Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Cartoon Action Hour, Season 2: Review

So a while back I picked up a game I had known about for a while; Cartoon Action Hour. I had heard a lot about it, how it was perfect for umlauting cartoons like G.I. Joe and Transformers and even He-Man and Thundaar. Well I'll be honest, I didn't watch many of those cartoons as a kid. I know of them, yes, and I watched episodes here and there, but my preferences were running much more to fantasy and slowly into horror and cartoons were not a good source for that then. But I wanted to get this game to see what the big deal was and to see if it could in fact do all these different kinds of stories. So I bought it.

 Well. It lived up to the hype.

Cartoon Action Hour: Season Two (CAH:S2) is an updated version of the earlier Cartoon Action Hour. You don't need the first game obviously to play this one, but it does come with conversion notes. Both were written by Cynthia Celeste Miller of Spectrum Games, a name that often comes up when people talk about Genre Emulation and Indie Games. Her other efforts were "Slasher Flick" and "Wild West Cinema", both games I also know of, but don't (yet) own, and like CAH, both come highly recommended. In addition to doing the writing for this game she also did all the layout, and she is also a drummer in a metal band, Slaygound. That is pretty cool if you ask me.

CAH is divided into "Channels" and not Chapters or Sections. Clever huh. Channel 1 (which we didn't have in the 80's but that is ok) is the obligatory "What is role-playing" and a definition of the cartons we will emulating; the Retro-Toon. The book goes one to explain why the Retro-Toon, and not say toons of the 90's and more. For example this game really focuses on the black and white morality of the toons of the age. G.I. Joe was good and Cobra was bad. End of discussion. While you certainly could play a bit more loose with the morality of the game (the He-Man episode "The Witch and the Warrior" comes to mind as one where evil may not be so evil. BTW also written by Paul Dinni. Mr. Dini and I will be in "witch-aholics anonymous" together one day. ) I would say don't. That is missing the allure and appeal of this game. Miller takes a bit of time and page space to break down why and how these toons worked the way they did and I think that it would be an injustice to run the game differently. Not to say your game can't be "dark", but this is not World of Darkness nor is it even Buffy.

Channel 1 ends with the best overview of 80's cartoons I have ever read. Frankly I'd love to see more of this, but this is fine as it is. Nearly worth the price of the PDF alone. Well….sorta, it is good, but we still have the whole book to read.

Channel 2 is about creating the series. This is an important step away from the normal Player make Character, GM makes World process of many games. In CAH:S2 everyone has to work together (see that!), so the GM makes the world first, with of course input from the players. Then when the world is defined the players can start on their characters. What does making a world, or a Series, in CAH:S2 mean? Well typically it means what sort of show are you going to do? Will this be soldiers fighting a multi-national terrorist organization? Robots from another planet? A hulking barbarian in world where magic and technology collide? All these are possible and there is even a "Character Sheet" for the series. I liked this sheet and I can see using it to plan out say a Buffy RPG or Supernatural season; it is flexible enough to use in any game. I love it when I get something like that. Once that is done and the tag line is created ("A Real American Hero!" or "More than Meets the Eye!") then it is time to create our stars.

Channel 3 is Character Creation. Character creation is a point buy system based on a number of "Proof of Purchase Points", with the amount allocated set by the GM when she makes the series. Guidelines are given. There are no set traits a character has or can have. Players need to come up with a concept and then they build that into a list of traits ranked 1 to 5 (or so, again set by the GM). So a "gigantic transforming robot" might have the following traits: "Robot 1, Transform 3, Plasma Gun 3" and then something that makes him unique "Leader of the Transbots, AF 4". This unique feature or features is called an "Action Feature" and it comes into play later. Think of G. I. Joe, Snake Eyes was the Ninja with a Sword so his Action Feature might be "Sword master, AF 6" since he never talked that is a negative trait "Never Speaks, X2". Miller does provide a list, but is very much against providing one. The purpose of the character creation is to find out what the character can do; not create a bunch of numbers to define them.  
I also liked this character sheet quite a bit.  The one from CAH 1 I think had more detail, but this one is great.  Now here is point of serious untapped potential.  Nearly any character from any game can be converted to a CAH:S2 character in a few simple steps.  Take Eric from the D&D cartoon.  We have stats for him thanks to the box set of DVDs, but in CAH he has traits like "Brave" and "Magic Bow, AF, 5"  So for his combat rolls he gets +5 and Snake Eyes above gets +6.  See, two different cartoons, two different series and concepts and we can already pit one against the other.  Cynthia Celeste Miller has written the Geek Rosetta Stone!

Channel 4 is Rules of Play and it is pretty simple, but good stuff. I want get into all of it since that has been covered elsewhere, but I like the "Setbacks" and the return from "Commercial Breaks"; again something I could see using in Buffy or one of the Anime RPGs I have reviewed. The dice mechanic is based on a d12, so nice to see it get some love. Roll a d12 add the appropriate trait and that is it. Sometimes there is a target number, sometimes there is a contested roll. The mechanic is not difficult. In fact I think the best way now to do "Animated Unisystem" is swap out the d10 for a d12. You can add "Oomph" to a roll like Drama Points, or you can have an issue with one of your "Sub plots". For the Snake Eyes example there is the issue with his former master and his arch rival.

The interesting thing about this is, it is on the same level as BESM 3.0 or even OVA. Use one to get ideas for the other, or combine them all for an Anime fueled 80's style retro-toon of mammoth quality.  Add CAH:S2 supplement "Going Japanese" and you are set.

Channel 5 is for Game Masters. It has all cool new rules and ideas for this game. How to run commercial breaks, sub plots, allies, hazards and threats.

Appendix 1 (dropping the style for a bit. Was UHF 1 too obscure?) We are given three complete series to run as our own with stars, enemies and even faux 80's television histories. "Warriors of the Cosmos" fills the Thundaar/He-Man void, "Strike Force Freedom" is the obvious nod to G.I. Joe and "Transbots" is about, well, Transforming Robots. With all the bases covered here (more or less) GMs should have not problem creating their own series.

What Else? Well there are conversions for Cartoon Action Hour 1. The bickering between the evil Kargorr and heroic Bravesteel is entertaining; very much in the vein of Space Ghost Coast to Coast I felt.

All in all this is a crazy fun game. Easy to learn and play. Some thought has to be put into the series and then the characters to get the full feel, but there are plenty of characters and series in the book. Plus this is a game that screams for splats. Do a series bible up, list some potential traits, add some ready to run characters with histories, put it all in a PDF and there you go. I am surprised with the flexibility of a game like this the Miller has not included some sort of Open License for it.

So in the tradition of RPG Net:

Style: 5
This game is stylish as all get out. Proof you don't need an art budget of thousands to get your point across.

Substance: 4.5 to 5
The funny thing about this is the subject matter can be a bit fluffy, but this game does such a great job of emulating it. I would like to have more examples; say something like Scooby-Doo or even a magic-centric series.

Name: Cartoon Action Hour: Season Two
Publisher: Spectrum Games
Author: Cynthia Celeste Miller
Category: RPG
Reviewed: PDF
Pages: 145 (including covers)

Like OVA, CAH:S2 takes a very simple approach to emulate their medium perfectly.  By begin simple it allows either game to go after all sorts of genre.


Rhonin84 said...

Where are my Tara and Willow conversions? You would also need a Xander conversion to make this feel like an actual cartoon though...why does the cartoon version of Three's Company come to mind? :)

Timothy S. Brannan said...

Very true!

I'll consider that. Right now I am working on actual cartoons like the Hex Girls.