Jason Ginsburg

Writer and Digital Producer

Jun 26, 2021
Published on: DoubleViking
2 min read


Table-top role-playing games are often serious business: War, conquest, curses, death. But there was a sort of mini-era in the 1980s of humorous RPG's that emphasized silliness. Player-characters rarely died—in some games, it was impossible—and there wasn't a dungeon or a dragon in sight.

The three best, for some baffling reason, didn't last. A fourth one kept on quietly chugging through the decades and is coming back again thanks to Kickstarter.

Roll the dice, roll back the clock, and get ready to ROTFL at these clever role-playing games.

Ghostbusters

140 episodes of the animated series, plus the Slimer! spin-off, plus the comics, illustrate that the world of Ghostbusters is ripe for adventure. After all, there are many kinds of supernatural creatures from myth and folklore to battle. This game let you open a GB franchise anywhere in the world, including your hometown, and bust some ghosts.

The rulebook was filled with painful jokes supplied by the film's characters. "We just couldn't help ourselves," the authors write in the introduction. "We were going to do this one straight... We just kept accidentally writing funny things." So just learning the game is a fun experience even before you get to the cool new weapons like Psychoplastic Transmogrifiers and new paranormal enemies like a guy who turns into a St. Bernard.

The game system didn't bother with movement rates and weapons ranges, which streamlined the action. It was also the first game to use the dice pool system, which involves rolling multiple dice at once, kind of like Risk. The game also had a Ghost Die, which represented supernatural bad luck, and could turn even successful rolls against the PCs. So things were always going wrong, but in funny ways.

The game won the Origins H.G. Wells Award for Best Roleplaying Rules of 1986.

Ready to play? Here's all the info you need, in PDF format. Just don't cross the streams!

Toon

Role-playing in the world of cartoons. Players created characters, usually talking, clothes-wearing animals, and went about non-lethal adventures where the worst thing that could happen was getting an anvil dropped on your head. Greg Costikyan, who also created Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game and Paranoia (below), offered two "commandments" for Toon: "Forget Everything You Know" and "Act Before You Think."

The game system was incredibly simple, with 23 skills covering every possible action. Any rules you and the "Animator" (game-master) didn't like could be tossed out, even in the face of logic, for a more enjoyable gaming experience. The game takes place in the modern world, but can including anything from cartoon reality, from Martians to mad scientists to vampires. Instead of dying, characters "Fall Down" and are out of action for three (real-time) minutes.

RPG.net gave Toon five out of five stars for style, and another five out of five for substance. It's a great antidote to somber, war-torn games and gets extra points for nostalgia. Who wouldn't want to live in a cartoon for a while?

If you're ready to whack some people with a frying pan and then jump into a Portable Hole, here are the game's instructions.

Teenagers From Outer Space

A personal favorite, the game's loose foundation was the crazy science fiction of anime although its first edition never explicitly stated it—probably because anime wasn't well-known in 1987. There were also good helpings of comedy sci-fi like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Red Dwarf.

The premise was simple: Aliens from all over the universe discover modern-day Earth, settle here, and enroll their kids in high school. You play a high-school student: Either a human, a Near Human (like Spock), a Not-Very-Near Human (like the Minotaur) or a Real Weirdie (like Slimer, while we're on the subject). This is perhaps the only game in history where one of the character's core attributes is "Relationship With Parents."

TFOS encouraged you to use your own high school as a setting. This allowed you to live out fantasies like blowing up the cafeteria, racing (hover)cars around the quad, and dating the hot cheerleader... who in this world had cat ears and a fluffy tail. No one died in the game; they just got "Bonked" into temporary unconsciousness. Adventures could take place in school, at your crappy summer job, or among the stars, so you could parody your favorite Star Trek or Star Wars adventures. To make the experience even sillier, the dice that came with the game were itsy-bitsy.

Later versions of the game played up the anime elements as that genre became more mainstream. Despite its brilliance, TFOS had the fewest supplements of any game on this list, and pretty much disappeared. My friends and I loved it. Now you can give it a shot.

Paranoia


The most successful game on this list. It took place in darkly comic Brazil-like future in which The Computer rules the characters' home city. The players are Troubleshooters, seeking out and eliminating The Computer's enemies... but each character also had secret affiliations in various pro- and anti-Computer secret societies, and were not necessarily loyal to each other. In some cases, players betrayed, stole from, or even killed each other. Thus, Paranoia is one of the few RPG's that's competitive as well as cooperative.

But in the game, nothing was simple. Bureaucracy reigned, so characters had to fill out forms, visit various offices, and stand in line. Their orders from The Computer were hard to understand, or impossible, or both, and their private side missions were usually in direct opposition to The Computer's orders. Citizens were ranked by security clearance, and given a color to wear so you knew where everyone stood. Levels kept secrets from each other, of course. Characters were often secretly mutants as well -- another crime against The Computer.

Oh, and you could die in the game. You had six clones who would take your place. What happens after your sixth clone dies? You're not cleared for that information.

The game had a number of supplements and iterations, one in the 90s and two in the 2000s. A Kickstarter recently got enough funding for another edition. I recommend giving the game a try. After all, you wouldn't want The Computer to think you're disloyal, right?


Jason Ginsburg was an avid player of Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars, Teenagers From Outer Space, and Shadowrun. Follow him on Twitter @Ginsburg.