Friday, 19 May 2017

After These Messages: Role-Playing In 1980s Cartoon Land

"One shall stand; one shall fall"
 I love Transformers, me.

...Not, like, in a creepy way!  I know the internet has taught us that Rule 34 means someone out here is sexually attracted to anything you can think of but get your mind out of the gutter, people.  No, my love for Transformers is a pure platonic love that goes back to them being one of my favourite childhood toys/comics/cartoons and which never entirely went away.

Apparently the first my parents knew of this was when very small George started singing to himself, "Transformers!  Roboto in daki".  If they'd intervened then maybe I'd have grown up to be cool and watch football orsomething.

Doubledealer, my first ever Transformers toy.

Probably not though.  My interests have always been slightly, shall we say, immature - I was quite slow growing up as a kid and there's definitely still a certain childlike streak in me.  When my peers were truculent teenagers experimenting with getting drunk in fields and snogging their classmates behind bike sheds, I was discovering Transformers newsgroups with other longtime fans and was trawling toy fairs to find old relics.  When I got to university it was right as companies realised that 80s kid nostalgia was a money spinner - suddenly a whole new bunch of comics, toys and books were available and a chunk of my peers had grown up past the "we're too grown up for that" stage.

At Uni I had talked with fellow Transformers and RPG fan Graeme about running an RPG in which we would take dual GMing duties - on any given session one of us would run, the other would play a character - and I even worked on a homebrew system for it.  (Alas I think my copy has been lost to the ages.)  This never quite materialised though as it was around this time I dropped out of Uni, had some big mental health problems and ended up eschewing a few of my old hobbies because of complicated emotions.

Cartoon Action Hour has had three editions - you can find the most recent one for sale as a PDF.

In the last months of 2016, however,my love for Transformers slowly saw a rekindling.  I worked through the entire Marvel comics run, started watching episodes of the cartoon with Sister Superior and even mooted a role-playing game again.  This time my group's responce was pretty deafening and we sat down with Cartoon Action Hour to run this, and also a Rescue Rangers-themed game, as part of a six-episodes-each block.

Always forgotten, the D12.  Even though it's a platonic solid unlike the D10.

Cartoon Action Hour is a game we've played before - the 2nd edition previously, though this 3rd edition isn't drastically different in execution.  The core engine is rolling a D12 and adding modifiers, the higher the better.  (Average character sklls have a +0 modifier.)  When you are especially good or bad at something you roll 2d12 or even 3d12 and keep the highest/lowest number as appropriate.  All characters have a Signature Quality and several Standard Qualitys which define their personality, give bonuses when they help and reward the player when they roleplay them being awkward for their characters.

For exaple, I gave Optimus Prime, Spiritual Commander for his Signature Quality and his Standard Qualities were Self-Sacrificing and Strong Code of Ethics.  He probably gets a bonus to dice rolls to inspire/order people from Spirutual Commander, and someone playing him would be rewarded for getting himself into trouble because he insists on sticking to his Strong Code of Ethics or put himself in the line of fire because of Self-Sacrificing.

There isn't a standard skill list exactly so you can stat up characters with whatever traits you desire.  Some fairly standard ones popped up - Medic, Flight, Radar, Hypnotise - but you can make them pretty much whatever you want and theme the series based on those choices.  When the Decepticons Rumble and Frenzy have skills like Dirty Fighter, Underwater Operations and Strong For His Size that helps paint them as small, cruel bullies who apparently don't rust.  In the Rescue Rangers game, however, giving Bonehead the Thuggish British Poodle the skills Ignore Pain, Bite and Yap Loudly paints a different picture.  (Especially when paired with the Standard Quality, Fragile About Masculinity)

Perceptor discovers that Rumble has Dirty Fighter higher than expected.

I mentioned both Transformers and Rescue Rangers.  Inspired by some chat both in the CAH rulebooks and on RPG.Net my intention was to run a sort of Saturday-Morning Cartoon Block - well, in my case, more of a Childrens ITV Block.  We made characters for two seperate games and then we'd run them one after the other, usually a Rescue Rangers short first then close with a Transformers episode.  This was a cool idea in theory but in practice it was just a bit too much to fit in one night for us - we ended up having to rush one of the game a bit or overrun.  An extra hour of play and this would be great but by the end we had moved to alternating weeks, which was more comfortable per session but I found the fortnight break between session of the same game really saps the momentum.

"Some times, some crimes, go slipping through the cracks..."

The two games may have used the same system but they were quite different in execution.  Rescue Rangers was at a lower power level - maximum starting skill modifiers of +6 versus +10 for Transformers - and the characters tended to be more "single great thing" whereas Transformers had more generalist characters.  Transformers also encouraged more physical combat with blaster pistols, laser swords and missile launchers abounding - whereas the Rescue Rangers had a more improvisational form of combat which tended to be more playful.

Our premise of international hero rodents owes more to The Rescuers, but not the seventies bleakness of tone.

Tone was a big difference.  Rescue Rangers ended up taking a strong cue from Danger Mouse and being a quite surreal, fourth-wall-breaking romp in which the Narrator would exuberantly explain what was going on with tenuous analogies one minute then get confused and ask the stars to explain the plot later on.  Based in the Tower of London each of the group was a different animal and a different nationality: we had a Russian White Mouse, a Scottish Hamster, an Australian Hopping Mouse, an Irish Robin, an Iranian Chameleon and an American Sloth.  Silly accents, racial stereotyping and awful puns abound - Raj's lizardman was a devout religious desert nomad who carried the book of the Ayatollah Khameleoni with him at all times.

