Friday, November 30, 2018

Aw, Jeez...

[sorry...contracted a bit of a cough and my wife made me sleep today; this should have been up in the morning]

So, as I spent some time going through the Palladium hand-to-hand combat tables the other day in anticipation of re-working them to function a little better. Unfortunately, I found that...despite Palladium's well-established reputation for cut-n-paste rules text...there was no universality to the tables. Yes, each system I checked (and I compared all three editions of Heroes Unlimited, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1st ed.), and Ninjas & Superspies) included the standard four HTH systems (basic, expert, martial arts, and assassin), but each edition tweaks the individual entries on the table.

What a cluster.

I don't say that simply due to irritation with my inability to come up with a stable operating baseline for streamlining the system. I say that because it's a goddamn cluster for anyone who plays in the Palladium multiverse and who has bridged the gap between editions and systems, which (I suspect) is one of the main draws to keeping fans of this rot. I mean, what the actual f***?!  Consider:

  • Characters created/advanced in one system will have their combat stats (kind of a big deal in these games) out-of-whack for any other system (or edition!) they're 'ported into.
  • NPC write-ups in various games and supplements...who knows which system/edition is being used to generate their stat blocks and whether or not they're even correct for the specific system/edition they're supposed to represent.
  • When actually sitting down to play a session, folks are going to need to decide which particular system/edition is the actual one that's going to stand as the house rules of the game...never mind "taking the show on the road" (bringing characters in from other campaigns, allowing characters to migrate, convention play, etc.).

'Oh, JB! You're just pissing and moaning again! Who cares whether a roll with punch bonus if off by +1 or +2? Who cares if one character's write-up gives her a critical strike on a 17+ and this other character needs to roll a 19+ despite having the same level and HTH style? Who cares if there's an extra melee attack gained or lost or if a character's kick attack does 1D6 or 1D8 damage? Isn't all your bitching and moaning just nit-picking?'

Hey, pal, how about I just write some fucking random numbers down for my own character's (or my NPC's) stat block without even looking at the rulebook? What? You object? I mean, it's just all arbitrary, subjective yada-yadda, right? Let's not nit-pick rules...just throw 'em out the window, yeah? I mean, it's all just about having fun, after all, so why stress about getting stuff right?


Folks, rules matter. They're not the end-all-be-all of RPGs, but they still matter. There are games that have too few, there are games that have too many, and there are individuals who have subjective tastes on where exactly the poles are for those two extremes. Regardless, though, rules still matter. It's why we are playing a game rather than just sitting around telling stories or "playing pretend" without the benefit of textual instructions.

Anyway...fact of the matter is I never actually noticed this about the Palladium systems. I (like many others I'm sure) simply assumed all the HTH tables were simple cut-n-paste jobs, just like the experience section or the alignment section or the SDC/HP section or all the other stuff that IS simply copied from one rulebook to another. They're not...which unfortunately makes my idea a little tough to execute.

Or perhaps it makes it easier...since now I know I just need to scrap the whole HTH concept and come up with something different so as to make the game work in a nice, logical, streamlined fashion.

All right...cough medicine is starting to kick in. Will post something other than Palladium thoughts tomorrow (if I have a chance).

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Streamlining Palladium Combat

There are three levels of "informed opinion" when it comes to Palladium's combat system (and here I'm writing about the multiversal system found in such games as Rifts, 2nd Edition Heroes Unlimited,  Nightbane, etc.):

- Folks who've been played through the evolution of the game (a bit more than three decades worth)
- Folks who've come "late to the game" (circa 1990 or later)
- Folks who haven't played but know the system solely by reputation or cursory reading

[I suppose the latter category might include folks who listen to podcasts and such, though I've found few of those on the 'net, and many of those are already...mmm...100% "by the book"]

Here's the thing to understand: Palladium combat has never been all that different from old edition D&D with A) added complexity, and B) active defense. Wrap your head around those two things and its not that hard to get a handle on it...nor deconstruct the system. Complexity isn't all that big a deal...crunch (what some might call clunkiness) is largely a matter of taste. Furthermore, the evolution of the game....development of, say, robot piloting and missiles (Robotech), supernatural strength and knock-backs (Rifts), MDC (Robotech/Rifts), vehicle combat (HU Revised), etc....has necessitated the addition of complexity over the years the system has been around.

So let's talk about "active defense."

The basic sequence of Palladium combat works like this: attacker rolls to strike against a target number of 5 or better (8 in ranged combat, post-Rifts), using a D20. Defender than chooses a defensive action, most often a parry or dodge, and rolls a D20. If the defensive roll equals or exceeds the roll to strike, the defender avoids damage.

