In the late 1980s, Palladium Books was a plucky up-and-coming RPG publisher. They’d netted the highly successful Robotech cartoon’s licence, and had also landed the then underground comics sensation Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles licence. It was time to push forward with an idea they’d established in 1984. It was time… for Ninjas & Superspies. The game’s first release was in 1987, with a revised edition in 1990. Its final official expansion was in 1995 with Mystic China, and since then has only been intermittently supported in the Rifter magazine. So let’s dive in on the overarching aspects of this game.
Ninjas & Superspies is loaded with a lot of issues, many of which can be traced back to two things: Lack of direction and lack of cultural sensitivity. Of note, there was not a single Asian person, in so far as I can tell, who was involved in the writing or design of this game.
On the side of direction, Ninjas & Superspies is an excellent example of how Palladium expects the end users to “figure it out” on their own. The Game Master Section doesn’t have any guidance at all for running a game. There’s also no thematic guidance available via art. It’s a game of martial arts, espionage, and sometimes those might cross paths? Even the example adventure doesn’t provide much in the way of explaining “what’s going on”. As near as I can figure, the game was fuelled creatively by Hong Kong action films, James Bond, The Million Dollar Man, The Man From Uncle, and Erick Wujcik’s love of martial arts and fighting. Unfortunately, there’s no connective tissue between any of it.
Cultural sensitivity has been, and still is, an issue that Palladium Books struggles with. This game series tosses around “Orient” and “Oriental” with no hesitation. It also dives deep into the stereotypes and western perceptions of East Asians and presents them as concrete fact. To their credit, they admit that many of the martial arts are partially or completely made up, although that paragraph is easy to miss in the torrent of wordage that is a Palladium RPG book. Then there’s the villain organization section. It’s… it’s something.
The setting of this game is ostensibly “today” or “20 minutes into the future”, except the “today” is the pre-Soviet collapse late Cold War, and the “20 minutes into the future” is now an analogue retro-future based on the James Bond gadgets and the Million Dollar Man’s level of cybernetics and bionics. So there’s already a serious level of zeerust (1) on the setting. But then it gets weird, because the game pivoted hard in 1995.
Mystic China took the setting in a new direction, and made it all more confusing. In the core book, it’s a world that’s largely like our own, except there’s some extra technology and if you study “real” martial arts, you can get some boss powers. But this book introduced “Asian Mysticism”, and more specifically, a western take on classical Chinese myth and mythology. So suddenly the setting has immortals, dragons, demons, alchemy, the Yama Kings, and a literal magic system. Also, all of this was introduced without actually giving any guidance on it, or how it integrates with anything in the core book.
Can it be figured out?
I don’t have answers here, but I will dive deeper into each of the two books, then into some expansion material presented in the Rifter magazine. I’m going to look at how the books work, what they present, and whether there’s a coherent theme in them past the martial arts. For a more in depth and Asian perspective on this game, Asians Represent is planning to hit it up, and will have perspectives that I’ll either miss or not have the level of cultural knowledge to really explore.