The Rule of Cool: A Useful Tool

The Geek, at Geek Related, writes:

    • 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.”

First off, as a psychological observation, The Rule of Cool is simply true.  This is a form of “Confirmation Bias“: people find it very difficult to notice discrepancies and logical errors in things that they are favorably disposed towards.  Contrariwise, they’ll nitpick to death something that they find disagreeable, boring, or challenging to their preconceptions.  Indeed, I’d say several of the bloggers who strongly object to Chatty DM’s post are displaying that very behavior.

Second, the Rule of Cool is part of the basis of the hobby.  Practically every RPG relies on the Rule of Cool to excuse inconsistencies and absurdities in the setting.  If your players see a dragon and don’t immediately start in on how such a creature violates the square-cube law and should barely be able to walk when not buoyed up in a swamp, let alone fly, and breathing fire is absurd, why the caloric requirements alone…that’s because they think it’s cool and are willing to suspend their disbelief to that extent.  Magic, psionics, Cthulhoid horrors, vampires, sexy secret agents licensed to kill, giant mecha, Wild West zombies, super heroes, intelligent bunnies, faster-than-light travel, net-running deckers, swashbuckling pirates, private detectives solving murders, artificially intelligent robots, aliens…if it’s fodder for RPGs, it requires a large dollop of willing suspension of disbelief, and that disbelief will only be provided by people who think those things are cool enough to be worth pretending to believe.  Geek culture has become so entwined with pop culture in the past few years that fans of fantastic literature (which is most RPGers) can lose sight of the fact that not everybody really thinks this kind of stuff is cool; there are still plenty of people who think it’s all dumb and puerile, absurd escapist crap that doesn’t deserve any suspension of disbelief.  There are people who look at Spider-Man or The Dark Knight with the same visceral revulsion for the CGI and melodrama being offered as “cool” that others do for Michael Bay or Uwe Boll movies.

Third, as a piece of advice Chatty’s take on the Rule of Cool provides a useful approach to what to spend your limited time and effort as a GM to prepare and convey during a session.  You are better served spending your time making sure that your game is going to be enjoyable to your players so that they’ll want to overlook the inevitable holes than trying to make sure there are no holes to be found without regard to whether it satisfies the players.  It’s an RPG, it’s going to have holes–you can’t present an entire world, even a perfectly mundane world, in its entirety, in the form of a game without gaps or errors–if the players are in the mood to, they’re going to be able to quibble over events and raise objections even if you’re doing nothing more than reprising your day at the office in a session of “Papers & Paychecks.”  No matter what you and your players think of as cool, there is a hurdle to overcome in RPGs that isn’t there in more passive consumption of media in getting the players to engage the world…they can’t let it just wash over them and still be playing, so you have to make them want to play.  And to do that, you’re going to have to grapple with what it is that they think is cool enough to be worth it.

Finally, it’s completely irrelevant whether you happen to be tickled by Chatty’s particular examples; if you don’t think that stuff is “cool,” substitute what you do think of as cool.  And you can’t weasel out of it by claiming that cool by definition means CGI explosions and running up streams of bullets to kick somebody in the face…that’s a straw man.  If you and the players actually think that’s cool, then it wouldn’t be an objection; it’s only when you believe that it’s over-the-top and uncool that you re-engage your critical faculties, and the whole point of the Rule of Cool is to provide what the audience/players actually think is cool.  The TV Tropes site that it’s taken from is absolutely explicit:

Note that you only get to invoke the Rule of Cool if the end product is, in fact, cool. Note also that different opinions on what is “cool” create the most arguments over this.

Instead of trying to come up with an uncharitable reading of the Rule of Cool to make it self-evidentally stupid (If you add enough CGI explosions you can hide any ludicrous inconsistency or plot-hole! Not being obsessed with consistency is the same thing as not caring about it at all!), detractors ought to think about what it is they find cool about the settings they enjoy playing…and then try to think about what somebody with a more jaundiced eye would find absurd and disbelief-destroying about that setting.  Then they might begin to apprehend both what the Rule of Cool is really about, and how to use it to improve their games by emphasizing what the setting provides in preference to all other settings (what they really do find cool about it) to help the players enjoy the setting for what it is and ignore the inevitable gaps and debatable points. It’s not carte blanche to roll over suspension of disbelief, it’s an encouragement to analyze what it is that causes people to engage their suspension of disbelief and provide more of whatever that is.

4 thoughts on “The Rule of Cool: A Useful Tool

  1. Wow! What a nice response. I’m touched.

    Just so you know, Noisms, one of the original two who posted against it did somewhat of a turnaround when, the next day, he couldn’t explain why he liked Sigil so much while it was such a patently illogical setting for a city… He graciously conceded that I might have been on to something.

  2. I just wanted to point out that per

    A trope is not good
    A trope is not bad

    You can take the Rule of Cool, justify it(Talisanta) deconstruct it (Awesome yet Practical), and even avert it (I would site how the 4E players is written like a VCR manual). or prefrm a double subversion (the 4e DMG is written so well and is so helpful its cool).

    You are absolutly right about confimation bias and the examples someone provides, as a primary example of the trope “Your mileage may very”

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