Awesoming up players and house rules in the CAB game and in the future

SnakesAh, the Rule of Cool.

It’s been written about a number of times in the world of DMing blogs, and is one of my principles as a DM. It guides my play style, and (as you will see below) it guides my house rules.

The guidelines behind perpetrating this rule, however, are not laid out above, though people come out with new ways to do so every day.

Rather, the method for creating an atmosphere of cool was defined years ago, completely outside of the gaming arena. Three simple rules were laid out by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker magazine. Since then, they have been applied heavily in the marketing world, to explain why products succeed and fail. But they are useful in gaming as well.

The three rules are as follows, and are effective guidelines to use while attempting to “awesome up” your games.

  • 1) The act of discovering cool causes cool to move on.

Cool is a self-propagating phenomenon. The more often these Cool moments happen, the more often they will continue to happen. In addition, as Cool becomes prominent with one player, it will spread to other players in the group. This can be clearly seen in my own group, where the antics of Nonnie’s player tend to inspire others to take similar chances. See my last writeup, where Nox decided to use the Runewell to take out the little Quasit bitch.

Conversely, Cool is constantly in flux. What’s cool in one session, once done, won’t seem as cool any more (except in retrospect). As such, Cool will draw others in, but once everyone is doing something it can stop being Cool. Only by constantly adapting your own definition of Cool (to fit with that of your players) can you keep Cool in the game. Additionally, repetition of a single “cool” act makes each instance (even in retrospect) seem that much less Cool.

  • 2) It cannot be manufactured, only observed, and then by those who are themselves cool.

This one is twofold.

First, in order to create Cool, you need to be willing to inspire that Cool. This can be through your NPCs, through your characters if you are also a player, or even just through tiny subliminal suggestions to try the Cool options.

Second, there is no way to add a Cool situation to a game. As a DM, the best you can do is add the opportunity for Cool to exist. This can be done through various tropes of the genre, but usually just consists of encouraging and working with the “crazy” ideas that your players naturally come up with. Doing this freely will naturally lead into rule 1.

  • 3) You have to be cool to know cool.

This is important.

None of this works unless both you and your players are willing to try it.

You need to be willing to work with situations that the rules don’t cover

Your players need to be willing to suggest those situations.

I’m somewhat lucky, in that I have some players that do this naturally. Some others, however, are hesitant, though rule 1 helps to take care of that (and Rule of Cool lends itself well to a group where all the players have a bit of Butt-Kicker in them). But if your players are all conservative, hesitant, and unwilling to put themselves in mechanical danger for flavourful cool, then the Rule of Cool will have difficulty surfacing.

FearlessWhich brings me to my first point. (Yes, this post will have points.)

Anyone who plays D&D and enjoys the Rule of Cool style of play, really needs to keep an eye on 4e. Even if you don’t play D&D, and have no intention of switching, it looks like it will be worth looking at for ideas alone.

In any case, go read that article. The next D&D edition seems to be going out of its way to support Rule of Cool style play, by removing mechanical and psychological barriers from play.

The catch is that the GMs and players are going to need to be willing to throw away preconceptions, as evidenced by the Dragonborn in that mine cart. Get past that, and you’ll see why this is a perfect example of why I’m looking forward to 4e.

But that’s in the future.

As for right now, I’m working on creating Cool situations in 3.5e, and unfortunately, those mechanical barriers are still there.

And that’s why we have house rules. So I’m going to give you a peek at what modifications I’m using right now, from character creation to character death.


It always sucks when you can’t play the character you want due to having to take the “necessary” abilities for the party. As such, we have combined some skills, to make it easier for players to have the necessities, while still having some freedom. Now, we didn’t do too much at this point, but we combined a few of the more similar skills (as well as those that are never taken separately), as well as folding a few of the flavourful but less useful skills into others.

  • Hide and Move Silently have been combined to form Stealth
  • Spot, Listen, and Sense Motive have been combined into Perception
  • Open Lock is now a part of Disable Device
  • and Tumble, Balance, and Escape Artist have been merged into Acrobatics

Some of these were inspired by d20 Modern, some by the new Star Wars SAGA edition, but all were done in the name of making it easier to attain Cool.

