Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Retrospective: The Palladium Role-Playing Game

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.

44 comments:

  1. The closest I ever came to playing Palladium was the long running Robotech campaign I was in, based on the original ruleset. I had the Robotech books, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Rifts, but never looked for the fantasy game since I was more interested in the settings than the system itself.

    Looking back, I can see that we approached the system like the early days of D&D. We took a wild stab at how the game should be played and went for it. If there was something that we didn't understand, we usually just skipped it.

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  2. I played Palladium Fantasy back in the 80's. At the time I thought it was a better system because it had skills.

    Looking back on it now I can see how in many ways it was a reaction to D&D. I particularly love reading the section on wizards and there spells, how they spend their lives learning them and would never forget them. Of course, there is no such thing as balance. A 1st level Wizard who is lucky enough to learn a 9th level spell (something like 5% chance off a scroll) can cast it twice a day.

    I do have to admire a company that has stuck with the same system for over 20 years. Fantasy got a bit of a revision to make it more similar to Rifts, but overall they just keep putting out the same sort of books over and over again.

    I have no idea who still plays it, but I can say I still own some books and it was once, long ago, my system of choice.

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  3. "The Palladium Role-Playing Game is not one that frets about "balance"..."

    Tell me about it. Some friends were playing a PFRPG game with a first level party, and they were (as I heard) almost wiped out by a badger, which in Palladium is a 4HD critter. Of course, having seen a ticked-off badger, that may be justified. :)

    I never played PFRPG that I recall, but I did try their occult horror game, Beyond the Supernatural. While I hated the mechanics and munchkin-friendliness of the rules, I thought there were some very nice ideas in it.

    Sidenote: One of the funniest KoDT strips I've ever read involved the Knights playing a version of Rifts. Bob with nuclear weapons. Hilarious. :)

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  4. I got a copy of this game not to long ago and I was pleasantly surprised.

    Amazingly enough I even know a guy who have played it a lot, love it to death and even said once that his choice of world to live in, except for this one, was Palladium Fantasy!

    Then there is Rifts, which I just love in all it's gonzo headiness. But, since I think Synnibarr is cool I guess nobody trusts that judgment!

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  5. Two copies of Rifts circulated in my school-years gaming group, but no one had played it, and no one stepped up to run it.

    Palladium Fantasy, on the other hand, was something we'd heard of, and -- unlike Rifts, where even fans admitted it was wobbly and broken -- seemed to be held in high regard. But no one had ever seen a copy, let alone played it.

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  6. Palladium games only have value for:

    * sheer gonzo insanity of their ideas
    * occasional brilliance of artwork, either from Kevin or, more often, from contributions from other artists like Michael Kucharski, illustrating the game world and the rules and making them come alive.

    They almost never have value for:
    * their rules. Siembeda, I hear, doesn't even playtest anything, ever. He just writes the shit and sends it out to the fanboy brigade (which is almost entirely Rifts fanboys these days). The rules to virtually all Palladium games are sheer garbage.

    I played a lot of Ninjas & Superspies, which had a lot of the former (gonzo ideas), not so much of the latter (sweet art). Rules sucked but we didn't care, we had fun with it.

    Palladium RPG was very low on the gonzo ideas. It had some of the latter (sweet art making the game world come alive) in the illustrations of specific signs and runes used by various specialty magicians, as I remember. That's the coolness i remeber about it.

    TMNT had both in spades.

    Rifts was (and is) rife with both.

    The original Mechanoid Invasion was pretty high on both counts.

    Nightspawn/Nightbane -- had both in spades.

    Beyond the Supernatural -- pretty high on both.

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  7. I never read or played the game, but your review piques my interest. How does it compare to Chaosium's RQ2, or BRP in general? Or to the Arduin rules? Maybe I should hunt down a copy.

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  8. I played a little TMNT back in the 80s, but that was about it. That was enough exposure to that wonky house system for my tastes.

