Great RPG Systems: Teenagers From Outer Space

Before I get started on this week’s great system, I wanted to briefly mention a terrible system that my friend Andrew reminded me of. That system would be Palladium, which even in my low-standards teenage years offended me enough that I never bought a book, and the one or two campaigns I was shanghaied into I just treated as a total joke. It was the only way to stay sane.

Alas, this also means I can’t give any sort of in-depth analysis into why it was so hateful, but I can let the internet speak for me courtesy of a much more informed gent  named Jeffrey D. Kramer:

“Palladium is a clunky RPG system that carries over a bunch of early concepts most games have abandoned (for good reason), is needlessly complex and generally does a poor job of reflecting the genre/source material it emulates. Palladium is the epitomy of what people use the term “old school” in a disparaging manner.

Some of the sourcebooks – NINJAS AND SUPERSPIES, for example – are well-written, but the system itself sucks pustulent zits. Probably the worst offender is the Palladium superheroes game (HEROES UNLIMITED? Is that the name? I honestly can’t remember any more). It features such winning concepts as when you purchase some defensive powers, you roll percentile dice to see how well they work. You could get an 04, which means the equivalent of wearing a few layers of newspaper under your shirt, or 100, in which case you make Thor and the Hulk seem fragile – but either way it costs the same, since you just choose to go for the power but what you actually get is completely random. This is also a superhero game where being a guy with military training and a gun pretty much assures you of being vastly more competent than any other sort of character, such as aliens, mutants, etc. You’ll notice, of course, how well that corresponds to the superhero comics, where guys like Thor, Superman and the Fantastic Four are worthless and the Punisher is the toughest person out there.

I could say more about my loathing for the Palladium System, but I just finished lunch and would rather think about more pleasant things.”

And there you have it. Palladium sucks pustulent zits. Let’s move on to more pleasant topics.

I warned a couple weeks back that some of the RPG systems I think deliver the best experience might surprise people, and here’s one of the prime examples. R. Talsorian Games’ Teenagers From Outer Space has a system that plays so fast and loose, and is so open to improvisation, that you might call me crazy to hold it up as a “Greatest”. But greatness is not the same thing as complexity or rigidity; again what we’re looking at here is whether the rules promote and enhance the simulation of the source material.

What source material, you ask? Well, the cover of the particular edition pictured above somewhat misses the mark. How about the cover of the previous release?

Starting to ring any genre bells now? How about if I just flat out told you that the TFOS RPG is basically a love letter to the zany manga/anime high school comedies of the 1980s, particularly Urusei Yatsura (or “Lum”, as my gaijin self knew it back then). If you’ve never read or watched Lum or any of its ilk (Ranma 1/2 is another good example), let me sum them up in one word: chaos.

In more words, they are a gloriously imaginative type of chaos that preserves a simple narrative center and characters, around which just about anything goes, no matter how ludicrous. Lum is a world where, if you accidentally cock block your classmate, he’s immediately on his cellphone to his private army making sure your own date is ruined by fleets of battleships and attack helicopters. Meanwhile you’re dodging the electrical blasts of the alien girl who insists you have a romantic relationship and will quite literally see you DEAD (or at least thoroughly cooked) before you look at another female. Also meanwhile, we’ve still gotta get that float ready to win first prize at the festival parade!

Basically, the Japanese took the teenage foibles presented in, say, the Archie comics, and shot them full of LSD with a crystal meth chaser. How the hell do you even make rules for something like that?

You keep ’em real, real simple. Sadly, I haven’t kept up with the state of the game in its modern incarnations, but I hope the system didn’t stray into BESM territory. Not that I have anything against Big Eyes, Small Mouth per se, but it’s trying to simulate all genres of manga/anime and so has a character generation system that’s… a bit complicated.

The classic TFOS system is that you roll a single d6 to generate stats, check against a few tables, and voila! You have a character. Or if you’ve got something specific in mind and  the gamemaster allows, you can do some picking and choosing. It’s really not that important, as evidenced by the fact there’s no real all-encompassing skill list, instead the game encourages players to put points in knacks like “Do Math Homework Blindfolded” or “Party Hard”.

