Transdimensional Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles may very well be the greatest role-playing game sourcebook of all time. I’m not even being slightly hyperbolic. It is a book that talks about everything from dinosaurs to time travel, from wizards to parallel dimensions.
I suppose I should start a little further back: do you know that Palladium published the TMNT game, called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness? Well they did, and while the game is built on the rickety foundation of the Palladium system, the “Bio-E” mini-system for mutating your character from everyday animal into an anthropomorphic version is incredibly elegant. Transdimensional TMNT takes the “Strangeness” part of “…and Other Strangeness” and cranks it up to eleven. The real kicker, though, is that it has perhaps the most cogent system for time travel that I’ve ever seen, period.
One of the things that makes TMNT and Other Strangeness (and many Palladium games) wonderful and frustrating are all the random tables. Everything from your background to your animal species is rolled up on a table. Sure you could just pick, but where is the fun in that? If you did that you’d never find out that chickens can see ultraviolet, and create a mutant rooster gambler who marks his cards with UV paint. Transdimensional TMNT’s random character backgrounds are…phenomenally surreal and wonderful.
This includes rather tame stuff like accidental hitchhikers and animal samples from the Jurassic or Cenozoic, mutated by the raw forces of time travel, sure. It also includes…being a magically altered witch’s familiar! Or a “brain-edited” traveller from the far future, sent to make historical observations on the past. Yes! You could be a Howard the Duck-style visitor from another dimension where everybody is a duck-person like you, rather than an ape-person like our Earth has; heck, you can be from an Earth where Neanderthals survived and Sapiens didn’t; you know how much I like that.
Then, in one of the greatest examples of giving the customer what they want: the rules for making mutant dinosaurs! Heck yes I want to pay 10 Bio-E for my mutant stegosaurus to have “Temperature Control Plates.” Not content to stop there, we get a bunch of other prehistoric critters to mutate, too. Woolly mammoths, sabertooth tigers, glyptodons, terror birds, brown paper packages tied up with string…these are a few of my favorite things. Ready to rest on their laurels? Not a chance! Rules for mutant humans— that is, devolving into grey alien-like humanoids—and for other mutant hominins are icing on the cake, complete with a host of psychic powers to pick from.
All gonzo excellence aside, It is Transdimensional TMNT’s time travel mechanics that really force you to take a second look at it, though, with your serious pants on. Now, a disclaimer here: I don’t know how much of the time travel concepts come from Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird or Erick Wujcik, but what I do know is that they are really quite cunning. The analogy used is that of a coiled up garden hose. Imagine that the flow of water through the hose is time, moving at 1 second per second. Fighting against the flow isn’t really effective, but if you were to sneak out of a loop of the hose and into the one below, you’d end up in a different “Twist” of time. (Twists themselves coil up into Cycles; I’m simplifying here) Now, like a hose, the coils on the bottom are bigger, and the coils up top are smaller, meaning closer to current history you can jump from century to century—giving your players a chance to hit the historical highlights—and farther in the past they are big enough to go with broadstrokes for things like the Cretaceous or Permian or, heck the moments after the Big Bang.
Meanwhile, the flow of time through the proverbial hose keeps moving forward! If you leave 2018 CE at 6:00 PM, go back to 162 BCE and spend three hours there, you’ll come back to 2018 at 9:00 PM. The constant motion of time resolves all those nasty paradoxes and issues of cause and effect. You can have the timeline hopping shenanigans without having to worry why Cloud didn’t give Aeris the Phoenix Down about trying to go back in time to stop the villain before his evil plan even started. The Grandfather Paradox problem still exists, and they have rules for Temporal “Kickback” for when the bad guy gives the Confederacy a crate of AK-47s and changes the future, but if you are more of a Predestination Paradox type like myself, or adhere to the “self-correcting time stream” space opera concept, you can go with that, too.