Save or Die

Save or Die effects have either been changed or completely removed.

Phatasmal Killer, for instance, drops the target’s Int and Cha scores to zero, paralysing him and removing him from the fight.

Some death effects now just drop the target to -1 hp and start them dying, instead of -10 and death.

Wail of the Banshee puts everyone into a Confusion state.

Things like that.

Save or Useless effects, like Flesh to Stone, however, are largely still there, but unused. Removal of said effects, on the other hand, is much easier in most cases. Some previously permanent effects, for instance, may allow a saving throw every 10 minutes, or may wear off in an hour, or something. Most of this is decided on the fly, and effects like this are avoided anyways.


The Swordsage refreshes her maneuvers by taking a full-round action to re-ready a single one.

This means that after she runs out, in an extended combat, she will only be taking actions every second round.

This sucks.

Especially compared to the other classes. A Warblade’s maneuvers are no less powerful than a Swordsage’s, yet he needs only to spend a swift+standard action to refresh. And he can attack with that standard action. The only difference is that he gets a few less maneuvers each combat, so he needs to do it less often.

Add to that the feat Adaptive Style, which lets you re-ready and re-choose all of your maneuvers as a full-round action.

This feat, especially for a swordsage, is way overpowered, and is one of those “necessity” items that prevent you from taking something more fitting and flavourful.

So we needed something in the middle. More restrictive than the Warblade (as it doesn’t need to be done as often), but not by a lot (since neither class will usually need to refresh in combat anyways).

So we decided to stick with a full round action, but refresh all readied maneuvers instead of just one.

So far, it hasn’t even been used, which lets me believe that it wont’s be a problem. The class is designed to be able to use a maneuver every round. This will only continue that assumption.

Turn Undead

Turn Undead is one of those rules that slows down the game. It’s used so rarely in most games that everyone sighs and breaks out their rulebooks as soon as it’s mentioned. It’s also one of the few rules that I don’t know off by heart (and I can even run grapple quickly).

As such, we have adopted one of WotC’s official variants. Turn Undead deals 1d6 damage per cleric level to all undead within a 60 foot radius (Will for half).

I’m considering letting it do half that (1d6/2 levels) to evil outsiders as well. We’ll see if I bring that in.


For this I took a page from Greywulf’s Save or Die ezine. Though, as with everything I do, I’ve heavily modified to our personal style.

Sorcerers (and Wizards, if we get one) get the following ability.

As a spell-like ability (standard action, somatic component) that is not subject to SR, a Sorcerer may fire off a magical/physical arrow from his hands. This arrow deals piercing damage, and is subject to DR, though it counts as an attack from a magical weapon for the purpose of bypassing DR. It has a range increment of 60 feet, as a shortbow. Make an ranged attack roll (not a ranged touch attack) using your primary casting stat (Int or Cha) in place of your Dex score. If it hits, this attack deals 1d6 + 1/2 your caster level piercing damage. The arrow threatens a critical hit on a 20, and deals 2x damage if it crits.

This attack is better than whipping out a nonmagical shortbow. It is about equivalent to a level-appropriate magical shortbow (lower to-hit, possibly slightly higher damage).

At the current level, it is almost equal to a 0-level attack spell. Ray of Frost only deals 1d3 damage, but isn’t subject to DR and is a touch attack. This isn’t subject to SR, but needs to hit full AC. Either is better in certain situations, though this is better overall.

It isn’t as good as a level 1 attack spell. Even at level 20, doing 1d6+10 damage, it will be tricky to decide between this and a 5d4 magic missile that can’t miss, though neither will be used very often.

So this basically gives the Sorc unlimited level 1/2 attack spells, about equivalent to the crossbow or shortbow that he’d otherwise reach for. But it means that he will never again need to reach for said crossbow.

As it should be.

