Before we talk about how to be cool in roleplaying, it’s important to talk about why it is that we spend so much time preparing and playing Dungeons and Dragons when we could just play a well-made game like Skyrim or The Witcher. We play Dungeons and Dragons to be social, to be a part of a badass story, to play our dream characters, and to watch them do incredible shit. We want to surf down a staircase on a shield like Legolas, have an epic battle 3000 feet in the air riding on griffons, and develop meaningful characters with arcs and growth of their own. We play Dungeons and Dragons because 10 years after my first campaign, I still get goosebumps from my party’s barbarian, Durgle (may he rest in peace), sacrificing himself by tackling an angel into an endless void in an extra-planar prison to save the fucking day.
How does Dungeons and Dragons help us do this? Dungeons and Dragons is great because it provides an incredibly intricate system of mechanics for making virtually whatever type of character you want, and the background system in 5e has made great roleplaying mechanics accessible to any class. However, this intricate set of rules tends to get in the way of the truly cinematic possibilities that you and your players want. For instance, if you use the rules as written (RAW), that epic battle on griffons will require multiple handle animal checks and dexterity saves which quickly turns into players splatting for 20d6 damage on the ground below, or at best being alive but left in the dust while the battle rages on. Similarly, a deal gone wrong in a seedy bar would be much more awesome if you smash a tankard full of mead into that smug tiefling’s face… but by the RAW, you aren’t proficient with that tankard, and it does virtually no damage, so you probably opt for your trusty longsword instead. Lame. So, while Dungeons and Dragons is great as a framework, it has limitations that hinder our ability to play how we all want to play. How do we fix this travesty?
The “Rule of Cool”
Most people have heard of the “Rule of Cool”, a quippy saying which encourages the bending or replacement of rules to make the game more fun. The core rulebooks actively endorse this but don’t go so far as to help you figure out how to do that. Because of this, the “Rule of Cool” is a flimsy suggestion and tends to be (in my experience) either ignored or abused by DMs. Today we’re gonna talk about what the Rule of Cool really means and how it can make your game unforgettable.
Before we dive deeper, let’s have a quick word about your responsibility as a DM. Your responsibility as the DM is to foster the relationship of the DM and players together as a storytelling team. Remember, one of the reasons we play Dungeons and Dragons is to be social, and to enjoy a social encounter (in real life or in DnD), there has to be fulfilling input from both sides. This means that bending the rules for the sake of awesomeness must happen for a cinematic reason and should work in a constant yin and yang balance between the players and the DM. For this to be an enjoyable experience, you must accept that the DM is not playing against the characters. Repeat after me: the DM is not playing against the characters. If you get your rocks off by knocking out PCs and making them fail, it’s not worth it. It’s not a game when the DM holds the ultimate power to make characters fail at any task or to die in any combat at any time. It’s a story that you build together. This becomes of paramount importance when we start talking about bending the rules for cinematic roleplaying. The DM holds all the power for determining if a cool thing can happen, and the abuse I spoke about earlier happens most often when the DM uses her power to bend too many rules at the expense of the players and not enough to help them.
So how do I train my rules-lawyering players to play along? It’s easy… players already want to do cool shit that isn’t covered by the rules. All you have to do is treat them like your brand new golden retriever puppy. Give them a treat and a pat on the head… and prove to them that you aren’t out to kill them. Start by making small, awesome, cinematic things happen in favor of the players without them asking. Use your imagination about what makes movie combat so exciting, and start peppering in little details based on the description of the attack. Maybe the frustrating third “miss” that a character swings on a minion is instead a hero relentlessly bashing at the enemy’s shield and finally results in the shield shattering, leaving the goblin defenseless and terrified. Maybe a heavy hit causes an enemy to stumble into a chair in the tavern, potentially causing them to fall. I promise that when you do this, unsolicited, your resident rules-lawyer won’t make a peep. Do you know why? Because just like a cowering or snapping dog at the pound, being a rules-lawyer Is a learned defense against an abusive (or perceived abusive) DM. Just like your puppy, once you gain the trust of your players, then you can start throwing similar curveballs at your players… knocking a weapon out of their hand, blood smudging on their spellbook, making it harder to read. If you can convince them it’s in the interest of badassery and not because you want to hurt them, they’ll not only love you for it, but they may even start volunteering to have bad things happen to them for the sake of awesome. That’s a loyal damn dog, I mean player… and if you don’t give them inspiration (or XP), then fuck you. I digress…in the future, I’ll have a post specifically dedicated to how to train your players. However, for now, lets introduce you to Rule of Cool 1:
Rule of Cool 1 (RoC1): Always do more cool things in favor of the player characters than the NPCs/monsters.
