There is a new generation of companies emerging in the RPG world. Free League and Modiphius were founded in 2011 and 2012, respectively, but an even younger studio is making big waves. Renegade Game Studios was founded in 2014 by hobby game industry veteran Scott Gaeta, and his business acumen shows through in Renegade’s portfolio. In addition to publishing more indie titles like Alice is Missing, Kids on Bikes, and Overlight, Renegade rocketed into the trad scene when they took over publishing White Wolf games Vampire: the Masquerade and Hunter: the Reckoning from interim publisher Modiphius. Now, they’re internally developing licensed RPGs that have already turned them into a sales powerhouse. Two Renegade titles showed up on the ICv2 top 5 RPG list last quarter, and I was unaware either were out, let alone already selling so well.
These two games, GI Joe and Power Rangers, make sense as sales successes. The licenses are for properties that peaked in the early 90s, aiming squarely at a mid-millennial market while Wizards aims younger (the core D&D demographics have been teens and twenty-somethings at least as long as Wizards has owned the game, if not even longer). And if it wasn’t these games it could have been others; Renegade also published a Transformers RPG and will soon release an official My Little Pony RPG as well.
There is an important question to ask about these games, though: are they any good? Licensed RPGs are a wildly inconsistent part of the hobby; some properties like Star Wars get multiple excellent titles, others like Star Trek get a mixed bag (good like Star Trek Adventures, or bad like Prime Directive), and yet others are famously awful (Indiana Jones is the go-to here). So, when it looks like a company is cranking out these games, one has to ask some questions.
It’s with this eye that I take a look at the Power Rangers RPG. The Power Rangers RPG is built on the same mechanical bones as the GI Joe and Transformers RPGs, a house system called Essence20 (so there’s one reason they could be, in a manner of speaking, cranked out). Essence20 isn’t particularly complicated, borrowing mechanical concepts from d20 games and adding an incrementing dice mechanic that works much like Savage Worlds. How well it works really comes down to its flexibility; the dice are familiar, but how well can the rules support martial arts, giant robots, and, of course, when those giant robots combine into a MegaZord? Especially as we know that the ruleset is fairly generic, the game will rise or fall based on how it adapts the source material.
Judging a Power Rangers RPG can only be done fairly with some context of what the Power Rangers actually are; this is a weirder story than most are aware of. In 1975, Japanese TV writer Shotaro Ishinomori developed the first Super Sentai series, called Himitsu Sentai Gorenger. While this first series was somewhat based in more grounded action and spy fiction, it started establishing the norms of Super Sentai, namely heroes in different colored suits that, when contacted with some form of handheld communicator, can transform and gain different powers. One notable innovation came later on from the Sentai series Battle Fever J, which added giant robots to the mix. If you can’t see the formula coming together already, you may need to go back and reread. Fast forward to 1993. Super Sentai is still going strong, and the studio’s ties to Marvel (yes, that Marvel) led to several aborted attempts to bring it stateside. Several things finally came together in 1992, as TV exec Haim Saban brought the idea back to the US (again) but this time found a favorable audience in the form of Margaret Loesch at Fox. As Loesch had previously worked for Marvel she was familiar with Super Sentai and gave the project the green light. What became Power Rangers started as the fight scenes from the 1992 Sentai series Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger, redubbed in English but with interstitial scenes reshot with American actors. This unlikely chimera of Japanese and American media trends turned into the long-running, long-standing Power Rangers, which has continued to adapt Japanese Super Sentai shows to this day.
The reason it’s important to understand where Power Rangers comes from is that, given its origins, one couldn’t honestly expect it to be anything other than ridiculous. Power Rangers stands with its GI Joe and Transformers counterparts in its success in selling toys, but it also has a cult following due in large part to the culture bleedthrough that most of its target audience had never seen before. Even by the time we had Toonami, let alone now when anime is accessible to anyone with a Netflix account and a passing interest, the novelty of the very Japanese Super Sentai shows had passed. Power Rangers continued on mostly on its own merits into the current century, not really inspiring importation of other live-action tokusatsu shows (save for a few imitators). That said, Power Rangers still holds a special place in the heart of many mid-millennials whose first exposure to Japanese superhero, mecha, and even just film culture came from a weird mish-mash of teens with attitude from Angel Grove.
