Saturday, January 8, 2011

Review: Cartoon Action Hour, Season Two

Have you ever pondered the nature of nostalgia, and thought about what might make the list of future trends to be remembered fondly?

And would you have put the cartoons of the 1980s on that list? You know the ones, the half-hour commercials for action figures and playsets that intertwined bouts of frenetic adrenalin-pumping action with a bolted-on afterthought of a positive message, making for a sort of four-color Frankenstein morality play?

Yeah, I wouldn't have either.


But that's the story behind Cartoon Action Hour in a nutshell: It's a celebration of the "style" of cartoon that was popular in the 1980s. And yes, those are sneer-quotes, since the "style" was a marriage of convenience between naked, lumpen, "scream until daddy stops the car" corporate greed and a legally mandated, psychologist-enforced altruism (or the more readily available altruism-substitute, made mostly from CYA, sawdust, and wheat gluten).

(At this point, you might be wondering where I'm going with this. Is it a review of a tabletop game, or a cheap shot at decades-old manufactured pop culture? That's part of the problem: it's both. Consequently, whatever joy I may show at possessing a game with strange theme and novelty mechanics is going to be overshadowed by the bitter, seething hatred that festers in my heart for the lumbering memetic homunculi that advertisers originally unleashed on the landscape. Please bear this in mind as you read this review.)

There is no one setting for this game; it was designed originally as a toolset with which to recreate (or create from scratch) the standard-issue 1980s-style toy commercial cartoon. The second edition has continued in that tradition, not forcing you into any one particular genre or time period. If it sounds unrestricted and free-wheeling, well, there are limits. Big ones, it turns out, but genre is not one of them.


Here's the catch: The cartoons of that period had a number of common attributes. They were the result of the peculiar marriage of convenience I mentioned before, and the game has been written to recreate that tone, nonsensical though it is.

Morally speaking, they were darn near black-and-white, and strongly biased toward the "bland altruism" side rather than the "luridly cackling evil for its own sake" side. If those cartoons were memorable (and laughable) for anything, it was that stark polarization. The heroes could make mayonnaise look dingy and taste overpoweringly spicy. The villains' motivation was either seeking to increase their power, bullying to maintain power they already had, or wanton destruction simply because they could.

Do you remember what the villains from Captain Planet were like, how they'd steal an oil tanker and deliberately run smack into a beach to teach all the sea lions a lesson in complacency? Do you remember wondering why they didn't just sell the oil at huge profits and not have to get beaten up by a big blue man in little red pants?


A villain whose only motivation is a total commitment to being a bastard is not good storytelling; it leaves plot holes the size of a catamite's rectum, like where they keep finding investment despite their inability to work out the rather glaring design flaw in a supersoldier with an enormous herniated major organ.

"Yahtzee" Croshaw, review of Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles

This doesn't mean they were totally whitebread innocent, but more often than not they were. The nods and winks to adults who might be watching had to be concealed carefully, so generally the cartoons of the era were about as racy as separate bedrooms. They were generally non-violent, but violence against women was especially outré.

They were focused very heavily on action and physical conflict with all manner of oversized scary-looking weapons, but very rarely did anyone get more than a little scratched up or knocked around. Severe injury was a major plot element if it happened at all. Death was too radioactive to handle under just about any circumstances, although I can't believe it never happened. If you can think of a case, please leave a message.

There are other elements of the 1980s cartoon—most notably the commercial breaks and the end-of-show message—that Cartoon Action Hour not only embraces, it encodes and makes use of in its rules. And the fact that they were at their shriveled hearts commercials does not go unnoticed either. But I'll cover those below, in Mechanics.


This labor of love? was the work of Cynthia Celeste Miller of Spectrum Games, who has credits for not only writing and game design, but for the art direction and interior design. Given that she dedicates the book to her graphics design instructors, obviously it's a second love of hers.

And even she admits the honor of these old cartoons is somewhat ...sullied.

Let's face it, there is a strong link between the action figures and the retro-toons that spawned them. The production companies and toy companies worked hand in hand to develop properties that would make the kids salivate and beg their parents to spend their hard-earned money on the toys. I'll even go one step further and say that this goal dictated what the characters, vehicles and locales looked like. After all, they wanted to ensure that it all translated to visually stimulating action figures. Otherwise, kids would pass them by in favor of more interesting toys.

