All the times I couldn’t get it to work

And the one time I sort of, kinda, did. I wonder what I did differently.

When I was 9 years old I read about tabletop RPGs in an Argentine videogames magazine. They sort of got it confused with Magic: The Gathering, but it was enough to get me really interested. The year after I found lots of copies of a book on the sale pile that claimed to be an RPG; I begged my parents to buy it for me. It was a local edition of Toon, printed by one of our biggest board game companies, the first of its kind. As far as I know, there hadn’t been Argentine editions of RPGs before, haven’t been since, and it remains the only Spanish translation of TOON to date.

Not actually my copy, I found this photo online. I do have the same tablecloth though.

The translation adds yet another layer of schizophrenia to my relationship with this game. The cover promises “¡Usted y sus amigos convertidos en personajes de historieta!”, which is a surprising amounts of FAILs for a lone sentence. “Usted” is the formal “you”, like “vous” in French: for me it pressuposes a reader on his or her forties. “Historieta” means comic books, so whoever phrased the cover didn’t know the difference between comic books and a TV cartoon. On the inside, the translator, who otherwise does a very good job (and I found out he’s actually a somewhat prestigious Buenos Aires writer), translates the Zip attribute as “Viveza”, and Chutzpah as “Descaro”. Which is so ODD, man, it might be true that in other variants of Spanish “Viveza” means “lightness” (as opposed to heaviness). But in our regional variant, “Viveza” is a pretty central concept to our culture that means, well, chutzpah. Argentines consider that a central quality of ourselves as a people, for better or worse, is our ability and willingnes to con other people, to be street savvy, to solve a problem without the proper tools, MacGyver style. So it was pretty hard for me to teach the game to my classmates, especially because I didn’t think of using my “viveza” and change the words.

Luckily, the book instructed me to begin with a learn-to-play adventure, and it didn’t include the Attributes. It’s an Olympics spoof which comes with pregenerated characters, one of which is a Russian female hippopotamus intended as a vehicle for Cold War jokes. I bet made a lot more sense in 1985’s USA than in 1997’s Argentina. These characters weren’t complete, listing only 7 of the 23 abilities and no attributes. Like a Lite version of the game.

I convinced a few of my classmates to try it with me on recess. Recesses were 10 minutes long so I guess we must’ve done it more than one time, or continued during class or at home. They got it pretty well, it was rolling against each other to determine who outpunched the other in a boxing match, then, later, who outrunned the other in a marathon. It was so boring. Oh so boring. More for me than to them, who at least got to wonder who would roll better dice. I didn’t know how to make appear the fighting monkeys that the book said had fled from a zoo an were supposed to fight the player characters. I rolled to see whether the myopic mole referee hit anyone with his “begin the race” revolver, and they didn’t get why was I randomly disadvantaging one of them before a competition. The worst part was, we weren’t laughing. The book had promised me everything was going to be so funny, and nothing of the sort was going on. Over the next ten years, the only joy I could extract out of that book would be by reading it.

Also filling up notebooks with game ideas that I’d never get to try.

We could never finish the Olympics-spoof adventure. But at 10, at 11, at 12, I tried again to play Toon every once in a while. I tried to play other adventures from the book. I tried to write or prepare one of my own. I filled notebooks with ideas and maps, and never got them finished. I was sure one day I would be able to do it. Well, not sure, but now it seems to me I was a pretty determined kid. Nowadays, I’d never put half the energy onto something I wasn’t sure about. But back then, I wasn’t sure but I did anyway, because I wanted it THAT much.

A couple of my friends were more into it. One even bought the book as well. But he never played it, and as far as I know never told anyone about it, I don’t even know if he knew I had it as well. The other, I’m trying real hard to remember if he ever gamemastered to me. I recall he once played as the pre-generated (full) robocop duck that came with the game. I think we got into a fight over rules or the way the character should behave. I think I was worried about playing with just one character. How the hell do you use one of Toon’s better features, the “sit it out for three minutes when out of hit points” one? (The book said to just ignore it, which to me was almost like making the character invulnerable.) We didn’t really get mad at each other, we got bored. We continued to play with my NES, his Genesis/Mega Drive, and we got into Magic:The Gathering. A much more fulfilling game.


