Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Teenagers From Outer Space (1987): It's Funny, Right?

Oh, Mike Pondsmith.

You gave us Interlok and Lifepaths. You gave us bleeding edge Chromatic Rock music and calculating the amount of thrust needed for a giant robot to overcome inertia in microgravity.

You also gave us this.

Teenagers From Outer Space (TFOS from here on out) was extraordinarily popular among some of my friends back in the mid-90s, back when the North American consumption of Japanese cartoons was starting to expand beyond Voltron and Robotech. Before Cartoon Network and Fox Kids started importing the stuff en masse, anime (or "Japanimation" as it was briefly called, for some godawful reason) was typically shoved into the Special Interest section of the video store (though Media Play had its own section), or ordered from the phonebook-thick specialty catalog behind the counter of the rental shop with little more than a grid of titles and single sentence descriptions, all of which nestled titles like Speed Racer and Demon Beast Invasion comfortably next to each other. The bulk of the longer or more esoteric series, you acquired on generations-old VHS tapes, copies of copies of copies with matted-on yellow subtitles translated and synced by a Canadian college student, hunched over a LaserDisc player and a bank of VCRs in his basement. I still dust off Ed's Dirty Pair translation every once in a while. The point of this long and rambling sentence is that this was a fandom composed of intensely devout, serious nerds, gobbling up whatever scraps of this seemingly bizarre foreign media they could buy, borrow, or steal, and TFOS targeted this group with laser accuracy.

Teeangers From Outer Space is a science-fiction comedy game designed to emulate the popular "harem" style anime series of days gone by, particularly the alternately surreal and bonkers works of Rumiko Takahashi, such as Ranma 1/2 and Urusei Yatsura, along with the American productions which they inspired, like Ben Dunn's long-running comic Ninja High School. For the uninitiated (and if that's you, I'm not entirely sure how you got to this corner of the internet), a "harem" series has a basic premise that should be familiar to anyone who ever picked up an Archie comic book: there's a handsome teenage boy with a singularly defining personality trait (honest to a fault / total schmuck / self-centered jerk), and an improbable number of attractive teenage girls who want to be in a relationship with him, with a sort of implicit theme that adding more vertices to the relationship-polygon adds additional comedy value. TFOS and its progenitors heap on further complications in the form of beautiful demon princesses, super-powered alien girls with only the most tenuous grasp of acceptable human social behavior, and pretty much any other bonkers idea the authors can come up with. Based on the established harem principles, this should help turn the resulting love-triangle/hexagon/triskadecahedron into a non-stop slapstick dramedy train, alternating between hilarious misunderstandings and angsty heartbreak (but only briefly straying into the latter). I've always been of the opinion that it rarely works in comics and TV, and it almost never works in roleplaying games.

The reason that "comedy" games so frequently fall flat (in my opinion, that is; your mileage may vary) is very simple: you can't enforce Mandatory Fun. The way to run a funny RPG campaign (again, in my opinion) is to get a group of not-so-serious-minded players together, let them feed and play off each other during chargen and during sessions, and let them come up with goofy ways to solve the campaign's challenges. Comedy is, by nature, spontaneous and (as the tabletop nerds say) "system agnostic." There's room for comedy in anything from Old D&D to Dungeon World to Eclipse Phase, with suitably clever players and suitably deep reserves of beer. TFOS, on the other hand, wants to make absolutely certain that you're getting your chuckles in its own specific way, a pretty remarkable feat for such a comparatively rules-light system. The game weaves its comedy mechanics into just about everything you do, from character creation through conflict resolution, and while quite a few people enjoyed it, I've always felt it was trying too hard.