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  9. My group played Rifts, but none of the other games. I always liked the worlds and ideas in Rifts, but there always seemed to be too many things broken with it. The biggest things I remember now were the megadamage rules and the scale of the weapons. Cover became pointless when you could blast through a mountain with a hand held gun and detect targets using sensors. Fights seemed based on how many points of armor and force shields you could slap onto your characters rather than what actions you took. I have heard that their Robotech game was much better about this, but never read the rules.

    Regardless, we did have fun with it, and the sourcebooks were always fun to read.

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  10. I've never seen that cover before. I like it a lot, very simple and effective.

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  11. Ive actually played some Palladium Fantasy and a little Rifts. Both are chock full of cool ideas and art but my god the rules are atrocious. Im firmly OSR and not particularly worried about game balance so much as players having fun and being able to play when you get time in the spotlight. However Seimbada has this bizarre need to put a gimped class that cant do anything and in fantasy was literally just a farmer. No combat abilities, no magic, not even some sort of uncanny luck ability. You were literally just Bob the farmer while you had wizards with any level of spell, warriors who could disembowel foes in nothing flat, and wolfen who were like the Lycans in Underworld running around in the party.

    I think most old school gamers should try and get palladium fantasy and put it on their reference shelf with other wacked out mines of ideas like Arduin - but thats me

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  12. Hey, Ed. Some basis for those claims of untested rules and substantiation of the claims of garbage would be nice. Hearsay is just that. Not that much food for discussion.

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  13. I've got quite a few Palladium Fantasy books. Since I prefer games like OD&D/Labyrinth Lord/Swords & Wizardry, chances are that I'd never run a game myself. However, there are some pretty neat setting ideas and a few rules ideas that could probably added into a D&D game with little to no trouble. The artwork in some of the books is sheer brilliance. Kent Burles is in quite a few books and quite an underrated talent. He did the art for a D&D inspired comic book back in the early to mid 1980's entitled "The Adventurers" that still captures the feel of old school D&D gaming better than any other comic I've read.

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  14. I've discussed my Palladium nostalgia a little on my own blog. I played a ton of Palladium games in the 90s. The system actually works quite well for fantasy, though by the time Rifts came around it had been stretched pretty thin. Nevertheless, I know the Palladium system better than I do any other (including D&D), and the setting of the fantasy Palladium RPG is one of my personal faves.

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  15. Andreas -- hey, this is the Internet! Unsubstantiated, generalizing rants are what we *do* here!

    As for the garbagey rules, I'm just citing my own experience with them. They weren't unusable, mostly, but they were ridiculous. I'm sure there are worse rule systems out there, actually unplayable ones, but as the playable ones go Palladium stuff kinda sucked.

    RE: Kevin never playtesting, that is hearsay, in that I heard someone say it, it made a lot of sense to me, and I believed it, but it might not be true. I don't remember where I read it, but it was in somebody's remarks about Palladium on the occasion of the sad passing of Eric Wucjik. I don't have any personal experience of Siembeda's lack of playtesting, the way I do of the sucky rules.

    I have a lot more regard for the work of some of the other Palladium authors (like C.J. Carella and Eric Wucjik) than I do for Siembieda's own work, btw. And Wuj and Carella don't have a history of litigiousness and abusive behavior towards their fans on the internet (and then turning around and begging them for handouts to save the company) the way Siembieda does.

    But I've never met Siembieda, and maybe if I did I'd think the world of him. A lot of people do seem to like him, in spite of everything.

    BTW, I really dig your Omnipotent Eye blog. Keep up the good work. :)

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  16. Thanks! Nice to hear you like my blog, Ed.

    Also, thanks for your feedback! I felt there was worth elucidating a bit, since Kevin do catch some flak and some of it deserved, but not all.

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  17. Although I own most of the Paladium Role Playing Supplments,I have not actually played the game. Didn't see anything particularly wrong with the rules, but it was enough D&D like that there didn't seem to be a need to change. I was far more interested in the ideas formented by the campaign world than the actual rules. After the first couple of books it is mostly campaign setting. I an still hoping for the release of the third book for the lands of the damned but I am not sure it is coming my lifetime.

