Cartoon Action Hour
Cartoon Action Hour Capsule Review by Jocelyn Robitaille on 26/06/02
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
CAH, while not perfect, is a surprisingly refreshing product that has a place in the hard-drive of anyone who remembers G.I. Joe and sighs in nostalgia.
Product: Cartoon Action Hour
Author: Cynthia Celeste Miller
Company/Publisher: Spectrum Game Studios
Page count: 108
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: yes
Capsule Review by Jocelyn Robitaille on 26/06/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Science Fiction Modern day Far Future Space Comedy Anime Espionage Conspiracy Post-apocalyse Old West Superhero Other
This here review was written from a review copy of Cartoon Action Hour's .pdf version. If you have worries about the possible bias resulting from the fact that I got hold of my copy for free, rest assured that ninjas are on their way to terminate you as we speak. Have a nice day.
Lack of time and lack of a concordant schedule with my regular players has prevented me from running a playtest. I did play around with the mechanics a bit, but that's it. If you think that makes my review worth nada, then say hello to the ninjas for me, will ya?
For those of you who didn't figure it out from the title and haven't heard about this game yet, Cartoon Action Hour (CAH) is a game that aims to simulate the feel of the saturday morning cartoons of old. Now, if you're like me and you've grown up with those TV programs, it means you have some high expectations for such a product.
The main challenge of CAH was to feel fresh and original even though several games have already covered genres that are pretty darn akin to 80s cartoons (anime, hong kong movies, and pulp). I had doubts. Somehow, however, Cynthia Celeste Miller manages to pull it off. CAH feels distinctively like those old cartoons. I'm still trying to figure out how she did it, but she did it. The game gets you right back into that childish mood and makes you wanna play it real bad.
This said, the game is far from flawless. While it has some streaks of genius and several good shticks, CAH has some flaws that stroke me as totally at odds with the rest of the game. Luckily, those are easily fixed.
With a total of 108 pages, my first impression was that the game was going to be rather thin in content. I was pleasantly surprised at how the author managed to all the info we need plus some that's just cool in that few pages without it sounding like a summary. Quite the contrary, the prose is pretty entertaining.
Since "style" means something different from review to review, here's what I consider to be covered by the style rating: the art, the layout, the editing, the tone & flavor of the text, the character sheet. Many thanks to Karine Labelle for giving me her professional feedback on CAH's layout.
The first thing you need to do with CAH is skip the cover page as quick as you can. Oddly enough, the worst art of the product is featured on the front page; on top of that, it's laid out in a frankly unattractive fashion. (Oddly, the cover of CAH on the website is different from the one I have. Maybe they figured out the first one wasn't doing their game justice.)
Once that's done, though, you're all clear. The interior art ranges from okay to pretty good, and even those that score only as ok are crude and simplistic in a manner that fits the genre quite well. I'd be tempted to say that there are too few of them, but as Spectrum Studios’ budget was probably low, it's understandable. Each page has a star shape in the background that you get used to really quick and that sets the tone of the genre well.
The layout is fairly original, with the text being aligned straight on the left side and following the star shape on the right side. While that raises the problem of the amount of blank space, it doesn't enter the equation as this is a .pdf product and the number of pages therefore has nothing to do with the cost. If CAH ever sees print in that format, however, this will become a big ugly flaw. The font used is quite nice and relaxing to the eye, which is always a plus when you're reading text off your screen. Likewise, the tables and sidebars are well done: they strike a good balance between drawing the eye too much and being easy to miss.
Speaking of the sidebars, the most original part of CAH as far as the tone of the text goes are the entries by Kargorr, a loser villain from a saturday morning cartoon. While I understand some people liked that feature a lot, I found out quickly that it was not my cup of tea and stopped reading them. The good news here is that it proved pretty darn easy to ignore the Kargorr sidebars as they are clearly identified by an icon of the villain's face.