[the additional wrinkle of rolling with damage...basically a saving throw to resist non-lethal-types of damage (punches) for half damage...helps draw out and emulate slugfests of the superhero or martial arts genre, or (in the case of rolling with "missile strikes") the giant robot anime genre]

One melee round =
45 minutes actual play
D&D uses a passive defense for resolving attack actions in melee: the D20 roll is compared to a target number determined by a defender's "armor class." While this has the advantage of being simple and streamlined, plenty of folks have argued for a system that takes into account a defender's "combat ability" with regard to defense, hence the creation of systems like Palladium or BRP (which, while %-based, still has the strike roll followed by defense roll). D20 actually provided a system of accounting for "combat ability" that did not involve armor (or rather, de-emphasized armor) with their Saga edition of Star Wars RPG, where character level created the "defensive class" target number for attacks, and something similar can be done with Palladium.

I look to the old White Wolf World of Darkness RPGs for an idea of how to handle this. In some of WW's games (I'm thinking the original VtM and WtA, but I'm too lazy to pull the books at the moment), the system provided the option of using an "active" or "passive" version of defense. In the case of Palladium (with its D20 base), you simply provide a defensive class ("DC") of 10 + bonuses. Bonuses can come from ability scores (physical prowess), certain classes (maybe), and choice of HTH skill (the real determination of combat differential between characters, rather than class ("OCC") as it is in D&D). In a game like Heroes Unlimited, certain superpowers (super speed, extraordinary prowess, heightened senses, etc.) might factor as well.

There's really no need to have separate parry and dodge skills...the only practical difference between the two defenses is that A) parry cannot be used against bullets and energy attacks, and B) dodge uses up one of a character's melee attacks (see below) to execute. Since the bonuses for both tend to be about the same (pre-1987 this wasn't the case as the Speed attribute could add a hefty bonus to dodge in 1st edition TMNT and HU), folks almost always opt to parry unless they can't (because of the type of attack).

Now about those melee attacks: one of the defining complexities of Palladium's system is that nearly all characters receive a number of multiple actions per combat turn as determined by their level, HTH type, and character class (and don't forget the +1 if you're smart enough to take the boxing skill!). Depending on the specific game, it's not unusual for a 1st level character to have three or four actions (called "melee attacks") per round. Just like 3E (and later) D&D, Palladium uses individual initiative (uses a D20, too!) but a strict rotation to utilize those actions (so you don't get your second action till everyone's had a turn, in other words). Actions may be used up in defensive maneuvers prior to their number in the turn order (for example, when executing a dodge), but one is only allowed to execute an attack when their number comes up (unless executing a "simultaneous attack" maneuver). Initiative order does not change from round to round.

[while that may seem cut-n-dry, there are some sticky places. For example, first edition HU has a bit more info on melee attacks, describing them as actions taken in one 15 second round, everything from lacing one's shoes to disarming an explosive device; from page 124:

"Example: the hero unhooks his grappling hook from his belt (one action), throws it across the neighboring roof top (second action), tests the line to see if it's secure (3rd action), and then leaps off his building swinging down to the other (4th action) in an attempt to smash through a window in that building. To determine if he successfully hits and smashes through the window the player must roll twenty sided die to strike his target."

(I laugh a bit knowing that the most fragile glass window in the book is 20 SDC and the player is likely to go "splat" against it, rather than breaking it...but I digress)

How this would actually take place (assuming the character is executing such a complex maneuver in the midst of combat...the only reason to be concerned with actions/melee) is a little wonky. Does the player have to forgo defense to conserve actions while attempting this course? I'd assume so. Would successful (damaging) attacks distract the character to the point that he can't 'test the line,' (or makes an inaccurate assessment) or whatever? Probably. Probably it all comes down to a lot of GM rulings, but that's what you get with such a system]

I think I'm on record (multiple times) with my disdain for systems like this that attempt to model specific "blow-by-blow" actions in a role-playing game. Give me an abstract system that allows me add "narrative color" (making an exciting combat) based on success of attack rolls and amount of damage rolls. So what exactly is it that we stand to lose if we forgo the melee actions? Better yet, how can we try to model the same things while losing this (IMO) silly attempt to objectively quantify time and action in the subjective chaos of a combat encounter?

Well, if we eliminate the idea of "attacks per melee" completely (might as well if we've eliminated active defense from the equation and combined both parrying and dodging into a single "passive" target number), we can still give our player's some options with regard to combat maneuvers during their opponent's turn (which is really what most of those actions are being used for). For example, in addition to their one attack action per turn, each player is allowed to:

- perform an entangle move on a melee attacker
- execute a simultaneous attack while allowing the attacker to automatically hit
- take no action because the character was dodging (i.e. using her passive defense against bullets or ranged energy attacks)

But what about the character with the multiple attacks and the auto-parry who is engaged in hand-to-hand fighting who would normally make three or four strike attacks? I hear your concern, but this is a matter of balancing bonuses attack and damage rolls based on level and ability. Having the ability to make multiple attacks means having multiple opportunities to inflict damage, i.e. an IMPROVED chance to inflict MORE damage. This is a matter of re-writing the hand-to-hand tables to reflect bonuses to both (to hit and damage) at levels where extra melee attack actions would normally be gained. If I have a chance, I'll try to mock up a couple of examples for folks (in a later post).

