Now, "dramatic coherence" can be interpreted in many ways, but what I meant by it was something akin to "emulation," which is to say, the sense a RPG's rules ought to reflect -- even encourage -- play that reflects what goes on in the sources that inspired the game. A common knock against Dungeons & Dragons, especially nowadays, is that it doesn't in fact emulate its sources very well at all. My own feeling is that this is both a fair criticism and beside the point, because, while inspired by fantasy literature, D&D wasn't written with the goal of emulating its sources, at least not in any consistent way.
However, many others RPG were written with this goal in mind, the first one I remember encountering being Champions, since its rules, particularly for combat, were clearly an attempt to model the worlds of superhero comic books. Another good example of a RPG written with genre emulation in mind -- and a more successful one in my opinion -- was Toon, written by Greg Costikyan and published by Steve Jackson Games in 1984. Toon describes itself as
set in the crazy world of cartoons. In this world, anything can happen. The laws of physics only work when you notice them. Mice, rabbits, ducks, and moose all speak perfect English. Characters spend most of their time plotting to cheat each other, blow each other up, eat each other, or otherwise commit mayhem. But nobody ever dies!What's interesting about the paragraph above is that while Costikyan is very clear about the intentions behind Toon, he also sneaks in a (largely) unspoken assumption: "the crazy world of cartoons" is like that of the Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes. That's not a flaw; my friends and I certainly didn't see it as such when we bought and played the game. But, much like D&D, Toon's inspirations aren't as expansive as one might think. Rather than being "the Cartoon Roleplaying Game," as it titles itself, it's actually focused on emulating only a sub-set of cartoons, just as D&D looked primarily to a sub-set of fantasy literature for its inspirations.
Toon also stands out as a lot more meta-textual than I remember other RPGs as being. For example, the rulebook (which is 64 pages long, as God intended all RPGs to be) includes "A Special Message for Experienced Roleplayers," which I'm going to reproduce in full here, since it's quite unique for its time:
TOON isn't like any other roleplaying game you've ever known. In most RPGs, the idea is to plot and plan — to think before you act — and to make sure your character survives, thrives, and becomes more proficient at everything he or she does.
FORGET ALL THAT.
Survival? Who cares? You can't ever really die, so you've got nothing to lose by jumping right into the thick of things and having fun.
Think before you act? No chance. If you take the time to think every action through, the game's going to get bogged down and nobody will have any fun, The action in a TOON game should be fast — insanely fast. Remember, you're supposed to be a cartoon character. When was the last time you saw a cartoon character do something logical? ACT before you THINK.
Here's something else that's special about TOON: It doesn't matter how stupid, weak, or inept your character is. Poor die-rolling doesn't mean a bad character. Half the fun of TOON is failing . . . because of the silly things that happen when you fail! So "bad" characters are just as much fun — maybe more fun — than "good" characters.
So, to repeat:
FORGET EVERYTHING YOU KNOW and ACT BEFORE YOU THINK.Much of the foregoing is commonplace nowadays, banal even, but it wasn't in 1984, at least not to me. That's probably why I was so blown away by Toon and really wanted to play it. Here was a game that took emulation of its source material seriously while at the same time not taking itself (or roleplaying games generally) very seriously. It's hard to convey how revelatory that was to my teenage self. The only other game I had played that did something similar was Paranoia, released the same year and written, not coincidentally, by the same author.
None of this is to say that Toon is perfect, because it isn't. As a game, I think it's a bit schizophrenic, simultaneously providing lots of specific rules for certain activities (like breaking down doors and tracking, to cite two examples that come immediately to mind), while also encouraging the referee -- or Animator -- to ignore these and other rules in the name of "fun." Again, that's not really a criticism, so much as an admission of frustration on my part. Toon has one foot planted, albeit precariously, in the earlier era of RPGs and another in the new one that was aborning. So the game is neither fish nor fowl, which made it a lot harder for me, despite my keen interest in it, to get a handle on how it was meant to be played. I suspect the answer is "however you want to play it," but I've never been wholly convinced, then or now, that that's a satisfactory answer. At the very least, it's not an answer with which I'm always comfortable.
In the end, I rather like Toon, both for its subject matter and for its approach, despite the frustration it arouses in me. That probably says more about me than it does about Toon itself. There's no question I had fun with the game when I first got, as did my friends. Mostly, we were just winging it, using the rules as inspiration and suggestions for our own rather loosely-framed sessions of comic mayhem. I suspect that's exactly how Greg Costikyan imagined the game would be played and, since we enjoyed ourselves, I can't really complain, even if the game isn't one I have much desire to pick up again anytime soon.