The first years of my career as a GM were marked by an obsessive need to overprepare. I wanted contingencies of contingencies. I dared the players to make choices I hadn’t anticipated. All of that changed when I discovered Greg Costikyan’s masterpiece, Toon.
Toon simulates being in a Woody Woodpecker, Tom and Jerry or Bugs Bunny cartoon. The characters, with bottomless pockets, can produce tanks or Betty White on a whim. No story… no scene… can be anticipated.
The mechanics are incredibly simple. Roll 2d6 and try to score beneath your skill number. The brilliance is in the details. First, nobody dies. Characters get smashed by falling anvils, take tumbles off cliffs, even crash missiles into the moon. The worst that happens is the flattened or charred character limps out of the action for five minutes of game time, a mechanic called “falling down.”
Speaking of time, Toon is run on a ticking clock with the game length determined by how many players are at the table. Set the timer for half the game time, play the first act of mayhem, then afterwards take a ten minute intermission. Get a soda. Take a moment to gather your wits, because with a good group you will have been laughing hard for over half an hour. Play the second act. When the timer goes off at the conclusion of the second act, everyone gets one last chance to throw everything they have at the situation to bring the game to an epic finale. There’s little chance the session will peter out. It’ll naturally conclude with an epic finale.
My other favorite mechanic is the mind over matter rule. Remember all the times the coyote runs off a cliff and keeps running until he looks down and realizes he should be falling? Only then does gravity affect him. The game simulates that by having characters who try to lift a skyscraper (usually as a result of being tricked) a chance to make a Smarts check. Blew the roll? No problem. You don’t realize you shouldn’t be able to hold the skyscraper. Made the roll? Your mind gets the better of you, and you get squished beneath the building. Then, a businessman pops out, steps on your head and hails a taxi.
What can you play? I’ve seen people simulate Muppets, Warner Bros cartoon characters, play Charlie Sheen and even Jesus. With 23 skills and a boatload of schticks to customize your character, there’s no limit to the character you can create.
So, what does it take to be a good Toon GM, also known as the Animator? The key’s also the first rule of improv. Say “yes, and…” Only the dice should deny success at an action, and even then something happens. Thanks to a volume of random tables, when a character tries to shapeshift into the President and fails, he changes into something, maybe a frying pan or Don Knotts. Keep the game moving forward by always letting something happen, even if it isn’t what the player intended. Second, don’t let your mind get in the way. Don’t overthink what the best gimmick or solution should be. Spit out the first thing that enters your mind. The game’s worst enemy is silence.
How do you prepare a game of Toon? Simple. You build the set, then you populate it with characters and objects that the players and NPCs can use to unleash the most chaos.
Stories are usually simple. Let’s say the PCs have to go door to door selling Young Girls Pretending to Love Nature Cookies. Whoever sells the most cookies wins a car. The Animator simply needs to design the neighbors on the block and populate their houses with disasters waiting to happen. Maybe you’re really into Marvel Netflix, so you have one of the houses the PCs visit be the one Kilgrave acquired for Jessica Jones. And he’s more than willing to use mind control to get all the cookies for free. Perhaps you’ve binged on Arrested Development. One of the houses could be the Bluth model home, with all manner of Arrested Development shenanigans going on inside. The third house could be Frankenstein’s, and he’d love to buy cookies if he could borrow your brain for a moment.
From there, when players ask if some prop’s present, you roll on a random table or say “yes, and…” Don’t worry about the jokes. The players will have plenty of those. Just provide plenty of messes for the characters to cause. Once you’ve done that and stopped your brain from getting in the way of telling a fast-paced story, you’ll be prepared to be the Animator for any story any group can throw at you.