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Reviews: Teenagers from Outer Space: The Landing
 
by Mike Sugarbaker


Teenagers From Outer Space was the first role-playing game I ever tried to run all by myself. I was all of about twelve years old. My players consisted largely of people in my brother's D&D group - guys about three years older than me, primarily interested in slaying dragons. I probably don't have to tell you that the session didn't go well. The guys were unimpressed by my displays of wit, unhelpful when it came to character-based improv, and openly scornful of my habit of sticking my nose in the old saddle-stitched first edition TfOS core book and reading aloud the funny parts that I'd struggled to work into my anemic, directionless storyline. They didn't claim to have had a bad time, but they didn't ask to play again either.

Are the silliest role-playing games the hardest to play? Not necessarily - the first RPG I ever ran successfully was Paranoia. Of course, by that time I was a few years older, and my brother and his pals had correspondingly learned a little more about the "role" part of role-playing. I ran the pre-written adventure in "Acute Paranoia," the brilliant "Me And My Shadow Mark V," and a good time was had by all. What, besides the increase in our sophistication over a few years, made the difference?

Some important things, in my opinion. TfOS lacked, and still lacks, several elements that make role-playing games easy to play. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that, and advanced, self-directed role-players who haven't tried it will dig it, as well as the just-published third-party sourcebook The Landing (the reviewing of which is the point I will eventually get around to, yay). Nonetheless, I'm going to use this review to go through some of the changes I'd make to TfOS, and some of the directions that I hope A2 Press takes in their future TfOS supplements.

When We Last Left Our Heroes...
The key difference between TfOS and an RPG like Paranoia or D&D can be summed up in two words: clear motivation. When you create a character for a D&D adventuring party or a team of Troubleshooters, you can be a little loose about exactly what the character's wants and needs and hopes and dreams are, if you want. You can do this because you know what's coming: you're going to be in a group that has, in the D&D case, an NPC beseeching them to go solve some problem in some dungeon. Or, in Paranoia, clear orders from the all-powerful, easily-angered Computer to go shoot some trouble. This will get any adventure going at a decent pace.

TfOS doesn't have anything like this to drive it. Instead, its entire premise is that the teenagers of the galaxy have discovered that Earth is the universe's best place to hang out.

To hang out. This is an RPG whose idea of a good motivational starting point for characters is hanging out. I mean, honestly, why roleplay a teenager who just wants to hang out, albeit a teenager with astounding powers and a fuzzy tail, when you can... hang out instead, and save yourself all that work of creating a character and learning rules? This doesn't automatically make TfOS a bad game - it just puts the onus on players and GMs to build their own momentum, and turn a restless trip to the mall into a space opera through sheer force of improvisational weirdness. As a twelve-year-old GM, I didn't know how to make my alien teenagers want anything. Other than sex, which the book tells you not to let anyone have.

Am I arguing that role-playing games should all be aimed at twelve-year-olds? No. I'm arguing that the best role-playing games provide gaming tools for all skill levels. The best players will pick and choose the rules they want to use anyway, so why not provide a structure for built-in player motivation?

The Landing takes some important steps towards this, but before digging into it, let's talk a little about its context. The current edition of TfOS, now in print for a couple of years, is published by Animechanics, a division of the game's original publishers R. Talsorian Games. A2 Press, publishers of the anime-gaming magazine Anime Squared, has published The Landing as an official supplement, under license from RTG. A2's Michael Cox, author of The Landing, has "Leader, The T.F.O.S. Project" on his business card, so, presumably, A2 has more Teenagers material in store.

A2 Press was kind enough to provide us with a copy of the updated version of TfOS, the better to understand The Landing. I am astounded at how little the text of the core rulebook has changed from the one I had when I was twelve. There's a brief sidebar in the beginning about how to convert TfOS stats to the Fuzion system, and there's a section in back on common anime-comedy schticks that's way too couched in this-is-optional disclaimers to have the effect on the game's motivation problems that it could. There are likely lots of other small changes, but overall, I felt like I was reading all the same jokes over again. The main thing that makes the new edition of TfOS an improvement over the old, however, is the graphics. All the art is new, and it is much more sharply modeled after anime - namely after teenage comedy classics like Ranma 1/2, Urusei Yatsura, and Tenchi Muyo. These boy-meets-girl, boy-gets-assaulted-by-girl's-space-attack-fleet, girl-turns-into-a-boy-anyway episodic epics are a prime candidate for RPG-hood, and a much more focused role-playing archetype than the one the old TfOS edition presented.

