Comedy RPGs are a tough nut to crack. There are broadly two challenges to writing funny role-playing games, and even the best ones have only overcome one of these two. The first challenge is to create humor from situations and premises that remain relevant. Paranoia is one of the most successful games at doing this, and that’s because ultimately the humor is about RPGs themselves and violating in-game expectations. The second challenge is to create a game that remains funny after the first session. While there’s no formula to solving this challenge yet, leaning on structures from other long-running comedy media is certainly a viable strategy. Teenagers From Outer Space is a comedy game from the mind of Mike Pondsmith, best known as the designer of Cyberpunk. Using tropes from comedy anime, he created a game that is light, smart, and self-aware about how it’s going to be played. Unfortunately, this game is 23 years old (33 years old if you count the first edition) and feels that way, which can lead to some awkward reading in a game about teen romance. Teenagers From Outer Space was given away for free as part of R. Talsorian’s response to the current pandemic, so now is as good a time as ever to take a look.
Let’s start with the mechanics. While Teenagers From Outer Space is somewhat based on the Talsorian house system Fuzion (which itself evolved from Cyberpunk and Mekton’s Interlock), having nothing in common with it other than the core mechanic means we shouldn’t really call this a ‘Fuzion Game’. Rolls are, like in Cyberpunk, stat plus skill plus a die, either opposed or against a static difficulty. There is one key difference here, namely that all of the dice math is based off of a d6 instead of a d10. There are eight stats rolled randomly, but after the rolls you can move point values around should you choose. Eight stats sounds like a lot, but when you look at what they are, everything flattens out fairly significantly. ‘Smarts’, ‘Bod’, ‘Looks’, and ‘Cool’ are typical stats. ‘RWP’ stands for ‘Relationship With Parents’ and is a fairly specific social currency. ‘Luck’ is an ‘if all else fails’ stat, which is used when it looks like everything is about to go wrong (and pretty much no other time). ‘Bonk’ is this game’s version of hit points; characters can’t die but if they take more ‘Bonk’ than their rating in this stat they’re out of the scene. Finally, ‘Driving’ is a stat, because teenagers all care about their vehicles, apparently.
The skills in the game don’t come from a list, rather they are ‘Knacks’ which a player writes and then distributes points in, based on a d6 roll. The suggested Knacks are a bit more specific than typical RPG skills, but also broad enough to be used in silly ways in other circumstances. The examples are properly on the nose, and include ‘Convince Anyone’, ‘Party Hard’, and ‘Sweet Talk Your Mom’.
There are two other important elements. Because this is Teenagers From Outer Space, characters can either be humans or aliens, and aliens can be nearly human or very much not human, depending on what the player wants. Both humans and aliens get certain powers, selected by (you guessed it) rolling randomly on one of a few power lists for given character types. Alien powers range from teleportation and fire breathing on one end to Nobody Home (the power to not be noticed) and Magical Girl (the power to both grant wishes and have a transformation sequence) on the other. Humans can have slightly more mundane but equally ridiculous powers like ‘Filthy Rich’ and ‘Lose It Completely’. Finally, there are Traits. Traits are just personality traits for your character, guidance on how to play the character and the manner in which they get themselves in trouble. I doubt this is the first game that used such a thing, but coming from 1997 when the best selling game was still a TSR version of D&D, this mechanic is noticed and appreciated. There is an advancement system in this game which is both clever and ridiculous; each player casts a secret ballot stating how many XP they think the other characters should get (between 0 and 3), and then each character gets the average from the vote, rounded up. XP are spent one-for-one to improve Knacks or buy new ones, a quick advancement system that quietly admits the game won’t last enough sessions for anything slower.
Let’s discuss how this game is supposed to be run. Characters are teenagers of either human or alien persuasion, dealing with high school, their parents, romance, and the occasional incursion from somewhere else in the galaxy. Character creation and the core mechanics are incredibly swingy, but between the use of ‘Bonk’ instead of outright violence and the premises upon which most of the game’s fiction is based, the severity of consequences for actually failing a roll is quite low. In order to level the playing field, the game has a ‘Too Much’ mechanic where if a roll succeeds by more than a certain threshold, the success produces such extreme consequences that the player will wish they had failed. The point of rolls is to guide the story to the next silly thing that happens, and in a way the game pushes GMs to ‘fail forward’ without ever calling it out specifically. The GM advice at a high level is very good: the point of the game is to have fun, and while you should not feel obligated to let characters succeed you should be entertaining the table regardless of the outcomes of the roll. I say the advice at a high level is good because some of the specific discussions are a little more eyeroll-worthy, including a (admittedly tongue-in-cheek but still) comparison between the GM and God that made me cringe. As much as I appreciate the emphasis on fun and de-emphasis on specifics, this game is still couched in an older vision of the GM as the manager of the game and table, and also takes a whole lot of potshots at crunchier games to get there. They even make fun of the bec de corbin, which admittedly made me chuckle. All in all I’d say the adversarial tone reads as funny, but it definitely reminds you how much gaming has changed.
I do need to talk a bit about other things in the game that have not aged as well as the mechanics. This edition of the game came out in 1997, and it shows. The art style is heavily anime-influenced, but here this means a lot of cheesecake art featuring women in bikinis, exposed midriffs, and plenty of cleavage. Additionally, the sample adventure in the book is about a sexy alien princess choosing a ’Royal Consort’ by seeing which teenage male can find an artifact called the ‘Luststone’. All of the romantic elements written up in the book are blatantly heteronormative; the game fails the System Mastery Seduction Skill Test without even having a seduction skill by virtue of how many times you see the phrase ‘the opposite sex’. There’s also a number of powers and items which provide instant sex-change abilities and play it for laughs. I’m familiar with Ranma ½ and it did make me feel a little better knowing that this came from somewhere…but it’s not 1997 any more and this was the biggest element in this game that reminded me just how old it was. Now, harem anime still exist, and ‘horny teenager’ isn’t necessarily a bad trope to mine for comedy. The way we talk about sex, though, and especially the way we laugh about sex has changed pretty dramatically in the last 25 years. The way we see teenagers has changed too; RPGs have had a number of successful properties focused on adolescent characters, I’m thinking Monsterhearts and Masks specifically. There’s definitely still room for a teen comedy game, especially one that goes for the specific kind of over-the-top we associate with anime. This specific game, though, needs a bit of an update, one that speaks to a 2020 understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Teenagers From Outer Space doesn’t quite break the mold of comedy RPGs when it comes to being mostly one-shot games, but it’s good for what it is. The GM advice is solid when it comes to focusing on fun and keeping players engaged, and I appreciate that there’s some self-awareness about how swingy the system is, turning that into a feature rather than a bug. This is a game from the 90s, though, and it falls short on inclusive language and even-handedness of thirst traps (though I will give credit where credit is due for Cano the topless merman). As old as it is, the mechanics still give many modern games a run for their money in terms of being easy and deliberately zany. Teenagers From Outer Space still has good bones, and should be in the running for your next harem anime campaign.
Teenagers From Outer Space is available on DriveThruRPG. While the giveaway promotion has ended, at the time of this writing the game is still 50% off.