In 2020, I played a roleplaying game from 1985

Republished from a Medium article by me. Original article, published in January 2020.

I ran the Palladium Books roleplaying game, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness”, as my first game of 2020. The game is originally from 1985, although this is the revised edition from 1991. Still, it’s a 29 year old game. I got the book for free from an awesome local scene member and was happy to give it a leaf-through and leave it in the shelf.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness (Erick Wujcik, Palladium Books, 1991). All the art is by Eastman & Laird, and the game predates the toys, the cartoon, and the movies — it’s based solely on the original black and white comic books.

Then one of my regular players turned out to be a serious TMNT fan. I decided to run the game as written, instead of turning it to a Fate game, as is my first instinct with many things these days.

I expected to find the 1985 system unplayable. Instead, I was intrigued and refreshed!

Old school in the worst way

Many of my absolute all time favorite games are old school in spirit. Two of my current favorites are part of the Old School Revival movement (“OSR”); Stars Without Number and Dungeon Crawl Classics could’ve both existed in the late 70s to early 80s, even if they’ve incorporated a few design choices that only emerged later on. But the games that I find myself playing the most are decidedly more modern, especially Fate and Powered by the Apocalypse games.

What we think we like from the old school of roleplaying game design is simplicity and a creative freedom that’s unbound by convention. What we tend to forget is that the old games are poorly written and internally inconsistent, often requiring a bunch of house rules — rules you’ve had to come up with because the game doesn’t work for you as written — to even run.

This game is the worst of that direction in many ways.

It isn’t particularly complex, mind, not in the way many old, “simulationist”, games can be. But it is wildly inconsistent and poorly written.

Many details of the characters are simply either not present anywhere in the book, or hidden so well that I couldn’t find them. What do you use a “Back flip 98%” skill for? What about “+1 Strike body block (dmg D4)” which is poorer than any other combat option? What is the point of S.D.C. (another type of hit point) when most characters don’t wear armor and thus are never hit in their S.D.C. pool? When does the “K.O.” threshold trigger, and how does it work? Do I roll separately for pulling a punch, or does it add a threshold (11+) to the normal attack roll (5+)? Is the 1–4 automatic miss only on natural rolls — because otherwise the Ninja Turtles would never miss?

I had to make a lot of calls pre-game and at the table to make sense of much of this. Multiples more than I usually do, because modern games tend to be concise, well designed, relatively well proof-read, and play tested.

As a clear sign of its age, there are multiple systems for different situations. All combat works on a D20 (high is good), and all skills work on a D100 (low is good), and all saving throws are — well, I couldn’t figure out how they’re meant to be used, but I ended up rolling D20 under the relevant stat.

Looking at it this way, it’s a mess. You can’t deduct how something should work in the game by looking at how something else works, because there are so many exceptions to the rules. It reminds me of my first true love, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition (1989).

In short, reading the system? I predicted it would be a train wreck.

The statistics

The Palladium system has by some distance the hardest to understand statistic system in the business. These are variables that are used to describe in numbers how one individual is different from the next, what they’re good at, and what they’re terrible at.

This is how they’re abbreviated and displayed as everywhere in this book:

I.Q. xx M.A. xx M.E. xx P.S. xx P.P. xx P.E. xx P.B. xx S.D.C. yy H.P. yy (where xx is a number from 3 to 24 — although sometimes higher than 24 — and yy is a number from 10 to around 150)

First I thought I could just un-abbreviate the alphabet soup to make it legible. This isn’t much better, though:

Intelligence Quotient (alright, everybody did get that, right?)

Mental Aptitude (they mean ”charisma”. Why not charisma?)

Mental Endurance (okay)

Physical Strength (okay)

Physical Prowess (they mean ”dexterity”. Why isn’t it dexterity?)

Physical Endurance (they mean “constitution”, but… okay)

Physical Beauty (enough with the Ps already, this is getting ridiculous)

Structural something or other (they mean “hit points” — or actually “armor points”)

Hit points (these also mean hit points, but the difference here is that they’re, well, concrete hit points instead of… I don’t even know because the other thing is also physical hit points. Anyway, you get wounds if they go down)

I couldn’t get them straight in my head, and I couldn’t expect my players to run with that for a short game. Thus I came up with more readily understandable words for the stats. First time ever I’ve had to do this! (I went with intelligence, charisma, guts, strength, dexterity, constitution, beauty, HP, wounds.)

They didn’t have fancy tools thirty years ago

I couldn’t find a character sheet for this game online. Just as well, because the one example in the book isn’t something I’d use at my table. So I had to create my own. I’m very happy with the outcome, but it added half a day to the game preparation time. (I’m using stolen art, so not going to share it online. I put it together in Keynote — on purpose using something I can’t get overly fiddly with, knowing how detail oriented I can get.)

The skill system rocks

The skill system is sort of brilliant, because it’s so pared back.

There are no modifiers of any kind! You just roll under your relevant skill (what counts as a skill is rather hit and miss) on a D100, or you don’t, and that’s it.

No degrees of success, no opposed rolls, no pushing or risking or aiding rolls. It’s wonderfully game like at the table. When did we lose sight of this simple thing? Our resolution systems have gotten rather cumbersome, much as I like something like the PbtA model.

