Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Diving Into The Inelegance

For those who come here for the D&D posts: apologies. Until the last couple days, I’ve had a bunch of Palladium rulebooks, several sets of dice, and piles of paper and pencils covering my kitchen counter (now everything's been moved to the coffee table in the living room). Even if I hadn’t originally planned on doing a deep dive exploration of Kevin Siembieda’s work...well, it’s kind of ended up happening.

It started off...hmm, let’s see...last Friday. After taking the kids to mini-golf in Edmonds, they decided we should go to our favorite game store (“since we’re in the neighborhood”), Around the Table Games. While poking around a bit, I was somewhat amazed to find no more than TWO Palladium books gracing the shelves (not two product lines...two single rule books): a used copy of Heroes Unlimited Revised and an equally used copy of Ninjas & Superspies. While I do own both of these and have in fact had HU sitting on my bedside table the last couple weeks, my son appeared to have been oblivious to this fact, asking if we could get one or both to play.

So we've been playing Heroes Unlimited.

*ahem* Kind of. Let's back up a few hours earlier in the day when I had a chance to futz around on my computer with everyone else still asleep in bed (kind of like this morning). Having just written a post about HU a couple days prior, I decided to actually go through the chargen as written in the ORIGINAL game, and create a handful of characters. One thing I've continuously had to learn and re-learn over the years: there are reasons a game is designed the way it is, and it's best to try it out before trying to "improve it."

And of course, with a laptop it's a lot easier to generate random characters than it was back in my youth. Armed with an Excel spreadsheet and the "randbetween" function, I was able to quickly generate four PCs using original HU's near-100% random system. And guess what? It worked pretty darn good! Each character came out with enough pieces that I could form an adequate picture of the character and their backstory with relative ease. I had the bullied Australian scholar from the poor background who'd ended up working for a private company and stealing their robotic exoskeleton; the silver-spoon Frankforter who'd joined the German military at a young age and built himself into a brick outhouse; the shy professor who wears hats to hide her small horns, and prefers to use her own academic prowess over her mutant psionic abilities; and the Canadian farm boy who volunteered for experimentation and was only (grudgingly) allowed to leave only after the installation realized they had no real way to hold a person with the ability to teleport.

That's some cool stuff right there.

Of course, it all falls down when it comes to the first non-random part of chargen: skill selection. I only took the time to go through the whole process for the Physical Training character...partly because skills are the WHOLE of his "power suite;" partly because, as a guy with an enlisted military background (rolled randomly) he had a lot fewer skills to bother worrying about than the guy with the Masters degree or the lady with a Doctorate. And even knowing that I was just going to take as many physical skills as possible, it took a loooong time. As such I didn't bother finishing up the other characters, let alone spend the time buying their equipment (Palladium, unlike most supers RPGs, doesn't have an "abstract" system for modeling the economy...instead you're counting individual dollars and buying every piece of equipment (even your costume, in the original rules!) from the budget that is your character's life savings).

Anyway, it wasn't just "inelegant;" it was ugly. So I set aside the HU figuring I'd come back to it in another six months/years...and then my kid encountered the books later that same day and wanted to play.

SO...we ended up going through the entire character generation process for him (by hand). After some discussion we decided to play HU (first edition) instead of N&SS. He also ended up with a German; a mutant with the power of shrinking (no change in mass). We did all the skill selection (I provided him with no hints or nudges except to explain that didn't need more than one hand-to-hand skill), just walking him through the process. He spent his fairly ample life savings buying guns and ammo out of the equipment section. It took probably close to two hours to complete the process of making "Dave Dangerfield" AKA "DD." And while that time probably could have been cut down quite a bit with system familiarity, keep in mind that a mutant is probably the simplest of the character types to create, and that we were using the un-Revised HU rules (only one superpower, everything random, choices limited).

[my original idea was to create a character at the same time, a fellow adventurer who would act as an NPC companion; however, I gave up the idea when I rolled Hardware character with a $500K budget to spend. Even without the super-vehicle design of later editions, that's just too much work for the quickie game I wanted to run]

It really emphasized Kevin Siembieda's philosophy with regard to the game's design: HU is supposed to be a "thinking man's game." It is not supposed to be all four-color action and superhero cliches (though what's more cliche than super-powered individual's saving conflicts with their fists?). The time spent in such an elaborate chargen system represents an INVESTMENT in the character; yes, it's also a part of play, too, but in spending so much time building, your identification process (with the character) starts early in the game.