Cartoon Action Hour, p. 141

But then, the very next paragraph...

Despite all this, however, there was something much deeper going on with the retro-toons; something more meaningful than even the production companies knew. They weren't just creating twenty-two minute toy commercials... they were creating mythology for my generation, served up every Saturday morning or every weekday afternoon. He-Man was our Heracles, Teela was our Athena and Skeletor, of course, was our Hades. The parallels are all there and the symbolism is strong. This can be said of most, if not all, the cartoons of that era.

I can't quite agree with that statement, but frankly I take more objection to the lack of serial commas. I have to admit that there was something about the cartoons of that era, given that Transformers has been dragged through so many variations and re-imaginings that it almost has a life of its own—it might as well be mythology at this point.

Side note: No matter how right she may be here, I will still regard a live-action remake of Thundercats as both a harbinger of the Apocalypse, and a sign that said Apocalypse is both overdue and richly deserved.


The book is available in a few different forms. I have the softback with color interior, 143+ glossy pages, and there is color on every page. Not every page has artwork, but coloring and styling of text are used to their fullest, in banners and splashes and stars. The colors are almost riotous and brick-subtle (meaning they aren't).

They're never used "for evil," though, meaning there's consistency in design. Colors tend to be the same in a particular section. Even as there are large boxes of color, the text in them is always high-contrast and easy to read.

Blatant, lots of primary and secondary colors, and few fine details... sounds almost like the retro-toons themselves, making the game an appropriate homage, if such is possible.

Pick your Poison

As I said, the book comes in a few forms. Consult the CAH:S2 products page, and you will see reference to the PDF version hosted primarily on RPG Now, and the "Hardcopy" version which is hosted on Lulu.

What? You've never heard of Lulu? They do Print on Demand. Authors post their files to Lulu, and Lulu prints individual copies of the book as they're ordered.

The book can be had three different ways in dead-tree form, either as a softcover with greyscale interior art (for about $30+S&H), a softcover with color interior art (for about $55+S&H), or as a hardcover with color interior art (for about $60+S&H). Yes, these sound steep, and they are. And I say this having purchased the softcover with color art myself. It really is a nice feeling book, though.

Here I could go off on a tangent about the troubles of ultra-small-press games and ultra-short-run printing, but no. But I won't. It would be a very large tangent, so I'm going to turn it into its own posting. Suffice it to say that some believe the hardcopy RPG book may become an art piece, and people will instead play with the PDF versions.


Thus far I've regarded the premise and tone with an eye so jaundiced it's green trending toward turquoise, and whinged a bit about the price of the hardcopy book. It's obvious that there's much about the inspiration of this game that I despise.

That's what's going to make the positive swerve the review takes in this section so disorienting.

Yes, positive. As in, "I hate a lot of what the game stands for, but I don't really hold it against the game itself." In fact, there are places where the game embraces the commercial nature of its sources with a smirking, ironic coyness. And that I actually find endearing. Or redeeming. Or something.

In on the Joke

Let's say you do and a group of friends sits down and plays this game. You might create your own revisionist take on the 1980s cartoon series, or you might use one of the three example series from the back of the book, or you might draw from one of the (hang on, lemme count... 5, 10, 15?, 20?!?) twenty pre-existing conditions cartoons that are cited as typical of the genre. (That's creepy. I didn't know there were that many. And there's one or two that I remember that aren't on this list, too... but maybe I shouldn't have said that.)

