The rule of cool in D&D is a very divisive concept. Some DMs say that you should not use the rule of cool since it can destroy the game and subtract from it. Others say that it is a great narrative tool.
The rule of cool in D&D is best used in short bursts. It can be a good rule to use if your campaign allows for it, but be cautious.
I have used the rule of cool too little and too much in my games. After over a decade of DMing, I have finally found the best way to use the rule of cool so that you don’t have to go through all the experimentation.
When to use the rule of cool.
The rule of cool in D&D is about breaking the narrative due to a cool moment. We have already gone into the rule of cool in some instances. A great article to look at for this is our stealth article.
In the stealth article, we talk about instant killing a person. Yes, you can do it within the system by making the targets have low hp, but what about cutting someone’s neck? This is where the rule of cool can come in, but even then we talk about using it sparingly.
If you were to slit someone’s neck, then any stealth attack can be an instant kill. It makes sense if you look at our real-world mechanics, but you have set a precedent. Now, whenever someone wants to slit a person’s throat you have to allow it. This can be devastating and break the game, so you need to look at 6 factors before implementing the rule of cool in D&D.
- Will it fit well into your game?
- Is this a 1-time thing or can it be used again?
- Did your players earn the rule of cool?
- Will it add to the narrative or will it just take up time?
- Will it break the game or allow your players to do things that they could not?
- Always have the rule of cool favor the players of NPCs.
You should use the rule of cool sparingly to maximize the effect of when it happens and keep in mind these 6 factors. If you mess up on any 1 of them it can cause serious damage to your game in the long run. That is why you have to first think if the rule of cool even fits into your game.
Will it fit?
The rule of cool in D&D is different than movies or novels. Those forms of media are meant to be entertaining and we can suspend our disbelief for an epic moment. After that moment, things go back to normal unless the feats are too ridiculous.
D&D works differently than other forms of media.
You have players that are active in the story. They can change how a story goes and are not just a bystander watching or reading a show/novel. If something happens that challenges that sense of disbelief, it affects them and their story personally.
Your players can use this to their advantage and or use the rule of cool to make the story more interesting.
You need to identify what players you have.
If your players are just wanting to play a hack and slash game they might only want to use the rule of cool for describing how an enemy is slain. Any further use of the rule of cool might make your players try to use it to their advantage in combat.
If the rule of cool gives a mechanical advantage, you should not use it.
The last part of making it fit into your game after identifying if your players will enjoy it/use it to their advantage is to consider your world. Will the rule of cool work in a group of level 1s who all have sub par stats? Probably not.
If your world, setting, or theme allows for epic feats then the rule of cool might be more prevalent in your game.
Identify your setting and decide if the rule of cool will work in your game.
Now that you have considered if the rule of cool is even right for your game, we should talk about making it not be repeatable.
The rule of cool is best used when it isn’t able to be replicated. If you do something epic and can keep doing it, that is just a standard action. What is more, the rule of cool generally gives a power boost to an action. That is why we suspend our disbelief.
We talked about instant killing earlier in the article, but what about other feats? What if you are a monk and wall run. That is pretty cool, but what if allow it without a skill check because monks are awesome? The monk might make wall running a regular part of combat, but when you start using it to reach destinations that should be difficult it negates an athletic or acrobatic skill check.
You are starting to see a problem with the rule of cool in D&D and why so many DMs don’t like it. If the rule of cool gets out of hand, it will allow the players to do too many epic things and get bored with the game.
That is why the rule of cool should be used in short bursts and most of the time on 1-time events.
A great example of this is if a very dextrous rogue is trying to escape a dragon in a city. They have fallen off their riding beast and now have to make an acrobatics check in order to live. They roll a natural 20 and you describe how they caught hanging flag to slow their fall, tumbled toward a wall and kicked off the wall into a pile of garbage.
The chances of this ever re-occurring are extremely slim. So slim that they are close to non-existent. The player got lucky by having a flag and a pile of garage in those specific spots.
Earning the rule of cool
Earning the rule of cool in D&D deals with 2 factors. Luck and player skill.
If your player gets a lucky roll when trying to save themselves like rolling a natural 20 as described above, they can get lucky. The player should not have lived. They should have died, but luck was on the player’s side that day.
Conversely, a player’s skill can factor in heavily.
If the player was falling and decided to use a cloth as a makeshift parachute it wouldn’t be very effective. If that player decided to use a cloth as a parachute and had time to change the momentum by throwing things or casting a spell, that is something else. This player is being extremely creative and should be rewarded with a chance of survival.
This is a wacky idea that we talk about in our creative players’ article and it will set a precedent. You want your players to be creative. The more capable they are the more interesting the story will be, so reward these actions.
If the group is making a plan beforehand that is not braindead, then the party should be rewarded. Luring enemies into a trap is a great example. The players used some skill checks to deduce that a wall is weak and can be blown in. They lead enemies to the wall and have a player on the other side knock the wall down and trap/kill the enemies.
That could kill the enemies or make a fight much easier since it is a proper use of the rule of cool, but every time a player tries to enact the rule of cool in D&D they need to earn it with skill checks.
We talked about how luck is involved, but a natural 20 is not the only way.
I had a level 2 bard try to slide under an ogre, spin, and slash at the ogre’s Achilles tendon 1 time. The player is trying to enact the rule of cool with a great idea, but they need to be lucky.
