I was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Gamer & Other Strangeness

By Shawn Robare

Recently while organizing one of my bookshelves I found myself reminiscing over a stack of my old RPG game books.  I haven’t gamed in well over a decade and a half, but I’ve clung to the various modules, rulebooks and expansions because I spent so much time pouring over them I can’t imagine not having them around.  I first discovered table-top gaming as a dorky teen.  My father had just recently moved our family across country twice within a year and I felt disconnected from everything save what was going on in the pages of the Uncanny X-Men and Wolverine.  It was the end of 1990, and having just turned thirteen I was also caught up in the whirlwind hype of another group of “teens”, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, thanks to becoming slightly obsessed with the first live action film that was released in theaters earlier that year.  I was basically living exclusively through and for the fantasy worlds of cartoons, movies and comics having had to leave my friends and sister in Florida, and then not even getting a chance to connect with any other kids while I was up north for 9 months.  Our family ended up putting down roots just outside of Atlanta and after scouting out a local comic store where I could get my monthly sequential art fix I began to feel at home.  At the time comics were my lifeline for sure…

AmazingSpider-Man328It wasn’t long after that I was enrolled in the local middle school, finally starting my eighth grade year of school about three weeks late.  I spent my bonus summer vacation time in an extended-stay suite while our family was waiting for our new house to be finished being built, and I was suffering from terrible case of cabin fever and feeling utterly disconnected from other kids.  Though normally an extreme introvert, when I first started riding the bus to my new school I was kind of dying to break out of my shell and meet some new kids.  One afternoon I was sitting alone behind two guys that were having an animated conversation about comics.  I wish I could remember exactly what they were talking about (if I had to guess it was probably McFarlane’s art on issue 328 of the Amazing Spider-Man featuring the “Mr. Fixit” grey Hulk), but whatever it was I was so happy to have found some other comic readers that I did something I had never done before.  I butted myself into the conversation telling them all about my comic collection and how one of my favorite comics was issue 8 of Wolverine that also featured a guest appearance by Mr. Fixit.


I offered to bring in doubles I had for that issue for both of them the next day, and thus started a friendship with a group of local misfits that lasted all through high school and college.  It wasn’t long after this that they introduced me to another friend of theirs and before I knew it we’d sort of formed a tight nit group of four, like the Three Musketeers and d’Artagnan, or more appropriately, the TMNT.  We all watched the Fred Wolf cartoon and had a smattering of action figures, but after a chance encounter with another local teen on the bus that winter we were introduced to the glue that would keep our little cadre together for years to come, the core rulebook for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness…


There was a couple of older kids that were a grade ahead of us (in high school!) that we kind of knew and traded comics with occasionally and one day they brought the above book on the bus and it kind of blew our 8th grade minds.  I think we’d all heard of Dungeons & Dragons, but none of us was really all that into high fantasy and never contemplated that there might be role playing games that were outside of that genre, let alone based on a comic/cartoon series that we all liked.  Within the week all four of us had manged to secure copies of the main book and we were all on the lookout for sets of non-standard dice so we could start creating characters and figure out how to play this game.  I remember bugging my parents relentlessly to find a place where I could get some role playing dice, and after consulting the phone book I found a store in a ritzy mall 30 miles away called the Sword of the Phoenix that specialized in stocking all sorts of dice and game books.  That weekend we made the trek out and I bought my first two sets of clear gem dice (one purple and one blue.)  I only have a couple of these left in my collection (two four-sided) that you can see below…

donnydice 1

Looking back this entirety of the experience is kind of a blur, but for about three or four years we had a standing Saturday gaming session that rotated between a handful of our houses.  Typically these involved a metric ton of Cheetos, Cool Ranch Doritos, white cheddar Smartfood popcorn, yellow vanilla Zingers, and gallons upon gallons of store-brand soda.  At the time these weekend meetups seemed so epic in scale.  We’d all take turns acting as the gamemaster, writing what we thought were magnum opus stories to test the intelligence and mettle if our group, though in reality only a couple of us were semi-decent at running the campaigns (certainly not me) and the rest of us were more concerned with equipping our characters with stuff and jukeing up their abilities.

The basic concept of TMNT & Other Strangeness is creating mutant animal characters that exist in same world of Eastman & Laird’s creations.  It’s sort of like combining the A-Team and the Turtles, where the game master creates environments for a group of characters to have an adventure in.  I say the A-Team because the game is sort of geared towards creating mercenary-like characters in battle-torn militant environments.  It didn’t help that we all read comics like the X-Men and were well versed in the Star Wars universe, so when we wrote stories they tended up feature a tyrannical villain with hordes of nameless soldiers put in the story specifically for our characters to annihilate.