Two or three years ago I started to get the book out again, sometimes, feeling more confident after years of reading The Forge and the exchanges on Ron’s comics blog. I took it to a brunch with University classmates, the year I was taking a class called Comedy in Radio. They were all 20 or 22, I was 29. We were set out to do “nerdy things” in the afternoon for the sake of an exchange student, who told us that in her native Spain she didn’t have many friends with which to share nerdy interests. We watched an Argentine superhero movie, ate local food and had a brief window of time to roleplay, which I had told them was “like, the ultimate nerd experience – nothing is nerdier than this, you’ve got to try it”. We didn’t get past character generation, thank God: I was planning to wing an adventure, starting from their character ideas, but they created a talking beach ball, a sapient beach umbrella and an expy of The Annoying Orange. I was brutally outclassed, creatively.

I bust it out again not too long ago, with my new friends of the new career I’m going to. We are all in the first year of… “Librarian”, I don’t know what it’s called in English. Marcela is 19 and Alejo is 18. Both have roleplaying experience. Actually, our tiny group of only 25 first year students has the biggest roleplayers concentration I’ve ever seen. (Also, and with only mild overlap, the biggest concentration of Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts/other variants I’ve ever seen.) Marcela hadn’t ever roleplayed on tabletop; she’s in this weird WhatsApp messaging activity where she and five other female friends make up worlds and populate them with each other’s characters and decide things with “no rules” and put in every character they like from any book or movie. (I’ve no idea, it sounds like complex fanfiction to me.) Alejo, on the other hand, has a lot of traditional experience with mostly D&D, as a GM and as a player – it’s a hobby in which he was initiated by his older brother. He’s from a different town – we treat him as if he had grown up on the country, but really it’s a city, though smaller than our own. (Marcela does laugh as some inflexions of his accent, correcting him – I try to discourage her from doing it.)

We wanted to show Marcela what traditional roleplaying was like, and I told them we could try out a bit of Toon. I had to remind them what Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry were like – they’re so young! They decided to play farm animals. I read them the bit of rules about character creation – just the first part. Species, demeanor, motivation, etcetera. They liked the option Natural Enemies and independently decided to hate each other’s species. I told them we would make ability scores up on the fly – but now I remember, I did make them stat character Attributes. I called Zits “Dexterity”.

The game went along well, and we were able to wrap it up succesfully. But Marcela did cry out, one third of the way in, “This is SOOO BOOOORING”, with her best teenager voice. I was delighted that we could talk about it so lightly, “Yeah, this sucks, let’s approach it this other way”.

While they were making characters I sketched a scenario in my head: it put both characters in uncomfortable positions to begin with, and I recall that most of the session was about conflict between them. Also they made up NPCs and rivals while creating characters, which I was able to use as well. The high point was when Alejo failed a fighting roll and declared that his character, a rooster, was now stucked head-first into the anus of Marcela’s character, a magical pony.


The only game of Toon I’ve played I consider satisfactory, though, took place a few months before that. Me and my partner were going to a pool party with her extended family. We were told to bring board games, so I snuck Toon between Clue and TEG (an Argentine RISK clone). Later she told me she would’ve been concerned, had she known I was doing that. But I didn’t bring out the game in front of her cousins and embarass her by insisting to play. Instead, I sat down quietly in a table by one side, while others chatted or swam or cooked or arrived. I read Toon slowly page by page. Sooner rather than later, my partner’s cousin’s child, an eight year old boy, came around and asked “Whatcha’ doin’?” I told him it was a cartoon kind of game and he sat to play. His grandma and his uncle were around most of the time, and could witness most of the session. (I can’t stand his uncle, my partner’s cousin, he thinks he’s so smart! He grows and sells weed and thinks I’m such a nerd. But I digress.)

