What’s in a game? We sit down with Josh Dickson, the editor and co-creator of Toonpunk to learn what makes the game tick: we ask him about the system, the ideas behind it, and the drawings that animated his imagination.
Q: Okay. So Toonpunk is your first published work but by no means your first ones. Where did you cut your teeth before this and what lessons did you bring from that to Toonpunk’s development?
JOSH: Toonpunk ain’t my first project, no, but it sure as shit is my biggest one. To start from the start - well, I’ve been roleplaying for five, maybe six years now, and I’ve always had an interest and affinity in the mechanics side of things. ‘Cuz I mean, role-playing games, yeah, roleplaying is very, very important - but the ‘game’ part of it all is just as important, right? Either of them are fine on their own, but together - it’s really great.
So I’ve been doin’ this for a little while, certainly not as much as some of the veterans in the roleplaying world, but I’ve been looking at, playing around with, tinkering, and even creating bits and pieces for roleplay systems and whatnot. Getting a real feel for how it all worked together. My first games were with Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 and Pathfinder - or D&D 3.75 because that’s what it basically is, and anyone who’s played it will know how bloody complicated those games are. You’ve got classes, you’ve got races, you’ve got a hundred different types of magic and a hundred other ways to use it, weapons, feats - all of which have rules and sub-rules and exceptions, and this is before you venture beyond the core rulebook to all the other wonderful, fun, complicated junk the system can do for you. You can do a lot in those games - practically whatever you want, as long as you know how to bend the system to your will.
There’s a lot to learn there, naturally. Not just about what the system is - I mean, obviously there’s a lot there - but about why it’s the way it is. How it all works together. They did a lot of things right, a lot of things wrong, and made a lot of interesting choices. And these are all things we had to consider when developing Toonpunk,cuz to think we’re developing this in a vacuum would be fooling ourselves. I could go on for a while - a long while about what we did, why we did, why it’s the same and why it’s different, but to boil it down as best I can - everything in Toonpunk is unique. And this is very important here, pretty much everything at every level is different from something else, and nothing’s just ‘this other thing, but better’.
That’s a really important thing in Toonpunk, I think - maybe even the most important thing. It’s what allows the system to be so fast yet so diverse in options and opportunities, and it’s something I learned with all those hours with D&D. Cuz like I said, you’ve got a billion choices - but a LOT of them just boil down to the exact same thing as something else, but worse. Sure, you can say it adds fluff to have a bunch of ways to do the exact same thing, and it does - but we leave all the fluff and specifics to the players. ‘Cuz they’re the creative ones, they’ll come up with their idea, and where’s the fun in a system that stops them? So we could do what D&D does, and throw everything and the kitchen sink into the game, each with slight differences and layers of complexity. Which leaves you with a lot of stuff to sift through - or we can give you the core options, the actual important stuff, make sure that’s polished to a sheen, and let you take it wherever you want and have fun with it.
So yeah, we did that.
Q: Well you seem absolutely confident in this. So, that begs the question–what are you most confident in? What was your favorite part of the game to work on, what is your favorite part to play with–if you were going to say “THIS in particular is the best part”, what do you point to?
JOSH: Hah, that ain’t exactly an easy question to answer, is it? Well, if I’ve gotta go for something, I’d probably have to pick the core combat loop of the system, and how it evolves as you progress in the game. Now to start off, Toonpunk isn’t necessarily a hack-‘n-slash where everything has to end in combat and talking’s for chumps - I mean, if you wanna play it that way, go for it, more power to you. But it’d be foolish to say that combat isn’t the most developed part of the game, because let’s be fair here - extensively gamifying a conversation is a dangerous road and you really shouldn’t. But, I digress.
Starting off in Toonpunk, with the default amount of cash - or hands or credits or whatever you want to call it, you find yourself with a few, limited choices of weaponry and equipment. Augments are basically off-limits for you, and if you’re doing anything fancy like hardware, hacking, or inktek - that’s ‘I can’t believe it’s not magic’ for anyone who stumbled upon this as your first interaction with the game - you’re gonna have to wait a little bit before you get to come into your own. But it’s enough - it’s all enough to develop the core combat loop of the game - the ideas countering your opponent’s equipment and choices.
If you get your shot off against an enemy, they go down. This is perhaps most true in the start of the game, where not everyone might have armor (pro tip: ALWAYS buy the starter armor, don’t not buy the starter armor, it’ll save your life) and you can rely on your guns actually doing stuff. Toonpunk is, at it’s core, not a game about having more damage than the other guy, but having the right tool for the job - and knowing how to use it. This is what the game starts with, simply put. You get shot, you go down. We’re a bit more lenient at this point in the game, but you learn pretty quick that cover is king. If there’s not something between you and whoever wants to shoot you, you’re doing it wrong, and you’re gonna get shot. So that’s the first thing you learn, the first thing that’s drilled into you - if you want to survive something, don’t put yourself in the position where it happens to you at all.
So you’re done with your first few games, and hopefully your GM is generous enough to have rewarded you with some money, since it’s basically our XP expy - ha, get it? - in this game. In the early game, you should be sitting on somewhere between twenty and fifty thousand dollarinos, and this is where the game really starts to develop. The harder armors become avaliable to you, making chipping a relevant deal. It’s a tradeoff, between speed and protection. Your choice of weapons blows up - sure, you can grab a bigger, shootier gun, but now you can grab a laser shotgun! Or a flamethrower, or something that explodes, a shotgun, a sniper rifle - there’s a lot of choices. Hacking, hardware, inktek start coming out to play, and this is the point where you get to think - what am I good at? What can I beat?