TMNT Space

It’s actually funny that we ended up playing as long as we did as we all kind of sucked at the core concepts of role playing.  We all tended to try and shoehorn the play into a more hack and slash video game experience, and we very rarely worked together as a team no matter how hard we tried.  When it was all said and done, each of us was way more interested in creating a whole bunch of characters, outfitting them, and doodling pictures of them, rather than actually playing them in a game.  It wouldn’t be until a few years later when we all made the switch from the Palladium gaming system (the publisher of TMNT and other games like Robotech and After the Bomb) to the more story-oriented system published by White Wolf (Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, etc.) that we’d evolve a bit.

After the bomb 2

In fact, it got so bad in our group that we all became game-lawyers, spending hours debating and arguing over rule and character creation minutia.  All of our copies of the core rule book were heavily underlined, with highlighted passages and notes in the margins.  We probably spent more time arguing than we did gaming, yet it still kept us regularly meeting up and “playing” for years.  Over time we also drafted other friends into playing with us, and at one point there was about 10 of us rotating in and out of the group.  The fighting between the group became so fever pitched that it eventually came to a head and it formed a schism between the founding four members and we split the group in two to play separately, complete with spying between the two factions and a whole bucket-load of hurt feelings.

Weird TMNT

I hate to admit it but at the end of the day we all sucked at role playing.  Even so, I wouldn’t have changed a single second of the experiences I had being a part of that group of friends.  When I look aback at these books now I get a visceral sense of what I felt like at the time, a mix of heady nostalgia and fear that I’ll have to try and create a campaign all on my own again!  I also fondly remember what it was like finding a group of friends and what it felt like to be included.  To have our own little clique where it was us against everyone else.  Back when we first started hanging out we all chose one of the Turtles as our mascot.  Over the years my recollection of who picked who was kind of hazy, and I would have sworn that I picked Donatello since he’s my favorite character.  But while flipping through my copy of the book last night I was greeted by some very awesome notes that were scribbled in the book that reminded me that I was totally a Raphael guy…

TMNT Friends

Just four geeky teens against the world.


  • This is great! I’ve had this book for a while and always wondered what it was like to actually play it.

    • I’m super curious what it would be like playing as an adult. Maybe the “rules” issues I had as a kid would make more sense now… :p

      • Only one way to find out! :D

        • This totally needs to happen. Wonder how easily it can be parlayed into a decent podcast as well so you could get site content out of game play?

          • Rob over on my site wrote a series of posts involving using Google+ to play D&D, I bet we could do something similar for this. We could recruit some people and each come up with a character and start off with cool character profiles on our blogs, then try a game and see how it goes :)

          • I think this needs to happen. I know Jaime would be in as well…

          • Definitely. Maybe we could get some cool illustrations done of our characters too. Might need to have a brainstorming session soon!

          • Definitely!

  • I knew you were a closet Raph fan.

    • That was a very pleasant surprise considering… <3

  • Youseph Tanha

    I have had the TMNT core rule book sitting on my shelf for years. I am a pretty avid D&D and Ghostbusters gamer. TMNT is on my short list. I hope to get around to playing it soon.

    • It’s been forever and a day since I gamed. When I did back in the 90s I was heavily into TMNT (obviously), Star Wars (we sucked at playing that too), Vampire, Werewolf, Cyberpunk, and I even made my own RPG towards the end based on the White Wolf system. I had no idea there was a Ghostbusters game, was that by West End?

      • Youseph Tanha

        Yup, it was by West End. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghostbusters_(role-playing_game)

        It’s been a hard game to come by in my experience. Versions of the game pop up on eBay every so often. Versions of the game that actually have to ‘Ghost Dice’ tend to be rather expensive. But it’s a fun game. There are a podcast or two out there where people play it regularly.

        • Yeah, I need to check out more gaming podcasts. I keep hearing about awesome ones that dissect board and RPG games. I remember one of my friends had the core Indiana Jones book by West End too. Hmmm, running off to eBay…

          • Oh I remember reading about the Ghostbuster RPG in Dragon magazine!!! That was another one I always thought it would be SOOO cool to play. Need to track down an old copy of that for sure!