Character creation (which is still ostensibly the purpose of this blog) in TFOS is relatively quick and simple. Each character has eight statistics, valued with ranks from 1-6, and each statistic is generated with 1d6 rolled down the line, no re-rolls. Stats are sort of an odd duck, combining both analogs to your typical RPG abilities like Intelligence or Strength with scores that would normally be skills. The statistics, as laid out in the 1st Edition book, are: Smarts (intelligence), Bod (strength and sometimes constitution), Relationship With Parents (exactly what it says; since characters are high school students, this will vary from its initial score throughout the game), Luck (used to mitigate failed rolls), Driving (used for..driving. What? What did you expect?), Looks (how attractive you are to members of compatible species and genders), Cool (sort of Charisma + Wisdom), and Bonk Index (HP, sort of). While some of the stats, like Bod and Smarts, speak to the irreverent tone of the game, Bonk Index is really where the comedy mechanics come into play. Characters in TFOS don't take damage the way characters in other RPGs do; there are no debilitating injuries, ongoing penalties, or character death mechanics in any way. Instead, when characters are successfully struck by an attack (either physically or socially), they lose an amount of "Bonk" points equal to the strength of the attack. When a character runs out of Bonk, they are incapacitated - dumbstruck, paralyzed, unconscious, or horribly embarrassed - until after their next game turn, at which point their Bonk Index resets to normal. In order to facilitate the Bonk mechanic, all of the weapon descriptions and stats laid out in the game are for non-lethal hardware, like Zap guns which stun characters, Boy/Girl guns which change their sex, and Goo guns which fire globs of pink bubblegum. Where actual, dangerous weapons come into play, the rules state that characters never actually get hit, but instead run screaming for cover (suffering an appropriate amount of Bonk for being terrified and having their homework riddled with bullets). This keeps the stakes of the game extremely low, and in theory, keeps people's fun from being spoiled by losing a character they'd grown attached to.

On top of the basic statistics, characters also get 1d6 points to spend on Knacks, essentially skills that the player gets to make up themselves. Points can be poured entirely into one Knack or spread across as many as the player chooses until the pool runs out, and it's up to each player to decide if they're really good at one thing or okay at a bunch of things. Knacks at a bonus equal to their value to any dice rolls the character makes for a related statistic, for example, if you have a Knack for Souping Up Interstellar Hot Rods (2), you'd add 2 points to your Smarts score when making a roll to add a new four dimensional supercharger onto your old jalopy of a flying saucer. All rolls are made on 1d6 with the goal of beating the GM's target number (the GM wins all ties). Fail the roll by a point or two, and your saucer stalls out somewhere in low-Earth-orbit. Fail by three or so, and the warp engine blows up in your face and you're riding the bus til you can get it fixed. On the opposite side of the equation, the game's comedy mechanic ensures that the GM also tacks on unintended consequences for rolling too well: Beat the GM by more than an arbitrary, random value (determined by rolling 1d6 at the start of the play session), and your new supercharger works flawlessly, but you stuck it in backwards, so now you go damn fast in reverse. Roll perfect sixes while trying to ask out the cute alien of your dreams? You've now got a jealous extraterrestrial stalker who's never gonna give you up. The stakes are always about increasing complications and never about life or death, though the characters should always treat them like life-or-death situations, since they're a bunch of dramatic alien teens, after all.

In addition to their randomly rolled statistics and chosen modifiers, characters also get access to a number of super powers or special abilities. Aliens make three random rolls of 1d6 each on a super power table, gaining abilities like Super Strength or Super Bounciness, while humans roll 2d6 on a single table for a more Earthly ability, like Filthy Rich or Super Cute. Players then assign their characters three personality traits to define their character's behavior (such as Insanely Jealous, Sneaky, Eats Cars), roll up their starting allowance (the game includes printable funny money to use as a prop, instead of just writing down the value), immediately spends their allowance on goofy teenager crap, and gets to playing. Most of the adventure paths laid out in the book deal with the aforementioned teen romantic comedy situations, like dealing with unwanted suiters, being an unwanted suiter, or trying to get your sweetheart away from his or her younger siblings or parents. I've always thought inter-character romance was a little weird and vaguely skeezy, and somehow dressing it up with desperate, hormonal teenagers just makes it weirder and skeezier to me from a roleplaying standpoint, rather than zanier and funnier.

