taken me a long time and a lot of mistakes to get to the point where I can say yes.  When I was younger and less experienced I’d often just blurt out “No!”  The actions didn’t fit into the rules, or they seemed stupid, or I couldn’t think of how to make them work.  These days I’ve loosened up a lot and my games are far better for the change in attitude.

These moments now fall into my “rule of cool” philosophy (I know I’m cribbing this name from somewhere – probably an Evil Hat game – forgive me if I don’t cite the original source).  In essence this rule boils down to: if the action is outlandish and increases the fun at the table it’s going to work.  In some cases I might call for a roll, but if I do I always make sure that the rule is something that the PC is good at, because they should probably succeed at such a task.

For a lot of new GMs this sort of thing can really throw you for a loop.  It seems really cool (or really stupid) but you don’t know how to fit into the rules you’re using.  My personal suggestion is to just let it work outright or let it work with a common roll.  Now, this only applies if the action is going to make things more fun for everyone.  If the action really only serves to make one character better then it’s probably fine to say no, or yes, but…  To really qualify for the Rule of Cool your action has to really make things better for everyone at the table or at least make everyone at the table go “awesome!” or break up into laughter.

That’s the Rule of Cool in a nutshell.  It’s made my games a lot more fun and helped my players feel more empowered.  Hopefully it can do the same for yours.

  One Response to “The Rule of Cool”

  1. I just posted something really similar in the official D&D forums’ GM advice thread. This Rule of Cool, as you call it, is something that — even though I’m a rank amateur as a DM — I’ve always played by and always enjoyed in DMs. That freedom to do “anything” (within the constraints of your game’s universe) is what keeps table-top gaming compelling in the age of MMORPGs that do all the math and bookkeeping for us and show us pretty graphics.

    Where I diverge a little is I’m not entirely sure I agree that you should just let something work or even make it easy. Make it a common roll, sure, but not necessarily easy. If you just let them do something outlandish, the coolness factor is reduced by the ease of accomplishment and your other players may start focusing outside the lines instead of just occasionally looking for the creative solution. The latter is cool, the former devolves into silliness, ruins the storyline and suspension of disbelief and stops being fun. Keep in mind, I’m not disagreeing with your philosophy; I agree wholeheartedly. I just think that to be fun, the creative act needs to have a chance at failure, and to be memorable (a different goal), it should be downright challenging.

    My limited experiences as a player in the early 1980s always involved DMs who knew every rule cold, but who were always willing to apply the rules to interesting proposed solutions. My own DM’ing experience in 1993 involved a homemade campaign and a whole lot of house rules, DM cheats and executive decisions designed to keep the game moving and keep it fun. The players didn’t care as long as I was consistent; we were having a blast, and that brings me back to my point: when you let your players TRY anything — without guarantee of success — you can come up with some truly memorable moments. For as comparatively little as I’ve played and DM’ed (the reason I spelled it out above), I still have certain crystal clear memories 17-28 years later. Memories of a paladin making a successful God Call by rolling 00 on his percentile dice seconds after the DM said, “roll me a double-ought and you’re successful” and followed by a flustered DM roleplaying an unexpected God Call on the fly (and rolling up a nice but appropriate magic item to hand over in the process). Or of a mage bouncing magic missiles off the shiny shield of a suit of armor in the corner of a passageway intersection in order to hit an orc who was not in his LOS — by rolling a natural 20. Or of a rogue choosing to silently climb the dungeon wall to sneak — not only past, but OVER — a party of waiting orcs in order to ambush them from behind — all dictated by skill check rolls against his climb and move silently skills. These things were primarily cool because there was a very strong element of chance involved in the execution of what was already a clever idea. The player had the idea, but the dice determined if fate would smile on them, and the fact that they still pulled it off in the face of difficult odds made the whole group simultaneously and instantaneously BELIEVE. Oddly, the act deepened our sense of immersion rather than ruining it.

    So, I’m all for letting players explore the limits of your game world (even if it means bypassing encounters you planned for weeks); but I say make the accomplishment of unusual tactics appropriately challenging. If the idea is a bluff (the spellbook/mating ritual idea), then maybe it’s as simple as roleplaying it and making the guy actually convince you in character (maybe you cut him some slack for his CHA score). Maybe if he wants to knock out a retreating villain with a thrown hubcap, you just base it on his thrown weapon skill and throw in some small minuses for the unfamiliarity of the impromptu wep. If he wants to pull off a one-in-a-thousand shot, you go ahead and make it 1-in-20 odds in the framework of your game system to show that it’s difficult but doable. If it’s one-in-a-million, you break out the percentile dice; and if he wants to break the rules of your universe’s physics, you just say no. Or, better, you let him try it, and you narrate in your DM voice the description of it failing: “As you expend the last of your helium, the horse seems no closer to becoming airborne.”