Steven Brust’s Cool Stuff Theory of Literature is as follows:
All literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool. The reader will like the book to the degree that he agrees with the writer about what’s cool. And that works all the way from the external trappings to the level of metaphor, subtext, and the way one uses words. In other words, I happen not to think that full-plate armor and great big honking greatswords are cool. I don’t like ’em. I like cloaks and rapiers. So I write stories with a lot of cloaks and rapiers in ’em, ’cause that’s cool. Guys who like military hardware, who think advanced military hardware is cool, are not gonna jump all over my books, because they have other ideas about what’s cool.
The novel should be understood as a structure built to accommodate the greatest possible amount of cool stuff.
While obviously incomplete, I think the Cool Stuff Theory of Literature does capture something important about art. And, equally, it captures something important about GMing.
Your game should be full of things you and your players think are really cool.
Now, I’m not saying that everything has to be D&D hack-and-slash (unless, of course, that’s what you think is cool). You can play Good Society if your thing is complicated romantic entanglements and Regency dresses. You can play Polaris if you’re into tragedies, knights, and inevitable doom. You can play Shock if your thing is really interesting societal worldbuilding. But you have to play what you think is cool.
I think the Cool Stuff Theory of GMing is even truer than the Cool Stuff Theory of Literature. After all, people sometimes read books for personal improvement or because of their historical importance or to show off at parties. And you can write a book you don’t think is cool if you want to make money or win awards. (Although in my opinion when an author is writing a book they don’t think is cool, you can sort of tell.) But there is absolutely no reason to run a game you don’t think is cool. You’re not going to win the Pulitzer for Excellence in Tabletop GMing. If there is one kind of story that should be maximally self-indulgent, it’s RPGs.
The Fun Now Manifesto says that a tabletop game should contain “fun stuff every ten minutes,” and I think that’s a good guideline. Think about your last game: did something cool, fun, or nifty happen at least once every ten minutes? Think broadly. It doesn’t have to be a Crowning Moment of Awesome: a cool piece of character development, a cruel piece of dramatic irony, a devilishly hard puzzle, or even a suspenseful dice roll can be Cool Stuff depending on the group. If you do not have cool stuff at least once every ten minutes, your game needs to be more self-indulgent and have more cool stuff in it.
A tabletop RPG is a collaborative effort between GM and players. When I say “cool stuff every ten minutes,” I don’t just mean stuff that’s fun to the GM; I mean that from every single player‘s perspective something cool should happen every ten minutes.
That might seem like an impossible amount of cool stuff. There might be five people at your table, are you supposed to have six cool events happen every ten minutes? That’s too many! Sometimes you have to roll dice!
But it is actually a totally attainable amount of cool stuff as long as everyone is on the same page. Let’s say you’re playing Call of Cthulhu. You filter for players who are into solving mysteries, blasphemous tomes, elder gods, slow descent into insanity, traumatized characters, tragedy, the pitiless neutrality of the universe, the 1920s, and unusually high-stakes humanities research. Now, you can reveal the secrets of the Necronomicon and all your players are like “Woo! Awesome!”
Imagine a different game. One of your players wants to be a bag of skills that solves mysteries. One of your players is a huge horror aficionado: what they want is to be terrified. One of your players loves the sanity mechanics and is exclusively interested in playing the tragedy of their character’s gradually increasing insanity in the face of an uncaring cosmos. One of your players wants to ram Cthulhu with a boat and throw dynamite into Yig’s snakey mouth. And one of your players is only there because it’s the only RPG with open slots, and they really want to play GURPS Discworld.
Now you have a problem. The slow-paced puzzles that fascinate your mystery-loving player frustrate the player who wants to make things go boom. The jokes that appeal to your player who would really rather be playing GURPS Discworld break immersion for your player who wants to be scared. And the sanity-mechanics-loving player is going to complain constantly that everyone else is rollplaying instead of roleplaying: why are you even bothering to play if you don’t care about what your character would really do?
The problem here is not the Cool Stuff Theory of GMing. The problem is that none of your players agree on what cool stuff is.
Now, you’re never going to find two people who agree 100% on what stuff is cool and what stuff is not. A lot of RPGs are actually designed around this: in D&D you need both a wizard and a fighter in your party, because some people think that shooting fireballs is cool and some people think hacking at people with swords is cool, and if both play equal and complementary roles both players can be happy in the same game. If one player is kind of meh on blasphemous tomes while all your other players think they’re wonderful, this is not necessarily a problem. But overall your game needs to be something that will regularly give every player the things they think are cool; if not, they need to find a different group.
Once you’re broadly on the same page, making sure that players get their cool stuff is often pretty easy. Most players– if they’re allowed to– will pursue things they think are cool and avoid things they think are boring. Sometimes you get a player who is used to being railroaded and sits around waiting for the plot to show up, sometimes you get a player who thinks that doing boring shit is what makes them a good player, but most of the time players provide their own cool stuff without you having to worry about it, if you aren’t fucking up.
But man is it easy to fuck up.
There are two issues you can run into: players that aren’t making it fun for other players and GMs that aren’t making it fun for the players.
Players pursue shit that they think is cool. But a lot of players won’t think about whether the shit they’re pursuing is interfering with the cool shit for other players. As a GM, it’s important to keep an eye on the group dynamic. Is one person hogging all the attention? Do some players seem bored or disengaged? Do some seem more reluctant about a particular plan? It’s important not just for the GM to be on the same page as the players but for the players to be on the same page as each other. As the GM, you may need to mediate between players or even veto certain decisions on the part of the players.
In general, however, this is the easier problem to avoid as long as all of your players agree on what sort of game is being played. GM-related problems are much harder to solve.