Despite what I perceive as flaws, though, TFOS was pretty darn popular by indie (ie not D&D, Shadowrun, or GURPS) RPG standards, and maintains a fanbase to this day. It even spawned a MUX, so fans could play online in a persistent campaign world, and which is still operating as I write this! With nine whole players, even! Considering the game was last updated in 1997 and all but abandoned by R. Talsorian Games in 2002, that is some very impressive staying power, right on par with the best Submarine Racer to dive off Lover's Leap*.

The first edition copy I had access to while working on this post was missing its character sheets and TFOS allowance money props, so I've used a third party sheet this month. Hipster Monster artwork shamelessly stolen from DeviantArt user Crown-Heart, without permission. Gasp.

And of course, my amazing and ever-willing-to-humor-me wife has also created a sheet this week, which I know is the only reason you've actually read down this far.

Teenagers From Outer Space is currently available in its 3rd Edition from RPGNow. All artwork in this post is snipped from the out-of-print 1st Edition.

Several supplements are also available, including Field Trip from R. Talsorian Games and the technically-stand-alone-game-but-also-kind-of-an-expansion Star Riders from Dream Pod 9 (makes of Heavy Gear), as well as various rules in old issues of Protoculture Addicts.

*That is seriously the term the game uses for sex, like, several times.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Polaris (2009): Courtly Tragedy & Crippling Depression In A Frozen Kingdom

"Long Ago, The People Were Dying At The End Of The World"

This phrase, spoken aloud, is intended to begin every play session of Polaris: Chivalric Tragedy at the Utmost North. Polaris is a strange game, and I hesitate to call it an RPG, considering its lack of elements like a GM, turns, and a formalized conflict resolution system. It falls into the realm of mechanically light, narrative heavy games like Fiasco, emphasizing storytelling and emotional drama (fluff) over mathematics and die rolls (crunch), and requires a group of dedicated, creative players to weave a satisfying narrative.Similar to Fiasco, the game lacks a dedicated referee, with GM duties being distributed across multiple players depending on the situation. Its core mechanic is a rudimentary 1d6 roll-under system governed by four stats, of which two are combined to generate a target number from 1 to 5, but I'll get into that a bit more later.

The real focus of Polaris is on forging an atmospheric, heartbreaking narrative, and the setting positively drips with both. The world of the Utmost North is gripped by the slowest apocalypse ever, a steady, implacable decline from unspeakable splendor and terrible beauty into decadence and ruin, in the mold of Moorecock's Melnibone, played out over centuries or perhaps even millennia. Citadels carved from ice and song, lit by prismatic bursts of starlight look out over glittering, glacial landscapes, while each turning season brings a horde of abominations flooding from a gaping wound in the Earth, a slow melt under the glare of the cruel sun, brave and doomed crusades by gallant knights, and cut-throat politics which shatter the bonds of society. The protagonists are thrust into the midst of this maelstrom of horrors, passions, and treacheries, playing the part of newly minted knights sworn to protect this failing civilization to their last breath.

As this is a game of tragedies, they will fail.

Failure is where Polaris's mechanics come into play. Every roll of the die brings each protagonist closer, by degrees, to an inevitable fall from grace, succumbing to either the literal demons spilling forth from the smoking hole in the glacial ice, or the metaphorical demons dwelling in their own hearts. Or both, of course, because the two could be one and the same. Each protagonist (PC) is governed by three of four Values (stats): Ice, which is used when the character enters battle on behalf of others, Light, which is used when the character fights for or by himself, and either Zeal or Weariness. Each character begins play with Ice and Light scores of 1, and a Zeal score of 4. As the character advances through conflict (but not necessarily combat) scenes, the player may increase either the Ice or Light score by 1 at his or her discretion, while the Zeal score invariably drops by 1. Once Zeal reaches 0, it is replaced by a Weariness score of 1, which steadily advances up to a maximum of 4, at which point the protagonist has succumbed to a fatal, moral flaw. This advancement is not entirely steady, the way an XP system would be, but rather is based on situations and conflicts organized along a protagonist's particular story themes. Each protagonist will have several themes, either relationships, or duties, or some sort of important life event or trait, which major conflicts will center around to force the character into a decisive choice or action. Once a theme is explored during a conflict, it is considered "expended" and cannot be used again until it is "refreshed" on a die roll.