Things like modern (firearm) combat (aimed, short burst, long burst, etc.) can likewise be streamlined to simple attack/damage adjustments based on ammo expenditure. Similarly with rocket/missile attacks.

What about robot pilot combat (and the extra attacks afforded the martial artist robot pilot), i.e. the Max Sterling Emulator gambit? Look, there's a lot of problems with using the Palladium system (or other "old school" type RPGs) to attempt to model manga-style anime. Trying to accomplish that and then reverse-grafting said model onto other Palladium systems that utilize dudes wearing mech-suits in combat (see Heroes Unlimited 2E and Rifts) is doubling-down on the clunk. Personally, I'd treat a heroic dude (or dudette) in a robot chassis as no different from any non-pilot hero, simply providing augmented stats based on the power suit being sported. I mean, this whole post is about streamlining, right?

All right, that's enough for now. Might need a follow-up post or two on the subject.

Friday, November 23, 2018

First Edition (Heroes Unlimited)

Happy Thanksgiving! Yes, I'm still alive (cue the usual apologies and excuses for dropping off the face of blog-o-sphere). In fact, I just had my 45th birthday which old, man. Too old to be working on re-imagining myself but, well, that's what I'm doing these days.

[it's going okay, just in case anyone is wondering]

As usual, there are plenty of thinks in my think-box that I should be emptying onto the internet, but this particular one is a beaut (short for "beauty") that I've just got to share it: 1st edition Heroes Unlimited. Wow.

But first: some quick background. I've related before that I was introduced to HU by some buddies who I met my first year in high school, namely Michael, Mike, and Ben. I don't know how they got into Paladium games, but they were longtime fans of comic books and anime (they also played Robotech) and Kevin Siembieda's comic book-based sensibilities probably appealed to them (they were all artists as well...Ben continues to persists as a starving artist-illustrator to this day).

I, on the other hand, had used TSR's Marvel Superheroes as my go-to supers RPG from 1984-1988, including both the original and "Advanced" editions. Moving to HU was more about finding a new group to play with than any especial interest in the system...despite the appeal of HU's granularity (which I've blogged about before) my actual experiences with the game were fairly mediocre. I did love (and hate) Rifts...but we're not talking about that today.

Anyway, I was able to borrow my buddies' copies of HU (and Robotech and Ninjas & Superspies, etc.), and the system seemed straightforward enough, but it wasn't exactly new to me. After all, I'd owned a copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness for a couple years (at least), though I hadn't done much more than make characters and run a couple encounters with my brother.

Many decades later, I picked up a copy of the 2nd edition of Heroes Unlimited and, somewhat surprisingly found myself disappointed with it. Not because of the failure to overhaul the system, nor because of the recycled art, nor even the substantial bloat on display (understandable in light of the rules additions that have occurred over the years of Paladium publications). No, mainly I was irritated that despite the increased page count (352 pages compared to the prior edition's 248 pages), the new HU failed to contain the sample adventure scenarios I'd enjoyed running for new players as a way of introducing the game. A few years later (circa 2012) I would purchase a copy of Heroes Unlimited Revised...the game I had owned and played as a teen...mainly to have access to these adventures.

Both of these are available as PDFs on DriveThruRPG, by the way. But there's an even earlier version of Heroes Unlimited that's not available for sale...the original, un-Revised version, which I've been trying to track down for the last year or so. I was intrigued, you see, by the snippets in the Revised edition's introduction that described the "original" version; the version that had started selling in 1984 and (three years later) was one of the few supers RPGs really "cornering" the market. This month, I finally decided to pull the trigger on a $13 eBay copy. It only arrived in my mailbox a couple days ago.


At 155 pages, the original Heroes Unlimited is only two-thirds the age count of the 1987 Revised edition...and yet, in many ways it's a superior product. The layout is different...different from the cut-n-paste jobs of your usual Paladium product. Combat procedures come after character creation (including class write-ups). Insanity rules are at the end of the an appendix or optional section...instead of being right up front. There's an many Paladium products have an index?!

Sure there's some weirdness...character classes (i.e. "power types") aren't listed in alphabetical order, for example. And while I understand aliens being listed last (because they borrow powers from the types that come before them), why should robotics be listed first? And all the equipment being listed in the hardware character's section makes some sense, I suppose, but I prefer it in a "neutral" section of the book (since other characters use equipment, duh).

