Monday, March 2, 2009

Unofficial Robot Chicken: The Role-Playing Game

Another installment of my very-brainstormy "DVD to RPG" posts about how I'd go about converting a TV series to an RPG. This time, I'm going to tackle a show that screams to be one-shot gamed, but yet at the same time has nothing in terms of traditional gaming (or narrative) structure: Robot Chicken.

Now, obviously, this show is bizarre and frequently offensive. It's also the product of (and is geared towards) short attention spans.

That said, I love it. It's irreverant, absurd, and funny as hell. And I think it has some gaming potential. You wouldn't try to run a full-blown campaign of it, but as an occasional one-shot it'd be pretty sweet.

Robot Chicken defies traditional narrative structure, and thus this RPG will defy traditional gaming structure. Most roleplaying games tend to fall into two categories: miniatures-esque games about killin' things, and story games about angsty character development. A Robot Chicken RPG wouldn't be too concerned about either of those ideas, it'd be about short scenes involving insane situations and unexpected perversions of our beloved childhood memories.

So, let's get started brainstorming. Right off the bat, I know we want this to be rules light. We also want it focused on toys-as-player-characters, with each person playing multiple toys/characters in a session. Didn't take me long to dream up the structure, and other than assembling toys and making a buttload of cards, this post has nearly an entire RPG in it. Heck, my birthday's tomorrow, maybe I'll invite a few friends over and run it.

So, we start with a pool of toys, and a number of Skits. Everyone (players and GM) should bring a number of toys equal to the number of participants (counting players and the GM) you're expecting, and the GM should bring extra toys beyond that equal to the number of Skits (see below) he or she plans to run.
So T = (P x P) + S. T is number of toys, P is number of participants, S is number of Skits.
The toys will be the PCs and NPCs, so they should be mostly action figures, dolls, stuffed animals, plastic dinosaurs, lego minifigs, etc. One or two stranger things in the mix will be fine, but if you bring nothing but squirt guns and an Easy Bake Oven, you're just making it hard on the group.

Toys are drafted out or assigned randomly. No one should end up playing more than maybe 1 or 2 of the toys they brought, as the point is to totally desecrate the memory of these toys, and your friends can do that for you better than you can. To make it feel like Robot Chicken, you should draw little mouths of varying sizes on paper, cut them out, and attach them to the toys with tape or that blue poster-tacking goo. You've been warned - don't bring your mint chase figure that's worth a 100$, and don't bring the teddybear that you've slept with every night since you were 8. Bring toys that will be no great loss to you should half an hour be spent discussing their irritable bowel syndorme, or if tape peels the paint off their face.

If you draft toys (that's my preferred method), the GM shouldn't get to draft. Instead, once each player has drafted P toys, the GM gets the P+S that are left over. Or, maybe the GM gets one pick to start the draft, and then just gets the slop afterwards.

There's a chance that toys may end up being used as miniatures should combat break out, but that's not really the point. There's also a possibility that some player will find it easier to role-play through the toy, moving it about like a kid would, and shaking it when the character is talking. That's not really the point, either, but shouldn't be discouraged. The main purpose to toys is to just provide an instant character concept that is outwardly obvious to the players.

Rather than being set up as a flowing narrative, the game is staged as fairly disconnected Skits. Each Skit has a Skit card, sort of crib notes for the GM. It'll provide just enough details of setting/plot/joke to get his improvisational motor revving. The main use for these cards is to set up goals and point structures.

How many Skits to run? Well, that's to be determined by GMs devilish plans, and the time you have available. In general, though, the formula/format should work best when P is one or two integers higher than S, so not quite all the toys get used. A really high S means super-short Skits for those with minimal attention spans. A really low S means longer Skits that could result in nuanced character-development, but probably peter out. For a game this crazy, I tend to favor the automatic/shotgun approach, but you'll adjust to flavor.

For Skits, the GM will need to do a little prepwork. What actually happens in the Skits will no doubt be mostly improvisational, and strongly colored by what toys get hauled to the game, and what Depth cards (see below) get assigned to them. But, you're gonna need something of a framework - a bunch of crazy Skits to kickstart the game and set the tone of play.