Apart from Kargorr, I found the text of CAH to be quite entertaining. Again, it manages to strike a perfect balance between sounding too conversational and sounding too much like a text book. Moreover, the tone of the genre is set insanely well throughout the book, and that may well be what gives it a distinctive feel from other similar genres, more so than the rules themselves. As a bonus, the number of typos found is significantly below the average for RPG books. A minor problem, however, is that the book is filled with TMDA (Too Many Darn Acronyms). When you're busy learning the rules, the last thing you want is to make an effort to remember what OSA and VDM mean. Luckily, there's a glossary at the end, but still.
The character sheets, while not amazing visually, hold their ground. The one provided for characters is fairly practical, with traits and such locatable at a glance and enough space awarded for every section in relation to how much you're supposed to write in there. Also provided is traditional box where you're supposed to draw your character or reflect on how you should've paid attention in art class. A second character sheet is provided for your series (read: campaign). The idea in itself is pretty sweet, but I feel the sheet itself would've been done better on two pages as some sections lack the space to write up everything you need.
CAH starts off pretty much as every other roleplaying games: by describing what is roleplaying. That description is rather nicely done as it refers to what happens in a game instead of going for traditional use of a metaphor which usually always falls short of describing RPGs right. That and a short pitch of the game's premise constitute Channel 1 (read: Chapter 1).
Channel 2 covers character creation. After a few pages that deal with developing your character concept, you enter the point-based creation system proper. The first thing to know is that this is a unified point-based system: you get all of your stats and nifty bits from the same pool of points, which is fixed by the GM. A striking characteristic of CAH is that it doesn't have attributes as we know them: what the game calls traits are really its skills. On top of that, the traits are 0-average. While we have plenty of 0–average games out there, I've seen few if any that take this approach with skills. Needless to say, that allows for a very nice touch of customizability. In addition, once a trait reaches 4, any additional level of proficiency in that trait instead provides with a super-trait which augments the number of dice you get to roll (1 die is standard). Then comes the specialties for your traits, which I can only describe as uninspired. If you've ever read Shadowrun's section on specialties, you know what CAH's section is all about, give or take a few minor details.
Next comes a few special traits: Size, Oomph, Stunt points, and Hurt points. Size works as we expect it to: the small guy is harder to hit but hits for less damage, and vice versa. The Oomph is both your initiative score and your bonus when you get a critical. The Stunt points are karma/fate/fortune/luck/whatever you wanna call them obligatory points. However the fact that spending Stunt points give you your Oomph score as a bonus is a rather nice touch that makes both traits more original than they first appear. Finally, you have Hurt points, which are true in function to their acronym.
The biggest part of Channel 2 is dedicated to special abilities. Big guns, super powers, cool vehicles, animal companions, magic: everything's there. For me, this was where CAH took off and made me want to run it real bad. This kind of "buy what you want" generation of shticks is somewhat reminiscent of Big Eyes, Small Mouth, but the fact that action cartoons are a more focussed game genre than anime helps CAH to be simpler yet as effective (this is especially true of vehicles). An optional rule is provided for spell clusters (instead of hand-picking the spells) that felt somewhat clunkier than the rest to me, as it requires more in-game calculations than the other powers. It really seems to run counter to what the system feels like its trying to achieve, but since it's an optional rule, no harm's done.
Finally, a section on story hooks is provided. While those aren't bought with the character points (and neither do they give some back to you), they play an intricate part of character advancement in the mechanic sense. Indeed, between Channel 2 and Channel 5 (where the GM info is at), you get pretty solid guidelines of how much experience points facing those story hooks provide, depending on their severity. Having separate experience points for exploring your story hooks (rather than it being part of the regular pool of experience points for the episode) is a rather nice touch which seems to help keeping on roleplaying solidly even though the game is focussed on action.
Channel 3 tackles the general rules. Apart from the fact that the d12 in CAH is used for more than throwing at your fellow players, this channel has nothing new under the sun. Basic target number based system, move along, nothing to see here. Well, almost nothing. As I pointed out earlier, the relation between the fortune points and the oomph score are pretty funky, as they make the use of fortune points a bit more effective than most game, which is pretty much how it should be considering the genre.
