There's an old joke intended to poke fun at the aloofness of people who boggle at the election of a popular political candidate: "How did so-and-so get elected? Nobody I know voted for him." That joke seems to apply to The Palladium Role-Playing Game (now called Palladium Fantasy) and its spin-offs, because, for many gamers, it's absolutely true. Speaking for myself, in all my years of involvement in the hobby, I've only ever encountered one person whom I knew at the time was playing a Palladium RPG. This seems a common experience. Where are these Palladium players who've managed to keep these games alive and well for all these years? It's a mystery that I know I'm not alone in pondering, a mystery all the more baffling because I know that these games are actually quite popular -- or at least what passes for popular in the post-fad age of RPGs.
That enigma aside, Palladium has been around a very long time. I remember seeing ads for the company's products in Dragon in the early 80s, such as its weapons and armor guides, as well as for its fantasy RPG. And of course I was already familiar with Kevin Siembieda's name as an illustrator of many Judges Guild products. Despite this, I never actually picked up The Palladium Role-Playing Game. In fact, I never even saw a copy until the very late 80s, by which point my tastes for Yet Another Fantasy RPG had long since been sated. More to the point, conventional gamer wisdom (at least in the circles in which I moved) informed me that The Palladium Role-Playing Game was just a D&D knock-off -- someone's house rules masquerading as an original game. So I never made any effort to sit down and read the game on its own merits.
That is, until the mid-90s, when I'd become so disenchanted with the direction of AD&D that I started to cast about for alternatives. The original edition of The Palladium Role-Playing Game came out in 1983, with a revision in 1984 (and further revised and expanded in 1998). On a purely cursory inspection, I can certainly see why the game was viewed as little more than someone's D&D house rules. There are eight randomly rolled attributes, most of which are the standard ones renamed. There are hit points, races, and character classes. There are even alignments, which, though renamed, map pretty closely to those in AD&D. And there are lots and lots of random tables to determine many aspects of your character's background, training, and physical appearance.
There are plenty of differences too, from the way combat and magic work to the inclusion of skills, not to mention the world in which it is set, both explicitly and implicitly. I suspect that whether one views The Palladium Role-Playing Game as a unique creation or a mere ape of D&D depends greatly on what aspects of its rules one focuses on. There's no question that D&D exercised a strong influence over Siembieda in creating this game, but, then, how many early RPG designers can claim not to have been influenced by it, if only negatively? After all, what is Basic Roleplaying/RuneQuest other than a codification and development of the Perrin Conventions, which were house rules to OD&D designed to make them more "realistic?" Obviously, that's an extreme simplification of the matter, but I think that's the case with The Palladium Role-Playing Game as well. The D&D influence is there, but it's not the only influence. Moreover, there's more to the game than what it has in common with Dungeons & Dragons (and, by extension, many other early RPGs).
Re-reading the game recently I was struck less by its specific affinity with D&D and more by its connection to old school design principles more generally. The Palladium Role-Playing Game is not one that frets about "balance" or shies away from "swinginess" or any of the other buzzwords of contemporary RPG design. This is a game very much in the mold of the early days of the hobby, a joyous goulash, equal parts randomness and brilliance, that wasn't tailored to provide a particular kind of play experience. It's a toolbox, filled with more than any single referee could ever possibly need for a single campaign, but, since its designer doesn't know -- let alone mandate -- what each referee might need, he includes it all and allows the referee to pick and choose as he wishes. This is not a game that worries about being coherent.
I've never had the chance to play The Palladium Role-Playing Game in any version and I doubt I ever will. I already have D&D for all my incoherent fantasy gaming needs. Still, it's good to be reminded that, when Dungeons & Dragons was abandoning the Old Ways, Palladium was still there, keeping the faith and providing gamers with the kind of stuff that first attracted me to the hobby in the first place. The Palladium Role-Playing Game may not be my game, but I now feel a strange kind of kinship toward it and its legions of players out there whom I've never met.