Talking Tabletop RPGs: The Zanier Side of Things

And Now For Something Completely Different

 

For many of us, we take our gaming seriously. A lot of us have a favorite character whose exploits we recall, or an epic campaign that was soaked in our blood, sweat, and tears. Stories full of tragedy and betrayal, where the odds just weren’t our favor. Sometimes a character died, requiring us to take pause and reflect as we attended a funeral in the next session. Gaming sessions can be harsh, unforgiving taskmasters that test our mental and emotional fortitude. They can be hell.

These aren’t those type of RPGs.

There are times when we all need a break from reality, even if that reality is a sword and sorcery epic or a grimdark cityscape. For some of us, that style of tabletop RPG isn’t even really their thing. They have enough serious brooding in their lives and they just want some escapist shenanigans. Personally, I like escapist shenanigans. Insanity doesn’t run in my game, it gallops with the occasional trot, prance, and mosey. As a GM, I embrace the crazy, much to the fear and trepidation of my players. Yes, they will always be forced to travel down a comedically disgusting sewer. Yes, it will be terrible, and no, I really don’t care if it’s unrealistic because they’re going to fight a giant, undead alligator possessed by the spirit of a fedora clad adventurer whether they like it or not.

Fortunately, there are amazing tabletop RPGs out there that specialize in the bizarre and unrealistic adventures. They exist in settings ripe for humor, and where the suspension of disbelief starts with character creation. Chuck full of zany antics and batshit plotlines, these games are made to elicit more than a few hearty laughs. But don’t let yourself be fooled. Under the guidance of the right GM, every session can be just as heart pounding and dramatic as any game of fantasy dice rolling. Each of these games has the big red button, and we all want to push the big red button.

 

Toon

Do to faulty wiring, upon pushing the big red button, the Earth does not explode. However, a small coffee shop on Planet X does, showering the neighborhood in biscotti and hipsters.

My copy of Toon has been in my collection of RPGs for twenty-five years, surviving the parental purges of all things dungeons and dragons. From the cover, Toon is a happy game of happy cartoon characters frolicing about with giant smiles on their faces. For anyone that’s actually seen a Tex Avery of Chuck Jones cartoon, they know this is a lie. Once you’re past the cover, you’re deep inside a world of unprecedented violence, mayhem, and oversized exploding cupcakes.

In Toon, characters don’t die. They can be injured. They can be maimed, especially when their tiny umbrellas fail to prevent the massive boulder from crushing them, but they don’t die. In a way, this lack of death is ingenious. It allows players to go forth with reckless abandon, or as the game calls it, “Act Before You Think,” and forces them to think outside the stat and skill mentality, otherwise known as, “Forget Everything You Know.” This is a game all about breaking rules and having fun. Want to violate the laws of physics? Go for it. Need an anvil on the fly? Contact the Ace Corporation for instantaneous delivery.

It’s remarkable that once death is no longer an option, the mood of the entire group can change. Toon is absolutely fantastic for a one shot between campaigns, or a break after a particularly taxing session. Reminding everyone that these are games, and games are supposed to be fun is beyond important. A few hours of cartoon violence and mayhem can help reinvigorate a player on the verge of burnout or an exhausted GM, and give everyone a chance to remember how important it is to laugh.

 

Over the Edge

Deep in the heart of a sub-sub-basement beneath an unassuming coffee shop, is a big red button. If it were to ever be pressed, the Earth would implode. So began the secret war of button pushers and button protectors.

Imagine a world where every conspiracy, no matter how crazy, was real. Now take all those conspiracies and cram them onto a tiny, Mediterranean Island, where they will perpetually wage an endless battle for world domination. This is the setting of Over the Edge, a game where players get to be agents of their very own conspiracy. Yes, you too can be a group of alien invaders, corporate mages, or a cabal of bakers set on monopolizing the world’s cookie supply. Sound insane? Well you haven’t seen Elvis perform live at the airport bar or seen Jesus ride by on his bicycle.

Instead of using the more standard attributes and skills, Over the Edge’s characters are all about their traits. Think of a trait as a thing you are or something you do really well, with no real hard limits or constraints to your creativity. When I played, I had a trait called, “Because I’m a Fucking Crowley,” which came in handy for tackling mystical and magical threats. You get three of those traits, and then one trait which acts as your hindrance. Yes, this is a game where you start with only four traits, so plan accordingly because this is a game where the threat of death is very real.

From a GM’s perspective, Over the Edge is a surreal playground. There is no such things as too much or too far. This is a game where the very nature of reality is fluid. The entire island violates the laws of dimensional physics, and secret societies, like the government, have an endless supply of red tape. In RPGs, there’s crazy and then there’s Over the Edge crazy. Jonathan Tweet, one of the game’s designers sums it up better than I ever could.

“I designed Over the Edge to be crazy and spontaneous, so that’s how I ran it. I’d generally mix alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine to get my head right for OTE. I invented whatever came to mind as we played, and wound up generating dozens of weird clues to uninvented mysteries, many of which the players never followed up. The setting was a challenge enough, so I didn’t feel I needed to present the players with hard-edged combat challenges. There were plenty of fights, but the challenge was to get into the right fights more than it was to win a particular fight.”

 

Tales from the Floating Vagabond

Space Nazis have stolen the big red button, that when pushed, can erase all life as we know it. Unfortunately, the big red button is also used to prevent The Floating Vagabond’s jukebox from playing the collected works of Yanni for all eternity, and to pay off your bar tab, you’ve been sent off to retrieve it.

In the vastness of space and time, there sits a bar. It is a bar that no one intentionally travels to, yet somehow everyone reaches whether they want to or not. For you see, all bars lead to The Floating Vagabond, and everyone walks through those doors already in debt. This is the starting point for every session of Tales from the Floating Vagabond, and is about as normal as each session is going to get.

Tales from the Floating Vagabond is a game about bending genres and playing tropes to the hilt. Sure you can be an Outlaw from the Old West or a beat cop from post-apocalyptic Mayberry, but why limit yourself to being human? As the game calls it, “Disgustingly Cute Furry Thing” is a viable option, as are elves, cyborgs, and gelatinous piles of goo held together by a trenchcoat. While there are attributes, where this game really shines is the limitless amount of skills. Yes, playing a character who looks good all the time, even while projectile vomiting, is totally an option.

For me, Tales from the Floating Vagabond incorporates what I love about Toon and Over the Edge, and mashes them together in one package. It’s a game built around playing a series of short, unaligned sessions that can develop into a full fledged campaign if everyone choses. Character creation is driven by each player’s creativity, and it’s a setting where death doesn’t have to be an option. Don’t get me wrong, it can totally be an option where your characters returns from the grave at the start of each session regardless of their earlier, grisly demise. Because even death can’t settle your bar tab at The Floating Vagabond.