Channel 4 is still rules, but this time they take on combat. As you might expect, the section on combat rules is pretty much what will make or break a game named Cartoon Action Hour. All in all, the rules in CAH fit the tone of saturday morning cartoons fairly well, albeit in the same fashion that the rules for other similar genres would. However, three rules deserve to be underlined since they are fairly original. The first one (although it's actually found in Channel 5) deals with goons and how they can be more easily dispatched than your regular enemy. Although this is not the first time we see rules dealing with lackeys, CAH does a fine job at setting itself apart by dealing with as mere obstacles. The rules regarding those ill-fated enough to be cartoon cannon fodder deal with them in groups and give the player first strike on them every single time. Although the rules feel like they make it a bit too easy on the players at first, a quick flashback to those ol’ G.I. Joe days reminds one that it was that easy for the characters to dispatch henchmen.
The second set of rules that earns my kudos is health related, and of tantamount importance to any RPGs: dying, and hopefully healing, if the former doesn't happen. On this issue, I have to give Cynthia Celeste Miller her props for having enough guts to say it outright: characters don't die. Or very rarely. Most games I've seen where the genre convention prevents death have usually used an approach somewhat akin to the following: "Characters shouldn't die, but in case you want them to, here are some rules." This isn't the case with CAH, as it provides no rules altogether. Likewise, healing has been kept to a minimal: the character regains half of his life points after 12 hours, and the other half after another 12 hours. Not only is that way of handling things true to the genre, but it spares you the hassle of doing calculations of healing time and such, which is often overly complicated in games. By now, however, you're probably telling yourself that this set of rules is certainly good, but not especially so. This is where I teach you about life, my very young apprentice: making things so easy on the players force the GM and players to do something that is essential to any cartoon-like game: focus the follow spot not on survival, but on success. When was the last time you heard Optimus Primus say: "Let's retreat, we'll stop them next time?" Every battle is important, and losing to the villain is the worst thing that can happen to a cartoon hero. And that's why I consider the rules dealing with healing and death to be so appropriate: they set things in a fashion that makes it bloody likely that you'll get that heroic, do or die feel you'll be aiming for.
I won't ramble on and on about the third rule: it's about grappling. More often then not, grappling in games is something you want to avoid if you aren't strong enough to break away. Not so with CAH, since the game's rules regarding grappling list several ways to break away. And needless to say, in a game where characters don't die and heroes are ethical enough to act like something else than Hannibal Lector when they're facing opponents, having balanced rules for grappling are a jolly good idea.
This said, CAH isn't all fluffy kittens and happy little choir boys singing Hallelujah when it comes to fitting the genre. Some of the rules are icky and feel somewhat like they're going counter to cartoon-style action. Again, there are three rules that are bad, just as there were three that were especially good. Would the Universe have collapsed otherwise? You decide, but I'd like to think so, since those three rules stray away from the genre so much that it baffles the mind if you consider how everything else about this book is true to cartoons.
The first bad rule is movement. To make a long story short, moving is an action in CAH, which means you need to take a round to move. Now, I've watched plenty of cartoons in the eighties. The way I remember it, it looked like running and fighting at the same time was about as hard for cartoon characters as running and looking sexy is for Baywatch characters. And that's saying something.
My second peeve is regarding melee combat. Although it's handled rather well, it boggles my mind how the only way to actively defend against an attack is by using your athletics skill. If you're He-Man and you're better at wielding a sword than at dodging, wouldn't you block with your sword?
My third and final problem with the combat rules of CAH is with the ranged combat rules. Primo, the ranges are way too long, with 100 yards still in the “medium range” category. Secundo, although in melee combat you have an automatic dodge (read: you don't have to waste your action on it), it's not the case with ranged attacks. Those two gripes combine into one big problem: ranged weapons are too powerful, and especially too powerful for the genre. The Transformers always came to blows because they couldn't hit crap with those pistols of theirs. As for the G.I. Joe troopers, those cool martial arts moves they did were probably learned off the cuff, judging from how much they sucked at actually damaging something smaller than a tank with those fancy "All-American Hero(TM)" guns of theirs.
As you can see, those three rules baffle the mind. So hopefully, the author either was drunk at the time she wrote them or figured the Universe would collapse if the awesome rules weren't balanced by the bad ones. The good news, however, is that since the core of the combat rules is solid and true to the genre, fixing those three problems is pretty darn easy and takes about 5 minutes total. All in all, that's a fairly low "fix-it" time for a first edition RPG.
Channel 5 is where CAH strikes closest to perfection. After presenting a few more rules which fall in your old run of the mill GM rules, it heads for GM advice. What can I say? Everything about that chapter is just great: the tone of the writing sets the feel of old cartoons like you wouldn't believe, and the advice for running saturday morning cartoon games is simple enough to be very useful for newbie GMs and insightful enough to make it worth reading for more seasoned ones. All in all, it's pretty obvious that a lot of thought went into that section, and that hard work is rewarded because it is truly one of the best chapters on how to run a specific genre I've read.
While Channel 5 as a whole is great, two bits are just plain "pee in your pants, yell out to testify" amazing. The first bit is perhaps the most original way for a player to earn experience points in a roleplaying game ever: the after-show message. You know, that cute bit at the end of a cartoon where G.I. Joe showed up in a park where two kids were fighting or something, and where our dear All-American Hero explained to them why fighting is bad, using the episode we had just seen as an example. Basically, the players can earn a few extra points if they agree to do the message once an episode is done. Simple as hell, but I can only imagine how effective it is as far as setting the tone goes. The second amazing bit is something a bit more expected, but which earns its props because it's so well done: the section on how to make a good villain. In about three pages, the author manages to present the essence of the cartoon villain.
Last but not least, Channel 6 presents a few campaign settings and a few more campaign setting ideas. Since I liked some of them and disliked some of them, I think it's fair to say that CAH went for catering to different tastes. It's worthy of note here that those setting were written up by multiple authors.
What can you expect from Channel 6? First off, a lot of clones of old cartoon programs. That's not a flaw, mind you, since if you're getting this game, you probably want to play out a clone. However, those clones are not totally unoriginal: it's clear that the authors tried to keep the central point of the show they cloned and change the rest. For instance, my personal favorite is Tommy K and the Star Kitties, which is basically a space opera version of Jem. Yes, I have a soft spot for Jem. Go ahead, laugh. Of course, aside from the mandatory clones (and those were mandatory because I, for one, would've been greatly disappointed had I not found them), you get a few original settings. Or at least they felt original to me; maybe they're just clones of shows I haven't seen. In any case, some of them are bound to sound original, unless you're an albino and you had to stay in front of the TV your whole life because the sun could kill you .
Finally, you get an appendix section, filled with goodies. You get a glossary of game terms, an extensive glossary of 80s slang, a guide to old saturday morning cartoon shows, a page of designer notes (which is really a Foreword at the end), a character sheet for your character, and a character sheet for your series.
To sum it up, while not perfect, Cartoon Action Hour is a damned fine game. The illustrations are the game's strong point as far as style goes, but the sensible layout and the refreshing writing style more than largely make it up for it, which is why I give it a 3 for style (although it's really a 3.5).
Content wise, CAH has its share of flaws, but also its shares of brilliant ideas. Coupled with the fact that the system and character creation is solid, I'd be tempted to give it a 3. However, the flaws are so easily fixed that I can forgive them easily even though they seem bloody obvious to me. Which is why I'll give the game a 4 in substance.
Cool game. Potential for lots of fun. Cheap. Easy to read off the screen.
Do the maths: it's a fine addition to your gaming bookcase.