The combat system is the first edition of something that could be brilliant

The combat system is interesting, and very much the point of why you’d play this specific game. Three things come to it: rolling, action economy, and damage.

Rolling is always D20 to hit. 5+ is a hit. Anything more than the opponent’s armor (most creatures don’t have any) counts as hit point damage (real damage, which I called “wounds” in my game). Anything over 5 but less than armor counts as “SDC” damage (not actual damage — I ended up calling it “hit points”).

This means that fumbles aside, basically everyone is hitting all the time! This makes combat a very different experience to most games, where landing a hit is a big deal.

The attack options don’t make a ton of sense. There is no situation where a jump kick or a leap attack (taking your entire melee round’s attacks) would be a better option than rolling 5–12 (!) attacks in a single melee round. A leap attack, maybe, in the unlikely situation where you really need to hit two targets in one action, and you expect them to go down with a single hit, the leap attack being an automatic critical hit. But the jump kick? With the same action cost as the leap attack, I can’t see the point of it.

Pulling your punches is interesting, in that it’s entirely possible to accidentally hit too hard, and heroes shouldn’t go around killing folks, even if they’re crooks.

The opponent then has multiple options, depending on how many parries (also used for dodges, counter attacks, and entangles) they have left. The book contradicts itself multiple times on how these should be counted, in that you have “free” parries for as much as you like… except if you’re using double weapons and they’re both used to attack (on one of your 5–6 attacks per melee round), they then “cost you one parry”.

My interpretation is that you get a “free” parry per attack action available to you on a melee round (5–6), and attacking with two weapons on a single attack action also costs you a “free” parry.

Anyway, you can parry, dodge, counter attack, or entangle as your defense action. Or just take it, if you’re out of parries or more worried about something deadlier coming later in the round. I let my players decide after I had rolled to hit: there were always more potential attacks than defense actions available, so being punched was also a resource management game for my players. Making a conscious choice to take a hit on the shell was a lot more interesting than just marking HP damage.

There is a confusing rule on “rolling with the punch” which means that for any blunt force attack (not slashing or piercing or explodey) you can attempt to halve the damage by moving with the attack. I think it’s a separate step after the attack and defense moves, but I’m not at all sure how many you can do. Adding a third roll to the procedure only for blunt force attacks, but always for blunt for attacks, seems overkill. On the other hand, there wasn’t much blunt force going around in my game. (Mostly Donatello trying not to actually hurt anyone.)

We used two kinds of colored beads to track everyone’s available attacks and parries. It made the game visual and interesting to follow.

Now, damage. Weirdly for a superhero flavored game where everyone is dealing 5–12 hits per melee round, getting hurt is a serious thing. The heroes heal slowly, with a severe fight requiring a week or two to get back from, and no fast first aid options available. Indeed, there are rules for bleeding out, coma, and lingering damage when you cross a threshold (curiously, 80% for SDC and 75% for HP) (yes, that means you need a calculator for two specific steps in character creation).

The rules are unclear on what you can do aside from attacking in a combat. When the combat rounds keep going as long as someone has attacks left, what does everyone else do? When do they take their actions? Do they get more than a single action? No guidance is offered here, and this remains something to consider before the next game.

My players are used to improvising stuff that isn’t just hitting people in the face, and the rules don’t really accommodate that sort of thing. I ended up using saving throws to judge non-attacky stuff in combat, which I feel is in the spirit of the rules.

Character creation

We played using the pregenerated teenage mutant ninja turtles. The character creation rules take up the bulk of the book, but I’m frankly uninterested in the “other strangeness” of the title, so not really looking to create my own team of mutant possums or turkeys.

The rules are rather confused on what counts as a power and what is a skill and what is “training”, instead, but it does have a cool set of “skills” (sometimes “training”, I have no idea why) which are used to improve your stats that you’re not happy with. So during character creation your dude can hit the gym to bulk up! That’s nice.

Some of the skills (trainings) are simply not explained in the book, so be prepared to do a bit of improvised house ruling here, but overall I like the system.

I would never use it live at the table with the way it’s formatted, though.

At the table

My players played the teenage mutant ninja turtles looking for their master, Splinter, who failed to show up for a morning lesson. On the way they beat up five thugs and twelve Leg (not Foot) clan ninja. At least one of their opponents decidedly died (appropriately due to Raphael going berserk), and a couple probably died off-screen (also Raphael!). That was almost too much for the heroes, who had to retreat and regroup, licking their wounds. In the end they reached out to their human friends — April, Casey, and the pizza joint guy — to help in the search for Splinter. I’m looking forward to continuing their quest next week!

This was way more light hearted and action-centric than most of our games. I did love coming up with our own TMNT story! Were this a longer campaign, we’d need to revise and clarify the combat rules and focus on character interaction, which the rules don’t give any assistance on, unlike modern games.

I’m very glad I took this jump at an older game. Might do another, if it leads to this much reflection.

2023 addendum

Since writing this I’ve discovered a very cool retro remake of this game, Julian Kay’s Mutants In The Now. It’s very faithful, but reading it, it streamlines all of the really confusing and sometimes broken bits of the original into something that works. I am excited to run this version at some point.






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