the cuteness rule

In a Fourth-Edition-era podcast, one of the game developers complained about his character’s lame Figurine of Wondrous Power, the “Pearl Sea Horse.” The devs ribbed each other about how this magic item managed to get published. At the time, I thought, wow, this dev team needs more perspectives. I know plenty of players who would love that sea horse.

The Pearl Seahorse was one of the few cute elements that slipped into a very macho edition. The 4e designers avoided anything cute or whimsical as if they were afraid of D&D backsliding into My Little Pony – as if they wanted to make the statement that D&D was a grown-up, serious, spiky fantasy game. In doing so, 4e missed a cue from the most influential grown-up serious spiky fantasist of our time, George R R Martin, who literally started Game of Thrones by giving every character a puppy.

Brain stirrers

There’s something about the fantasy of acquiring money: the desire is so strong, and the payoff is so sweet, that it’s as if the smell of gold reaches straight into the brain, bypassing reason and decision making, to stir the grey matter to action. That’s a major reason why the old school D&D treasure hunt is such a heady brew. Even in 5e, where you don’t get XP for GP and there’s virtually nothing to spend your money on, many players – myself included – rapaciously hunt down every silver piece they can find. For these players, all that’s necessary for a game is for the DM to say “there’s money in this hole in the ground” and step back. The players will make their own game.

For a smaller subset of players – again including myself – the desire for cute things is as hardwired as the desire for money. For a brief period while playing through the 3e Red Hand of Doom module, acquiring an intelligent giant owl mount became more important to me than saving Elsir Vale. In the game I’m DMing now, the party cleric will do anything for the safety and comfort of her oracular otters.

If you’re a DM lucky enough to have one of these – let’s call them “cuteness sensitive” – players in your group, you have a powerful tool at your disposal to increase everyone’s investment in your campaign world. All you have to do is introduce an animal, a kid, a unicorn, or a pseudodragon – in any capacity – and step back. The cuteness-sensitive players will be sucked into the narrative and pull the rest of the players along with them. They’ll make their own game. They’ll come up with plans to befriend this creature, protect that creature from those potential dangers, and, in general, save you a lot of work. (I spent my most recent D&D session assassinating a Fever-Dreaming Marlinko NPC because we’d heard that her orphanage charity was insufficiently charitable.)

Don’t think of this as a lever to manipulate players but as a spring that generates gameplay, like the players’ desire for money and mayhem. And it’s an underused spring, because of the cuteness-negative DMs who think that everyone would be ashamed to ride a seahorse.

the cuteness rule

Now that I’ve made a case for the cute in D&D, I have to add a warning. Movies generally abide by a narrative rule about what you’re allowed to do to cute things. This rule carries over to D&D. I DMed one game where some players intended to cut off a cow’s legs to jam it, still living, through a sewer tunnel. A cuteness-positive player objected with real anger and nearly attacked the other characters. Beneath the anger was a sense of betrayal that I, as the DM, could countenance such a should-be-impossibility. On their side, the cow-threateners were perfectly aware of the narrative rule, and were titillated by the idea of breaking it.

The Cuteness Rule is this: don’t kill or torture innocent things onscreen. Don’t demonstrate a villain’s evil by having him kill a baby, or introduce a little lost pseudodragon so that you can have a monster jump out and eat it before the players’ eyes. You might make the players mad, but it will be an immersion-breaking anger at the DM. If the players have no hand in the death, it’s not the players staking something valuable, it’s the DM using an emotional trick to bludgeon them.

So does everything cute get a free pass? No sir. You can slaughter all the adorable little NPCs you want under the following exceptions to the Cuteness Rule:

You can kill combatants. A player buys a war dog. Even if he says it’s a sweater-wearing war dachshund with one ear flopped over, and even if he loves his pretend dog, it’s a combatant and he’s offering it up as stakes every time he takes it into battle.

You can put cute things at risk. If Cruella de Vil gets her hands on some puppies, she’s going to try to turn them into coats.  Cuteness-positive players will make a lot of sacrifices to stop her, including storming her house, which is good because Cruella’s house is probably a great, creepy dungeon worth exploring. The important thing is not that the puppies live, it’s that the players had a chance to save them. Even if the players try their best and fail, that’s the game rules killing the puppies, not some jerk of a DM.

You can kill a killer bunny. Players will happily slaughter anything, no matter how cute, if it does a heel turn first. Carbuncles, for instance, look adorable but turn out to be dicks. Don’t overuse this trick or players will write off everything cute as a probable villain.

You can do whatever you want if you’re that good. (moldy old spoilers ahead) Atticus shoots a dog, Sophie chooses a kid. George R R Martin kills puppies. If you think you’re good enough of a storyteller to turn a dead owl familiar into an emotionally transcendant moment, then do whatever you want. Otherwise, stick to the Cuteness Rule.

(xposted from Thought Eater)

One Response to “the cuteness rule”

  1. greyhobbit13 says:

    This was a good post, putting into words things I had pretty much always followed. And people shouldn’t hate on MLP (my son is a brony, don’t judge). Also, I think a Pearl Seahorse would be kinda cool. Get a helm of underwater action or a necklace of adaptation, and you are good to go!

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