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  18. Palladium rules are absolutely wonderful for wild over the top games. I played Robotech and RIFTS and it was good. Also the rules-as-written tend to keep rules lawyers away. Hah!

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  19. I played an interesting game of Palladium Fantasy back in College, in a campaign that lasted for about a year, as I remember it. I played a Gnome who had taken the Healer class, which lead to several cries of 'Pass me the healer', as Gnomes in PF were, IIRC, about two feet tall and could avoid pursuit by walking onto people's lawns and balancing on one leg.

    I don't really remember the rules very much, which probably means we weren't wedded to them. I had more fun dealing with the tricks and puzzles the GM put into the game.

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  20. I think there's still a very hardcore group of Palladium RPG gamers centered around the Detroit/Ann Arbor area. Probably there are other core populations elsewhere.

    Kevin Siembieda always seemed like a pretty nice guy in real life. Eh, doesn't prove anything, I know. Some people are nicer in real life; some people are nicer on the Internet; some people are about the same in all situations.

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  21. I started playing Palladium games back in '86 with Robotech. I still love that game! Eventually I got into TMNT, Heroes Unlimited, Beyond the Supernatural, Palladium Fantasy etc... It's a great system!

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  22. Robotech was my first RPG. Funny, that. In fact I also reminisced on it and Palladium in general in my gaming blog's first post. Can't say I miss it. Played a bit of Rifts in high school, it was always crazy.

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  23. I think I tried it out with the original Ravenloft module, after throwing most of the "dungeon" elements of that module away. It worked. It had much more of an Old School feel than most of the other games available at the time, in that there was a multitude of character classes and the like.

    One group at Uni had a large campaign going using the game system, which was apparently quite popular.

    Whilst I ended collecting most of the Palladium catalogue (up to Rifts), I was never very enthused with the increasing complexity of the later games. TMNT and Other Strangeness had some nice ideas with Bio-E and was interesting because of the source material, the complexity of the skill system was definitely not to my tatse. Similarly Heroes Unlimited and the like never really jelled for me. The addition of Robotech killed the game system, especially, when, in Rifts, it started to mix concepts of SDC and MDC in the same combat.

    But the original fantasy role-playing system, definitely had a flavour of it's own, and the supplements were quite interesting, describing a quite usable and unique world.

    [Given the hard time Kevin Siembieda had with Marvel with respecting his rights as an artist it is no surprise to me that he was extremely protective of his copyrights and trademarks when he eventually formed his own company. Even if this overreaction (in many cases) did in fact cause him a great deal of hostility from many uninformed quarters. The only way he could ensure that no one else stole his work was to be aggressive in protecting it, as any lapse in doing so would have the potential of allowing it to be stolen again. As such, you can't really consider it a litigious act. Just the actions of someone who had been hurt badly (financially and emotionally) and who wasn't going to be hurt again.]

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  24. My old group played a number of Palladium games - heck, we played just about everything we could get our hands on. We did play Palladium Fantasy, TMNT, Beyond the Supernatural, Ninjas and Superspies, and Heroes Unlimited. I remember there were a lot of conversion rules for crossing genres - I had an elf in the fantasy setting that used Samurai swordsmanship from Ninjas and Superspies - he was ridiculously good.
    Mainly we played TMNT, though, since we were fans of the Eastman and Laird comics.

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  25. Played Rifts many times and it was indeed ridiculous. When your hand-held laser welder can shoot through schools you know you've got problems. I guess it works when you're 13 and hopped up on Mountain Dew.

    Heroes Unlimited seemed to go better for no particular reason that I can fathom. Maybe I just enjoyed fighting crime with my 3 Muskteer-inspired Alien-Fishman with his Arquebus Ion Blaster.

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  26. And Tom was right about Rifts becoming all about armor and force shields. Heck, if you so much as ever even consider taking off your armor at any point, you're likely to be killed by a knife-wielding dog that can slice through your car.

    And that really happened in one of our games.

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  27. Reverance Pavane,

    Can you tell more about that Marvel story? That was news to me. But not exactly surprising news I'm afraid...