I also think that Siembieda has made very interesting (and astute) choices with what parts are random and what parts are not. A person's education CAN be effected by a host of random elements: opportunities provided by accident of birth, changes in a family's fortune, a person's approach to academic life and standardized testing and how that balances with other aspects of the character's life (social, familial, economic). Codifying that into a random table to determine one's final opportunity at skill selection is appropriate...just as allowing the player to select skill packages based on that (random) opportunity is appropriate. There are things within your control and things outside your control. It really takes the "meta" out of character generation.

[yes, I realize long-time Palladium players will say there's still "meta" involved in selecting physical skills that will optimize a character for combat. Siembieda looks at it differently, writing (in 1E) that players should OF COURSE be optimizing themselves as part of their "training" for a career in hero work. That's not "meta;" it's putting yourself in the mind of your character, deciding whether you should be learning gymnastics or how to speak Russian or how to fly a helicopter]

Yes, I am really starting to become a Palladium system apologist (if I wasn't one already), at least with regard to the HU line of games. The problem is, that such an elaborate, granular system REALLY requires some simplification in order to run the game effectively. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, for all the "fiddly" it adds to player characters, still maintains a simpler way of codifying bugbears and goblins. A DM might care about every coin of encumbrance and the location of every belt pouch for a particular PC wizard or fighter, but NOT for individual monsters. And yet HU wants me to figure out skill packages and equipment lists for every NPC the heroes might encounter? Ugh! No way!

There are other good concepts in the game that fail in execution. Combat is still kind of a mess, as well as over-emphasized in this "thinking man's game." Some of what appears to have been "corrections" to (what was originally) a D&D chassis are over-thought, convoluted, or impractical in practice. Why bother splitting Charisma into "mental affinity" and "physical beauty?" Why bother having both "hit points" and "structural damage capacity?" And the firearms combat rules are just so...aaaaaRRRGH. I understand why they were revised (and why they were later re-revised), but going more abstract just doesn't jibe great with a combat system that was already over-specific, what with counting individual strikes and parries. The whole thing needs an over-haul.


Adventure setting.
The boy and I did get through the whole process of creating a character and had a chance to play an adventure; I used the "One Dam Thing" introductory adventure from Revised HU. While we didn't bother worrying how his German, rifle-toting mutant had ended up in Nevada, the nice thing about having the internet these days is that it's fairly easy to pull up specs for something like Hoover Dam (where the scenario takes place). I figured I'd saw the Revised NPCs down to 1E size (limiting Golden Eagle to just "gliding," for example).

But we never got that far. Danger Dave decided to set-up a hunting blind in one of the powerhouse outlets to the Colorado River a couple days before the projected sabotage was to take place. Failing a prowl roll and encountering a security guard, the PRINCIPLED character's first reaction was to blow him away with his .44 auto-mag, and did so with a natural 20 (critical) roll. After dumping the body in the river, he set up shop to ambush the other security guards (investigating the gunshots) with his H&K sniper rifle. Eventually this led to a bunch of State Troopers from both sides of the Arizona-Nevada border being called to the dam, where a melee ensued along the top of the structure. DD managed to dispatch maybe half a dozen troopers before being thrown off the top and plunging 762' to the concrete powerhouse below (while he succeeded at his "roll with fall" attempt, he still ended up taking 110 points of damage and splattering like a bag of blood and gristle).

A fitting end to our "hero."
Which just goes to show: Palladim games end up looking much the same whether you're eight, eighteen, or twenty-eight years old (at least, mine always have).

My boy immediately wanted to play again by the way, and has since created a new character: this time a Dedicated Martial Artist (ninja) using the Ninjas & Super-Spies set. More later, perhaps.


  1. One of my favorite campaigns that I ever ran (including D&D, Gamma World, etc.) was Heroes Unlimited! We had a blast and the players talked about it years afterwards.

  2. Fun books to pore over. I think I have TMNT and all the Robotech books, as well as RIFTS.

    I would never think to run a game in the system however.

  3. By the way, I’m visiting Snohomish and points south this week. Very pretty here.

    1. Snohomish most certainly is. Visited in April and it was like a fairy land.

    2. In April? Wish I'd known...

  4. I wrote a Palladium Patch years ago probably still floating on the web. Makes Palladium much more playable...

    1. Where might I find such a thing?