You should do awesome things in favor of the bad guys as well to keep players on their toes and to make things awesome, but remember, the characters are the heroes, and the players are much more likely to accept you randomly making their staff break on the head of an axebeak if they’ve gotten to do some similarly amazing things. Ok, now that you’re a team-playing, story-driving, proud owner of immaculately trained players… let’s get you up on those griffons.
Cool in Combat
This may seem simple, but the first step to having cool combat is to skip things that are NOT cool. There are mechanical things that we can talk about removing to make your combats run more sleekly, but that’s for another post. The biggest piece of advice I can give you is to END YOUR COMBATS IN AN AWESOME WAY BEFORE THEY BECOME BORING. I’ve mentioned this before in a prior post, but if your characters are level 10 and they have a random encounter with a small group of bandits on the road, making them run the combat turn for turn is just punishment. Those bandits shouldn’t pose much of a threat to the players. It would be much more cinematic to roll a skill check or two, have the players describe the combat, and let them do whatever awesome things they want to do. If they fail their checks, they can still take a dagger to the flank, waste spell slots, or be exhausted from the combat. One of my favorite blog writers states that every combat should answer a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, and as soon as this question is answered, you should end the combat. In the case of a random encounter with bandits, if the question is simply “do the players survive the combat” (which is a boring question to begin with), then if you don’t hope to seriously imperil the players, then this combat shouldn’t ever occur. Combat can be fun, but it also takes up TONS of play time, and as a 30 year old young professional, it’s hard enough for me to get a consistent group together that maybe time would be better spent furthering the plot.
Now that we have turned otherwise boring or prolonged encounters instead into quick, epic flourishes, let’s talk about how to make the meaningful combats more awesome! Let’s take a look at this from two angles: what about DnD combat sucks and how can we make it better, and what is it about epic movie and book battles that we want to add to our games and how do we do it?
Changing what sucks about DnD combat
Time and time again, I see a player use their action, in the heat of battle, to try something like knocking over a pillar to collapse a wall, blow out a torch sconce, or knock a barrel onto a baddie. We all applaud how awesome it is, but then it does 2 damage, and the orc uses multiattack with their trusty greataxe for max damage and knocks the foolish player out. Everyone agrees that the player did something cool, but they just learned that what he/she did was stupid, and they’ll never do it again. Here, I will lay out another one of my cardinal rules and how to apply it to improvised weapons and mundane items.
Rule of Cool 2 (RoC2): if a player uses their action in combat to do something awesome instead of casting a useful spell or making an attack, they should be rewarded with an effect similar to the effect of casting a useful spell or making an attack.
One of my big changes to the cool of DnD combat is to make improvised weapons viable to use. RAW, improvised weapons suck (insert rules for improvised weapons). Unless you sink a feat into tavern brawler, you don’t even have proficiency with them which means you’re gimped from the get go, and even then, they only become 1d4 damage. This makes complete sense from a combat balance standpoint since improvised weapons are meant to be used when you are imprisoned and have all of your equipment taken from you or when you drop your weapon after the enemy casts heat metal on it. In these instances, you may choose to use RAW, which I agree with.
