A Toon Short Subject
by Bob Portnell
Cast of Characters
The Animator and two to five players. The players are free to play whatever characters they like; they may work together or in opposition. The only common thread is that all characters must express an interest in being astronauts.
The Animator plays Admiral Ham Sammich (chimp), commandant of the Spaced Academy and one of the first animals in space; Captain G. Armstrong Shepherd (dog), the senior Academy instructor; and Lieutenant Catherine Byrd (duck), the junior instructor. The Animator may add additional non-player peers for the player characters as he sees fit.
The characters begin at the Spaced Academy, nestled just Outside of Town in the mountains near Colorado Sproings. The adventure concludes with a real mission into (near) Outer Space.
The cartoon world needs brave astronauts like commandant Sammich, and our heroes have answered the call. Will they have what it takes to master the skills of space flight? Will they be able to meet Captain Shepherd's ever-increasing, impossibly high standards? Do they have . . . The Right Schtick?
Object Of The Adventure
The players must successfully complete the evaluation and training phases of the Academy program, followed by a genuine test mission into space. Those who do will earn the right to serve as astronauts.
The characters have responded to advertisements promising Great Adventure, Amazing Sightseeing, and Astounding Salaries to those able to become Astronauts. (Not to mention Babes. Or Hunks. Whatever.) They have been bussed from the recruiting office to the Spaced Academy complex and led into an auditorium. The stage has a single podium, three folding chairs, and a deep blue backdrop curtain featuring the academy symbol: a finned dunce cap tilted at an angle, with rocket exhaust pouring from the open end.
The auditorium lights are dimmed, and three figures come onto the stage from the wings. An aged chimpanzee in an old fashioned naval greatcoat leads; gold braid spills off the epaulets and halfway down his sleeves. He is followed by a young, efficient-looking duck. She wears the Spaced Service uniform, glasses and carries a clipboard. Last is a police dog with an annoyed expression and a uniform so heavily starched it squeaks.
The police dog stands at the podium. He doesn't bother turning the microphone on, since he speaks in a continuous shout. "On behalf of Admiral Sammich and the Academy staff . . ." -- his muzzle twists into a snarl -- ". . . welcome. I am Captain Shepherd and I will be supervising your testing and training. Do not expect to succeed! Only the best, the brightest, and the bravest can become astronauts, and I can see from here that none of you have what it takes! So let's get this over with. The sooner you flunk, the sooner I can go back to writing my autobiography."
"Admiral Sammich is pleased to patrol the Academy grounds at any and all times observing training procedures. You will stop whatever you are doing and salute should the Admiral come near. Failure to salute will result in Unpleasant Consequences! Lieutenant Byrd will be on hand to keep records of every activity. Only the best of the candidates will move on to become cadet-trainees. First test begins in two minutes. You have that long to take your belongings to the dormitories, unpack, change clothes, eat lunch, and return here. Dismissed!"
Animator's Secret: These scenes can be run in any order; just be sure you're done with testing before you move on to training. If you have a large cast, you may wish to show only one or two characters for each test -- choose "volunteers" or look for the player who thinks he has a good gag to try. Throughout all the tests, Lieutenant Byrd (the duck seen at the assembly) stands in the background, making notes on her clipboard. She now wears a neat and spotlessly clean lab coat over her Service uniform and will appear in this way for the rest of the adventure.
The Centrifuge: Everyone's favorite training device. Captain Shepherd explains in his usual bellow that space launches require great stamina and tolerance for physical stress. The candidate will be placed in a small capsule at the end of a long rotating arm. The arm will spin the candidate around the circular chamber at increasing speeds, simulating the forces of a space launch.
Captain Shepherd monitors the operation from an adjacent control booth; candidates waiting for (or recovering from) their centrifuge runs wait here also. The booth has many interesting dials and buttons, along with a master control dial that ranges from "1 Gee!" (about the same as the "normal" force of gravity) through "10 Gees!" (more than most any space mission would experience) and on up to "OH THE HUMANITY!" at the highest setting.
Tolerating the Centrifuge is a Pick Up Heavy Thing Skill check, with a -1 penalty for every 2 Gees! of force. Characters in The Centrifuge are likely to experience the usual effects of excess Gee! force: sunken eyes, cheeks and lips pulled away from teeth, and so on. In extreme cases, a candidate might actually be flattened into the capsule seat. (We've seen this done, but we don't really understand how two-dimensional cartoons can be made more flat. But there it is.) Failure on the Skill check results in being Boggled.
