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.

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