Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Max Fleischer is my Dungeon Master

Among cartoon aficionados, Max Fleischer needs to introduction. An Austrian who made good in America, Fleischer was among the pioneers of animation. The cartoons his company produced were often wonderfully bizarre and imaginative.

These bizarre cartoons have long had me thinking of them as a source for inspiration for the sort of gonzo, anything-goes role-playing I tend to enjoy. They also make me wonder what a Fleischer-esque campaign world might look like.

Class & Race
It's hard to write that without it looking like you're going to get into some heavy sociological commentary. Fortunately, any RPG'er worth his or her salt knows what I'm talking about.

What races make sense in a Fleischer universe? Well, humans, such as they are, are an obvious choice. Anthropomorphic animals as well, though anthropomorphic animals rarely behave any differently than humans in terms of their abilities. Perhaps it's best to just treat them as halflings (per OD&D) and get on with it. Humans and funny animals (i.e. halflings), the two races who adventure in Fleischer's universe.

Class is another thing entirely. With classes, especially in OD&D-style games, I like to think in terms of archetypes. Three come to my mind in relation to Fleischer's cartoons, those three being some of his biggest stars: Popeye, Betty Boop and Koko the Clown.

So, our three classes are going to be Sailor Man, Flapper and Clown.

Sailor Man works pretty well as a fighter, though the AD&D monk class, if you leave out the whole quivering palm thing, actually plays quite a bit like a cartoon action hero. For our purposes, we'll treat Sailor Man like a fighter (for attacking and saving throws). In terms of special abilities (we'll keep this simple), the concept of "barbarian rage" actually works pretty well for old Popeye. The sailor man can, once per day, gobble up some spinach and gain a great big +3 bonus to hit, to AC and to damage. On the other hand, sailor men disdain armor, so they don't wear it, and since they prefer to fight with their "fisks", they can deal 1d4 points of damage with their unarmed attacks.

Flappers are probably closest to magic-users in our little Fleischer-esque game. They aren't spellcasters, but they do have some "magical" abilities at charming the opposite sex. We'll treat them like magic-users in terms of attacking and saving throws. Like sailor men, they don't wear armor, and like magic-users, their pretty limited in terms of their weapon choice. Anything (yes, any thing - see below for more on this) that looks on a flapper must pass a saving throw or be charmed, so long as the flapper is trying to be seductive and playful - i.e. provided she is singing and dancing. The degree of the charm effect depends on how badly they flub their saving throw:

Miss save by 1 to 2: Fascinated by the singing and dancing, they do nothing but watch and whistle.

Miss save by 3 to 5: Charmed, per the charm person or charm monster spell.

Miss save by 6 to 10: Under her spell, per the charm monster and suggestion spells.

Image found HERE
Clowns are the tricksters of the bunch, and somewhat analogous to thieves. We'll use the thief as our basis for attacking and saving throws. Clowns don't wear armor (I know - no armor in this game ... read below for why) and they can use thief weapons. Being cartoons, they are highly maleable and able to imitate objects and hide behind objects smaller than they are (as thief's hide in shadows ability), sneak around (move silently), do simple bits of prestidigitation (pick pockets) and run up the side of walls and on ceilings (climb walls, but -25% or -5 when running on a ceiling).

Cartoon Physics
Now that we have the basic classes down, it's time to delve into cartoon physics. A few ideas come immediately to mind:

Everything is Alive! - In old cartoons, everything is either animated or has the potential to be animated. Trees are all animated (though maybe not all treants), cars and other machines have faces and minds of their own, etc. If you want to chop down a tree in the Fleischer-verse, you better watch out - it might very well chop back.

Since everything is alive, though, it also means everything is sentient to one degree or another. Everything seems to understand speech, even animals (though they may ignore it), even if they don't speak themselves.

Gravity is Subjective - This is the "save vs. gravity" concept. When a character should fall, they can avoid it by being unaware of having walked into thin air. Characters can move up to 10 feet into thin air before needing to make a save (provided they don't look down), and can avoid noticing their predicament by roll 1d20 and trying to roll higher than their Wisdom score. Sometimes it pays to be oblivious in cartoon-world.

Even if this saving throw doesn't do the trick, and falling is imminent, cartoon characters can try through manic action and sheer will to hold off the inevitable. Each cartoon character can flail around and flap their arms for 1d4 rounds before they actually fall.

Charisma as Armor Class - You'll notice that the classes above do not permit armor. To make up for this, we're going to use a character's Charisma score as their Armor Class. Cartoon characters survive by force of personality and their ability to laugh off troubles.

Nothing Up My Sleeve - Cartoon characters have an uncanny ability to pull items out of thin air (or their pockets, or from their sleeves or from behind their backs) when they need them. Anytime a character needs something, they can attempt to roll 1d20 under their intelligence score. If they're successful, they have what they're looking for. They can only try this once per adventure.

All the common monsters can be used in a cartoon game. The "animated object" from the SRD is a must-have, of course, since everything is alive. Popeye tangled with a roc, giants, cyclops, and pirates, spooks (i.e. the undead) showed up frequently and Betty Boop even did a turn in Hell (in a dream, but still).

The idea here isn't to recreate old cartoons, but rather to run dungeon adventures in a cartoon style.


  1. Replies
    1. I agree with this. A whole psychedelic cartoon universe inhabited by Dodos and dancing skeletons...

  2. Was this conceived of with -- or without -- the knowledge of Toon (which covers much of the same ground)?


    Not saying your take isn't worthwhile; Toon does it without the OD&D foundation.

    1. I'm aware of Toon - you couldn't be an old time subscriber to Dragon without seeing the ads - but I've never read or played it.

    2. It's been yonks since I played it at all, and haven't had the books in front of me for as long or longer... But a couple of things I do remember were Back Pocket being the ability to pull out anything you might happen to need (especially anvils), and that you could walk off a cliff and just keep walking if you failed a Smarts roll. Chutzpah was a key ability.

  3. I like this specificity of this idea better than the generic feel of TOON. I'm already imagining retro cartoon art pieces for the book...

  4. That video is the ultimate dungeon lever room.

    See also: Popeye vs.Sindbad

  5. Fleischer cartoons and no Superman class? ;)

    1. I was going to make a note of that. Superman was originally going to be a class of its own, but I wasn't sure how to do it without him just bullying past everyone else or having him just seem too much like the Sailor Man mechanically.

    2. I always felt like the Fleischer take on Superman was notably underpowered compared to most of the comic book versions (certainly the Silver Age incarnation). His flying still looks more like leaping, and I don't recall him ever using heat vision.

      His ability to leap tall buildings doesn't seem much more outrageous than the ability to ignore gravity by sheer obliviousness, and bouncing normal bullets off his chest isn't anything a clown couldn't do with an oversized rubber sheet and a blissful disregard of physics. Overall, I think he and Popeye could occupy some of the same space while still having their own niches. Supes would be more of a pure physical character, but Popeye would have a greater ability to tap into wilder cartoon logic. (Sort of the fighter vs cleric dynamic, but with the cleric's casting replaced by wacky antics and a vegetable-based self-buff.) If you want that dinosaur punched in the gut so hard that he spits out the last six people he ate, unharmed, you still need to call Popeye instead of Superman.

    3. Or, to think of it another way, the Paladin to the Sailor Man's fighter.

  6. This is awesome. I would run/play this game in a heartbeat. Of course, I can't help but wonder whether Bluto/Brutus is some sort of sub-class of the Sailor Man, whether or not to allow PCs to take Hag as a class, and if Goon or Jeep should be NPCs only.



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