I wrote Roboduck’s sheet claims he’s loyal to his friends, but now that I upload the picture I read nothing of the sort. It even explicitly says “The law comes before friends”. So where did this idea of him being loyal to Bugs Bunny come from???

I flipped through the pregenerated (full) characters, at the end of the book, and I told him to pick one. He went for Roboduck, just like my school friend so many years ago. We read aloud that Roboduck had a big sense of duty towards the law. I started by telling him he was all alone in his house and someone knocked on the door. It was Bugs Bunny, who he had previously told me was his friend. Yeah, because now I remember, he had read that Roboduck was always loyal to his friends, and I had asked “What friends does he have?” I was purposely playing one character trait against another. “What’s up, Doc? I’m in very big trouble, I woke up this morning and they’re building a golf court on top of my home!” (Bugs lives underground.) “The government says I can’t own the land because I’m just a rabbit!”

Long story short, after discussing it fruitlessly with the chief of police at the golf court, the boy surprised me with this idea: he invited Bugs to live with him! “We’ll plant carrots in my backyard and you’ll have plenty of room”, he said. I could’ve ended it there, but we still had more time. I decided the local dog, er, rabbit pound came knocking on Roboduck’s door a few weeks later. “It’s illegal to keep rabbits as pets in this city, they’re an endangered species!” The boy rolled to hide the rabbit the best he could. He was all “What rabbit? There’s no rabbit”, and I was all “Then why have you planted all these carrots?”, it was SO FUN.

I rolled for the guys using a pregen NPC from the book. I found the rabbit, and the boy just started getting physical with them. He read and used the powers from the suit, he punched them, he threw giant flower pots at them. He cheated a few dice rolls and I pretended not to notice. It was a blast.

As soon as the story ended he turned the tables on me. “Now it’s your turn! You’re roboduck!” He put me into the sea a few miles away from an island, being chased by sharks. It’s stated in Roboduck’s sheet that he’s a terrible swimmer. Then, as soon as I said what I did, he turned the tables again and told me he was a dog from the other pregen characters, and asked me what was going on. We continued playing like that, back and forth, each GMing the other’s adventure turn by turn. Guys, I was — I couldn’t fucking believe it. To me this was some high level, deep experimental shit. He treated it like the most natural thing in the world. It takes an eight year old…

So: That one time, it was a good time. I’m thinking of filling the back of the book with sheets of pregenerated characters – let people pick one each, fill in the blanks regarding NPCs and day-to-day life, then GM parallel stories that put them in trouble right from the start. Maybe that’s what I did right?

FINAL NOTES: I revised my notes from that game and it seems I embellished my memories a little. The rabbit pound workers found the bunny by my GM fiat, not rolling. The boy asked Bugs to live with him right at the doorstep, without going to the chief of police. And his first response, in character, was to tell Bugs “Let’s go back to your place and beat those city officials up!” To which I responded, also in character, “You sure, Doc? It’s fine by me, but you’re a police officer! That would be illegal.”

Also in my notes was the high point of this game, playing totally by the rules. The boy failed one of the rolls to throw a giant flower pot, and I had to come up with something funny. (That’s them Toon rules for ya: player fails a roll, GM has to come up with something funny. Sigh.) I told him the pot hit Bugs instead, so Bugs was now laying on the ground with stars swirling round his head. Guys, the boy laughed so hard at this. I was happy.


5 responses to “All the times I couldn’t get it to work”

  1. Tags and game

    I was experiencing a bad connection, and in the rush to post while I had a signal, I forgot to add game and tags to the post. Ron, could you edit them in. It's Toon for the game (of course), and I had thought of the tags:

    cartoon comedy Argentina children Greg Costikyan WhatsApp nerd cool 80s pregen

    • No problem. I understand that

      No problem. I understand that the connection and rush were involved, so for future needs, in calmer moments, please use the Contact form to tell me things like this.