Get To The Point Already
The Landing is TfOS' first "city book," a form of campaign book popular in every game that can accommodate anything remotely urban. But, this being a game about teenagers, The Landing describes every nook and cranny of a mall, rather than every nook and cranny of a medieval metropolis. This particular mall caters to Earth's new extraterrestrial population, hence its name, and its popularity as a landing site for new species.

The bulk of The Landing is devoted to a steady, thorough walk through a map of the mall, detailing every store with at least a paragraph about the proprietor and the wares. Many stores come with an adventure idea in the old TfOS style of the "episode synopsis." You know, like in TV Guide, when you look up a show in the big mass of text listings and it gives you a sentence or two about what horrible situation the characters get into this time. TfOS has, from the beginning, referred to adventures as "episodes" and encouraged players to play it like an episodic cartoon. This can be a great strategy for keeping a game light (I've wanted for a while to write an RPG called "Dirty Sitcom," but more on that some other time), although it can be tough for a GM accustomed to sprawling campaigns to adapt to a tighter structure. The synopsis format is therefore a great way to write adventure ideas, if they're written with the goal in mind of actually running a game.

Many of the synopses in The Landing don't quite have that impetus that will get an adventure going, instead posing a brief situation and stating the hook in the form of "Can the Teeners help ______" or "Mandy really needs to _______". Well, maybe they can, and if you're lucky, maybe she does. But why should they want to? Me, I think there's more of a future in the challenges, contests, quests, and impossible-to-escape situations common to anime comedy. A great example is this, from the entry for the If The Shoe Fits shoe store: "There's talk of 'the great shoe conspiracy.' Everyone uses shoes; they're everywhere in one form or another. This gives them access to high security areas easily; after all no one would question a person's shoes. The 'Shoe Alliance' has approached the teeners and asked them to prove that shoes are actually being replaced by an alien race bent on world domination!" Now that's an adventure hook. Lots more of the stuff in here can be made just as compelling with a minute's thought, but again, that makes it a game for advanced GMs.

The store selection is very complete… maybe too complete. Many of the stores in the directory are cursory, with no NPC stats, and not always with a particularly compelling or funny story idea. The author says some stores will just get a quick glance, because he wants to "hit the highlights," but why not just leave the lowlights out and make more room for interesting ideas? Do we need to spend even a quarter of a page on an upper-class luggage store with a proprietor from another dimension who's just trying to make ends meet while she's stuck here? Why not build that sort of thing into a random table? Or better yet, leave it outright, since that sort of thing can safely be left to a GM's imagination?

There are some Mall Legends immediately following the directory section of the book, but as these stories are past tense, they're not immediately useful for role-playing purposes. A couple of them tie in interestingly to the details set out elsewhere in the book, notably the Gold Mafia (meaning the intelligent goldfish in the fountain) and the Plush Machine. Those two in particular could be hooked into a "deep dark secret at the heart of the mall," something that the book itself currently lacks. It's great when city books throw hints of a secret, organizing center throughout the book and then add them all up into a neat little campaign; this is mostly a missed opportunity in The Landing, although the rest of the book functions perfectly well without it.

There are several pages of new gadgets, some of which look like lots of fun; one thing I did learn in my career with old TfOS is that a character getting hold of the right gadget can write a whole adventure for you. Some highlights from The Landing's collection: the nail gun is not what you might think, unless you're a beautician. Then there's the Mime Grenade. I'll let you use your imagination there. A bracingly updated Swiss Army knife, called the Tool-All (no snickering), should appeal to gadgeteers and the sort of person who likes to impress the chicks by whipping out their Leatherman. Other gadgets here expand on favorites from the core book.

After that, there are some new traits and powers, including an Animate Object variant that, while it forces you to choose one type of object, lets you do much more with that object; there are lots of characters running around this book with small platoons of stuffed animals following them, and this appears to be the reason why. There's one new human ability, called Bad Penny, that makes said human uncannily appear everywhere a character goes, especially when not wanted there. I'm not sure why this can't just be handled through role-playing, but hey, ideas come in all forms.

Round Up The Unusual Suspects
The final third of The Landing gives detailed information on a set of five new alien races. This is, frankly, the best part of the book, the part that has the potential to change the way people play TfOS the most, and the reason I'm inclined to recommend the book, despite its weaknesses. The Landing provides at least a page or two of common personality traits, likes and dislikes, and base stats for the average member of each race. This is an important step towards something that, in my opinion, TfOS desperately needs.

Oh God, I never thought I'd say this about a game, but... TfOS needs clans.