Robot Chicken is pretty cut-throat, the toys do horrible things to one another and many Skits have someone getting the short end of the stick. So let's make this a competitive game, to get everyone in the right mood. There will be a winner at the end of the night, as players will score points for doing things appropriate to the Skit. Scores accumulate from Skit to Skit, and there should be some prize for the winner at the end of the night. I'd probably make a crappy trophy by gluing together some custom toy, and give that to the winner.

So, the GM should prep for "S" Skits (per the equation in the toy section), by making a Skit Card for each of them. One side of the card should feature a roughly one-sentence description of what the Skit is about. When the Skit is about to start, this side is read to the players, and they will choose which Toy and Depth combo they'll play that Skit based on the description. What sort of Skits the GM wants to run is wide open: a beauty pageant, a horror film, a public service announcement about genital warts, the carpool to work gets stuck in a traffic jam, a scene from the bible, etc. A small portion of the toys the GM brings should be particularly appropriate for certain Skits, but not all of them, or else they might overshadow the toys the players brought.

The back of the Skit card documents scoring. The front of the Skit card gets read to the players, but they don't get to see the back of the card till the Skit is over. Most Skits should have around 100 points that are likely to be achieved by most players, and another 100 points or so that can only be claimed by the first player to achieve some specific goal. At the end of each Skit, you reveal the card and calculate scores.

Example Skit Card:
The PCs are contestants in a beauty pageant, complete with introductions, swimsuit competition, and talent contest. There will be 3 NPC judges.
+10 points If you choose a feminine/female toy for your PC this Skit.
+20 points for lampooning beauty contestants by playing your character as flighty or bitchy.
+20 points for each judge you manipulate via some immoral means, such as bribery, seduction, blackmail or threats of violence. You score these points for the effort, even if the judge chooses not to vote for you due to someone else's actions or a bad die roll. +20 extra points (per judge) if your method of manipulation is tailored to match the toy that represents that judge.
+10 points for getting one or more of your fellow PCs disqualified or eliminated from the competition. Disqualify them all, and it's still just +10 points total.
+30 points to whoever wins the actual contest.
+50 points for having the most outrageous talent in the talent competition.
On that card, there's about 30 points that most players will score practically automatically, with the potential for everyone to score 80-150 points, and if one person did everything right they alone could walk away with 240 points.

Dice Mechanic:
We want simple mechanics, that resolve easily. Characters are mostly defined by what toy they are. The system will use d8s and d12s exclusively.
Why? 'Cause d6s aren't nerdy enough, d10s and d20s are the backbone of enough systems already, and d4's annoy me. Not everyone owns d16s and d34s, so I guess I'll have to settle for 8s and 12s.
If a player says his character is doing something that could logically be done by an animate version of that toy, the GM typically just says it happens. If the announced action seems particularly difficult, or if there's potential for humorous consequences if you fail, the GM will tell you to roll your d8. A 5 or better is a success.

If you're taking an action that directly harms another PC, both players roll a d8, and the higher roll gets his way. You can't kill a character with a single attack - winning once gives them a wound. A second wound (from a later attack) incapacitates the character. Other than that, wounds have no impact - there's no penalties for being hurt other than the risk of being KOd if you're hit again.

Social powers, such as World's Greatest Lover, can be used to manipulate other PCs and force behavior from them. As with the wounds rule, something that removes another player from the Skit should take two successful "attacks" to accomplish. One intimidation roll will make them run away, but they'll come back a minute later and have to be chased off a second time. The same goes for horrible degrading humiliation and forcing behavior at odds with their character type - you'd need two successful seduction rolls to bed a Nun doll against her better judgment, for example.
You'll note that I said the game uses d8s and d12s, but all my examples involve rolling only a d8. That's because d12s are granted by Depth cards (see below).

Depth Cards:
Robot Chicken doesn't just feature Celebrities, Smurfs, and Autobots. It features celebrities that secretly aliens, Smurfs that are psychokillers, and Autobots with protstate cancer. The game needs to reflect that. Therefore, everyone is dealt P+1 Depth Cards at the start of the game.

Depth Cards add that extra something special to your character. Most are just skills, broadly defined, which let you roll a d12 whenever you're doing something akin to that. This could be "World's Greatest Lover" or "Nerdly Super-Scientist" or even "Induce Vomiting" and "Drunken Wobble" since this is Robot Chicken, after all.