Have you seen the modern Danger Mouse series, BTW?  It's totally awesome.

The stakes were never terribly high, the villains never terribly competent and the continuity virtually non-existant - this was very much a light-hearted romp.  Each episode ended with a Moral recited by one of the cast, albeit usually a tenuous or poorly delivered on.  Matthew thought this game might suit one-off play as a sort of pallete cleanser when only part of the group is present and another game has been cancelled and I think I know what he means.

Ah, the nineties!  Optimus might as well be wearing a bum-bag and listening to grunge, this is so dated.

Transformers, in contrast, had more continuity, more tension and a totally serious narrator.  (Albeit one who delivered things in a very 80s action cartoon sort of melodrama)  Starting from the same premise as episode one of the cartoon (in fact, Sister Superior/Matthew/Molly played out a variation of the same opening scene!) but mixing in ideas from thirty years of Transformers the group were on a science mission that was sent out to find energon because their home planet of Cybertron had been drained dry of all resources by war.  They hoped to help the Autobot war effort... but got ambushed and crashed on a distant unremarkable world with no native intelligent life.

Well, no native cybernetic intelligent life, but boy did they get a fright when they first picked up one of the wee pink organic things and realised they could talk!  Bad enough their interstellar craft was destroyed and Decepticons were hunting for them; worse still most of the people who escaped the ship explosion intact were scientists; now they had to protect this primative world from Decepticon exploitation.

Of course the humans aren't quite as primative and vulnerable as they think but it'll take a bit for them to realise that...

Appearing in our game, but not appearing anywhere else anytime soon.  Goddamn lawyers.

Nicking an idea from 90s Transformers series Beast Wars, the heroes had the possibility of finding new allies if they could find the Statis Pods ejected from their ship before it exploded - escape pods carrying partially deactivated Transformers.  Of course the Decepticons could also find these and reprogram their occupants into Decepticon slaves or tear them apart from spare parts for their own troops, so there was a fight to gain the numerical advantage over their opponents.

One other thing I imported in was to make the "disguise" in "robots in disguise" important as it was in the 80s Ladybird books. This is not a continuity where Bumblebee goes to the fair, Perceptor wins a Nobel Peace Prize or the like - our Transformers are trying to take over or defend Earth secretly, aware that for all their might a half-dozen transforming robots could probably be snuffed out by six billion angry humans if they put their mind to it.

Also the early IDW comics, but I prefer my references more obscure.

The game seemed to mostly go down well bar the earlier mentioned scheduling issues in fitting it alongside Rescue Rangers.  Molly and Sister Superior both made female characters and I gave them two female Decepticons to squabble with - they managed to have Designated Girl Fights without feeling like "the chicks".  On the contrary, Sister Superior was the grumpy engineer/medic and Molly played a youthful, enthusiastic programmer who clashed with Decepticon heriess Slipstream.  She is perhaps my favourite of the characters I got to play in this game, being mostly with the group because she is "Uncle Megsy's" favourite.  

..And yes, being related to other Transformers is a thing.   It's stupid, but no stupider than three 25ft robots turning into a human sized SLR camera

Not one, THREE robots.  One robot can become a sportscar but one can't be both a lens and a flash.

Like Doctor Who and Justice Leauge, I have a large back catalogue of stories for inspiration.

I will definitely be running this game again.  Some small alterations will be required - the players were just a little bit too un-combat-equipped as scientists to deal with a team of Decepticons, especially when their enemy commander was a Triple Changer who turned into both a missile-launching tank and a nuclear missile laden submarine.  Only Raj brought any muscle in the form of a Grimlock-esque T-Rex warrior.   (And with a character gimmick of being miffed that despite being the best soldier, he wasn't the Autobot in charge of the PCs.)

They did win their fights but they were sometimes a slog or repetitive, so their characters will need some buffing to help.  They might also need to crack open some Stasis Pods and get some new buddies - I'm wondering if like Justice Leauge it would benefit from Troupe-style play in which they could alter between characters every episode.  Certainly the cartoons and comics we're based on had a huge cast list who alternated who was in the spotlight based on complex criteria and it would totally fit for Dave to play Blades one week but take the role of Guzzle another time.

We closed out on a sequel hook in which the Autobots managed to recover the head of Optimus Prime from the Decepticons and rebuild their spiritual leader, who was going to offer his assistance in saving Earth.  The US government have started to notice the weird things going on, interviewing witness to the Autobot/Decepticon battles and clearly showing an interest in making their own anti-robot feature.  And the Decepticons?  Well, they were able to transmit a signal back to Cybertron to advise they have found a huge energy source that's barely defended and the final shot of the season was of the 'Cons using the last energy reserves on Cybertron to send ship full of reinforcements heading their way.

Get ready for Shockwave and the 1985 robots, my friends!

My TF friend and fellow RPGer Graeme will be super excited by this.

 I have some one-offs to address but I think we've gone too long without a wargaming specific post.  Next post will be my 200th published post and I intend on giving you a battle report with a difference.

If you can recognise what's going on in the picture below, you'll know what that difference is!


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