One thing I do appreciate about the RPG is that it treats the source material with the same earnestness that the TV show did back in the day. There is some concession that we’re not going to be approaching this entirely seriously; the best way that the book does it is with the deliberate reuse of the vocabulary from the show (the Morphin Grid, folks). Less fun is Alpha 5’s interjections, which seem to be the worst of bad 90s licensed RPG dross in terms of being filler, annoying, and not nearly as immersive as maybe the authors thought. If the intent was to help us remember how bad 90s and 00s licensed RPGs could get, they succeeded.
Poor flavor text choices aside, the book treats the setting the right way. While the choice to mechanize the colors of the Rangers is an odd one (though I will admit completely in-genre), the book hits the right notes in terms of keeping the character of the shows while not locking in to specific characters or series. The root perspective of the setting is told through the original 1993 series, Zeo, Turbo, and Dino Thunder make appearances through the gear and Zord list (and possibly more, but you’re poking at the edges of my Power Rangers knowledge at this point). The enemies are all from the shows too, but one almost has to assume they’re lampshading the seriousness (or lack thereof) of the setting by including Chunky Chicken and Pineapple the Clown as two of the first threats in the book.
Speaking of Threats, combat is the star of this show and where the Essence20 system has the most complexity. Considering all of the games to use the system so far are licensed from TV shows about fights (whether they involve teens, giant robots, or soldiers), this does make some sense, although it also means that the system isn’t really piling on any innovations. The base system has four stats (Essences) and 21 skills, making the core adjudication fairly compact. The Essences do establish the size of the character’s defense pools (one for each Essence), but otherwise the only thing they do mechanically is tell a player how many points they can invest in skills. Each skill is assigned a die type, and as the player puts more points in a skill the die type increments up, from d2 to d4 to d6 and so on. To actually make a skill check, a player rolls a d20 plus whatever die they have in the skill. Modifiers to the roll increment that die up or down, and certain modifiers can increase (or decrease) a die outside of the normal range, up to an automatic success or even an automatic crit (and down to an auto fail or auto fumble as well). Turns out that this die shift mechanic is also used for size effects, which is kind of important in a game modeling a show that has humans and giant robots in the same fight sequence.
Character creation involves putting 12 points into your Essences; you can point-buy it or take a suggested array of 4,3,3,2. After that, you choose an Origin and an Influence, these are both human backstory elements and tell you what sort of ‘normal teen’ your character is when they aren’t being a Power Ranger. After that you choose a team role, which is your Ranger color. The team Role is also essentially a class, and the game has a very D&D-like 20 level track for each role, gaining new abilities, Essence bumps, and increased power capacity with each level. The abilities are broken out into Perks, which are mundane benefits that give things like rerolls and bonuses to narrowly defined situations, and Grid Powers, which are abilities that are used while morphed into a Power Ranger. The Grid Powers are also where the above mentioned Power Capacity comes in, because Grid Powers require you to spend Power to use them.
Between Grid Powers and a multitude of weapons, Power Rangers have many options in combat, though the system holds onto the complexity fairly well. The obvious areas where there’s inflation are the equipment, weapon, and vehicle lists, though the mechanics are mostly tag-based and not too too overwrought. Given how many Power Rangers series there have been the lists could have actually been even longer, but I suppose that’s where supplements are going to come in. The actual combat rules are relatively simple; I was put off by the speed rules until I realized that pretty much everyone is going to be treating it as a three action system given how quickly the Essences increase. There aren’t too many exception-based mechanics, even as you get into vehicles, and a big chart of size/size dice shifts puts the human to Zord continuum right into one tidy block. I’m actually fairly impressed at the relative paucity of additional rules required for vehicle combat pretty much up until you get to the Combiner Zords, and even then most of the rules are about how to calculate the stats of a Combined Zord more than any differences in combat. Of course Powers may or may not work in different combat contexts, but more thought was given to accessibility and difficulty of play than simulation, which for a setting like Power Rangers is a good thing.