Mechanically, skills and powers granted by Depth Cards work just like normal actions a character can take, except you roll a d12 instead of a d8. Difficulty remains a 5 for uncontested actions, and an opposed roll if doing something unpleasant to a PC. This means the benefits of rolling a d12 are most pronounced when acting against a PC who only has a d8 to defend with - a third of your rolls will beat their best roll. That's an intentional decision designed to promote disunity amongst players. Go on, mess with each other.

Some Depth Cards should be more complicated and bizarre. Here's a few examples of cards that are more complicated, but worth putting in a deck:
  • You might be a were-toy, and when the moon is full you turn into one of your other toys, which has an additional depth card of it's own.
  • Wonder Twin Powers, activate! You can turn into water or ice, and the player of your choice can turn into animals.
  • You might have a horrible disease, which lets you roll a d12 to spread it to anyone you contact, but if you ever roll a "1", for anything, you take a wound.
  • What if Jesus came back like that? Includes any and all biblical powers you care to improvise.
  • The PC of your choice is in love with you, and you get a d12 just for wrapping them around your finger.
  • Play two characters this Skit, using an extra Depth Card that applies to both toys.
  • This toy's voice is provided by a famous celebrity guest-star. Pick a star you can do a good impersonation of. While playing that role, you get a d12 to do anything you've ever seen them do in a movie.
  • Recurring character. Instead of playing a new character, reuse a toy (and corresponding Depth Card) you used in a previous Skit.
Obviously, the GM is going to have to make a stack of Depth Cards before the game. I'd suggest P x (P+1) cards for your first session, where P is the number of Participants in the game. Deal out P+1 cards to each player at the start of the game, either before or after they've drafted their toys. Cards are kept secret until used.

I'm guessing the right mix is 1/3 usable skills, 1/3 useless character quirks disguised as skills, and 1/3 bizarre powers that break the rules, but I won't know for certain till it's been playtested. It's worth mentioning that there's very little need for cards to be balanced, as you're only playing any given character for 10 to 45 minutes.

Starting a Skit:
The GM reads aloud the short description from the front of the Skit card. Everyone picks one of their toys, and one of their Depth cards. Starting with the second Skit of the night, there should be a time limit to picking your character. If it takes you five minutes matching a card and toy before the first Skit, it's no big deal, but if it's taking you more than a minute at the start of Skit 3, it's time for the GM to step in and assign one randomly.

Each person should have more toys than the GM has Skit cards, and more Depth cards than they have toys, so some just won't get used. That's fine, it lets you skip out on your least interesting possibilities. Cards should be kept secret at least until the Skit starts. If you think the Depth Card functions best with surprise value, you can keep it hidden till you use it's power or make a roll related to it. If it's something that should be obvious, or will help with roleplaying if it's revealed early, do so as soon as the Skit starts.

The GM has more toys, and can use however many he wants per Skit. However, he doesn't get Depth Cards. It's possible a Skit description might give powers to an NPC, but most of the time the GMs job is narrator and straight-man for the much more bizarre PCs to riff off of.

End of the Night:
When the last Skit is done and all the points have been tallied, declare a winner. If possible, the GM should give them a prize for winning - could be a toy or trophy, some candy, bonus xp for the main campaign of a real RPG you run most of the time, etc.
Then, before everybody goes home, offer them a chance to write up a couple of new Depth Cards to insert into the deck for next time. Not scene cards, as something has to be saved for the GM, who has less power in this game than most RPGs.

Alternately, you could decide (now that everyone has a feel for how the game works) to split up the GMing duties next time. In that case, everyone would show up to the game with not just a set of toys, but also one Skit Card for a Skit they planned to run and a dozen Depth Cards to shuffle into the deck.

Session Report from the first time this was played.

Credit where it's due:
Used without permission, and no challenge is intended to any copyrights or trademarks. The main influence on this game is (obviously) the TV show Robot Chicken, which in turn steals from various toy manufacturers and other icons of pop culture. The ideas and system presented above also draw inspiration from the TV show Who's Line Is It, Anyway?, the quasi-RPG Pantheon published by Hogshead, and the quasi-CCG 1,001 Blank White Cards. I've also made various pop culture references: Sith were created by George Lucas, Wonder Twins are copyright DC comics, and Jesus is a registered trademark of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Inc.

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