The authors are not only aware of the commercial nature of the 1980s cartoon series, they've encoded it into the rules:

  • The series of old had a lot of fighting, but very little people getting hurt. Thus, the combat system doesn't inflict damage as such. Instead, anyone hit or otherwise affected in a fight receives a setback. Anyone who takes four setbacks is out of the fight, captured, inconvenienced, or whatever. Anyone hit hard enough receives all four setbacks in one shot.
  • Every character has an Oomph attribute (yes, capitalized) which reflects the character's star power and prominence. Oomph can increased by playing up subplots and disadvantages, taken away by playing against the genre (attacking other PCs, excessive violence, etc.), and spent on various effects, including combat effects like rerolls, counter-attacks, etc. They're like action points that enforce the tone of the game.
  • Any large weapon item prop is called an accessory in-game.
  • Once or twice during an episode, the GM may declare a commercial break, during which people may get up, stretch their legs, etc. Once play resumes, though, the GM rolls on a table to determine what the commercial was advertising, and that has game effects! For instance, a plug for the villainous action figures will give the named villainous characters a bonus in that act of the game.
  • At the end of the episode, any experience earned is distilled down into the points used to build the character. These points are called, literally, Proof of Purchase Points.
  • There is a section on Cheese in the gamemastering chapter, and it goes into detail about the animation techniques. For instance, things like trap doors or secret entrances weren't quite color-matched with the backgrounds, so they should be included in a room's description, and players should be encouraged to ignore them. Other tips include stiff character animation, stock footage, etc.
  • At the end of each episode, there's usually either some sort of safety tip or moral of the story. The players are encouraged to play through these with at least a straight face for experience, but the advice to the GM is "brace yourself for some major wackiness."

See what I mean? It's not full-on mockery, but it shows a self-awareness that redeems the material in my eyes. It acknowledges the problems of the medium, even as it seeks to recreate them. And casting aside the mock-worthiness of the source material, some of these rules (especially the notes on cheese and the commercial break rules) can have a refreshing effect on play. And the denouement represented by the end-of-episode bumper is the aperitif that brings a session of play to a satisfying closure.

When 12 is an odd number

When it's the number of sides on the only die-type used in the game. Seriously, this game uses nothing but d12s. Bring three or four.

There aren't many systems that use only d12s, but I can think of a few. Ironclaw and Colonial Gothic are the two others that come to mind right now.


A lot of the process is spent coming up with ephemera and minor details that you more often see in story games than any system that contains an actual system. Much of these simply describe the character or make it more interesting (or marketable): name, appearance, a bunch of factoids and subplots. After those, you spend Proof of Purchase Points on extra Oomph, or anything which the character does or has which would benefit in a fight or other conflict. And this is where the system gets its free-wheelingest: you get to name those traits yourself. Seriously. Name the trait and spend some POPPs on it to buy it a rating. Voila, it's a gameable trait. "Ocelot Wrangler (3)?" Sure. "Radioactive leg warmers (4)?" Well now, it is the '80s. "Laser-shooting machine gun (5)?" Not only is it viable, that's one of the examples from the list in the book, which spans close to two pages.

You don't get much more free-wheeling than "name your own attributes and stick ratings on them." You are limited in the number of points you spend, but within that framework, you can get away with whatever the GM agrees to.

There is some sophistication and flexibility to this system too. It allows traits to be bought in such a way that they can enhance other traits. And traits can include any weapons, armor, and/or vehicles.


I'd said at the top of the review, Cartoon Action Hour is more a toolset for building a 1980's-style cartoon setting and playing in it. That means playing in any genre, and at just about any power level. Cavemen? Ancient Egyptians? Romans? Hockey Dinosaurs from Outer Space? Sure, why not? (And that reminds me, I have a Powerpoint theme to construct one of these days.)

And at the same time, it can be highly limiting. The big limiter, and this is acknowledged in the rules, is that it really only does the cartoons of the 1980s well because of all those quirks written into the rules. To create series in other decades, changes are recommended... but they never say what should change. Perhaps this is left as an exercise for the reader, but I know of at least one person who'd rather play in the 1960s and it'd be easier if I didn't have to do the conversion myself.

Play This Game If...

  • You have fond recollections of the cartoons of the 1980s and wish to "relive" them.
  • You have a powerful loathing for the cartoons of the 1980s and wish for a vehicle with which to pastiche and parody them mercilessly.
  • You like a colorful layout with broad line art and don't mind PDF.
  • You like a colorful layout with broad line art and don't mind paying for a decent quality book.
  • You want to play with children. (In a nice way, I mean.)
  • You want to play with a novel system that grants great lattitude in character creation, runs fights non-violently, and provides a number of mechanics which can tilt or swerve the action in interesting ways.

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