I informed the player, as you should before they attempt to enact a rule of cool idea, that it is possible, but they will need to succeed first. Always disclose what the player needs to do before they roll. This is for players who want to do a rule of cool move, and if they are informed beforehand the choice is up to them. The player will not feel cheated if they chose to take the risk and didn’t meet the requirements.
For this action, I required that the bard make an acrobatics check to slide under the ogre, an acrobatics check to spin, and an attack to actually hit the ogre. It did not happen, but if the bard succeded then it would be a very cool moment.
The rule of cool in D&D should most of the time require some sort of check. Make sure that your players are informed what checks are required before they commit and if the players succeed let them bask in their own glory.
That is for players who are trying to invoke the rule of cool in D&D, but what about when a DM invokes it?
Will it add to the narrative?
The rule of cool in D&D can be a great idea, but terrible in execution. For example, if you add in how the warrior raised his sword and chopped off the enemy’s head, will it add anything?
This question is completely subjective and based on the situation. If the warrior chops off the head of the orc it might lead to nothing. If on the other hand, the player is angry, has a history with this character, and wants to deliver the final blow it can add to the narrative significantly.
This isn’t really a rule of cool example, but it conveys the idea. Is the rule of cool worth it?
You only want to invoke the rule of cool in D&D if the players have earned it, or an epic moment is about to happen. It should not be easily repeatable or it will cheapen that moment and the narrative.
If you can use the rule of cool that way, then it is worth it. Otherwise, don’t bother. Just to clarify, a personal narrative is important. If you are doing something cool for 1 person’s narrative it can be worth it, but that is up to you.
Breaking the game
We talked about how repeated use of an overpowered action can ruin the game and consistent use of these actions can have a negative effect.
This is the biggest concern for using the rule of cool in D&D. If you allow a player to do something that is beyond their capability for the sake of being cool, it can cause issues.
For example, let’s say that Jim the cleric wants to control water. That doesn’t sound harmful, but Jim wants to become a blood bender from Avatar. In other words, he wants to control the blood of an individual and possibly get an instant kill for no save since the spell doesn’t require a save.
This is where an ability would be really cool to use, but it would completely break the game. You will have to limit these instances or just say no.
For limiting an ability like this, add a check. Use a skill check or in this instance make the opponent have a save vs spell.
That is for limiting small abilities. Blood bending/instant killing is a bit of a stronger ability. That is why you should look at the intent of the spell/action that the player is suggesting to use and realize that it is a gross overuse of the spell/ability to use it in this manner. Control water was never intended to bloodbend, so it is not allowed for example.
Instant killing from stealth can break the game. Instantly killing someone with control water will also break the game. There are a bunch of ways that players can try to do something cool in order to get an edge, but it is too powerful.
If an ability, action, or variation of any sort is too powerful and can be used repeatedly do not let it happen. The rule of cool is supposed to be a tool not an in-game glitch that you have to work around. The rules are a tool for you to use, not a weapon to used against you.
Giving players options
The rule of cool in D&D can allow your players to do things that they are normally unable to do. That is why we like it, and can use the rule of cool to give players options.
A great example is a fighter. Jim the fighter is normally only able to hack and slash, but notices that there is a barrel on the ground. He picks up the barrel and throws it at a person. This barrel normally wouldn’t do much, but Jim threw with such force (a natural 20) that he knocked 3 people down and they took damage.
Fighters are basic in their tool kit and have to use the environment. Their simplicity is their strength and a creative fighter is always using the environment. Using the rule of cool to incentivize fighters enforces them to be creative (just like spellcasters) and can make for a more interesting game.
This is why you should always have the rule of cool favor players.
How many people are at the table? Now, how many people are players vs the DM? Most of the time, the players outnumber the DM. This is not all. The DM has prepared a narrative and the players are going through it, possibly changing what happens.
You are god and do not need the rule of cool in D&D to enhance the story. You have a setting laid out for the players and they are the ones who are changing it. In order to do so, they might want to do something epic.
The Dm, on the other hand, is god. God does not need the rule of cool, and to use it for yourself is to stroke your own ego OR set a scene. The second part is where too many DMs get confused. They think that setting the scene is making an NPC do something completely over the top and destroy the party. This is the exact opposite of what the rule of cool is supposed to do.
In the rule of cool you suspend your disbelief so that something cool happens. It isn’t easy to suspend your disbelief when that ‘cool’ thing is affecting you in direct contrast to how the game is supposed to be played. What is worse, the players know how the game is supposed to be played and feel cheated.
Setting the scene is just having the bad guys make an impressive entrance. As long as you do not use the rule of cool negatively against the players it is fine, but otherwise, the players should be the only ones who benefit (and gain in-game advantages) from the rule of cool.
The rule of cool in D&D is best used for the players. Using it for yourself can make the players feel cheated since you are after all god.
When using the rule of cool in D&D you need to consider if it is right for your game and setting. Not every game needs the rule of cool, but it can be a great narrative tool for you to use.
Tool. Don’t let players use this against you. If they try to grey area an ability to make it overpowered then put down the hammer and say no or adjust it appropriately.
Don’t use the rule of cool too often, and every time it is used to make the players earn it through skill or ingenuity.
The rule of cool can add extra options for your players and be a great asset for your campaign, but you have to make sure to use it correctly or it can break your game.
What do you think of the rule of cool? I hope that I helped you understand the rule and why people either love or hate it.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!