Who watched cartoons when they were growing up? Or still watches them, perhaps covertly, today? (You don't need to answer that!) In the Foreword the point is made that not only are cartoons very entertaining for youngsters, they also provided a fertile inspiration for games on the playground... so why not for role-playing as well?
Channel 1: Introduction (to promote the TV show feeling, 'chapters' are called 'channels'!) begins by attempting to define what sort of cartoons this game is intended to emulate - the 1980s action-adventure ones, which have been grouped together as 'retro-toons.' Now I'm a bit old to have been entranced by them (I graduated in 1980!), but certainly caught the odd episode and can see the appeal. Typified by boundless enthusiasm, violence that was brief and never seemed to draw blood (although robots came apart a lot) and no difficulty whatsoever in distinguishing between the Good Guys and the Bad 'Uns, the sheer innocence and capacity for boundless fun is at the centre of their appeal. Next comes the usual 'this is what role-playing is' piece, with one of the best explanations of the role of the rules in an RPG I've heard in a long time, and an example of play. Then there's an overview of the rules and the concepts behind them. It's pretty simple. Using a D12, you add any appropriate Traits you have and attempt to beat a Difficulty Number determined by the GM to succeed at what you are trying to do. If you're in combat, you and your opponent roll and whoever gets the higher result is victorious. Finally, a run-down of some of the seminal cartoons upon which this game draws, along with the author's personal reflections. The only one of them that I recall is He-Man, but I can think of plenty other similar cartoons that fit the bill - reflection, perhaps, that I watch British TV rather than American!
Channel 2: The Series is aimed mainly at the GM and looks at how to decide on the underlying concepts for your game. After all, unlike many games, there are so many different things that you could do under the broad setting of a 'retro-cartoon' that players are not going to be able to start thinking about suitable characters until you tell them what your particular cartoon series is about! (If you are bereft of ideas, the Appendix has some to start you off; or of course you can choose to base your game on a cartoon you've watched.) To facilitate this, you create a Series Guide (for which a form is provided in another Appendix) and circulate it to prospective players. It has four sections in which you set out what you intend - series information, PC creation quirks, rules information and cast information. And, of course, you'll want to start with a catchy name for your show. A tagline and a few paragraphs to cover the premise round out your series information. Think about the sort of introduction the show might have (maybe a voice-over to the opening sequence), or what would appear in the TV guide. Things like who the heroes and their main opponents will be, and the main setting(s) in which the action will take place belong here. Then you also need to decide on how many points have to build characters and any particular requirements that you have - a game set in the upper layers of a massive jungle will need characters who can fly or climb, for example. This process outlined, the discussion moves on to look at common themes which you can draw upon. Plenty to get you thinking, but it's clear that a fair bit of work will be needed before you start playing.
Next, Channel 3 looks at Character Creation, running through an overview of the process by means of an annotated version of the character sheet. One neat idea is to envision your character as an action figure toy, as many of the 1980s cartoons had associated toy lines. Another is to try describing the character in phrases or 'Factoids' rather than a full-blown background essay. Rather than the conventional attributes and skills used in many RPGs, characters in this game use Traits - which are one-word or a phrase descriptor of either something the character can do or something that he possesses. While you have a free rein in choosing Traits, try to be fairly specific... and plenty of ideas are provided to get you going. It's a point-buy system, the cost of each Trait depends on what it is and how good you are at it, and will need to be negotiated with the GM. Characters who transform or shape-shift need to work out Traits for all forms they can adopt, and a similar system is used for Companions and for vehicles.
Characters designed, Channel 4: Rules of Play discusses how game action is resolved. The key concept is that it's a game of telling stories, and any rules are subordinate to that intention, and only need be used when the GM feels it is appropriate to add an element of chance to an outcome of a task and similar occasions. The mechanical use of Traits to resolve tasks is discussed at length, with plenty of examples in case you find the very clear explanation hard to follow. More complex rules such as those for chases and combat (which is turn-based) are also covered. The interesting thing about combat is that as there are no 'combat' Traits per se, it is up to each participant in a fight to decide which Traits to use to attack others or defend themselves. Moreover, characters accumulate Setbacks rather than being injured, and when they have four Setbacks they are defeated and the victor gets to describe what happens. It's quite abstract, but once you get the hang of it swift and often hilarious brawls ensue.
The Rules chapter also covers character advancement and a section on how to play according to the spirit, the concept, of this particular game. This leads naturally on to Channel 5: Game Mastering. This covers further rules more appropriate to GM use, material on NPCs... and even rules for simulating commercial breaks! (Perhaps that's taking the TV cartoon metaphor a bit far...) More conventional rules for things like fires and falling - always mportant in cartoons! - also feature. There's plenty about building a 'supporting cast' of allies and bystanders as well as villains and their crew, with suggestions on how to bring them into the story to good effect. Actual writing and running of scenarios is given plenty of attention too: not just good advice about structure but showing how it fits into the cartoon mode. The chapter rounds off with general Game Mastering advice, mostly concerned with actually running the game. All sound stuff, and again, neatly woven into the cartoon nature of this game rather than general points (although they are worth remembering whatever you are running.) The bit on 'cartoon logic' is particularly illuminating about what makes this genre so different from any other games you might play.
Now on to the promised Appendices. Appendix 1: Featured Series provides a wealth of ideas for the GM scratching his head over ideas for their cartoon show. Three ideas are presented, complete enough that you can use them without much need for further work. There are even ideas for individual adventures within each overarching concept, although those are going to need further development before they are ready for play; and for those in a rush, some pre-generated characters suitable for the particular concept and some ready-made villains for them to defeat. They are all good fun, and depending on your own and your players' tastes, all three have the potential to make an entertaining game. Although the three shows are given a backstory not just for the cartoon itself but about how it came to be in the 'real world' these are just marvellous invention, real as they sound they are not genuine 1980s TV cartoons!
Appendix 2: Miscellaneous Stuff includes conversion notes if you want to draw on the first edition of Cartoon Action Hour, a character sheets and the Designer's Notes. Fascinating reading if you like to know what's behind a game, as well as all about that game.
This is a beautifully put together game, really capturing the spirit of 1980s cartoons in both flavour and actual game mechanics, working together in a harmonious whole to empower the playing of an exciting game in this genre. All you need to do is ask yourself if you want to play 1980s TV cartoons... if you do, here is all you need!
Return to Cartoon Action Hour: Season 2 Rulebook page.
Reviewed: 8 December 2009