Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Retrospective: Toon

The various "ages" I outlined way back at the start of 2009 were intended to apply only to Dungeons & Dragons (hence the title of the original post), but D&D didn't exist in a vacuum. It's true that its preeminent position probably insulated it from many of the trends and fashions taking hold elsewhere in the hobby, but I don't think it ever managed to avoid them entirely. So, when I wrote that the Silver Age of D&D (1984-1989) by "a growing concern for 'dramatic' coherence," I don't think it's at all unreasonable to suggest that that concern was already present in the wider hobby.

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.
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:
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.


  1. During my high school days I remember playing Toon when my DM needed a break. For a group of guys who were already imaginative, it was a real laugh-fest. So, I have fond memories of a game whose mechanics/background/content I hardly remember. This is similar to my nostalgic appreciation of both the movie and game Wizards ( ) Thanks for the post.

  2. Oh Toon, how it vexed me. I played it (and liked it) a few times in the early 90's. but it was out-of-print for a while so it was a few years more before I got a copy of my own to read. By then it was the expanded edition, the original text plus that of several supplements bound together as one volume, significantly more than 64 pages long (which may have contributed to impression I'm about to describe). "This reads like an engineer trying too hard to tell a joke sounds," was my summation of the text. Comparatively lots of mechanical detail (why in the world did it need so many different skills?!) on top of a core non-system (Make up stuff! Roll dice! Ignore them and make up more stuff!) that didn't really do anything to reinforce the kind of playstyle the text espoused. It took me awhile to admit that despite the games good reputation, I had valid reasons for finding it critically flawed.

    I think Toon works best as a counter-statement against what made up the core of the RPG hobby at the time (Lots of rules? Here's no rules! Gritty combat? Here's characters who can't die! Self-concious pretensions of seriousness? Dude, You're a talking platypus!) and not so much as an actual game. As such, its aged noticeably (also because WB-style cartoons have drifted a bit out of the mainstream).

  3. "[D&D's] preeminent position probably insulated it from many of the trends and
    fashions taking hold elsewhere in the hobby, but I don't think it ever
    managed to avoid them entirely."

    d20 seems a bit like it was written by people who wanted D&D to 'catch up' and use ideas that were common in other games, such as 'attribute + skill level = how good you are', multiple genres with the same basic rules and so on.

  4. PS Arguably one problem is that, in the games that were most successful, those systems were used instead of class and level, not as well as them.

  5. I love WB and Walter Lantz cartoons, but this game never appealed to me.

  6. My comment is this: If the project of "dramatic coherence/emulation" in an RPG is a difficult one, it's made a lot easier if the thing being emulated is a "crazy world... anything can happen... Who cares?" So to the extent that Toon and Paranoia succeed at that it's because they've made explicit that the scenarios will be disconnected and dramatically incoherent, and given a reason for that.

    I do think that original D&D succeeds at much the same thing, as an emulation of Conan, early Elric, Cugel the Clever, Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser, etc.... episodic, somewhat irrational picaresques. It's this episodic play that really discriminates between D&D and LOTR. To the extent that 1980's fans wanted and expected a more cohesive novel-like form of play, that's what constituted a big change.

  7. It's interesting that Costikyan (and others) were also the authors of WEG's Ghostbusters (I am referring to the original boxed set,) which is perhaps an even better model of cartoon action, and definitely lighter in terms of rules.

  8. The main inspiration behind d20 seems Rolemaster, which mixes both class/level and skills. Conside that Monte Cook worked on Rolemaster...

  9. The games that mix class-level and skills, including Rolemaster, but also games like Rifts, seem to generally be mocked for the clunkiness of their rules. So if that was the main inspiration, it was a strange choice.

    I'm not saying you're wrong though.

  10. We played it a lot during lunchtime in middle school because it was great for fast and loose sessions. It was easy to get people to play because it was so simple to learn the basic rules. I have real fond memories of it and still own not only the original version of the game (which is very worn) but also all the expansions and then the later "Deluxe" version and it's expansions. We ended up playing a lot of games with characters swiped from Peter Porker the Spectacular Spider-Ham. I always wanted to do something involving Captain Carrot and His Amazing Crew but the weren't familiar with that comic.

    Sheesh, this brings back a lot of memories.

  11. d20 (at least of the 3E, 3.5E, Pathfinder variety) seems pretty close to what late AD&D2E had become. In fact when 3E came out it was almost what our group's house-ruled 2E looked like.

  12. A few points: Monte Cook was the author of the DMG, not the PHB, where most of the rules of D&D were explicated. Johnathan Tweet, wrote the PHB, and I believe was lead designer on the entire 3.0 project. I queried Mr. Cook at a con about RM influences (I saw elements of his post-WotC work which I thought influenced by the baroque nature of the RM supplements) but he dismissed the entire idea.

    Costikyan and Co. were not the creators of the first box set for Ghostbusters, that was a project farmed out to the current Chaosium staff, including Greg Stafford, Tadisha Ehara and probably Lynn Wilis and Sandy Peterson.