You can be either human or various increasingly weird types of aliens. Humans might not be able to breathe fire or fly, but they might be incredibly rich (see “my private army is a phone call away”, above), incredibly lucky, or if nothing else, every last human has the intrinsic ability to bullshit non-humans about how Earth culture works: “You can’t atomic wedgie me today, Zorlax… don’t you know it’s Pangaiac Anglojapochinoafroeuric Wedgie Disarmament Day? Sheesh, look it up!”

The basic premise of the TFOS universe is exactly the opposite of that presented in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: aliens have colonized Earth en masse (and enrolled their kids in school there) because they find it to be the coolest place in the whole cosmos… also, any world destruction will be temporary at best, and played for laughs. No, not darkly cynical where-did-our-empire-go British laughs, either.

Did I mention that in addition to the usual stats governing physical and mental activities (given names like “Bod” and “Smarts”), there are also tellingly important stats like RWP – Relationship With Parents? TFOS knows what it’s about. It’s closest conceptual neighbor is fellow 1980s RPG TOON, which shares with TFOS a very, very important concept:

No one dies. They just get very, very inconvenienced.

In TFOS, you don’t have hit points, you have a ‘Bonk’ rating. Every attack does a certain amount of Bonk, and when you lose all Bonk your character is basically in a “time-out” status until they can recover. The ingenious thing here is that, by redefining the concept of hit points, characters can take bonk not just from ray guns or giant extra-dimensional hammers, but the shame of having their dress ripped off during the school dance, or the sting of a particularly vicious insult. Your “time-out” could be your character knocked into next week (literally) by Godzilla the Linebacker (who actually is Godzilla), but just as easily might represent you paralyzed with embarassment or standing there with your mouth opening and closing like a goldfish’s as you try–and fail–to think of a comeback. The gamemaster (or “referee” in TFOS terminology) is the ultimate arbiter of all of this, often assigning consequences based on nothing more than sheer whim… but that’s all right, because all those consequences are pretty darn petty and temporary, even if they seem like life or death at the time (which, come to think of it, is the point of view of most teenagers, isn’t it?).

So, you ask, how the hell is this any better than the wild and wooly anarchy of Let’s Pretend? Well, there is still dice tossing involved to determine success or failure, and there are still documented strengths and weaknesses every character has to cope with. Also, the referee and other players are highly, highly encouraged by the game itself to roundly fuck with the guy or gal who shows up with their “randomly generated” character that just happens to have all maxed out stats. And they have the latitude to do it. In fact, the most ingenious piece of the way TFOS keeps a check on Tommy-Who-Punches-You-In-The-Arm is actually in the rules, and is a concept known as “Too much is too much”.

What does that mean? It means that in TFOS, beating a difficulty number for your roll by too much often has worse consequences than if you just failed. Want to stack your stats to be the BEST SWORDSPERSON EVAR? Fine. You’ll regret it when you have five minutes left to get to your final exam, deftly disarm the arch-ninja blocking your path without breaking a sweat, and then get kidnapped and whisked off to fight in the equivalent of the Intergalactic UFC because you displayed such amazing skill! I hope your access to the family hovercar didn’t depend on maintaining that ‘B’ average.

OR: You flirt with the cute new guy in your class. Unfortunately, you were so overwhelmingly hot to him that now he gets uncontrollable nosebleeds whenever he’s in your presence. Taking him to prom will be bloodier than Carrie.

OR: You try to convince the cool kids to let you sit at their cafeteria table. You’re so smoove that they declare you their prophet, form a religious cult around you, and start following you everywhere singing your praises. Yes, even the bathroom.

In my darkest moments of despair at munchkinism, I wish every system had a supremely elegant slapdown like this, but the truth is it wouldn’t work for every genre, and that’s what this whole series of posts is about. What it works really well for is wacky, over-the-top high school antics where characters are regularly screwing themselves and each other over in spectacularly slapstick ways, and success can be as much of a trap as failure. Just like the source material.