However, if a player CHOOSES to use an improvised weapon for thematic effect, they should not be penalized for doing so according to RoC2. Going back to the example of smashing a tankard of ale into someone’s face at a bar, there are multiple ways to ensure that the player is adequately rewarded for their badassery, and depending on the situation, you may choose some or all of these.
- Give them advantage on the attack roll, cause that dirty bastard never saw it coming
- Give them proficiency on the roll and increase the damage die to make it equivalent (or slightly less if you must) to their main weapon, because remember, they could have just been lame and used their regular weapon, but this is supposed to be cooler.
- Have it impart a status effect or something else awesome… maybe the ale splashes in the bad guy’s eyes and they have to make a CON save or be blinded for the round or have disadvantage on their next attack roll.
- Give them inspiration, because you need to train your puppies.
Similarly, mundane or alchemical items seem so neat at the beginning of the game but turn out to be almost useless after a few short levels. There’s really not too much to spend your GP on in DnD, so encourage it for goodness sake. Remember, if these take your action to use, they should be cooler than they are according to RoC2. Here’s a few suggestions:
- Allow alchemist’s fire and similar items to scale in damage like cantrips.
- Allow ball bearings and caltrops to be spread over a larger area and scale in DC like spells or abilities. If you choose, you can have skill checks to spread them over larger areas.
- Smashing a flask of oil and lighting someone on fire with it might take two whole actions to do, make it cool as hell! Maybe make it do damage scaled to a produce flame of that level and make the bad guy have to take action to put it out.
Lastly, reward roleplaying in combat. One of my favorite characters is a Half-elf Fisherman near the end of his life who drowned in a storm, but woke up on a beach with a conch shell (his spellcasting focus) in his hand and became a Sea Sorcerer (Unearthed Arcana). Before this, he lived a completely common life, and in his first adventure, when he ended up in a battle on a pirate ship, he froze in terror, hiding while all of the other adventurers tried to save the day. The rules balance this encounter for me blasting firebolts and thunderwaves all over the place, but the story is much more powerful if my relatable character plays his part. Should I be punished for taking my action to do this? RoC1 and RoC2 say no. Here are suggestions for that scenario:
- The story can make up for my lack of contribution to the combat: maybe the captain of our ship rallies some men from below decks to come fend off the pirates
- The terrain or weather can contribute: a wave piles over the deck and sweeps multiple baddies off of their feet
- Some sort of boon or roleplaying factor cometh: perhaps my conch shell begins to rumble, sear with blue energy, and I regain a spell slot as it reminds me that I need no longer be afraid now that I have my newfound power.
- Don’t ever forget to give out inspiration, Ebenezer Scrooge.
Adding what’s awesome about movie combat
Ok, so there are some things that we can change about the DnD rules to make cool things more viable in the number crunch of combat, but now what can we ADD to make combat even cooler?
Imagine, if you will, the sword fight scene in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl where Will Turner first meets Jack Sparrow. It’s just two guys with swords (in various stages of creation) fighting, yet it manages to be incredibly exciting because of thematic elements. Balancing on beams, catapulting off of planks, throwing swords, fighting with searing hot blades, and tumbling around masterfully. Now how would that fight go in Dungeons and Dragons? Sure, if there were two rogues, they could disengage, hide, run around, but overall, really none of those options are likely to improve their tactical situation, and it usually ends up as a dull roll-off with two plastic figures touching bases in the center of the table. So what can we do about that?
- Move characters: exciting battles keep moving. Just because an effect doesn’t cause a character to move doesn’t mean that the natural flow of battle doesn’t cause it to happen randomly sometimes. Maybe a hard blow knocks someone prone. Maybe when a player misses with an attack, it allows the enemy (or player) to slip behind the pillar next to them and head for a new position.
