I’ve been feeling tremendously nostalgic for ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness’ lately. For those of you who aren’t exactly familiar with this, back in the mid-80s when TMNT was an obscure black-and-white comic and not an all-conquering cartoon/merchandising juggernaut, indie game publisher Palladium Books bought the rights to do an RPG of the property for a relative song, just in time to catch the wave of popularity the Turtles generated. The late, legendary, lamented Erick Wujcik, who is perhaps best known for his diceless RPG based on Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, worked out an interesting freeform character generation system that allowed players to generate any number of unique variations on the “mutant animal” motif that also fit into the Palladium Megaverse rules.
Now, Palladium Books doesn’t necessarily have the best reputation among gamers. It tends toward power gamers, with an entire setting that is invested in superweapons, superpowers and superarmor that all do damage on an entirely different scale from ordinary people and an emphasis on buffing your characters through a time-intensive and complex character generation process. The lengthy, detailed character generation created a sort of “have” and “have-not” split between people who knew the rules well and were interested in number-crunching and those who either didn’t know or didn’t try to get the most out of the complexities of the rules. As a result, without a GM who could keep tight discipline or a party willing to keep to the spirit of the game, Palladium has a rep as a system that tends to attract munchkins and repel the number-averse.
That’s arguably a fair assessment (although I’ve never yet seen a system a munchkin can’t abuse through dickery and I’ve never seen one a fun gaming group can’t homebrew and rule-kludge into a serviceable game). But I didn’t really buy Palladium’s games to play them. I bought them to make characters.
Because when I was growing up, it was right around the same time that role-playing games were growing as an industry. I was a kid right around the time Gary Gygax decided to push his hobby game into the mainstream (the “Dungeons and Dragons” cartoon remains a fond childhood memory), and as a comic book fan it seemed like it was simply understood that I would become a gamer sooner or later. How could I not? TSR advertised relentlessly every month in every Marvel and every DC comic, Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels were the next step after children’s fantasy for a young reader, and unlike many people, my parents put absolutely no stock in the Satanic panic fad. I was steered into tabletop gaming as inevitably as geeks today are steered into video games. (And I was steered into those, too, but that’s another story.)
But the thing about tabletop gaming was, it was ultimately a social hobby. It was something you played with other kids, and I spent my entire summer every year, as well as all my weekends in the spring and fall, transplanted six hours north of all my friends to work at my dad’s summer business in an area where there were maybe a dozen kids my age and their predominant interest was drinking. This made it hard to have a social life at home, not just because I missed the actual time socializing when school was out but because when I did return, most of the social networks were pretty much solidified without me. I played a few times in junior high and high school, but to me, gaming books were something that I read for pleasure. I didn’t play them, I used them to make characters whose stories were elaborate and filled with potential.
As a result, I never got that much into AD&D. I read the fiction, but 2nd Edition (which was around for most of my childhood and well into my adulthood) was all about creating characters quickly and getting into the game fast. You rolled your stats, you picked your race and class, you applied a few skills and bonuses, and there you were, ready to dungeon crawl. Which was fine if that’s what you wanted, but without realizing it consciously, I’d discovered that games can have purposes beyond simply being played. They can be creative outlets in their own right, ways to tell stories to yourself without needing another person. They can be a lifeline, if you’re short on friends but have all the dice and paper your heart desires.
So I gravitated to Palladium, with Heroes Unlimited as my gateway drug. They had dozens of settings, all of which were compatible with each other with only a minimum of work. You could make cyborg ninjas and alien superheroes and telekinetic knights from the future and oh yeah, they also had dwarves and elves and all that stuff too if that was your speed. You could make robots with your very own R&D budget, you could make elephants the size of mice with super-advanced future brains to make up for the size difference, you could spend hours paging through the details of character generation and learning all sorts of arcane secrets to make your character more powerful, more interesting, more real. All that and someday, there was the promise of playing those characters in a game, too!
I eventually did get into a gaming group in college. I don’t think I played a single one of those characters in it–we rarely even played a Palladium game, although we had a few memorable one-shot campaigns in between our lengthy AD&D sessions. (It was easier to teach people.) Eventually I couldn’t justify the expense of buying so many sourcebooks for games I almost never played, and my Palladium collection dwindled to give over shelf space for other things. But I will always have a soft spot for any Palladium product, a pang of nostalgia for Rifts and Beyond the Supernatural and S.D.C. and M.D.C. and taking Acrobatics and Gymnastics to increase my character’s P.P. and figuring out how best to spend my BIO-E and eagerly flipping through each new sourcebook to see what new animals they added. It makes me probably far happier than it has a right to, and I think it always will.
I never played much Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun.