Building The Modern World For Your Campaigns

This is going to be one of those "let's talk about the game I'm going to run" pieces where I look at a game and work through my processes of getting from here to a ready to run game. Our group is a fan of the Palladium system, having run through a rollicking game of the Rifts role-playing game previously. This time we are going to be playing their Ninjas & Superspies game.

Ninjas & Superspies was my entry point into the various Palladium games, back in college. I saw that Kevin Fales cover in my then semi-local gaming store and I had to have the game. I mean, just look at it! Some ninja is kicking a cyber-gimmicked superspy right into your lap. How can you not like that? It hit me with the impact of Jim Lee's first WildC.A.T.s comic. I came of age with the Cold War paranoia of the 70s and 80s bubbling beneath the surface, so this sort of game buttered my bread.

The fact that Palladium almost never updates their games is both their greatest strength, and sometimes their greatest weakness. The weaknesses probably aren't what people who aren't fans of Palladium and their system would think. My copy of Ninjas & Superspies is dated 1990, and I probably picked it up around '90 or '92 (my college years are a little vague, so carbon dating when things were done can be…imprecise to say the best). This is the "revised" edition of the game, which attempted to "streamline" character creation by introducing skill packages that likely trimmed an entire minute or two off of the process of creating a character.

No, the main weakness of using the game now is the fact that it hasn't aged well on the "setting" side of things, which, in Ninjas & Superspies, is mostly the equipment listings. The changes in technology from when this game was written in the late 1980s to now are pretty dramatic, as we all know, and can dramatically impact a game that was considered to be high tech at the time. In this way, the game faces some of the same problems as the classic Cyberpunk 2020 game does, in that technology just did not go in the direction that people, or game designers, thought that it would go in back in the late 80s. No one saw that cell phones would go from the boxy monstrosities that we had back then, to the sleek, portable tools we have now, with access to virtually every bit of information available.

This, of course, doesn't include things like computers with greater processing power at a smaller size, or the dramatic changes to hacking between now and then. A lot of this can just be hand waved away by the group. It is pretty easy to find up to date equipment and prices online these days. It is even pretty easy to figure out some basic spy equipment through the internet. As to the cybernetics themselves in the game, I don't see as much of a problem with those. They were sufficiently science fiction-y in the 80s and 90s, and that aspect of them hasn't really changed enough to warrant their needing changes or updates. The fixes are ones that are easy enough to do on our own, but it would be nice to see a new edition of Ninjas & Superspies that advances things to be modern enough that this work doesn't have to be done. It really should be enough to just pick up and go with a game because not everyone is going to want to do the work themselves. Time is shorter when we're adults than it was when we were playing these games as kids, and it is always better to have the games meet us half way.

The other reason why I don't worry as much about having to update the cybernetics for our game, is because I know that it won't be a main engagement for the players. One of the most important parts of being a game master, in my view, is knowing the likes and dislikes of the other people in the group. When I pitched wanting to run Ninjas & Superspies to the group, I pitched it as being like the Agents of SHIELD television show, because I know that there are a couple of fans of the show in the group and it would make an easy touchstone for the type of campaign that I want to run with the rules. Our game won't be set in the MCU, or feature SHIELD, but it lets the players know that they will play a group of talented espionage agents against the backdrop of a larger world of weirdness where there is the potential for the supernatural and various super-powered beings.

Now, Ninjas & Superspies is probably one of the only Palladium games that doesn't directly feature spellcasting or spellcasters. If you want to "fix" that, it is easy enough to do. There are magical options in Heroes Unlimited that could be brought over to your espionage game without the need for conversion. Heroes Unlimited and Ninjas & Superspies are compatible with each other. If you're looking for a game more in the style of Marvel's Secret Warriors comic than the Agents of SHIELD show, you will get the pieces that you want by mixing and matching the two games. Heroes Unlimited's mutants can stand in for Inhumans, and the magic rules could kitbash together a character like Sebastian Druid.

For our game, I want to keep the super powers and magic to a minimum, so I don't plan on combining the two games. Much to the chagrin of one of the players. Ninjas and Superspies does have its own weird power option in Martial Arts Powers. These powers are the sorts of things that you would expect from mythic/cinematic martial arts stories. They can simulate some of the powers that you could see in a story like with the inhabitants of K'un L'un in the Iron Fist series, or some of the capabilities of The Hand that was hinted at in the Daredevil show. If you don't want this sort of mysticism in your game it is easy enough to just stick to the non-mystical aspects of things. The modular nature of the Palladium system makes it as easy to break things down and remove them as it does to combine them from other games.