As is perhaps expected, the carryover mechanics from Essence20’s generic start point are where most of the weaknesses are. The Exploration chapter is the weakest point here, and either through editorial ignorance or just laziness it’s perhaps one step away from completely unnecessary. Why does a Power Rangers game have a daily travel pace chart? Why are there mechanics for characters getting tetanus?
On the other hand, the few places where genre-reinforcing mechanics were employed illustrate how effective they can be and, frankly, that this game could have used more. Combiner Zords have a power-up time, which is a perfect little bit of show emulation. There are no mechanics for death in this game, only ‘defeat’, which once again aligns with the show perfectly. In a bit of contrast, the Power Rangers rules, which form the backbone of the show’s structure, have no such mechanical backstop. Do they need one? Maybe not, but I think it could have been used to great effect. Complete refusal to fight innocents and a commitment to never escalate a fight unless needed are strong genre tentpoles, and I’m a little let down that the most we have to reinforce them are missives in the included adventure that fighting security guards will get you dressed down by Zordon later.
Is the Power Rangers RPG good? It’s good enough. Essence20 is a very good example of a mass-market game system: It looks complicated enough to be interesting, it isn’t actually complicated enough to frustrate players, it provides lots of choices in character creation while keeping things templated and straightforward, and it’s built around a progression mechanic with tons of ‘ding’ moments and ‘numbers go up’ endorphin taps. I’m reasonably sure it could run an archetypal Power Rangers episode (investigation, fight putties, discover enemy, human sized fight, Zord fight, Combiner Zord fight) relatively well and it includes tons of equipment and threats lifted from the series with a shocking lack of irony (an editor had to decide the correct way to capitalize Ninja MegaFalconzord) that I, weirdly, appreciate.
The problem I have with the Power Rangers RPG (and would likely also have with the Transformers RPG and the GI Joe RPG) is that, given how it’s structured and designed, it is without a doubt the game I have read that is most obviously put out by a business. Market research picked the licenses and assigned the design goals, and a system was built out that would achieve the design goals of every license with minimal rework, using design principles which were plucked from top-selling but mechanically conservative games that had already been proven in product line use. One thing I can say about indie games I’ve read, whether I’ve loved or hated them (and there’s been plenty of both) is that they’re all made by gamers who wanted to see their thing exist. Indie games are, no matter what specifically they are, games which the designer wanted to play but couldn’t until they wrote it. I think whoever greenlit the Power Rangers RPG did so because they thought it would sell, and the thought of playing the game came much later. And since plenty of people buy RPGs without intent to play them, they could do that. Even the game accessories scream merchandising. I don’t know who the Zordon Dice Tower is for, save for a superfan with $70 burning a hole in their pocket and a pre-existing collection of Super Sentai kitsch.
I don’t know what it is about the Power Rangers RPG that makes it feel so licensed, so corporate. I played all of the FFG Star Wars games, I’ve played Star Trek Adventures and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. There’s something about this that just feels more capitalist. The closest other is probably Star Wars; the use of movie quotes as ability names and the need to cram in familiar lore are both similarities and warning signs. What FFG did differently though, I think, had to do with ambition; they used a unique ruleset and released three different games because the team actually thought about the ways people would want to play Star Wars. The Power Rangers RPG lacks that ambition. That alone, though, doesn’t make it bad. Tons of people bought it, and if they play it they’ll probably have a good time. But the game is serving the license, not the other way around. And I don’t think I’m a fan of that.
The Power Rangers RPG is available online from Renegade Game Studios.
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