  2. A couple of candidates

    I have a couple of guesses for the question in the title. I'm not Dr. Ruth and can't pretend to know what ailed play or will cure play, so what I write stands as food for thought. And it's specific to your accounts, not to play in general; I'm not seeking big-P Principles with these ideas.

    My first one concerns what's on the sheet and how it relates to how I (or you, or one) will play, and what the eight-year-old did. Roboduck "has a big sense of duty towards the law" going by what you said to him, which I call "on the sheet" in the practical sense. What did he do with it? Played it as a foil for what his character really did. In other words, he defied the law throughout while dithering about it and trying to find highly-dubious, definitely non-law-abiding compromises with it. It was funny because the character thinks he's all about the law and causes hijinks, often upon himself, because this thinking is plainly opposed to what he's really trying to do.

    Use gamer logic: did he or didn't he play the character "as written?" Use my Phenomenology logic: did he or didn't he play a character, using what's written as starter fuel? Contrast player-as-audience logic vs. author+audience logic: when he contributed forward-moving action that you did not plan, and maintained constant mutual input that neither person controlled … did that "ruin" the story, or rather, whatever the ongoing amusing fiction might be called, or "make" one?

    To peek over to the game text for a moment, which of those latter two things is reinforced textually throughout most of Toon including specific procedures and best-practices phrasing? No contest there. It seems likely to me that the kid was a significantly better authority on how to play this game successfully than its author.

    My other thought concerns procedures of scenario setup, and your "maybe that's what I did right" phrase toward the end of the post. That certainly seems implicated, even if it's not the big-picture: that without some kind of troublesome situation the characters get landed in (more generally: danger, opportunity, revelation), all they can do is scuffle and escalate their narrations until we get into underground-parody versions of kids' cartoons, exactly as with the up-the-butthole scene you described.

    Anyway, no real answers – food for thought, all munchings and alternative servings are welcome.

    • How rethoric were theseHow rethoric were these questions? I hope not too much, because here I go answering them!

      Under gamer logic, he didn’t play the character as written. Under phenomenology logic, he sure did play a character. It made the story, not ruin it.

      The revelation for me is that story now’s “enemy”, or however we call that construction of 80s AD&D Shadowrun thing, is as much predicated on character “fixedness” as in railroading. I sort of knew it, from your writings, but here I’m seeing it.

      As for the game text, I wish I could know which parts were Costikyan and which Warren Spector. Take a look at these two contradicting pieces of advice, taken from a Toon PDF I just found on Google. (I’m on mobile and I don’t have my own Argentine edition at hand, but they’re there too.)

      From the first chapter, introducing the feel of the game:

      “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.”

      From one of the middle (in my edition, which includes material from Toon Deluxe) or last (in the original edition) chapters, the one about GMing:

      ” The primary goal of TOON players is to acquire Plot Points. This is part of the fun of the game, since Plot Points are given out for acting in a funny or clever fashion. Don’t be stingy with Plot Points. Of course, you don’t want to be too free with them either; they should be earned. From time to time, you will take away Plot Points. Make sure you give out enough so that everyone comes out at least even.

      Some guidelines: (…)
      3. Give a Plot Point to a player who gets hurt doing something consistent with his or her character’s Beliefs & Goals. Similarly, a player should lose a Plot Point for acting “out of character,” or in violation of his or her Beliefs & Goals.”

      So I would say the detailed rules betray the spirit of the game as it was introduced. I’ll act before I think but the GM will penalize me if he doesn’t agree with me about my character.

    • …this is some high level
      …this is some high level Foucaultian shit, because it makes me scared before I do something. It would be much more healthy to just declare my character’s action null and let me choose another thing to do. It’s… SO weird for me that the rules instruct the GM to allow me to go on, but penalize me in Plot Points. Like a sin I can’t take back!

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