Growing up, cartoons were a pretty massive component of my mental landscape. I was a socially awkward loner (today I’m significantly less awkward, but possibly even more introverted), and I largely filled my time by being a media junkie. TV was the major source of content available to me, and as my family graduated from rabbit ears to cable, I watched so, so many cartoons. There was then-current stuff like the Disney Afternoon, Muppet Babies, and the first generation of Nicktoons, but also old Looney Tunes shorts and episodes of shows like Tom and Jerry, Pink Panther, and Rocky and Bullwinkle that stations put on more or less as filler. In high school I got into anime in a big way, and while that filled a whole lot of my viewing time, I never completely stopped watching cartoons. Today we have brilliant stuff like Steven Universe, Regular Show, Star vs. the Forces of Evil, and Gravity Falls, though if I get too much into talking about those I’ll stray from the original point of this post. The major thing I’m winding my way towards discussing is that I’m working on a mini-RPG inspired by old-school cartoons called “I Hate You: A Cartoon Story Game For Two Good Friends.”
The first RPG I played was Palladium’s Robotech game, but the first one I ever owned was Toon: The Cartoon Roleplaying Game, designed by Greg Costikyan (of Paranoia fame) and published by Steve Jackson Games. I got it by doing a special order from the local B. Dalton Bookseller, which was a store that still existed at the time. (That particular one became a Waldenbooks, then a Borders Express, then finally closed.) Toon is a great game that provided me and my friends with a lot of fun times, but some parts of it hold up better than others. It does a great job of explaining how to play–the “Toon Commandments” are a lot like PbtA Principles–and brilliantly codifies and explains a bunch of cartoon conventions. Kyle Miller did a ton of great art for the books that managed to capture the general feel of old school cartoons without directly aping the styles of existing ones.
On the other hand, it’s perhaps a little too much like a cartoon version of GURPS Basic Set 3rd Edition (right down to the layout), and some of the supplements went a bit astray. Having the option to play in a cartoon version of Car Wars called “CarToon Wars” is kind of great, but asking players to build a car using a budget in dollars is kind of missing the point, even if you can buy a cream pie launcher. It certainly doesn’t compare to that time Freakazoid was in a car chase and pressed a button to attack his pursuers with 7 Hours of Tony Danza.
While Toon will likely keep a deserved spot as the king of the molehill of cartoon-inspired RPGs, there’s definitely room for other games with different takes. Sanguine Games took a swing at it with a Powered by the Apocalypse take on the genre called MADCAP: Screwball Cartoon Role-Play. I haven’t done more than skim it as of yet, but it looks promising, and it does some interesting things with the PbtA framework to boot.
A Cartoon Game
For whatever reason, I randomly decided to take a stab at an idea I’d had ages ago, I Hate You: A Cartoon Story Game For Two Good Friends. Way back in 2006 I went to what would turn out to be the final Gen Con SoCal. That was where I was in a Firefly game where someone talked Nathan Fillion (who was one of the convention guests) into stopping by. I also picked up one of nearly every game on sale at the Forge booth there, and I still have the spiral-bound copies of InSpectres and octaNe from back then. The big thing I got out of that is that an RPG doesn’t have to be a grand production and a 300+ page book. RPGs can be small, focused, and even personal. Back in the (very cheap) hotel room, I pulled out my notebook and wrote down a bunch of ideas. I’m not sure if I Hate You was on that initial list (I know Mascot-tan and Tokyo Heroes were), but it was from that transformative period.