If Captain Shepherd really has it in for the would-be astronaut, he'll vary the speed of The Centrifuge, speeding it up and slowing it down at random. This technique is known by the astronaut shorthand EIEO ("Eyeballs In, Eyeballs Out").
Pressure and Vacuum Tests: "It is important," Captain Shepherd shouts, "for the astronaut to be able to withstand rapid changes in air pressure. As you might have heard, there is no air in space and in the event of an accidental loss of cabin pressure . . ." A oxygen mask on a hose drops from somewhere above Captain Shepherd; he ignores it."You will be expected to do your job appropriately. Expect this to be a long and boring test; the Lieutenant will give you some activities to pass the time."
The candidates are all ushered into a large pressure chamber which resembles a Thermos (TM) bottle, right down to the cap which is screwed into place to establish the seal. Inside is some modeling clay and dowel rods, with which candidates are supposed to recreate models illustrated in a book. (Models illustrated range from a simple dumbbell to a working steam locomotive.) A portable ice chest carries cans of Fizzy-Cola; a bowl on top is full of wrapped pieces of chewing gum. Lieutenant Byrd is behind the operator's console with her clipboard; Captain Shepherd watches with malicious enthusiasm through a thick porthole in the side of the chamber.
Unlike real pressure chambers, the Spaced Academy chamber can change pressures instantly. This can have interesting effects on cans of soda or on drinkers of soda. Likewise a bubble gum bubble can instantly take on dramatic proportions if the air pressure is dropped.
Use a See/Hear/Smell roll to determine how well a character withstands a given change in pressure. (Yes, See/Hear/Smell. It's all about body sense.) Animators can feel free to add modifiers to the roll for the speed of change, with an instant transition from nigh-vacuum to ocean trench pressures getting the biggest modifier. Visual effects of lowering pressure might include bugging eyes, eardrums popping out, and all-body swelling (potentially leading up to a traditional "explosive" decompression.) Another possible consequence of low pressure is a painful condition called "the bends" -- the comedy potential should be evident in the name alone. Pressure increases might be signaled by all-body shrinkage (akin to the classic "steam box" gag), flattening, or folding. Failure on a skill roll results in one die damage.
The Medical Exam: Since "astronauts must be in perfect, flawless, ideal health" (or so Captain Shepherd insists at high volume) the candidates are thoroughly examined by a top-flight surgeon, Doctor Markus Illby (an owl), and his ace team of nurses (all identical quail in nurse's caps.) The usual routine of medical exams follows: measuring height, weight, and other physical dimensions; blood tests (love those needles); electrocardiograms (reading heartbeat patterns); electroencephalograms (reading brain patterns, if such exist -- brains, not patterns); and the ever popular "turn your head and cough" test. No doubt the players and Animator can devise more painful and intrusive tests if desired. Candidates should make a basic Smarts roll to avoid doing a "take" of pain with each indignity; failure on the roll results in Lieutenant Byrd shaking her head sadly and making marks on her clipboard . . .
Much to Captain Shepherd's disgust, you've all managed to pass the testing phases. (It helps that Lieutenant Byrd keeps all the records.) "All right. You've made it this far. You're fit enough to be astronauts, but are you smart enough?"
Animator's Secret: Actually, it's just the same secret as last time. These scenes can be run in any order; just be sure you're done with training before you move on to the real mission. As always, Lieutenant Byrd takes very efficient notes.
The Tank: "Trainees get their first experience of weightlessness in this large swimming pool! You will be outfitted with real spacesuits and lead weights will be added so that you float exactly in the middle of the tank, neither rising nor falling. You will then be expected to perform your duties. Good luck." Aside from the inconvenience of the bulky space suits, the awkward controls for same (which at the slightest mishap will overinflate the suit so that the character looks like a giant marshmallow with hands, feet and a helmet head), and the ever-present risk of drowning . . . Captain Shepherd has handed out individual assignments that are difficult if you're lucky (build a house of cards underwater) to simply impossible (make a pretty vase using the provided pottery wheel and water-soluble clay.) Trainees will need to find creative ways to cooperate (or not) to solve their problems.