Nothing so awesome…And that’s what we’re at so far. All of the above have been created or selected so as to increase the chance for awesomeness from each player, and to reduce the amount of “Anticool” (a term I just created) that can seep into games.

But there are three more things to take note of.

First, I’ve been toying with introducing the new Death and Dying rules put out by WotC. I’m going to wait on that, however, and may not do so, unless it becomes an issue later.

Second, I considered (and rejected) another of Greywulf’s proposed house rules: using Reflex Save as Initiative.

While is seems to solve some issues at first (the Rogue usually goes first, as he should), it brings in some other ones down the road. Since saves are based on Hit Dice in 3e, the big, tough, lumbering creatures have massive HD, and thus massive saves. The Tarrasque, for instance, has a +7 initiative, matchable by any rogue who takes Improved Initiative, though he will still often go first.

His Reflex save however, due to his 48 hit dice, is +29, making his Initiative (with the Improved feat) +33. Not even a 20th-level Rogue has a chance at matching that.

Third, I am in need of one more house rule. Clerics, especially at this level, tend to spend all of their spells (and thus many of their combat actions) on healing. As such, it can get quite boring playing one.

I am considering a number of options to alleviate this.

  • allowing Turning attempts to be converted to healing
  • allowing spontaneous cure spells to be a swift action, leaving the cleric still able to act that round
  • allowing Turning attempts to be expended to power spells in general, or to create Inflict-style effects, thus leaving the spell slots available for healing
  • granting Clerics aura-style effects, which might grant fast healing or something
  • introducing a “Second Wind”-style ability, to allow all characters some self-healing ability a few times per day

Does anyone have anything they’ve used that they would suggest?


ChattyDm  on February 21st, 2008

Great post Graham. You nailed applying the Rule of Cool.

I definitively will consider using the Sorcerer arrow (calling it arcane bolt or something).

As we talked about it online, I’m also very interested in making divine Spellcasters allowed to heal without having to use spell slots/prepared spells.

Graham  on February 21st, 2008

Oh, and I missed one in the post. I’ll add it here now.


Healing is maximized. This takes a bit of the stress off the cleric, allows him to use his spells more often for non-healing things, and allows the party to go longer in a day before stopping.

I believe I stole this from Andy Collins, but I can’t find his original suggestion for it.

As such, I already have a minor method to prevent Clerics from wasting all their spells on healing. Thus my largest concern is using all their actions on healing.

As such, I’m really leaning towards the swift-cure or the Second Wind abilities.


Graham  on February 22nd, 2008

Update: Tentative house rule, will be tried out next game:

Spontaneous Cure spells are swift actions, except for the highest level Cure spell you can cast.

This will likely apply to Mass Cure when we reach that point.

This will likely not apply to Heal.

Example, at level 3, spontaneous Cure Minor or Light are swift actions, while spontaneous Cure Moderate is a standard action.

Noumenon  on April 10th, 2008

Since you eliminated six skills, do you give out fewer skill points? Rogues get so many skill points they might have split the skills out in the first place just to soak some of them up.

Graham  on April 10th, 2008

Nope. No fewer skill points. For two reasons.

1) This allows someone like a Fighter to get more out of his cross-class skills. It doesn’t make him any more powerful, though.

2) This allows a Rogue to take skills that they want to, instead of only taking the “required” skills.

I mean, let’s say we have a Rogue with a 10 Int. 8 skills at max.

A Rogue “needs” to take:
– disable device
– open lock
– search
– hide
– move silently
– sleight of hand
– spot
– listen

in order to be an effective sneaky thief.

If the player wants to get in and out of places, they also need:
– balance
– climb

And since the Rogue is usually going to be the “face” of the party as well, they need:
– bluff
– diplomacy
– gather information
– sense motive

Even if not the face, they still need bluff for feinting and sneak attacks.

To be effective in combat, add in:
– tumble

Now, that’s 15 skills right there. With only 8 skill points per level, it’s impossible to keep 15 skills at max.

Even with my revisions, it’s impossible for such a rogue to keep all these skills up. But it’s easier. And it makes it easier for another player to take some of the load off.

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