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Cool Is Not Necessarily Fun

I’ve got this really super-cool idea for a campaign/adventure/encounter. I mean, it’s the coolest thing ever, like Shaft meets Napoleon Dynamite in a deep freeze kinda cool, you dig? It’s such a cool idea that  when it happens, the whole table’s going to have to put on their shades, just to keep from going blind from the sheer coolness of this idea. It’s so fucking cool that Quentin Tarantino called me up, just on the off-chance that I might pitch him the script.

I’ll catch you hep-cats later, I’ve gotta go bask in the coolness of this idea…

Time for a reality check – When you’ve got a cool idea, ask yourself if it’s going to be fun for your players as well.

Whether in real life or in gaming, we’ve all had ideas that sounded cool, right up until the point at which they were introduced. At the gaming table, this situation often occurs when the players aren’t in the spotlight, but it could be the result of any number of factors.

Blame the apparently random or self-destructive actions of the player characters. Blame your players’ complete ignorance of pop culture or genre tropes [1]. Blame the overly complicated or unrealistic game rules that will bog the scene down. Blame your own poor judgment or claim a case of temporary insanity.

But remember: Cool is not necessarily Fun.

And think twice about your ideas before putting them into play.

Have you had an idea that didn’t work as well as you expected? Sound off in the comments and share the lessons you’ve learned.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Cool Is Not Necessarily Fun"

#1 Comment By Scott Martin On August 11, 2009 @ 9:14 am

One of my oldest (and least successful) cool ideas was dedicating a character as a Priestess of the Nameless Ones (borrowing from LeGuin). I was the only one who knew what was going on– it was sure cool to me! Why didn’t they understand…

In my defense, I was 13 at the time. Still, it’s one of the sessions that still makes me groan and cover my face when it’s brought up.

#2 Comment By quatch On August 11, 2009 @ 11:17 am

My facecovering moment comes from a similar age:

“Wouldn’t it be cool if the characters all died, and a god revived them in exchange for service–going back in time to stop a massive war?!”

Turns out no, no it would not be. Problems:
1) Characters refused to give up and die (who’dve thunk.)
2) Characters attempted to negotiate with said god.
players: “So you’re omni-potent, everywhere, right?”
god: “Ofcourse.”
players: “then get out of my underpants.”

They /STILL/ bring this up every time we talk about RP. Its been more than 10 YEARS.

#3 Comment By Swordgleam On August 11, 2009 @ 7:08 pm

Nothing so drastic, but I like adding in little bits of flavor that I think are cool. And then the players get ahold of them. “His body vanishes, but you find yourself still holding his now-frozen heart.” Cool flavor, right? Ten minutes later the player whose heart was in question decides that this must be a sign that a new major plot arc is starting.

#4 Comment By Protohacker On August 12, 2009 @ 3:22 am

Well, now you’ve got me to thinking. I had an idea for my Serenity game, but now I’m not so sure. So, I come to all of you for advice. Would you, as a player, find this cool?

The group is making the right kinds of contacts and has the right kind of ship to be the ones who will rescue River from the academy (I’m so proud of my players, they are doing this all without any prompting from me). I thought they’d have fun being a part of the show like that.

But, there is more, I have a larger conspiracy going on in the background. In my setting, Parliament not only knows about the problems with the Pax and the Reavers, but is secretly developing a form of Pax that produces a controllable Reaver. They plan to use these people as a sort of supersoldier in case of war. The failed experimental subjects (those who are uncontrollable) are sent into Reaver territory (which is why the numbers of Reavers don’t seem to diminish over time).

The players will, over time, find out what’s going and who’s behind it. I have an arc that will last probably a year or two with foreshadowing and everything. It’s a lot like the original show in how it’s being set up.

Would you want to play in this game? Or is the cool just in my head?

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On August 12, 2009 @ 8:12 am

[3] – I’d play in that, but the introduction of a “super enemy” would seem to significantly change the flavor of the ‘verse, at least as presented in the few shows we got to see.

I’d recommend an exit strategy just in case the players don’t follow your plan. (It never worked, and the program was simply shut down. Or factions in Parliament disagree on the program, which turns it into more of a diplomacy/favors game. Etc.)

Back to Gen Con…

#6 Comment By nblade On August 12, 2009 @ 8:23 am

Think sometimes when we say something will be cool, we think of it in terms of reading a book. If we read about this event, we would think it’s cool.

The sad truth is that most of these events don’t work in a real RPG session. It’s why it’s hard to translate books to other media. Ever wonder why movies make changes to written works, one is for run time and the other is that movies are different medium and you have to make allowances for that. A book can have hours and hours of cool dialog between to characters but something like a movie that dialog would be as boring as hell. The same can be said about RPG.

#7 Comment By quatch On August 12, 2009 @ 9:04 am

[3] – I’d say thats quite a nifty idea for an overstory. From my watchings of the series, the movie stuff was all kinda tacked on anyhow, and didn’t have enough time to really elaborate on any of the ideas presented, hence being fair game for you, without breaking canon.

And yes, the exit strategy (plan B) is always a good idea. I’d look for a few different ways to introduce the same plot (an overplot is general enough to fit in many campaign types). A diplomacy route, a combat route, a exploration flavoured game; just in case the group has a different play style than you imagined.

#8 Comment By xiaolung On August 12, 2009 @ 9:27 am

So, what is COOL? To be more specific, what is COOL in an RPG?

I had been pondering this question for a long while now. I have been GM’ing since the 1970’s – a very long time indeed. You would think I would know what that ambiguous COOL is. But recent experience has shown me that maybe I do not. I have a core group, but players have been migrating away and the only answer I can come up with is that I am not delivering the COOL (this is based on many conversations I have had since the migrations about why my players want the OTHER game, and not my own). My many exchanges with gaming friends both in my group and not, have not produced any answers either.

