Saturday, April 15, 2006

Palladium Memory Lane

I milled around a Barnes & Noble last weekend poking through a copy of Rifts Ultimate Edition that had shown up on the shelves at some point. I never played a huge amount of Rifts per se, but I got my start in the RPG world as a 5th grader playing Erick Wujcik's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG, and later Heroes Unlimited.

Rifts and the other Palladium RPGs don't seem to have changed very much over the years. They still, in my mind, encompass the best and worst of an earlier era of roleplaying games... On the 'best' front, I think that it is very hard to beat games like Rifts in terms of raw enthusiasm and imagination. Rifts is a total mish-mash of ideas that, honestly, belong in different games and even different game systems. It's the absolute triumph of the idea that if it's cool and it would be fun to play, there's a place for it somewhere. Ninjas? Vampires? Dragons? Psychics? Giant robots? Throw 'em all in there together. What do you mean it's not reasonable to put a psuedo-ancient Egyptian culture in a tropical rainforest and have them fight dinosaur riding spider-aliens? It's a game! It's cool! Once you've reconciled yourself to spending your afternoons pretending to be a dwarf or a Wookie, who are you to start nit picking about reality?

On the other hand, flipping through old Palladium books- and even quite a few of the current ones- gives you a good idea of some of the very useful developments that have taken place, as gamers and writers have learned more and more about the real nuts and bolts of running these games. Flipping through a lot of Palladium books is like being taught math by someone with ADD. You're hearing a lot of things, and you're sure they all relate somehow, but it's far from clear why your hearing anything in any particular place. Here's part of the character generation rules. Here's rules for drug addiction. Here's a section on skills. Here's vehicle combat. Here's alignment. Here's a section on character classes. Here's the introduction of a whole new rules system for performing magic and a list of 100 spells as part of a chapter on one particular character class. Here's 5 pregeneratred NPCs, and a list of major international conflicts circa 1989. Here's a highly detailed selection of hand guns. Here are the rules for flying a helicopter.

Palladium's rules were never really systematic in the way that something like d20 or Storyteller or the other modern universal systems are. Given the Rules As Written, there isn't a clear way to extend them to situations that you haven't encountered before. The standard for most systems is: take something from an attribute, and something from a skill score, and then roll some dice and compare that stuff with a number that represents the difficulty of what you're doing. Palladium worked on the 'look up an arbitrary percentile score for your skills' skill system, which never made a lot of clear sense. It's obvious that Kevin Siembieda and company have given a lot of thought to the individual elements of the game over the years; unfortunately, this isn't always apparent to the player, and instead we're just left wondering why someone who just learned to fish is better at fishing than someone who just learned to sew is at sewing, and why you get better at singing slightly faster than you get better at dancing, no matter what you're doing with your spare time. Not to mention that a first level character can easily have a 60% chance of defusing a bomb, and a 40% chance of successfully cooking lunch.

The depth of the character creation system was such that making even a 1st level character always seemed to be a multi-day undertaking. I was shocked when I made the jump to AD&D and could roll up a character in just a few minutes, and have him fully equipped and ready to play in an hour or so. I never GMed for a Palladium system game; I can't imagine the prep time that's involved.

But if it's fun, who cares? So cheers to Palladium for their 25 years of gaming, and for keeping firmly in mind that games being fun and cool are the reason to play them, something that some of us would do well to remember as we enter into heated forum arguments regarding the demographics of vampire infestations and the plausibility of self-sustaining Dwarf communities located miles beneath the surface of the earth. It's all a little goofy to begin with; better to accept it and enjoy it.

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