The rolls themselves are, strangely, not frequently used for conflict resolution; resolution is based on consensus, with the involved players negotiating an agreement that serves the good of the story. Once this agreement is reached, the player controlling the protagonist's actions (referred to as the character's "Heart") rolls 1d6 against a target number generated from either the Ice score (if fighting for others) or Light score (if fighting for herself), adding the Zeal score (if present) or subtracting the Weariness score (if present). Rolling under this target causes Advancement as described above, with Ice/Light and Zeal/Weariness incrementing by 1 point, while rolling over this target causes a Refresh, where neither Ice nor Light improve, Zeal/Weariness remain unchanged, and all previously "expended" themes become usable again. On die rolls, the protagonist's Heart has the option to edit various elements of the character if they feel the character should gain or lose any aspects as a result of the conflict.

Now at this point, you're probably noticing some nonstandard terms being thrown around, namely the reference to a player as a "Heart." This is part of Polaris's particularly novel character creation and conflict resolution systems. Although the game is designed to play with four people each controlling one of four protagonist characters, each player also participates in some way with every other player's characters. The player who controls a character's actions, as mentioned earlier, is the protagonist's "Heart," and it is his or her job to negotiate in the character's favor during conflicts. The Heart is responsible for naming the protagonist, and describing the themes and aspects which will guide her conflicts and personality. The player who sits directly across from that protagonist's Heart is the "Mistaken," and he or she initiates conflicts with that protagonists, controlling the demons that besiege her and negotiating against her interests during the conflict discussions. Conflict resolution is adjudicated by the players sitting to the left and the right of the Heart, referred to as the "New Moon" and the "Full Moon," respectively. The New Moon is in charge of refereeing the protagonist's emotional and interpersonal conflicts, and controls minor female NPCs, while the Full Moon referees societal conflicts and controls minor male NPCs. Neither Moon player can directly determine the outcome of a conflict, but instead mediates and makes suggestions to the Heart and Mistaken players to foster an agreement about the way the story will proceed.

Rather than a full blown, detailed combat system, Polaris makes use of various "key phrases" to facilitate conflicts. Each scene begins with a player stating "And So It Was," followed by a scene description. That player's opponent (his or her Mistaken, if the initiating player is the Heart, or the reverse) can then modify the scene with phrases like "But Only If" (describing a terrible cost) or "And Furthermore" (describing a complication), which the initiating player can either accept ("And That Was How It Happened"), request a different circumstance ("You Ask Far Too Much"), force a die roll ("It Shall Not Come To Pass") or scrap the entire scene ("It Was Not Meant To Be"). The Moon players may offer suggestions for the conflicting players to agree upon, which can either be accepted (both players state "We Shall See What Comes Of It") or rejected (one player states "It Was No Matter"). The entire process becomes oddly ritualized, and I am not entirely convinced that I could play through this with a straight face.

Despite the weird, half-ritualized, almost Jack Chick-like gameplay, (the rules even suggest lighting and extinguishing candles to mark the beginning and end of play), there's something about the milieu of heartbreakingly beautiful people marching inevitably to their doom in a soul-shattering, starlit tundra, their breath condensing into snowflakes as their blood turns to ice, that I find oddly appealing.

"But All That Happened Long Ago, And Now There Are None Who Remember It."

*No character sheet this week, since it requires three other people to write one.

All artwork taken from Polaris: Chivalric Tragedy at the Utmost North, Starlight Starbright Edition, which is available either as an e-book from These Are Our Games, or in print from Indie Press Revolution. A Spanish-language eBook is also available from RPGNow.