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  28. We played some back in college. I played a Kobold Shaman...In the original rules Shamans can animate dead as a special ability (a certain number of times daily and IIRC no limit on number of HD of creaturs.) Being Unscrupulous in alignment (Chaotic Neutral) and the only healer in the party my character started extorting the rest of the party for healing services (i.e. best pick of magic items.) If other party members had an issue with that they could take it up with my "complaint department," the horde of undead following my Kobold around. Yeah I'd say a little unbalanced ;-)

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  29. My earliest gaming days were nothing BUT Palladium games, yet oddly never RIFTS or the Palladium RPG.

    I played a ton of Robotech, TMNT, Heroes Unlimited and spin-offs of the three. In a weird way I credit them for my DIY approach today... because the damn things were so broken, unintelligible and typo-laden I had to make half the rules up myself.

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  30. Full Discloser: I own ever book Palladium has put out to date and regularly run Palladium games at cons.

    Palladium Games are definitely old school in that the GM picks and chooses things and makes a lot of decisions on the fly. As to the "munchiness" of the rules, that's all a matter of taste. Played full-out, Rifts especially, mirrors the zaniness one sees in anime like Lodoss War or Princess Mononoke than Tolikien. On the flip side, the GM can limit the power level as well.

    As to Kevin himself, I was worried the first time I met him. "Is he really the prima donna that people accuse him of being?" I thought. after meeting him, I got the impression that he's just one of the guys. It's like your best gamer friend just happened to own a gaming company....for almost 30 years! How many are left from that time? Steve Jackson Games? Flying Buffalo? Chaosium? TSR is long gone, WotC a subsidiary of Ha$borg.

    Just my thoughts.

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  31. I wonder if there was any regional element to where Palladium games were more popular? My friends and I in the Detroit area played a ton of them: Robotech and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were great - Robotech had great mecha combat and TMNT had a rather nuts-but-fun mutation system featuring 'bio-e[nergy]' points. Heroes Unlimited, Beyond the Supernatural, and Ninjas & Superspies were unweildy but fun. Rifts came a bit later - never got into it.

    I even had the staplebound 'Mechanoid Invasion' from way back when...

    As to "The Palladium RPG" itself, I spent a lot f time looking through the book, but never played it. It felt like a sort of darker, more complex AD&D.

    It sure could have used a more descriptive name, in any case...

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  32. How many are left from the dawn of gaming? Well Palladium Books was founded 1981 and Chaosium in 1975. Flying Buffalo is actually from 1970, which makes it the oldest game company still running. 40 years, that's not too shabby!

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  33. My group played Beyond the Supernatural and Heroes Unlimited a bit back in the late 80's. Both were okay games, but in my opinion they really can't compare to Call of Cthulhu and Champions.

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  34. Nothing compares with Call of Cthulhu. :)

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  35. My gaming group used to play a lot of Palladium Fantasy. I fondly remember the Witch character class, that could have a demonic familiar and immunity to fire at first level. I think the witch also had to enter into pacts with demons. I don't know if the anti D&D groups ever got their hands on Palladium Fantasy, but it would have played into their hands.

    The fact that the game balance was different from D&D was one of the draws of the game. We never noticed the clunky rules as all the games of the time seemed to be equally clunky, and no rules system survives its first engagement with the players intact. For example, I don't think I have ever played a game where we took any notice of the Encumbrance rules. They were always the first to be jettisoned.

    What always caught us out was that the results of the D20 were the opposite of D&D. In D&D a natural 20 is a critical hit, and in Palladium a natural 20 is a critical fail. The same reversal is true of rolling a 1.

    The only Palladium games I never got into were Rifts and Robotech. But there is still time.

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  36. I remember seriously looking at the Palladium RPG back in the mid '80s when I'd got really annoyed by some of the flaws in AD&D. I remember thinking that the PFRPG looked like an alternative AD&D.
    I really liked the character class rules where instead of AD&D-style multi-classing, you could switch/add classes every time you hit a new level - pretty much what D&D3E did years later.
    I never ran the system but I was tempted.