Then I read this exchange in a World of Darkness forum (but this can be generalized to ANY RPG):

QUOTE ONE “I guess I just want the World of Dorkness to be a little less whine, a lot more fun. Sure it can be mysterious and scary, BUT IT ALSO NEEDS TO BE COOL AND MAKE PEOPLE GO WOW.”

QUOTE TWO: “I’d say the World of Darkness can do that, BUT ITS UP TO THE STORYTELLER TO DELIVER THAT TO THE PLAYERS. If you’re playing a game where vampires are all whinny emo kids, THATS THE ST’S FAULT, not the games.” (emphasis mine).

So, if I read the above correctly, it is the responsibility of the GM to deliver the COOL. If I don’t know what the COOL IS, how can I deliver it?

So my question to Gnome Stew is this: What, in terms of RPG’s, is COOL? And if it is such an important job for the GM, please explain to me how to bring this COOL to the table.

Before answering that question, some background: I am a GM who’s primary goal in an RPG is: everyone at the table has fun (including me). I am a GM who listens to his players to find out what they want both as a player as well as a character. I take time to create “moments” for each character and player and shine a spotlight on everyone at some time. I do a lot of improv and take stories in directions the PLAYERS want to go in, sometimes with great results. I try hard not to railroad and the Players are always the centre of the story. I have also lurked in Gnome Stew for a little while and read a lot of the articles on GM’ing including the great article on “What Your Players Really Want” and “An Unpleasant Truth” (which really hit home to me).

#9 Comment By Nicholas On August 12, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

I remember learning this lesson with my first DM fumblings at age 14. It seems so obvious in retrospect, but I still meet adult DM who don’t have the slightest idea that their “cool” idea is only interesting to them.

#10 Comment By Scott Martin On August 12, 2009 @ 10:41 pm

[4]So my question to Gnome Stew is this: What, in terms of RPG’s, is COOL? And if it is such an important job for the GM, please explain to me how to bring this COOL to the table. The cool is what excites you, as the GM, and your group. Though usually in that order– if you are excited by an idea, it usually comes off better just for the investment of your enthusiasm.

You won’t bat 1000, but trying is more important than success.

Cool varies by person and by group. If the game does what you all want, whatever it is, you’re delivering the cool by definition. If your players are happy, don’t worry. If they’re complaining about emo-vampires, try inserting a terrifying, completely aware of his villainy vampire and see what happens next.

#11 Comment By Starvosk On August 13, 2009 @ 9:34 am

Yeah. Sometimes you have to do something the PCs don’t want or make them act out of character. After all, character based stories are about characters that change..characters that stay the same don’t really work well at all for such things.

One thing that is cool is explosions. Sure, you can go overboard, but rarely has there been an explosion in an RPG that I failed to be amused by. Have there been any explosions in your game? Maybe that’s the problem. Lack of explosions.

Generally cool is a function of what players think and like, instead of the PC. Summer blockbusters like GI Joe and Transformers 2 tend to be really terrible, but the tropes within tend to follow the ‘rulebook of cool’.

Usually this fails in movies, but in RPGs things like that can usually work out since you’re not at the mercy of other bad actors than yourselves.

#12 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2009-08-14 On August 15, 2009 @ 10:10 pm

[…] Cool Is Not Necessarily Fun Telas has some more great advice to any GM that’s experienced or starting out. Some of your cool ideas might turn into cool role playing situation or campaign ideas, but some of them might not. Always examine your inspirations from the point of the view of the players to make sure they hold water. […]

#13 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On August 18, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

Thanks for the comments. I was at Gen Con when this launched (more later, once the sleep deprivation wears off).

I did take the time to edit the formatting; the bold lines were just too danged small the first time around.

If it’s not perfectly clear, the point is “What’s cool for you is not necessarily going to be fun or even cool for your players.”

#14 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On August 28, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

[4] – I was reviewing old articles, and realized I never replied to your question. I hope you get this…

I’d disagree with the second statement. The GM cannot control how the PCs are going to act/react. The GM can have a sit-down with everyone at the beginning of the game, and explain why she doesn’t like the whiny little emo approach to WoD, and that she isn’t going to have NPCs like that, or reward such behavior in PCs. But the players are still free to act like that.

If you want to find out what’s cool, talk to your players about it, and ask them what they want. Read their character sheets; if they put a bunch of points into social skills, they probably want some social interaction. And it’s okay if you have different kinds of players; you just need to feed them a mixed diet.

#15 Comment By Chando42 On July 29, 2010 @ 9:37 pm

I had a moment like this before I even got to the table. I was writing our group’s very first adventure, for the Star Wars RPG. It involved them all meeting up at a spaceport and getting a quest to go retrieve this mystical artifact that could repair any mechanical object. The quest giver offered to use the artifact to fix up an old, broken down ship that he would give to the players in exchange for completing the quest. I thought, “They get a quest, they get a ship, what’s not to love?” I had the entire quest planet mapped, the enemies generated, NPCs out the wazoo, etc. So I decided I needed a playtester.

I went to my little sister, who I taught how to RP a long time ago. I presented her with several of the major plot points and asked her what she thought of the adventure. She immediately poked several gaping holes in my “cool” pilot adventure, such as:

“How do they get to the planet from the space station?”
“Why wouldn’t the thugs with the map get it themselves?”
“It seems stupid to trade a powerful artifact for a beat up ship.”

I was stunned. My 10 year old sister picked my plot apart like it was made of wet tissue. Sometimes cool isn’t necessarily fun, and sometimes it’s just plain incomprehensible to anyone but the GM.