- Move the combat: Maybe the roof that you’re fighting on caves in and suddenly you’re fighting in the chambers of the matron of the house who is taking a bath. Or perhaps, much like a video game cutscene, the lead cultist slips away and you chase them down the corridor to the ritual chamber where the battle continues as the cultist threatens to sacrifice a poor child at the altar. That certainly changes things!
- Add saves for status effects or conditions when it fits: it’s realistic that slashing a player’s arm may cause him or her to drop their beloved sword or the next parry that they perform causes it to fly across the room when their weakened hand loses its grip. That can change the whole dynamic of a battle. Remember… the players may resent you for taking huge rule liberties that cause them to die, but on the daily if it’s the difference between a couple spell slots or a hit die and they end up tackling an enemy and smashing their face in with a rock instead of the sword they always use, it’ll be much more memorable, plus they’ll be delighted when they randomly shatter the enemy wizard’s orb when they didn’t even plan to. Just remember RoC1.
- Use the terrain: tables fall over and make great cover, chairs are easy to trip over, rugs can be pulled out from under people, walls and windows can be broken through, fires can be started and spread… anything to change the situation or the strategies that players must use to overcome them. As a rule of thumb, if no one has moved in 2 rounds, things have stagnated and you should try to shake them up.
- Use the weather/environment: lightning strikes, obscuring rain and fog, rapidly spreading fires. Anything to change the status quo. There’s a reason why tons of epic fantasy battles suddenly go from bleak to torrential rainstorm and why the final scene of Kill Bill: vol 1 is made that much more amazing with the intense, quiet snowfall and crunching footsteps. Things don’t have to necessarily impact gameplay mechanics, but these types of things spark the imagination and put the players in their characters’ shoes, and when you foster their imaginations (and make what they imagine useful in game), then they will act accordingly.
- Alternative goals: the players don’t have to kill all of the enemies. Figure out a more interesting goal for your characters to face… shutting the portals so the abyssal creatures can’t keep streaming through, saving the mayor’s daughter before she is lowered into a volcano… I can’t stress this enough, read The Angry GM on how to build encounters… he is a much better, and funnier, writer than I am and is able to explain this much more succinctly than I.
A word about Battle Maps
A quick bit on likely the most controversial topic of this post: battlemaps. I could go on for pages about this so I’ll leave that for another time. Battlemaps are useful for tactics and mechanics, but unless you’re playing out a complicated scenario or one where PC death is truly a possibility, I find it to be a hindrance. Describing (and understanding) a battle scene can be daunting, but when you use a battlemap, I find that players lose their imaginations. If they don’t see a bale of hay in the barn on the map, they won’t ask if there’s a bale of hay to light on fire or a ladder up to the second level. There may be annoying questions about the geometry of the layout for mechanical purposes, but I believe that the theatre of the mind still trumps a board with plastic pieces and allows players to ask about things that may not be given outright. Also, for area of effect spells like fireball and thunderwave, I (and my players) have found it very exciting to use skill checks to attempt to include a maximum number of enemies and avoid allies in the blast. Again, it sounds scary, but if you prove to your players that it’s for the story and not because you want to kill their characters, they’ll like it! More on this some other time.
Whew, that was a lot of crazy shit for the first part of this post. I just wanted to hit a couple of things home before I end this week. Support your players’ imaginations, and let them do things they want to do (unless they are “secretly evil but no one knows I’m evil teeehee”… tell them to go play Fable or something). If you tell them ‘no’ all the time, or make their thoughts useless by making them mechanically impotent, they’ll stop using their imaginations and will become mindless, dice-rolling, railroad zombies. Once you let them use their imaginations, they won’t complain about the rules when you do things to turn the tables on them in ways they didn’t expect.
When we return, we’ll take the rule of cool for special combat situations and a test drive outside of combat!
- Special combat situations: flying, swimming, large battles, and turning points!
- The Rule of Cool in exploration: stealth kills, traps, diplomacy, crafting, and poisons!
- Cool ass characters: modifying features, feat options, reskinning items and more!