Whoopsie-Doodles: "Having acquired free fall skills in The Tank, you will now proceed to mastery in the Training Aircraft!" (Okay, we know we said these could be run in any order. We meant it. Just rewrite Shepherd's dialogue appropriately.) The next phase of training involves practicing zero-gravity skills in a large empty cargo plane. The interior of the cargo compartment is heavily padded; a layer of airsickness bags covers every inch of the padding. This plane is known as the Whoopsie-Doodles, both for the usual flight path (involving repeated climbs followed by free fall dives) and for the effects of free fall on the trainees. High Smarts or Chutzpah will help one resist the siren song of Space Sickness. This is also a fine time to practice advanced space flight mayhem skills, like floating an anvil over your favorite instructor or Natural Enemy. After all, when Whoopsie-Doodles pulls out of the dive, everything inside suddenly experiences 2 Gee! . . .
The Flight Simulator: A mockup of the space shuttle flight deck sits in one large room, mounted on hydraulic actuators able to shift it in most any direction. (The words "Star Tours" are imperfectly painted out on one side.) It is expected that trainees will fight among themselves to get to be commander or pilot. Inside, the cockpit is a gallery of unlabeled controls and indecipherable displays -- a Drive Vehicle roll is required any time a cadet actually tries to do something useful. Failure of the roll could generate a consequence as simple as a display light coming on ("NOT THAT ONE, YOU DOPE!") or as involved as an unexpected cream pie deployment.
Trainees can experience (be subjected to) (be tortured with) any simulated mission or mishap Captain Shepherd can devise; a favorite is a satellite retrieval mission (except the satellite is sulky and refuses to hold still for capture.) It is also likely that the "simulated" asteroids seen on the screens will actually crash through the windows to bean the unfortunate.
The Big Finish: The Mission
The graduation exercise is a real mission using the Academy's space shuttle Minnow. Shepherd and the cadets will fly to orbit to repair the Dribble Space Telescope (an unsightly collection of patches, bodged repairs and bubble gum as it is, loosely resembling an oversize drinking glass with solar panel wings and a hole near the rim). Pick Up Heavy Thing rolls at -2 are called for to endure the 4 Gee! launch; failure results in being Boggled and missing the chance to "ooh!" and "ahh!" out the windows once in orbit.
The current repair involves the placement of an oversize bifocal pince-nez on the telescope. If the adventure is tied to the SAPS program from Toon, our heroes will be issued the standard full-body hot-pink-with-bubble-helmet SAPSuits.
Captain Shepherd will do everything in his power to make life difficult for the cadets, including wiggling the shuttle at inopportune times or making inappropriate use of the robotic arm in the cargo bay. It should be clear at this point that the only way to successfully complete the mission is to mutiny! (Lt. Byrd does not join the space mission, as she is in Mission Control at the Academy.)
Several Drive Vehicle rolls will probably be required to make the rendezvous, put the robotic arm in position, and make the pince-nez installation. If the astronauts manage to confine (or get rid of) Shepherd, they will be able to complete the mission with a minimum of (external) mishaps. If not, they will return in shame and disgrace . . . but it's Captain Shepherd who will get a triple-strength chimpanzee screaming from the Admiral. No one remains sane after a triple-strength screaming . . .
Give one Plot Point to the character who makes the best showing in each testing or training exercise. Give one Plot Point to each character who survives the mission without falling down once; give an extra point to each character if they actually managed to get the Dribble working again. Don't forget the usual migration of Plot Points during play! (Toon pg. 55)
The cadets return home and are received as heroes (or scapegoats, if something awful happened to the satellite observatory). Shepherd is hauled away on a hand-truck, straight-jacketed and muzzled, but his rage for revenge is plain enough to hear as he's taken to the Spaceman's Retirement Home, Insane Asylum, and Car Wash. Either way, Our Heroes will be offered prestigious positions in the space service. This could be an ideal segue into the SAPS-based adventures "Spaced Out Saps" or "Mars Needs Creampuffs" in Toon. This plot could serve equally well as an introduction to the Tooniversal Tour Guide series "Star Toon." Just update the technology and cliches appropriately.
Your Author found the following resources essential in developing this adventure:
We Seven by the Mercury astronauts. Vivid inside account of the selection and training of the original American astronauts. The testing and training described in this adventure are mild compared to the heroic reality.