This is one of the most carefully thought out games ever to relish in a complete absence of careful thought. It celebrates improvisation, both in referee and players. As a referee you don’t need a campaign, you just need a gimmick, and then it’s time to hang on for dear life as you and your players engage in a frenetic cycle of, shall we say, “the wacky”. It’s a system that’s barely hanging on by its fingernails, but is wearing a huge grin the whole time because it knows it’s good enough to take whatever your imaginations can dish out.

Back in the olden days before I could afford proper hotel rooms (well, I still can’t, but at least I can fake it with credit cards), I remember being a callow youth attending this or that gaming convention in the Los Angeles area. Sleep was elusive, but caffeine was plentiful, and I played lots of RPGs with lots of strangers, with predictably mixed results. But the game that never failed to be really fucking fun was TFOS. TFOS may, in fact, be the only RPG I can think of that actually gets better the more people you pack in to play it, as evidenced by the tradition of the mega-sessions where they’d take over an entire meeting room and have about five or six different Referees, each with a table full of players, all running the same scenario. No, I don’t mean separately running the same scenario, I mean if the setup was “Prom Night on the Space Cruiser”, every last one of those players was on that particular Space Cruiser. If some player did something like fill the pool deck with linguini, it would be loudly announced and all the other referees and players would now take into account a mass pasta influx.

Under most tabletop systems the limit of players maxes out around 7 or 8 before becoming unmanageable; multiple gamemasters trying to coordinate 30+ players would be entirely unthinkable. TFOS is not most systems. Hell, even the book itself is a fantastically fun read from cover to cover, explaining the concepts and setting far better than I can by regurgitating them. I mean, I never even got around to talking about the lovely gadget rules or an equipment section that includes paint jobs for your ride (yes, having a cool car–or its equivalent–is a BIG DEAL). Go read it at that link, seriously. And then maybe send Mike Pondsmith a donation to assuage any guilt you might feel at not having bought the game. I’ve already bought two copies in my lifetime, and they were well worth the price.

About Clint

Clint Wolf is an opinionated nerd, who writes a comic (Zombie Ranch) about cowboys who wrangle zombies. We didn't claim he made sense.
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7 Responses to Great RPG Systems: Teenagers From Outer Space

  1. Erik says:

    Wow. This game sounds like a lot of fun. I think this might be a concept more aligned to my proclivities as an appreciator of bat shit insane stuff.

    • Clint says:

      TFOS is all about the bat shit insane. It’s also a fantastic gateway drug if you never been part of a role-playing game before, since I could probably teach someone the rules (such as they are) in about two minutes, and no character concept is too weird. You go to a TFOS referee and say “I wanna play a Dalek stoner who fronts his death metal band ‘EXTERMINAITE’ (with an umlaut over the A)” and they’ll say “Cool. You want a bong attachment for your doom plunger?”

  2. Justin says:

    I once played the exchange student from another dimension. I remember leveling my main cannon at the girl I liked and saying in my best ED-209: “Go to the prom with me. You have 30 seconds to comply.”

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  4. PC Ferret says:

    TFOS was (and remains, if you can find a copy) a little gem. VERY simple to learn, VERY VERY expandable (all characters, even the humans, have their own powers, right?), and VERY VERY VERY much fun to play.

    One of the included powers I remember is “Lose It Completely” (Suzi Vega – the “Shinobu clone” – you know who I mean – had this one) which allows the character to throw cars and busses around like toys, or cold-cock a Space Battleship by punching it across the bow. (Yeah we had that happen once.)

  5. Jay says:

    I have both 1st and 3rd editions of this game and now that my kids are of the Role Playing age I have introduced them to it. Sometimes I find myself refereeing 3 or more sessions for them a week and I love it. No GM (referee) prep time needed, just a “where did we leave of last? Okay … GO!” and let the wackiness begin. For them they got 1 roll of the 8d6 all at once and then assigned them to attributes (good bad and ugly) to their stats. I am always scouring the net for additional power ideas, character builds, stories, or really anything. I think that if Mike Pondsmith were to have another reprint and add a little he’d sell out! If you collect RPGs try to get this one!

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