The story that Transdimensional TMNT chooses to tell by describing the future Twists that you find as you go forward instead of backwards is, I think, really compelling, and weaves various disparate elements of continuity together. There was a very popular spin-off line from TMNT and Other Strangeness called After the Bomb, which posits quite simply that after WWIII, the fallout of the nukes, bioweapons, chemical weapons, et al mutate all of the surviving animals (and mutate insects to fill their old ecological niches). As far as elevator pitches go, that is a pretty strong one; After the Bomb includes Mutants Down Under, the Australian expansion, Road Hogs, for all your Mad Max-y needs, Mutants in Avalon, if you want to ride a giant snail and meet a mutant raven King Arthur, Mutants in the Yucatan if flamingos and vampire bats are your style…just a host of great pulp ideas. So it is no surprise that it is the first Twist ahead in the future.
The clever interweaving doesn’t stop there. Did you know the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles go to space not infrequently? At least, starting with their Mirage run they did, and Turtles Guide to the Universe covers the cosmic playground for the RPG. One of the most dangerous places to end up is on a Wild Planet, where mutagens have gone crazy, making the whole planet a hyper-evolved deathtrap. Guess what? After the Bomb was the start of that trend, and the next stop on the time-train is, you guessed it, Earth as a Wild Planet. A nice little bow-tie on the TMNT universe, I think. Here, at the Wild Planet of Twist 2, you’ll also meet one of my favorite NPCs of all time: the young mutant fox piloting the space shuttle that rescues the PCs, Gary Morbriar.
See, the great thing about Gary Morbriar comes up in the Twist 3, the Terminator-style machine world apocalypse that grows from the death-droids designed to tame the Wild Planet. Here, young hotshot Gary Morbriar has matured into a senior officer with a creepy robot snake “advisor” around his neck and just a smidge more mutation. The non-linear notes are what make the scene, though: “He will be happy to see the characters again (incidentally, he’ll recognize them and call them by name, even if, the way the game has been going, they haven’t met him before.)” That’s right, Gary Morbriar is Transdimensional TMNT’s River Song, circa 1990.
The next Twist is even more grimdark: War! A war so wild that a chain of hydrogen bombs ripping across the face of Eurasia is described as harmless sensor cover for the Ultan I-Beams. Whatever that means. Gary Morbriar is here again, covered in cybernetic implants, mutated even further. After the War, though…there is a peace of sorts. An Earth covered by wilderness reclaiming the ruins of…well, everything. Where the only people left are…humans. Strange, “Garden of Eden” style humans, hyper-intelligent and hyper-primitive.
Gary Morbriar appears here as a hologram, shifting between his previous incarnations. Beyond that is a “Dark Eden” Twist, where the humans start evolving to fill the niches occupied by animals—giant herd humans on the plains, small arboreal humans in the trees, amphibious humans…and the Night Hunters, human predators. Past that, though is the Third Millennial Barrier. Time travel, whether spells or machines, just doesn’t work past that point, and if you keep trying? Well, an apparently omnipotent power will give you an indirect message to knock it off—say by disassembling your time machine and burying the pieces in the wall to spell out “BUZZ OFF!”
I’m really only scratching the surface of the book, here. It has rules for building a time machine and vehicle, so you can build your own Delorean. Rules for making wizards (!) and magical Time Lords. Hey, if you want to read “Time Lord” and think of Gallifrey, I won’t stop you. Also included are rules for historical weapons and gear, sample adventures and even an excerpt of the Donatello mini-series where he meets a fictionalized version of Jack Kirby…complete with “Kirby King’s” statistics. He is a 9th level comic artist, in case you were wondering. So yes, Transdimensional Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is exactly what it looks like: a game where you can play as a mutant dinosaur wizard fighting post-apocalyptic robots. Seriously, it is probably the greatest sourcebook of all time.
Transdimensional Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was published in 1989 by Palladium Books.
This article was originally published in March 2013.
Mordicai Knode had a mutant porcupine assassin named Spike Q. Seta when he was 12 years old who ended up retiring to an alternate universe where Genghis Khan’s empire never fell and because a utopia. You can follow him on Twitter or Tumblr.