The idea is that it’s a two-player game where you play out something along the lines of one of the cartoon shorts with a “predator vs. prey” dynamic like Coyote and Roadrunner, Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny, or Tom and Jerry. The “prey” character is a sympathetic trickster who wins the day, while the “predator” is a cruel antagonist whose life is a series of bungles. It’s a bit formulaic, but as I started brainstorming and watching a bunch of old cartoon shorts, I realized that it’s a formula that you can apply in a variety of ways. A bully and the kid who he tries to torment can be a “predator” and “prey” in a metaphorical sense, and for some pairings which is which depends on how we decide to spin them. A vampire is literally a predator by definition, but if we have a more sympathetic vampire character and a cruel Van Helsing coming after him, the vampire could be the “prey” in this framework. Some characters even switch between predator and prey roles depending on the cartoon. When Foghorn Leghorn is contending with a chicken hawk trying to eat him in “Walky Talky Hawky” he’s a prey character, but when he’s trying to antagonize a baby rooster in “A Broken Leghorn” he becomes a predator character. The predator can even be an abstract force, such as when Mr. Magoo’s antagonist is basically a city full of perils that he somehow avoids.
What I’ve called a “prey” character is essentially a modern version of classic tricksters. It’s especially striking when I read a bunch of the Reynard the Fox stories recently. While Reynard comes out of medieval literature and has some nastiness that wouldn’t appear in modern cartoons, his use of guile to overcome the likes of Bruin the Bear and Grimbard the Badger certainly resembles how Bugs Bunny deals with Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam. We’ve since developed more prevalent notions of fairness, and while that can dampen the appeal of some of the old tricksters (especially when Reynard does stuff that permanently disfigures his antagonists), they still have a certain allure, especially since we still love an underdog. IHY has gotten a pretty positive response as I’ve posted about it on Twitter, and I’m hoping that the end product is able to capture the primal appeal of tricksters as presented in old cartoons.
Designing for Humor
On the Yaruki Zero Games page on DriveThruRPG I set up categories for Serious RPGs and Comedy RPGs, and so far the “Serious RPGs” category is just Magical Fury and its supplements, while everything else falls under comedy. I like to think I’ve done a good job with my comedy games, but you can make your own judgment on that. Still, comedy RPGs are weird and too often bad. Toon and Ghostbusters stand out as excellent (I would include Maid RPG in that list, but I’m biased to be sure). It’s weird because in my experience, if anything it takes a lot of effort to have an RPG session that isn’t comedic. I’ve put all this effort into making comedy RPGs, and I worry that I’ll never make a game as funny as D&D winds up being in practice. Of course, the System Mastery guys have a point when they say that comedy RPGs too often try way too hard to make funny books, in ways that can come at the expense of making a useful rulebook. Games like Macho Women with Guns don’t really feel like anyone meant for people to actually play them, as opposed to Toon and Ghostbusters, which explain their rules clearly and have solid advice on how to play. Ghostbusters makes extensive use of eating a telephone as a high-difficulty action, but it doesn’t have its jokiness getting in the way of understanding the action resolution rules.
Comedy is ephemeral and hard to pin down. There’s a whole field dedicated to theorizing about humor, and those guys seem to argue about it constantly. I like Peter McGraw’s “benign violation theory” (explained in his book The Humor Code), which posits that humor comes from violations of (perceived or actual) expectations that turns out to be benign. Of course, other people in the field dispute the theory, and even if we do accept it as fact, what’s a violation and what’s benign vary massively depending on cultural factors. It’s why although The Simpsons and Sazae-san are rough equivalents of each other (being comedies about American and Japanese families respectively), they depend on cultural factors that translate very poorly across the Pacific.
These days we get our ideas about what the fantasy genre should be like from titles like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, but regardless of the era, the core of the genre is Serious Business. Your average D&D party presents benign violations of those expectations in countless ways. They give NPCs headaches, they break stuff, they roll critical successes or failures (thanks to the swingy d20 roll) at the weirdest times, and so on. It’s why the best D&D-derived fiction isn’t the tie-in novels that try to tell serious stories in official D&D settings, but the ones that acknowledge how adventurers wind up being goofy weirdos flailing their way through adventures.