Now, while you're reading this column I am going to be in Las Vegas, celebrating my birthday (I had to get ahead of publication and write this in advance). I am also going to be doing a phase of campaign prep while I'm there. My plan is to set the campaign in Las Vegas. It makes for a good location for a game because most people have seen something of Las Vegas in movies like Ocean's Eleven or television shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation to know what a casino floor looks like, even if they haven't visited it themselves. This also makes it easier to fudge details of the physicality of a place when the needs of the fiction outweigh the needs of the reality. I am going to take plenty of pictures that can be used to demonstrate locations to the players if description fails. There are a lot of places that casinos don't allow pictures, but there are plenty of places that do, and the added verisimilitude will help make the setting more vivid in the minds of the players.
When you aren't playing from existing source material, that sometimes means that you have to make up your own from scratch. Yes, this can be done just as easily over the internet, but I get to kill two birds with one vacation. Likely I will be using internet research materials anyway, this just means that I'll have more material to fill in the world.

Pictures of places are very important to this. Think of it in terms of creating a set or backdrop for your game. Pictures give players ideas like how tall something is. It allows you to answer the inevitable questions like "Can my character jump off of that?" or "Are there avocadoes at that brunch buffet?" Field guides for tourists can also be useful in recreating a real world location. I suggest checking out the offerings from Lonely Planet. Not only are the books less expensive than a lot of other tour guides, but Lonely Planet also has a website with a lot of useful information, and they aren't as touristy as a lot of other guidebooks. Having a set of these is a good tool for GMs who regularly run modern era games based upon the "real world." Because these types of guides get updated a lot more frequently than your average role-playing game, they can be an indispensible tool for gaming. They will never completely replace firsthand knowledge, but if you stick to places that the rest of the group isn't knowledgeable about either they can be the next best thing.

There are a number of things that must be brought together for the creation of a new campaign besides just the rules of the game that you are going to use. In fact, a lot of them aren't even found within the pages of a game. This is also why I like games with collaborative setting creation tools like Microscope or most Fate games. Spreading the campaign creation work across the gaming group, rather than concentrating them all onto one person means not only less work but less frustration. This method isn't for everyone, I get that, but when work and the other parts of adult life give you a lot less time for campaign building you do what you do.

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The large list of martial art styles is one of the most comprehensive in an RPG. Another awesome game from the great, late Erick Wujcik. Also love TMNT & Other Strangeness, particularly the mutant animal character creation system.

J.L. Duncan

First Post
Love this game. We played this and mixed in TMNT.

We also had love for the Street Fighter RPG, after playing N&S it just didn't compare.


5ever, or until 2024
Definitely one of the coolest things to be highlighted on the ENWorld front page.

Also, there are several places online where you can still buy it.


I absolutely love this cover!!! It's iconic for the era and in general. Just an action filled picture, great symmetry, and the guys fighting in the background...awesome.


Definitely one of the coolest things to be highlighted on the ENWorld front page.

Also, there are several places online where you can still buy it.

Agreed! (re: the front page)

And it's still in print and available via palladium's site, and easily found in secondary markets.

Von Ether

I have to chime in on the TMNT side of things, that was my party's jam for years in high school. Once we went back to other game systems, everyone demanded that there be a Parry roll in every combat system. "How hard could that be Mr. GM?"

Welcome to my early days of being a game designer.


Amen, sir, amen. There is still something about Palladium that fires my imagination with all the baggage theri system has.

That's it right there. So many good ideas across so many different lines.

We're starting our RIFTS campaign tonight even, and I couldn't be happier about it. :)

William Mize

I am very bummed that I am not a member of your group playing this. It would be AWESOME, and I would even learn a new system for it.
And you know how I hate learning new systems.

- Bill


When it comes to getting a sense of the geography of a setting, I love Google Earth. Not only can you skim through the location at sightseeing-helicopter level to see the general layout and the wider area, you can also pop seamlessly down into Streetview to take a virtual driving tour, and check out local links and photos for more detailed information.

It's all very much the tourist experience, but it's a great way to get the lay of the land.

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