In most games, the GM controls the world and the majority of the characters and is the primary and final arbiter of mechanics. You can have a game that isn’t full of cool stuff for the GM, but this is mostly a GM fuckup. If you decided to leave out the lesbian selkies or the cackling scenery-chewing villains that make the story fun for you, that’s your fault.
On the other hand, a player controls exactly one thing: their character. And they don’t even fully control their character, the way the GM fully controls the NPCs. The GM usually decides what happens after a bad dice roll: the GM can break the character’s precious sword, cripple the character, or kill them. The GM controls the other NPCs: the GM decides how to play the character’s loving father, whether the player gets obnoxious orders from their boss, and whether the character actually wins the heart of the fair maiden. In some games, the GM can even play the player’s character in certain circumstances, such as mind control or Call of Cthulhu’s insanity rules.
For that matter, a player is not usually allowed to look down the list of NPCs a GM includes and veto any they don’t like, but a GM is absolutely allowed to veto a player’s idea.
So it is really easy for a bad GM to keep a player from having cool stuff.
One strategy is to default to yes. Is there an actual reason for you to turn down your player having a pet monkey? Or is it just not what you expected from the game? Is there a reason your player can’t have that suboptimal build, or do you just have a set idea of how you’re “supposed” to play the game? Within the rules of the game and as long as it isn’t fucking up anyone else’s fun, let your players have the characters they want to have.
In the actual game, it’s more complicated, because your players almost always want you to provide conflict and opposition. But let them do things and face conflict and opposition; don’t just rule them out because they weren’t part of your plan. Your players want to pause their investigation to rescue an NPC from an asylum? Sure! Your players want to run away from the dragon instead of fighting it? Cool, why not? Your players want to try to shoot the Big Bad Evil Guy in the head in the first scene they meet him? Roll for it.
(Of course, if you’re playing Star Wars and your players have decided to ignore the Empire in order to concentrate on building up their intragalactic water trading empire, you are allowed to stop and say “guys, we agreed upon playing a Star Wars game where you battled the Empire. This is not battling the Empire. Do you want to play a different game?” I find this is rarely an issue if everyone is on the same page about what the game is.)
It is also important not to take away your character’s cool stuff. In some ways, taking away a player’s cool stuff is tempting. A good story involves raising the stakes, right? If your player thinks cloaks and rapiers are cool, then what is more suspenseful than their character losing their ability to swordfight ever again? But if the stakes of a game are “it won’t be fun for me to play anymore,” that’s not fun suspense. It’s just dickishness.
I think there is one major guideline about taking away a character’s cool stuff, at least from a Narrativist or Simulationist perspective. (Gamist play has different concerns, which I’m not qualified to speak to, as someone who has essentially zero interest in it.)
Every Cool Thing has a set of cool actions associated with it. For example, if you read a blasphemous tome, you could find out secret forbidden knowledge, or go insane, or be misled by false information, or disbelieve it only to find out at the worst possible moment that it’s all true. All of that is cool. If the blasphemous tome instead contains nothing but a really good recipe for chicken korma, that is not cool.
(On the other hand, a different set of players– your GURPS Discworld player from earlier– would think it’s really cool.)
More conceptually, let’s say your players are into Regency-style romance arcs. They love marriages of convenience that turn into something more, the strictures of etiquette, subtext-y conversations, anguished proposals of marriage, rakish and untrustworthy seducers, all that stuff. All of those are ways that you, the GM, can interact with the players’ interest in Regency romances. You cannot, however, declare that there are no eligible bachelors in the entirety of Stratfordshire and, no, all the carriages have broken and you can’t go to London. You can’t have Napoleon invade England and suddenly everyone has much more important things on their mind than romance. You can’t say there’s a plague that means that all the balls have been canceled.
Now, for many cool things, taking it away– in the right way— can be cool. The heirloom sword passed down by generations of your character’s family? You can have the major villain steal it and then the hero has to go on a quest to get it back. Their role as a quest object is one of the things that’s cool about heirloom swords (for many people). Conversely, if the player fumbles a roll and the character accidentally drops the heirloom sword into the volcano, it’s not cool.
Or consider Call of Cthulhu. In Call of Cthulhu, one of the fundamental cool things is the gradual corruption of everything your character cares about and loves: they lose their faith, their relationship with their wife is strained, the locket their childhood best friend got them is smashed by an eldritch horror, and when they visit the library that always cheered them up they feel nothing. So you do get to take away all your characters’ cool things because Call of Cthulhu is a tragedy. And for the right players, tragedy is cool as fuck.
A corollary of this is that you can take away a player’s cool stuff if the replacement is cooler to the player (not to you). This is always risky, of course, because you’re substituting your judgment for the player’s; if the player thought it was cool they would have asked for it in the first place. But in general it is okay to blind your player’s swordsman, as long as the player then gets a blind swordsman. Blind swordsmen are awesome. And it is okay to do a lot of things to an investigator in Call of Cthulhu that you wouldn’t do in D&D, because you wouldn’t play Call of Cthulhu if you didn’t want to play a traumatized character desperately holding onto the last shreds of their sanity.
The flipside of not taking away a character’s cool stuff is giving them the opportunity to shine. These are basically the same thing, framed in different ways: if you never have combat and your player thinks swordfighting is cool, you’ve taken away her swordfighting as sure as if you had her character accidentally drop her rapier in a volcano. If you present the opportunity to do cool shit, players will take advantage of it.
What I’m saying here has a lot of overlap with what Powered By The Apocalypse games call “being a fan of your players’ characters.” If you’re a fan of the characters, you want to give them opportunities to show off their cool shit. You don’t take away the things that make the characters awesome. And you make a game that is fun for everyone.