Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Old School, New School, or "Alternative School for Special Students"

Yeah, it's time to talk about Palladium games. I mean, I just picked up Rifts (again) and if I'm going to talk about it (or Heroes Unlimited, my other Palladium game of choice) let's get a base of understanding here...a foundation, if you will. A soap box from which to shout.

Palladium games may not be the Gold Standard of incoherent game design (I'd have to give that award to 2nd edition AD&D or White Wolf's various World of Darkness games), but it's pretty close. Now, Palladium has been around since 1981, but my own experience didn't start till 1985 or so with the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the 1987 Revised Heroes Unlimited. Seeing as how the rules for HU are pretty much the same that continue to this day (with the addition of robotic hand-to-hand combat which was introduced with the Robotech RPG circa 1986), I'm going to speak about Palladium's multi-verse games the way I know them...i.e. from 1986 till today. Most people who play Palladium will tell you the system really hasn't changed much at all (the last major system change I saw was modern firearms between the original TMNT and revised edition, i.e. getting rid of W.P. proficiency tables and increasing the chance to hit with a gun to 8). Everything else has been minor tweaks here and there.

I explain this as way of introduction because as I've said before I can see a line in the sands of time (circa Clive Burton's untimely death), where published games when into a crap free-fall. Palladium's games (which have used the same system developed between at least 1985-1987) straddles this line between Old School and what I consider New School.

Oooo...but that's an ugly statement. It might not even be accurate (regarding my own feelings) so don't start throwing fruit just yet. Again, this post is about Palladium and what exactly it is.

And what it is, to me, is a hybrid game...a game that actually does straddle the line (and not very elegantly) in some ways trying to morph into something new while being firmly stuck in the past. O so this day!

Of course, I say this not having read the latest "ultimate edition" of Rifts, but I DO own the 2nd edition of Heroes Unlimited (printed 2006) so I'm guessing there aren't many surprises in the latest system book.

The multiverse system does several things VERY Old School, and its roots in Old School (i.e. TSR style) gaming is readily apparent. Ability scores are determined randomly and in some cases class selection is based on those random scores...meaning choosing your TYPE of character is at least as random as AD&D. In Heroes Unlimited, "power type" (HU's version of "class") can be determined randomly as well.

And the classes in all their games are pretty specific with regard to capabilities...there is very little "customization" possible. The only thing that will differ between, say, two Vigilante Hunters will be their (random) ability scores, their choice of equipment, and possibly skill choice (though the last is debatable; I know I tend to choose the exact same skills for all my Palladium characters!).

There is no unified game system in Palladium; systems for combat are completely different from the system for skill use for example, and magic (and psionics) are different from all of the preceding. Random chance is heavily involved throughout...there is no use of karma or metagame "points" to effect the narration of "what happens" in game. Everything is system dependent.

Personality mechanics are as bare as anything in D&D: pick an alignment; that's about it. There's nothing in the rules that enforce behavior, though many "evil" classes are only available as NPC villains. The implication is that players are "forced" to be "heroic."

That last is where the Palladium system begins to skew off the Old School rails. Regardless of the character generation, regardless of the individual systems, regardless of the strictly defined classes...Palladium definitely brings "New School" sensibilities to the game design. I do not mean this to be complimentary.

This is mainly observable in the experience/level system. Palladium stands firmly with other Old School brethren with the need to rise in experience "level" through the acquisition of "points." However, unlike other Old School games, the method of gaining these points are fairly arbitrary, awarded by the GM based on "heroic behavior," and thus subjecting the players to the whims of how well they meet a GM's story requirements.

Sure there are admonishments of fairness, and general guidelines...but it's still up to the individual GM to decide if an opponent was a "great" or "minor" menace or what constitutes "deductive reasoning." And for many categories of experience point gain, there is a point spread so even within a particular definition points may vary.

That's shitty from my perspective...both as a player and as a GM. It implies a particular social contract that may or may not exist and assumes that play groups will operate in more or less the same fashion as K. Siembieda and company. That's a pretty bold assumption.

Though I guess I'm pretty bold for thinking anyone gives a rip what I think.
; )

I know there are people that like Palladium, that have played it for years, and that have simply worked its quirkiness into their game play. My friends in high school all swore by Palladium and played the hell out of it, especially Heroes Unlimited and Robotech. I liked Rifts, but I could never get a campaign off the ground...just a bunch of one-off fight nights. And while I could blame that on my imaturity as a GM in my teen years, I can also say that I was mislead by a game that worked at cross purposes between its system set-up and its implied objective ("heroic role-playing").

More on this later.


  1. Ah, Palladium, how 'special' art thou? Let me count the ways...

    * I once ran a game of Robotech when I was the only person at the table who had not seen Robotech.

    * I once ran a game of Heroes Unlimited where more innocent bystanders died from hero-induced car crashes than villain activities.

    * That would be the same game of Heroes Unlimited where the superheroes refused to investigate crimes if police were already on the case.

    * Or use their superpowers if the SAS/tactical-response/paramilitary units were on the scene.

    * Never mind trying to explain the difference between the TMNT cartoon series and the comic books the RPG was based on. Never mind.

    * Let's not even get started on the glossary in the back of Mutants Down Under.

    * Or Kevin Siembieda's legal stance on fan adaptations/conversions being severely out of step with the wide gaming community.

    * Or his call for fantasy monsters to be discarded in favour of biologically/ecologically 'realistic' creatures (word to the wise: avoid Monsters & Animals).

    * WORST SKILL SYSTEM EVER (I think you already covered this, but it bears repeating).

    ...And yet, I have in recent months amassed a small collection of Palladium stuff, dirt cheap on EBay, having sold off my Palladium collection years ago.

    There's something about Palladium's RPGs... but they're also lacking somnething, y'know?

    (I'm not going to discuss my ideas for house-ruling the skill system, or using TMNT's After The Bomb setting with Mutant Future, as I don't want you to be slapped with a lawsuit)

  2. I appreciate your concern for my legal safety. I'll tell you the truth...I'm excellent at organizing/editing thoughts and prose (even if my own blog doesn't reflect this!), and I woould love to actually work with K.S. on editing and revising his game system. There are so many wonderful ideas in it. And I'd work cheap, too!

    But you know what? I'm sure I'm not the first person who's had that thought cross my mind. I imagine Mr. Siembieda as virtual force of nature, publishing his work mainly through sheer willpower. And I'm guessing he has all the control-freakiness that goes with the territory. My guess is that Palladium will continue to reflect his particular vision till his dying day...the rest of us will simply have to tweak the game as best suits our own needs (though off-line of course).
    ; )