Like a lot of not-particularly-avid followers of RPGs, I always thought clans were basically just a marketing gimmick, designed to appeal to players' desire to be part of an in crowd. They made sense in Vampire, but once Werewolf came out, the player-hater in me screamed "where's the great game about people who don't know they're actually monsters? Where's the game that's actually different from Vampire?" The clans in Werewolf looked like just another aspect of the carbon-copying of Vampire, and my head closed to them. It didn't help when Legend of the Five Rings unlocked their huge money-making niche-within-niche-marketing potential. But the truth is, clans are just a replacement for character classes. Everyone complains about how stupid it is that D&D characters have classes to stand in for any creative thought about who a character is and what s/he does… but then they turn around and talk up their clan. That whole personality archetype someone else cooked up for them.

Classes (and clans) are a tool. Advanced players don't need them, but to get inside the door and start playing an RPG, as a game, before you start telling stories with it, you need some tools to kick-start your players' and characters' motivations. Races, as A2 is building them in The Landing, are another such tool. The provided sample characters seal the deal and nail a good set of out-of-the-box interactions for a beginning party. (And hey, if the A2 folks are reading this, they would do well to go a step further in their evolution and steal outright from one of the greats: Paranoia. That's right, I'm talking secret societies. Why have one motivational structure when you can have two?)

I'll give it away: the best race here is the Foxies. They're basically anthropomorphic foxes - if you're familiar with "furry"-style manga-esque artwork, you can picture one to a T. What makes the Foxies interesting is how different their motivations (you guessed it) are from average TfOS characters. Foxies have a unique sense of duty - they created the Original Galactic Federation, a sort of space police force that gets called out briefly as a possible running gag in the TfOS rulebook. It deserves more than this - in fact, A2 seems to be planning a whole OGF book. Anyway, the Foxies have a thing for oaths, "to the point that they typically associate their oaths with [their] names." That detail about names is a brilliant example of how to give players direction without over-restraining them - something similar shows up with the El-Faye, a hysterical cross between TfOS and Changeling-or-something. (Anyone smell Goth-kiddie satire? Or how about integrating your TfOS session with a rousing game of Fairy Meat?) Foxies can be great anchors for a party - the responsible ones, the ones with a clear goal, like the overachiever kids in AP English. Only with more royal blood, and heavy weaponry.

Also of interest are the Felines, which take the ditzy, fuzzy-tailed types that everybody wanted to make the first time they played TfOS, and flesh them out interestingly. The phrase "curiosity killed the cat" is operative here: Felines are the ultimate hardware hackers. They like to mess with technological stuff, invent new gadgets, "improve" existing ones, build robotic servants and girlfriends, etc. This definitely pushes the game closer to interesting, long-standing interactions between factions with clear, sometimes conflicting, goals - in short, closer to being a game, rather than a bunch of background material in search of a game. However, a separate race called the Kittens are also included. These are identical to the fluff-brained anthropomorphs you've come to know and, um, love. I'm not sure if Cox is trying to avoid angering current fans with drastic changes, to have it both ways, or if I'm just being unfair and should mellow out about it.

We get full stats on how to make Goldfish PCs - remember those intelligent Mafioso fish in the fountain? - but I'm not sure why. They're completely confined to the fountain in the center of the mall, and have half a page of background - who the hell wants to play that? I mean, I suppose you could decide that there's a complicated network of water pipes and channels in the bowels of the mall, and somewhere deep down, elaborate underwater cities… but none of that is in the book. Nor should it be, because if you're playing that, you might be having a great time, but you aren't playing TfOS anymore. As a character class the Goldfish are a non-starter, although they should make great NPCs as sources of under-world info.

I Will Now Shut Up
More general stuff about the book: a lot of the art is pretty good. It's anime-flavored, obviously, and the more it looks like anime, the better it generally is. There are the average game book's share of typos and editing errors - maybe even a little more than average - and the structure isn't as rigid and clear as it could be (but after writing this review, I shouldn't talk). Some of the text is actually written as if it's part of a long report by an OGF Foxie named Harmony, and this conceit is applied a bit inconsistently and sometimes nonsensically. Does it make sense to have a game character tell us she's learned the names and game descriptions of a new character power? Things like that mar some of the book.

However, I'm recommending it, because sometimes, the fact that something's being done is more important than its being done perfectly. Michael Cox clearly just wanted to crank it up to 11 and create lots of new material to sustain a game he loves. That admirable enthusiasm comes through clearly. I look forward to future volumes in The TfOS Project, and think we'll learn something about games as the system grows, the way I've learned things about clans and classes from The Landing's races. Maybe not earth-shatteringly new things, but things that are worth knowing. Teenagers is getting ready to leave its awkward phase, and I'll be interested to see what kind of fine, upstanding young game system it becomes.

 

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