A blog about tabletop hobby and or strategy games, with a side order of electronic turn based goodness here and there. Now with tons of retro gaming content both electronic and tabletop. Also with 20% more self loathing douchebaggery!

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Palladium Game System: How I Would Redo it! Part 1: Palladium as it is.

There has been constant talk over the years about Palladium. I am gonna start (yet another) project (that I will probably never complete) dealing with them. I would like to preface this with the understanding that I LIKE Palladium and have enjoyed their products over the years. However, they do many things that are not only counterproductive, but have actually HURT them. This project series will talk about the company, its games, the fanbase (or anti fanbase as the case may be!) and what I would do if I was in their shoes. But I will get more into it as we go!

They are a once big RPG company who used to advertise in comics who have now mostly retreated to a small but dedicated fanbase, with their biggest known game being Rifts. Largely the company is under the creative control of one man, Kevin Siembieda.

On the upside almost everything they have released in the last 20 years or so is compatible with what they release now. I can pretty much take my old 80s era Teenage Mutant Ninjas & Other Strangeness book and use it without much effort with more recent releases of theirs such as Dead Reign or Robotech Shadow Chronicles. Also their stuff is really fairly priced given the current ridiculous prices the gaming market seems to think are standard, being a "cottage industry" and all.

The downside of this is their system is REALLY pretty dire, being an insanely house ruled version of AD&D that barely resembles it anymore. This is also seen in that today's Palladium games look almost exactly like their releases of 20 years ago. In many cases the same art is used and entire sections of their books are cut and pasted (with errors and all!) from game to game.

Their games are almost exclusively black and white softcovers using a 2 column layout that as mentioned, is pretty much the same layout (and typeface!) as they have used for 20 years or more.

The game system itself is a D20 and percentile system, the D20 used to determine most combat results, and the percentiles being used for skills. Characters are based off of a character class (known as an OCC or RCC, Occupational or Racial Character Class) with an alignment and a pile of basic attributes that rarely have any direct effect on active gameplay.

Many of the classes are totally out of imbalance with each other, and many of the abilities and skills players can choose can even make things worse. In the Palladium games almost every single character concept has its own unique class. It is incredibly unwieldy and in many cases pointless. Do we really need a dozen or so classes of powered armor or giant robot pilot? About the same for Spellcasters? Instead of players making their characters unique, its based off picking a class and not much else.

Combat has multiple options and actions some of which are close combat only, others are ranged, others spell or psionic. Hit points are divvied up into HP and SDC (Structural Damage Capacity), and armor has a rating to ablate the damage. However you then add in MDC (Mega Damage Capacity) which has no armor values, but 1 point of MDC is equivalent to 100 points of SDC, (And if an SDC attack cannot do 100 points in a single attack it cannot do anything to MDC armor. Meaning a modern tank can possibly be an irritant to a light set of MDC combat armor. Maybe.) giving us hand pistols capable of making the extremely powerful sidearms of Star Trek look wimpy and that make armor in MDC worlds a virtual requirement unless you want an extremely short PC life. And the armor does meet this requirement. There are player character suits that have HUNDREDS of MDC points and weapons that do around the same.

Weapon and armor inflation is pretty bad. Back in their first MDC game (Robotech), a 200+ ton giant robot had around 300 MDC. In Rifts, a player character powered armor suit that was roughly 9 feet tall had over 700, and a cannon capable of averaging 100 MDC damage a shot. Yeah. The current version of Robotech brings their MDC closer in line to Rifts. And the 700 MDC power armor still has more points than the 200+ ton giant robot.

Numbers simply get entirely too high in this game, and usually for little gameplay gain. Its like a console RPG in numbers inflation. Do games really need numbers in the 100s or 1000s for life points? It just adds in extra math to deal with, slowing things down.

Overall your average Palladium product is like this: The book opens warning about how none of this is real and the game deals with violence and the supernatural. Its kind of stupid. Nobody cares about RPGs any more. Patricia Pulling has passed away, and the THINK OF THE CHILDREN! types are too busy freaking out over videogames which tens if not hundreds of millions of people play instead of a hobby mostly centered around virginal nerds in a basement with maybe a million active players total.

The next section is usually the fluff. This is the BEST section of the book and the reason many people will buy the game even if they wouldn't use the Palladium rules if their lives depended on it. While rarely full of hard data, the fluff is evocative, interesting, and invests you in the setting, firing off lots of neurons for campaigns and adventures.

This is followed by the character class section. Its 1/3rd ideas on the class, then 2/3rds more powers and skills that either break the game balance (most seen in expansion books) or could just be a variant of another class. But I have already mentioned the folly of the Palladium class system so that still stands.

Its cousin is usually up next, the NEW STUFF FOR EVERYONE section. This is full of weapons and toys, which like the classes are usually imbalanced and just take up space. Its made extra bad given that almost every machine has multiple MDC locations for called shots few people even bother with most of the time. In a tightly designed game, a suit of robot power armor could have its pictures, game data, and fluff done on 1 or 2 pages. In Palladium its generally 3 or more, and full of numbers. The good part is there is lots of hard data so as to convert it over to a better game. The bad is that its Gear Porn for technofetishists and NRA type gun nuts. Sometimes there will be a few interesting non combat items, but generally not much. Compared to GURPS its positively simple, but Gear Porn is still Gear Porn.

If its a core book the cut and pasted rules go here. As mentioned above its kinda janky and wierd, and if you are lucky it will have a minor tweak or two to it which may or may not help it make sense.