The predator vs. prey cartoons also play with expectations in various ways. In real life, predators tend to win, or else they wouldn’t last long as predators. Aside from having the appeal of rooting for an underdog, those cartoons also thwart our expectations of cats as keen hunters able to catch mice. (Of course, real life domestic cats tend to mess with those kinds of expectations by being goofy, scrabbling little weirdos.) They also play around with basic expectations about how objects work, like when Elmer Fudd walks off the edge of a cliff and doesn’t fall down until he realizes his predicament, or the Road Runner happily zips through a tunnel that the Coyote just painted on a rock face.
Not every comedy has such blatant benign violations at its core, but I think the better comedy RPGs do. Ghostbusters thwarts our expectations of ghosts as an unknowable and potentially deadly threat by presenting an average day of ghostbusting as akin to an exterminator spraying for termites. Paranoia has a dystopian society run by an insane supercomputer, and constantly messes with our notions of how society, bureaucracy, and even RPGs themselves should work. A designer can’t force players to be funny of course, but we can provide better tools that provide more opportunities for benign violations.
There’s a thing I’ve noticed where in video games people talk about genre in terms of how the gameplay works, so that e.g. Halo and Call of Duty are both first-person shooters, even though one is sci-fi and the other is military. Given the dumb arguments that those can create (like when people try to define what is and isn’t a roguelike), I’m not sure I want that for RPGs, but there are times when it would be helpful to have that kind of shorthand available. I’m not against traditional RPGs (I’ve published some after all), but I’m finding a fruitful if challenging branch of design in games that inform the story without concerning themselves with the success or failure of grand endeavors. There are some games like that, like the Norwegian Style games, and the works of designers like Jason Morningstar, Epidiah Ravachol, and Ben Lehman. Designing in that space is hard though, because there’s a much smaller pool of prior design to reference, and what people have achieved in those spaces tends to be specific and hard-won. I suspect that’s part of why e.g. Fiasco is a brilliant and popular game, but you hardly ever see games that draw inspiration from it. It has relatively few moving parts, but they’re subtle and intricately linked, making it difficult to repurpose any individual piece of the game the way you might with, for example, components of a traditional combat system. These kinds of games also often have to create their own structures of play whole cloth, which is also really damn hard. The GM-and-players dynamic grew organically out of wargames with referees over the course of several years, and in light of that it’s genuinely impressive whenever someone devises a workable alternative on their own. I’ve made some less traditional games, but they’ve tended to be a bit derivative of other games in that respect.
Weirdly, I Hate You is turning out to have a strong Fiasco influence in that it’s a game where you do a series of scenes and accumulate points that influence how you narrate the ending of the story. It’s a weird genre to design for, because the prey is more or less guaranteed to triumph, and the rules for determining a conclusion are less about who wins and more about the tone of the ending, ranging from “You actually end up feeling sorry for the predator” all the way to “Years from now people will remember this as the one episode where they let the predator win.”
As I have it currently, when you create a character you pick out two Powers and one Foible. The Powers are special things the character can do to pursue their goals, and the Foible is some fault that holds them back. The game has predefined ones, but they’re basically flavor text for your narration, so making up new ones is an amount of effort on par with creating aspects in Fate.
For example, Wile E. Coyote would have the Powers of Mail Order (letting him get various gadgets from Acme) and Schemer (for coming up with cunning plans), and the Foible of Terrible Luck (since everything goes terribly wrong for him). The Road Runner would have the Powers of Speedster (since he’s absurdly fast and can stop on a dime) and Redefine Reality (for those times when he does things like run through a painting of a tunnel), and the Foible of Favorite Food (he’ll pretty much always stop for birdseed).
It’s a very different game from Toon, and much more focused on a particular kind of story. If I somehow found myself designing a new edition of Toon I’d probably lift a few ideas from it (like making Mail Order a new shtick), but IHY is nonetheless a very different game with similar subject matter. Anyway, that’s where I am on that. I’ve done one playtest so far, which was fun and left me with a lot to think about on how to go about making the game work how I want it to.