          • Oh man, Dragon magazine. Been forever since I flipped through a copy of that…

  • Oh god all those dice… die? Whatever. Every time I do laundry, I end up with a ton of them at the bottom of the washing machine, haha! It’s due to my other half playing Magic the Gathering… I think I’ll pretend it’s from TMNT reasons from now on.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed this article– both for the personal stuff and for the TMNT RPG! (–Linz)

    • Linz, ha! I spent way too many years playing Magic too (though I’ve weaned myself off of that.) I can hear the laundry now. I wonder if your machine rolls natural 20s? :p Also, thanks!

  • Ben Rollier

    Never got into rpg’s but, LOVE the artwork on these. I recently grabbed the DC Heroes RPG for nothing (my neighbor was getting rid of it) and I’ve flipped through the booklet and cards about 100 times. So cool.

    • Yeah, I love RPG art. Seriously half of the fun of these books is for all of the Eastman & Laird art that was never in the comics. I also love White Wolf games for the art alone. Some of my favorite artists started at White Wolf like Ken Meyer Jr., Josh Timbrook, and Timothy Bradstreet. Don’t think I’ve ever flipped though the DC RPG, though I do have an Ambush Bug source book (he’s my favorite DC character.)

  • I started out with AD&D but mostly in that same whole “just sit around and create characters and imagine!” sort of way. That was with the middle-school set. I was very driven by the novels around that time, and especially loved poring over the Ravenloft and Planescape campaign expansion sets (that continued on even after I stopped playing AD&D) those things were almost as good as reading a fantasy novel in my mind.

    Early in highschool hooked up with a group into the Palladium stuff, and had some of the best play experiences ever. Never played TMNT but a few games of both Beyond the Supernatural and Heroes Unlimited. Including one campaign that was shamelessly modelled after the X-Men 2099 comic… and another that was pretty much just “The X-Men are transported back in time to the Witch Trials” Tried to get a Rifts campaign going one time but that was around the time that group of friends and I started drifting apart (which was too bad because I have NEVER gotten to play the Juicer character I rolled up and still have here somewhere…)

    Then junior/senior year got into Vampire the Masquerade, and kind of slid back into the old habits of just designing characters and talking about playing. I only ever remember actually playing one game, and it was to celebrate a friend of ours who was a senior my junior year. It was a sort of goodbye and congrats on graduating-type thing. That was a lot of fun. But again, the White Wolf campaign books are great reads and great imagination fodder, so I just sort of enjoyed collecting and reading more anyway.

    BLAHBLAHBLAH… anyway, just recently started buying up a bunch of old books secondhand online, and picked up the “Other Strangeness” core rulebook because I’ve always wanted it/never had it. LOVE it!!! Great post.

    • White Wolf was a big yet weird experience for my group of friends. We mainly ended up playing Werewolf because it was the most straight forward adventure style of their various games. I loved Vampire and had (have actually) a ton of books, but it was hard to get my friends into playing it because of the story and the whole “being vampires” and not hunters.

      I GM’ed one short game that didn’t go well and actually met up with a girl I met online back in the late 90s for a blind date at a live action Vampire campaign. Needless to say, that didn’t go well… :p

  • Paxton Holley

    I too have that McFarlane Spider-Man vs Hulk issue.


    It was part of the whole “cosmic Spidey” storyline that I still think was awesome. I bet I also have that Wolverine issue as well. I think I have the first 10 or 12 issues of that solo Wolverine title from the 90s.

    In college I met with a group that played the Marvel Super-Heroes RPG game. Like you, I was more interested in coming up with my character, giving him powers and then drawing and creating a costume and back story for him. By the time it came to actually playing the game, I was busy writing origin stories.

    • I loved the Cosmic Spider-Man storyline. He was also taking down Sentinels right? Man, it’s been too long. Yeah, even though I managed to reclaim my entire original Uncanny X-Men run from the friend I traded them to back in the day, unfortunately my Wolverine collection is long gone. I have picked up the phone book editions though, so I’ve been able to re-read the comics at least.

      I think I played that Marvel RPG once. That one had a box set with paper punch out figures right?

      • Paxton Holley

        Yeah, flimsy cardboard squares about 4×4 with pictures of the heroes and villains. As a matter of fact, I think I found one of them tucked into a book a few months ago.

  • The Sewer Den

    The TMNT RPG games were always such a mystery to me as a kid. I saw them advertised, but never owned one. I’m curious if the fun would translate to adulthood. I feel like I lost out!

    • I think if you’re the kind of adult who can withstand the concept of playing RPGs, then TMNTaOS is probably better as and adult. I say this mostly because as kids the rules weren’t clear enough to stop some pretty hefty arguments, but I think as an adult I could much circumvent that much easier… ;)