Christmas Ninjas is a humour RPG by Mendel Schmiedekamp. You can find it here – link. There are somethings that you can not have too much of – dice, British chocolate, love, freedom. For other things, there is clearly an upper limit – clowns, atmosphere, youtube comments, American chocolate. In the case of Christmas Ninjas the thing it has too much of is ideas. The game started out as a convention challenge for the author to use seventeen keywords and concept ideas in an RPG. The result is a cluttered game that has an incoherent tone.
Humour is a subjective thing. For me, for a humour game to work well the concept must be simple and clear. It should be amusing in of itself but more importantly give the players and characters space in which to make their own jokes. Christmas Ninjas has a weak core concept – ninjas that are dedicated to saving Christmas. You don’t get any more information than that about the type of Christmas you’re trying to save. Instead, there’s a long list of silly ideas in lieu of content – ninja penguins, secular elves, evil Santa, hair metal and halibut to name a few. Silly doesn’t always lead to funny, particularly when quantity triumphs over quality.
Christmas ninjas are defined by their race and the jitsus they know. Race selection is limited to Human, Panda and Penguin with the differences limited to the number of jitsus known and dice balanced. The jitsus function as expertise in a very limited set of skills, each given a silly name as befits the tone. These are balanced well and arranged so that the christmas ninjas are good at being christmas ninjas, but potentially amusingly useless at everything else.
A couple of the game ideas were particularly annoying for me. Firstly there’s a list of allowed foods that, if eaten, give a christmas ninja bonuses. For no explicable reason, these are called Gay Fuel. I suspect the author needed to use this term from their list of keywords. It would help perhaps if the foods were at least connected to the title. A good subversion would have been to poke fun at the expectation of homosexuality jokes by going with happy / joyful / cheerful meaning of the word and having foods dedicated to seasonal cheer. The author could have even gone with (potentially offensive) stereotypes and had foods associated with gay culture. Neither occurs as the foods instead just being taken of the keyword list. The heading is perhaps the clearest example of the game’s conceptual clutter.
The second most irritating concept is that the christmas ninjas are also fighting cancer. This isn’t even on the list of keywords and is jarringly incongruous. Some attempt is made to rescue the idea as rather than don lab coats and painstakingly research the disease, the christmas ninjas are instead involved in long term conflict with people born in the cancer star sign. Perhaps the author felt that the game needed some additionally mission / plot possibilities. I would have preferred more details on the primary mission of saving christmas.
Humour and jokes rely on timing and flow. So you’d expect a dice mechanic that was simple and well explained. What Christmas Ninjas has instead is a system that took me at least a dozen reads to parse fully. An achievement for only a quarter page of text.
The game uses three-sided dice, or any multiple thereof, to produce results of low, medium or high. The GM rolls their pool first which forms the target or shopping list for the player. After the player rolls, they check their dice against the GMs. Every die that is the same as at least one of the GM’s die is a match, but these matches are categorised to low, medium and high. The result with the lowest number of matches is final number of successes. For example, the GM rolls low medium. The player then rolls low low medium. This is two low matches and one medium match. As the number of medium matches is lower, the result of this roll is one success.
What is not stated is that if the player fails to match any of the GM’s dice then the result of the roll is zero. In the example above if the GM had rolled medium high the player would have had one medium match and zero high matches. Zero being lower than one makes this result a failure. This highly important information is not explicitly stated. The game includes a table of example results but doesn’t have any explanation to support them, leaving the reader to guess what’s going on.
The zero result also has a negative effect on what would otherwise be a powerful mechanic. After a roll a ninja can balance (store) any of the dice that don’t match the GM’s roll. The balanced dice can be used to increase the number of matches in later rolls. A ninja can normally balance up to four dice this way and it doesn’t affect the dice they have available to roll. With the zero result mechanic, you’ll always want to have one of each result balanced so you can avoid getting a zero result. If the game didn’t have the zero result, then balancing several dice of the same result to get mega successes would be an useful alternative option.
A mechanic I did like is the hair mechanic. The purest ninjas are clean shaven. Actions that are deemed dishonourable cause the ninja to grow hair. Should a ninja’s hair become too long then they’ll be exiled from the Christmas Ninja clan and may end up joining a hair metal band of banished ninjas. Using hair as a representation of taint and honour is clever and humorous idea that also helps with story telling. Being immediately able to tell a ninja’s honour by their hair length give the GM a strong visual indicator for NPC characterisation.
The layout and design of the game is simply black text on a white background divided into two columns. It works but isn’t interesting to look at. Artwork is limited to four crude MS Paint style drawings in each corner. The yellow and grey found here is the only colour variation in the document.
The character sheet has benefitted from more attention and design. A large and clearly identified space has been left for the player to place any dice they’re balancing and tick boxes are provided for wounds and hair length. All the Jitsus, Merry Weapons and Gay Fuel are listed in distinct columns. Each entry also has a short efficient description. Sufficient information is on the character sheet that a player won’t need to refer to the rest of the rules during play.
Christmas Ninjas is a game that is in serious need of a trim. As a humour game it failed to amuse me, coming across instead as cluttered with too many silly ideas. Perhaps if quality of concepts replaced quantity of concepts it could find a place as a seasonal one off. As it is, this is not a game to recommend.