The last section is usually a mixture of new monster and NPC types to kill, some harder setting information, some open plot threads you can work with, and possibly some GM advice.

This covers the games of Palladium. However there is another insidious side to the company. (Most of what is to follow is based on hearsay and rumor, albeit ones that have multiple sources.)

The main man himself, Kevin S.

One would think the lead owner and writer for the company would playtest and use his own game system as written, right? WRONG. He hardly even plays RPGs these days, though given his insistence on self editing, doing artwork, and writing entire rulesbooks in a month's time from scratch it is somewhat understandable.

This leads to serious problems not just with game balance and design, but with editing and freelance relations. Take a current release of theirs, Dead Reign. Its a zombie RPG that had a preview version in their house bookazine/freelancer test bed, "The Rifter". A couple freelancers wrote a proposal, got the aforementioned preview version in Rifter, and were then tasked with writing up a full RPG. They did this. Once the manuscript was received, Kevin, who self admitted to not even really being a zombie fan decided he did not like the manuscript. Instead of either sending it back for a rewrite, cancelling the project, or actually guiding the new freelancers towards what he might have been wanting during the writing process, he dropped whatever project he was working on, threw out a good 60-80% of what had already been written, and spent a good 6 weeks redoing the thing himself, making himself the lead writer and merely giving the freelancers secondary credit.

No time for playtest, no real outside viewpoints, just a mass rewrite, and a public posting basically calling the original manuscript junk in so many words.

This is NOT a way to make a product.

This sort of behavior is something Mr. Siembieda is infamous for doing, and leads to their constantly missed product release deadlines, numerous typos and other editing mistakes, and lead to two well known and respected writers (CJ Carella and Bill Coffin) leaving the company and refusing to do anything else for them.

Except his quibbles go beyond just that. Palladium's web policies are the most paranoid about IP rights ones ever seen to the point that they will throw cease and desist orders around if you even DARE post say "A Star Wars light saber in Palladium system will do 1d6x10+Character level in MDC" to a public forum, or to a blog. I in fact, would not be too surprised if I get one for posting my example. Almost everything that can have a trademark sort of symbol in a Palladium product has so, and numerous sites have been shut down, or just stopped playing Palladium games entirely because of this overly paranoid IP mindset. They have even sued game companies for putting conversion charts in their books, as if it will cause them to lose all rights to their creations if they don't.

One reason they never got on the D20 bandwagon was an insistence Wizards of the Coast would then own everything they did. Well, clearly history has proven that one to be completely and totally WRONG.

All its accomplished is bad blood and cost Palladium most of its fanbase.

Yet the fanbase that remains tends to be ONLY Palladium system players with the kind of THERE ARE OTHER GAMES? NEVER! mindset Games Workshop can't even get. They are loyal to the point of rampaging over to RPGnet any time the inevitable threads bashing Palladium come up and even bailed the company out of going out of business when various financial things happened. (Which may or may not have actually been because an employee stole from the company.)

Outside of Palladium's own forums their games and system are largely looked at as crap. This even in spite of the largely negative stuff I have written above isn't really fair. Yet no criticism is allowed, and people who say negative things about the games and the company are called "haters" in official postings if not press releases.

This is a damned shame. Palladium has some wonderful game settings and ideas. What it needs is for Kevin Siembieda to give up his overwhelming control over everything and get some marketing and editing people to tell him NO, reign him in, and learn that all the bad PR over the years plus the abuse of talent and non fanboy customers has pretty much killed the company outside of a small insular fanbase.

Because like every product that just aims to please a small fanbase and doesn't try to get new blood, its doomed in the long run as the audience eventually leaves for other interests or decides they have all they need.

Things like their yearly holiday grab bag sale are great. The problem is they have done so much wrong few people are even willing to buy the stuff in the first place.

Its telling when you look for Palladium products in stores. Borders doesn't carry anything of theirs, nor do the 4 big comic shops in the area. (One store has 3-4 books with clearance stickers in them, and had a couple clearance Rifter issues before I bought them.) Not even the new manga sized Robotech RPG which you think would be a shoe in at the various manga shelves. Nope. And the one dedicated gaming store that does carry Palladium stuff is more getting it to service the few people buying it. Which isn't many given some of the books were 20 year old OOP releases, and Rifter issues you cannot even get from Palladium's own webstore anymore. Clearly its not exactly flying off the shelves, and its one store servicing an entire region!

Also telling was their book availability at Connecticon. The only books I saw were in half off or clearance bins. Also most of the books on Ebay were at massively discounted prices even in Buy it Now categories. I checked Amazon.com, and most of the Amazon sellers (known for jacking the price up of anything with even a HINT of being rare, out of print, or desired) have the books new and used for 50-80% off cover price. Talking with other gamers has brought up anecdotal evidence of most Palladium stuff selling for a buck a book at used bookstores as well.

That is NOT evidence of a healthy gameline to me. Not at all folks.

I am sure if any Palladium forums poster sees this I will just be considered another hater and my thoughts dismissed. But I love the writing and art and concepts in the Palladium RPG books. However the game system and treatment of fans, talent, and critics is just too extreme and I fear will lead to the premature end of what could be a great company.

And given how badly RPGs are doing in general, any mistake a company makes can be the beginning of the end.

And I care enough that I do not want to see it happen.

In part 2 I will begin my Palladium inspired game system overview as an idea of how I would revamp the system from the top. Look forward to it!

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