The Mercury 13 by Martha Ackmann. More details of the 1960s astronaut evaluation process and the semi-secret history of another corps of Mercury astronauts.
"Conrad the Sailor" (1942). Stowaway Daffy Duck makes naval duty complicated for Conrad the cat. Admiral Sammich is a direct blend of real space apes and the flag officer from this Chuck Jones cartoon.
Man in Space(1955), Man and the Moon (1957), and Mars and Beyond (1957). These episodes of the Disneyland series still give a good sense for the basics of space flight despite their age. "Joe Everyman as Astronaut" is amusing both for the cartoon and for the dated 1950s culture. Available on limited edition DVD.
And, of course, The Compleat Toon Library. Special thanks to veteran Toonster David Morgan-Mar for remarkably helpful suggestions and comments.
The main Academy characters are created with 16 points of Attributes and 35 points of Skills and Shticks, just to give them a nominal edge over the player characters.
Ham Sammich, Admiral
Description: Chimp-sized chimpanzee, dressed in naval cap and long-coat bedecked with gold braid. In the habit of strolling around the Academy compound with his hands behind his back, observing the goings on. He could appear anywhere! Even in The Tank! Other characters are required to snap to attention when he passes; failure to do so will earn the slacker a chimpanzee-screaming (one die of damage).
Beliefs and Goals: Be distinguished. Know what's going on at all times. Never speak, unless it's to scream at a deserving subordinate. In his youth, Sammich's Natural Enemies were space program scientists; however, he's outlived them all and so has no Natural Enemies remaining.
Hit Points: 11
Break Down Door: 5
Pick Up Heavy Thing: 5
Drive Vehicle: 3
Fire Gun: 3
Hide/Spot Hidden: 9
Identify Dangerous Thing: 4
Resist Fast-Talk: 6
Set/Disarm Trap: 4
Track/Cover Tracks: 6
Pass/Detect Shoddy Goods: 4
Sleight of Hand: 4
Chimpanzee Scream: 9. The object of the Admiral's wrath is subjected to a chimpanzee-style tongue-lashing consisting of high-pitched shrieks and screams. This does 1 die damage. There is no way to avoid or counter this attack. Cost 4. (The Animator is encouraged to leap around the room, hooting and shrieking ape-style at the offending player.)
Captain G. Armstrong Shepherd, Senior Instructor
Description: Human-size dog, dressed in impeccably pressed uniform jumpsuit. He seldom speaks below a shout, thanks to hearing loss from repeated exposure to chimpanzee screams. Spittle drips from his muzzle when he's really worked up. His obsessive need to be "the best" led to his demotion from active space service into this menial position at the Academy; he wants to prove himself a team player again but has problems with this.
Beliefs and Goals: I'm the best! No one can outmatch me, especially stupid candidates and trainees. Therefore no candidate must be accepted and no trainee graduated. Natural Enemies are (what else?) astronaut candidates and trainees.
Hit Points: 10
Break Down Door: 3
Pick Up Heavy Thing: 3
Drive Vehicle: 7
Fire Gun: 7
Hide/Spot Hidden: 8
Identify Dangerous Thing: 3
Resist Fast-Talk: 3
Set/Disarm Trap: 3
Track/Cover Tracks: 3
Pass/Detect Shoddy Goods: 10
Sleight of Hand: 10
Shtick(s): Incredible Strength: 5 (Cost 5.)
Lieutenant Catherine Byrd, Junior Instructor
Description: Human-size black duck in space service jumpsuit. Wears glasses to look more efficient but doesn't really need them to see. Carries a clipboard with her at all times. Often seen with lab coat over uniform.
Beliefs and Goals: Be fair. Stay out of the Captain's way but always be on-hand in case the Captain wigs out. Candidates and Trainees are cute and need all the help they can get.
Hit Points: 12
Break Down Door: 3
Pick Up Heavy Thing: 3
Drive Vehicle: 3
Fire Gun: 3
Hide/Spot Hidden: 9
Identify Dangerous Thing: 9
Resist Fast-Talk: 6
Set/Disarm Trap: 9
Track/Cover Tracks: 8
Pass/Detect Shoddy Goods: 7
Sleight of Hand: 7
Bag of Many Things: 8. Actually a jumpsuit of many things, Lt. Byrd can produce almost anything from her pockets to assist the player characters on the sly. Cost 5.
Article publication date: July 23, 2004
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