Still, there's an index (this fact cannot be overstated). And there are other thing the game gets very right. Siembieda's notes and explanations make more sense in this particular layout. Reasons...valid, insightful reasons, are provided for the use of random generation in chargen, and other aspects of the game, including the "one superpower per character" system. Have folks seen The Incredibles? There was a time when the majority of comic characters had but a single superpower (like the original X-Men) rather than a suite of superpowers (like Wolverine). But a "single power" can include a host of benefits (for example, "underwater abilities" or "stretching")...and HU does this, in its original format.

The power creep is extremely apparent when one compares the various editions. A physical training character in HU Revised has the ability to do a "power punch" for extra damage (though doing so uses one of the character's multiple attacks). In HU 2E the character actually possesses superhuman strength, doing incredible damage even with normal punches and throwing around cars and such. In the original HU? The physical training character simply benefits from having a few extra physical skills (like hockey!) to help increase his/her ability scores...nothing superhuman about it.

Batman in this edition of HU would simply be a  rich dude with a bunch of skills and a high level of genius with preternatural wit and vast repository of knowledge; no special ability to anticipate a foe's weakness or next move. You can do Batman with this game, but he'd be a very human vigilante. I find that I like this a lot.

Notice: no "Revised" on the title page.
Here, too, are Siembieda's notes on building characters using the notorious Paladium skill sets. Longtime players of Paladium games know which physical skills to take to gain bonuses to abilities, SDC, and combat (everyone takes "boxing," for example, because it gives an extra melee attack, in addition to its other bonuses). It's a twink-player's dream...and yet, Mr. Siembieda lays out this is the exact correct path to take: of course, crime-fighting heroes are going to study as many physical skills as possible, in order to boost their abilities! It goes hand-in-hand with the random dicing of attributes: not everyone is born with a fantastic set of genetic traits. Heroes are made, not born, and the smart hero will pursue rigorous courses to improve their body/shape before embarking on a career as a vigilante. Makes perfect sense!

Then there's the adventure. Did you catch the whiff of nostalgia earlier when I talked about the starter scenario in HU Revised? Okay, it's pretty dumb. The "Crime Masters" (a trio of super-crooks) have kidnapped a bunch of civilians in an adventure aptly titled The Mall of Terror. All things considered, it's pretty silly: they want $3 million or they'll blow up the mall (and the hostages), and it's up to the players to do something. The scenario is all of three pages, including the villain write-ups and illustrations (which consume most of the space).

Welp, in the original first edition HU the Crime Masters are also present, but the adventure scenario has changed completely. It is called Betrayal and comprises ten pages plus a three-page comic that acts as a "prelude" to the adventure. It's no mindless slugfest in a mall or shoot-up in a stuffer shack; instead there's complex machinations, multiple factions (including an organized crime syndicate, a police force faced with internal strife, the general public and PR complications of a "licensing" super-types, plus the Crime Masters), multiple "missions" (a jewel theft/heist, an elaborate ambush, and a potential hideout siege scenario), as well as numerous NPC personalities (not just villains to punch) all of whom have their own backstory and motivations PLUS the seeds to grow a long-term campaign.  It's pretty darn cool and utterly missing from later editions.
Look, I realize I'm foaming a bit at the mouth here. Original Heroes Unlimited is not a perfect game, nor even one I'd be willing to play without modification (there were good reasons for revising some parts of HU). But it's far more complete and far less cringe-worthy than most Paladium games. And the style in which it's written and laid out is just so much more methodical and logical and coherent than later Siembieda games. For me, it adds another piece of evidence to the thought that has been recurring in my brain lately: 2nd (and later) editions of games are mainly...if not only...of use to people who are already familiar with the first edition. Most first edition RPGs I've come across are simply terms of design, focus, and coherence...than their descendant games. I'm sure there are outliers, but I just think it's very difficult to re-write a game without incorporating a bunch of conceits and assumptions inherited from its original format...which limits the accessibility of second (and later) revisions to the new player/reader.

Anyhoo, I'd certainly judge that to be the case with regard to Heroes Unlimited. There are so many interesting tidbits to it, I'd really like to do a "deep dive," multi-post series exploring its various pieces and moving parts. Don't know if that'll happen any time soon (it's the holiday season, which means lots of traveling for Yours Truly), but I think it would be fun to look at...perhaps post notes on how I'd clean up the messier bits.

[despite the fact such a series would be, I suppose, an "unauthorized derivative work" of Palladium's copyrighted material, my reading of copyright law is that it would still fall under the "fair use" doctrine...thus shielding me from potential litigation (something that, previously, has always made me hesitant to do serious analysis of Palladium books here at Ye Old Blog)]

All right, that's enough blather for now. Hope everyone's having a happy one!

[yes, I know Thanksgiving was yesterday...I only got around to finishing my post this morning]