All these weapons, all these options, they’re all different. Sure, some are obvious - sniper rifles are for long range combat, shotguns are short - but some things aren’t quite as obvious. Lasers, for one, aren’t just a different way to maim someone - they don’t do any damage to flesh, in fact. But what they excel at is shredding armor - which, if you didn’t think was important before, is going to kick your ass. Armor starts flat-out ignoring weaker attacks, up to a point, but lasers melt right through that. Flamethrowers are great for suppression - their damage is inconsistent, but they force the enemy to make a vital choice - put themselves out, or suffer steadily worsening damage over time. Hacking’s still growing, but hardware and inktek become key. You started knowing that cover was good for you, and to have it at any possible moment, but now you get the tools necessary to both create, and deny cover for yourself and your teammates.
Then you start hitting the mid-game. Somewhere around a hundred thousand, to a hundred fifty, the usability of augments kicks right in at full force. Augments change the game for basically everyone, but the guys with the guns most of all. A whole bearth of options is opened up to you- a single augment can practically double your damage output, or turn you into a tank against small arms, or even allow you to run around with a minigun like a space marine. You can start grabbing other weapons and expanding your arseneal - have the machine gun for most targets, but when the guy in heavy armor comes knockin, pop out the high-calibre revolver. Stock up on grenades of all types - flashbangs, napalm, smoke, you name it. And finally - those expert hacker skills can be put to the test.
This is the point in the game where counters against specific equipment becomes paramount. This is also where hacking comes in, in full force - you could get away without one before, but the moment you start augging up is the moment some nerd can turn your legs off and turn you into a cripple. This is also where EMP weaponry starts to come into play - an augged-up monster is nothing more than a pile of scrap if none of their fancy tech works. You’ll also get to really experiment around this point, as you’ve got the cash to spare on things that would only be situationally useful - but damn, when those moments come around, you’ll be glad you decided to try it.
But of course, everything has to have an end game. At some point you’ll have bought everything you could ever want, developed yourself into the best possible guy at doing what you do… but you won’t be invincible. Nobody, nothing is invincible in this game, no matter how much money you throw at it. You can create a character that is nigh-invincible to small arms, and can dish out as much punishment as they can recieve - and even if by some miracle you manage to strip their armor and bring them down - they can get back up and grow it all back. Seriously - that’s a thing you can do, and it feels amazing to be able to do it. But you aren’t completely invincible. Enough small-arms - well, medium-arms fire - will put you down and keep you there. Lasers and fire - a lot more effective. But EMP and hacking? You’ll be dead before you can say ‘oops’.
Because, getting waaaaay back to the topic here - that’s the core of it. Equipment, tactics, and counters. You have options - more of them, depending on how far you are in. You’re strong against some things, and weak against others. And it’s up to you to put yourself in the situations where you can use your stuff where it’s strongest. That’s the key, that’s the core of the game here - and it’s something I feel is exemplified without getting repetitive no matter how far through you get. And even then, it’s something you can do over, and over, and over again, because you’ve got many, many different avenunes you can take - many different things you can try! Murder, hacking, stealth, inktek, hardware - hell, even acting is viable in combat, in a sense. And that’s the best part of the game, the thing I’m most proud of.
Q: Well, you were absolutely integral to Toonpunk’s mechanical aspect–and clearly quite fond of it, too. So let’s move over to the conceptual side of things now. This game was of course inspired by cartoons of all kinds–can you tell us some of the ones that inspired you? Any you’d recommend for our audience?
JOSH: So, a show I’ve been watching for the secound time around recently is Bojack Horseman. It’s a show about an anthropomorphic horse named - funnily enough - Bojack Horseman. Back in the 90s, he had a really famous TV show, but today he’s living in Hollywood with everything he could ever want, yet he’s still unable to find satisfaction and contentment with himself. It’s a dark, comedy satire - a real satire, not the aimless, shallow spoofing shows like South Park have become. It’s the tale of people, in a crazy-yet-relatable world of people and animals, a startling, skewed reflection of our own. It starts off a bit weak, but picks up and finds its stride about halfway through the first season, and has been going strong ever since. My favourite part has to be Wanda’s arc throughout Season 2, which had me genuinely emotional by the end - a rarity, for me. I hesitate to tell more because I feel people should see it on their own.
On the train of ‘comedies that can also be super serious’, Rick and Morty deserves a mention - especially after that stunt of an April 1st joke they pulled this year. It’s the story of a genius scientist named Rick, and the adventures he has with his grandson, Morty. Born out of a very not-safe-for-work parody of Back to the Future, Rick and Morty’s crazy and immature humor helps contrast with the times it turns super dark and super serious. My favourite episode has to be nearing the end of Season 1, “Something Ricked This Way Comes”, where Rick’s compulsive need to out-play literally the Devil comes from his desire for attention from a family he’d like to pretend he doesn’t care about.
I think the thing that draws me most to both of these is the comedy and humor - and how it is a huge part of, without overwhelming, the shows themselves. ‘Cuz I mean, yeah, both shows are hilarious on their own, but they’re also so much more than that. They’re stories, with meaning and complexity, something that’s characterized by the humor. I’d go onto a rant on how cartoons, with their origins in humor, can be so much more while still staying true to their roots - but I already feel full of myself enough for talking about something I know basically nothing about! Cartoons are cool and you don’t need to take them seriously.
Also I like My Little Pony. Because sometimes you just want some lighthearted fun.
Q: Alright. Well, we’re running out of time here, Josh–so before we go, do you have any final thoughts you’d like to leave with our audience?
JOSH: Buy our game and I’ll give you a high-five!