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  37. Uhm ... that should've been PRPG not PFRPG in the comment above. Ooops.

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  38. I've never played PFRPG 1e, but I picked up 2e as a "supplement" of sorts to my own Rifts games. I ended up loving the setting, which I consider a prime example of a pulp fantasy sandbox setting (including the excellent books by Bill Coffin), and to this day I pilfer characters, locations and magic items from Palladium Fantasy for my D&D games.

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  39. My first RPG ever was TMNT. I never had much problem with the rules (combat took forever, but, come ON, I was playing a ninja chicken!), and Wujcik's Bio-E system was so much fun, I spent hours each day just rolling up animals and mutating them. Rifts was fun, at first but I knew I was never, ever going to keep up with it (though some ideas from Underseas are so neat I used them in my own campaigns).

    What I didn't like, back then and now, is Siembieda's obvious obsession with exclamation marks. You could easily see where stuff was copied from other games (written by Siembieda) and where the material was new, because Siembieda's writing felt like a frothing fanboy standing an inch away from my face telling me exactly how impossibly, incredibly cool, whatever martial art/skill/OCC/etc was.

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  40. My first Palladium book was their first, The Mechanoids Invasion and I think to this day they are the source for wild and whooly inspiration.

    Their system, however, is a mixed bag. On one level it supports rolling your own. At the same time the later editions are so mind boggling that you need to extract something out of them. More than once I've set out to do that but always failed.

    That said, if I ever purge down to just what I actually see myself using and inspiration several Palladium volumes would remain including the entire run of fantasy.

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  41. Wow, I'm sorry I missed this. Back in high school I owned (& ran) the exact edition you posted the cover art for, James. My friends & I loved the darkness compared to AD&D. A first level Wizard spell, frex, involved gathering a cauldron of fresh human / humanoid blood in an iron cauldron and sitting in a graveyard all night, then rolling to see what (if any) spirits turned up. A good roll would allow you to gain some useful information by questioning them; a bad roll meant a roll on the insanity table.
    Also, it was built around a highly specific fantasy world. This made a great deal of difference to the feel of play. Of course you could (& were encouraged) to play it in your own sandbox but the sample world firmly anchored play in a particular substrate of fantasy imagining.
    Another big plus was that you could play it all out of that one book. And the wolfen were fabulouso.
    I never tried to run any other Palladium products, though I considered stealing ideas from them. They seemed to veer too far into the mind-numbing end of the crunch spectrum for my tastes.

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  42. Back when I left AD&D I experimented with Palladium as a rules set for my campaign world because the gaming group that I was a player in had had a pretty decent campaign that we'd enjoyed playing using that system and setting. It was also the genesis of such aphorisms such as: "Don't hunt rabbits with a flamberge or you'll be eaten by a tiger".

    I found that the system just didn't work for me and my campaign world, though I ended up stealing their alignment system because I liked it better for that and all subsequent versions of the home-brew system that I tinkered with over the next sixteen years.

    I think we may played some Rifts as well (and I had a buddy who was all over TMNT from the beginning) but those don't really stick in my memory. At one point or another I think I owned probably most of the non-Rifts books (Ninja's and Superspies was a lot of fun IIRC). But for the most part Rifts always seemed to be a heck of a lot of fun to read and mine for the odd idea, but way to crazy to actually run.

    D.

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  43. Rifts is the only game I know of that sold a 10 or more volume series of books designed to make the other books you owned playable. They were called Rifts Index. Nice way to make money, though, if you can find a fanbase that will put up with it. I can't think of a better example of a game that was a complete mess. Shadowrun first edition comes to mind, but that game was SO cool and the color art and production value so great for its time it was still worth playing.

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  44. I know that I'm almost 2 years late to the party in commenting here, but....

    I just finished reading The Palladium Role-Playing Game, 1st edition revised. I'm married with kids, and usually it can take me a few weeks to finish reading a set of rules. I finished this sucker in three days. I can't recall a time when I sat there reading a game where all I could think of was "I must play this!!!". I loved it... I just started reading it again:)

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