Friday, November 6, 2009

Favored Games: Palladium RPG and Rifts

One of the first D&D clones I remember was the Palladium Roleplaying Game. It had a black cover with a dragon on it (Red, I believe), and it looked for everything like something Metallica or Black Sabbath might put out if they were game designers. The Dungeon Master for my high school group at the time entered his parent’s basement one afternoon and proclaimed that this was the game we were going to play from now on.

And it was basically just a clone of AD&D. The central mechanic was the same -- you rolled 1d20 to hit. You rolled 3d6 for attributes. But it quickly became clear it was a much more detailed, and to our minds realistic, version. You had skills, which were separate from your character class. No longer was the thief the only one who could sneak around. The number of stats you had to generate for your character were staggering. Mental Endurance? Physical Beauty? To this day, I look at all those abbreviations for your character’s attributes and my mind boggles. There were tons of new player races (Ogre? Orc? Wolfen?! Our teenaged minds thrilled. Wow!), and new classes (I liked the Diabolist best).

But what I really loved, we all did really, was the “to hit” mechanic. You rolled to hit, and your opponent rolled to parry/dodge (also with a 1d20). The one who was highest won. No longer did combat seem like “you take your turn to whack me, now I take my turn to whack you”. Damage was applied to armor, which in addition to armor class also had structural damage points; so your armor absorbed damage, not just being a factor in whether you got hit or not. Large scale battles were a holy mess and took forever. We loved it.

That’s why it’s on my list of Favored Games to the left. To this day, I remember wasting countless weekends playing this game. It showed me that games could be more complicated and detailed, but not in the way we make them today. It took AD&D and expanded it in ways I’d never even considered. And it was complete in one book. I don’t think there was a supplement for it for years. I want to say it was Beyond the Old Ones, which finally detailed Kevin Siembeida’s world. Finally, it seemed to me that Palladium grew out of Kevin’s own game sessions with his friends. It was as though they played the same AD&D I did, and created their own “house rules” which became Palladium (it would be years before I encountered Empire of the Petal Throne). I don’t know if this is true or not, but it seemed cool that we could take our homebrew rules and do the same thing.

It was a formative game for me, one that showed me that I, too, could become a game designer. Even though it wouldn’t be until I was 26 for me to actually embark on this career.

Yet those are not the only reasons this game is on the list. When I landed the gig to design the Star Trek RPG for Last Unicorn Games, I would frequently turn to another of Kevin’s games for inspiration: Rifts. That game was ruthless in the publishing of it’s supplements. We were developing a year’s worth of titles for the production schedule, and I was listening to ideas go around the table. “No,” I recall telling then-owner Christian Moore, “every book has to have the same five things.” New Character Classes. New weapons. New “spells.” New races. New gear. If you can’t come up with something for each of these categories, the book shouldn’t be published. They’re the meat and potatoes for gamers. That’s what Rifts did, and did relentlessly.

I don’t think it was a unique observation on my part. I think all game designers would say “well, duh.” As I say, it was Kevin’s naked ruthlessness about it that impressed me. They weren’t clothed in a lot of story-telling falderall. You didn’t have to wade through a hundred pages of exposition to get to the goodies. One chapter of setting, then BAM!, you were hit in the face with new bells and whistles. It was Palladium’s style that impressed me.

[Personal note: I learned years later that Kevin’s wife, Maryann, actually laid all of Palladium’s books out using a linotype machine (which I’d used in high school print class, and let me tell you -- it’s a bitch). It has this giant dial on the front with all the letters on it. You rotated the dial to the desired letter, then pushed a button, which stamped it on a long, thin piece of tape. It was sort of like those old Dymo label-makers, on a giant scale. You then took the strips and taped them to the page. Which is why sometimes a line would be slightly off parallel -- someone taped the line down crooked. Kevin, it seems, did not like or trust layout programs.]

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