Thoughts On Palladium. Or, Love, Loathing, Nostalgia, and Indifference

The big buzz on this past week is that due to some problems with theft and embezzlement, Palladium Books is in dire financial trouble. The main thread on the topic (it’s spawned like 10 others) is over 100 pages now, covering the usual range of reactions to things Palladium-related (though somehow the thread hasn’t been locked).

I suspect my range of reactions to Palladium is typical.

In middle school and especially high school they were the RPG publisher, accept no substitutes. We played mainly Rifts and Robotech, with a little Heroes Unlimited and TMNT and Nightspawn (screw you, MacFarlane) thrown in for good measure. One of my friends back then whom I don’t really talk to anymore had a way of saying memorable stuff and then not remembering it himself, and then if you brought it up in conversation looking at you like you were crazy so hard that other people started to believe him. One of those quotes was with regard to my experimenting with other systems — both stuff like playing GURPS and making my own games from scratch: “But the Palladium system is, like, perfect. You’re the only one who has to be a deviant and make your own systems.” My memory is tricky, and full of holes, but certain things stick really well (too well), and I’m pretty sure that that is a verbatim quote, or very close to one. Today that quote represents a hilarious display of naivete — and the same guy later became primarily a White Wolf gamer after all — but in high school it summed up the general consensus pretty well. No one saw any real flaws in the game, or any reason to switch to anything else. Part of that, I’m sure, was a result of the fact that none of us really had ready access to other games in the first place. I had Toon (which the aforementioned friend totally missed the point of and called “lame,” though my other friends enjoyed it), and we did Paranoia one-shots now and then, but the only store with any substantial RPG selection was the one that to this day puts all the books in shrink-wrap, and anyway very few of us had money to spend on unknown games.

When I first started college, I was starting to really see the glaring flaws in the system, and from then on we never quite settled on any one game. The games we played significantly were Mage, Fading Suns, Thrash, and Mekton Z. On online forums I was sometimes disdainful and critical of Palladium’s games to the point of being an immature fucktard at times. Analyzing it now, I would say that the thing is the enjoyment of roleplaying can be relatively independent of the system — that is, Rifts is fun, but it wouldn’t be made less fun by a sensibly chosen alternate system — so the system should at least have some kind of utility. At that point one of the more fun campaigns I’d run had been all free-form, so there really wasn’t any excuse for having to put up with the Palladium system’s quirks. In spite of that, it was also around this time that I took all of the stuff I wrote for Rifts through high school — and there was a lot (I ought to look through it again some time) — and submitted it to the Rifter, though only one section (on “Space Magic”) got published, with illustrations by Wayne Breaux no less. So not only was Palladium my first source of RPGs, but they’re responsible for the first time I got published. (My first full RPG book is due out from Battlefield Press some time this summer).

I’m still in college (but that has more to do with me taking so damn long to figure out what I really wanted to major in), but I matured a bit over time, and took a different attitude towards Palladium. I went from the feeling betrayed stage to the nostalgic, “if only my high school memories of awesomeness could be brought back with a better system” stage. I would read through threads on Palladium for amusement (actually I still do sometimes), and nod along with the criticisms (this review of Robotech is especially entertaining, particularly when Bill Coffin, who from what I’ve seen is generally a cool, level-headed guy online, tries to mix it up). Once or twice I tried to come up with Rifts conversions, before Palladium’s policies put me off the idea of even doing it just for use among my friends. (The GURPS conversion was going really well, right up until I tried to do vehicles).

Now I find myself feeling pretty emphatically indifferent. Online, some people report places where Palladium’s products are selling well, but in my neck of the woods, and from what the majority of people are saying, their stuff is now selling poorly if at all, and stores are ordering less and less. The way my group roleplays has shifted a lot over time, and that has something to do with it. It’s been quite a while since we last used a pre-packaged RPG setting of any kind. There was that Planescape campaign I did during our flirtation with D&D3e (and the group’s consensus was that the worst adventures were always the ones I got from published modules), but since then we did Macross (an adaptation of the later anime and games, using Mekton Z), Star Sorcerer (original, powered by Fudge), and Truth & Justice (though in spite of the wealth of published superhero characters that could be adapted, our entire setting has consisted of original stuff).

I’m an odd person in that I can’t get a proper hate-on going unless I have really strongly negative, intensely personal experiences with something. Having played and run D&D3e a decent amount, I find d20-hate to be just plain silly. For me the worst of it is that it takes some extra work on the DM’s part to run the game. And since since I have a solid and close-knit group that so seldom does anything with published in what passes for mainstream in the RPG industry, I don’t have any reason to get worked up over what’s going on with all that. It gets doubly absurd when we talk about games. If other people want to blow shit up in a post-apocalyptic future or kill things and take their stuff in a dungeon, more power to them. Obviously I think the kind of roleplaying I do is neat and I think it’d be cool to introduce other people to it, but claiming that it’s better is kind of like telling people they should give up pop music and listen to punk instead.

I don’t know that it reflects positively on me, but Palladium’s financial woes strike me as being someone else’s problem. If Palladium went under (at this point it seems like it’s going to survive) it’s entirely possible that it could hurt the industry as a whole, but nothing along those lines could kill it off for my group. Of course, this is my perspective. I’m someone who has never moved to a new town and searched in vain for a new roleplaying group, or been frustrated by a lack of non-D&D groups seeking members, etc. The overlap between the people I hang out with on a weekly basis and the people I game with has always been almost total, and I agree with the sentiment mentioned somewhere or other that if I wouldn’t want to just hang out with someone, then I wouldn’t want to game with them either. This is partly because a certain portion of a gaming session is going to be spent on what amounts to hanging out anyway. (As the Shooting Dice guy mentioned in a recent post, the “20 minutes of fun in 4 hours of gaming” thing is more like “20 minutes of fun in 4 hours of another kind of fun.”)

For better or for worse, I think I’ve not only outgrown Palladium, but outgrown resenting Palladium too. Palladium is one of those friends from high school I’ve lost touch with and never worked up any particular desire to see again.

But you know, if by some miracle a new edition of Rifts came out with a substantially improved system (original, licensed, or whatever) I would at a minimum buy the book in a heartbeat.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts On Palladium. Or, Love, Loathing, Nostalgia, and Indifference

  1. As a former table-top gamer of very similar experience as you, and now grown-up to become a fledgling filmmaker and actor, I have to say that my views tend to fall into the Nostalgia area concerning Palladium.

    As I was growing up, the discordant and depressed outcast that I was in grade school, a former good friend of mine (I see a pattern forming here) introduced me to Rifts and we ran the pure system for about 4 years. We ran everything we could think of and because of the simplicity of the system, were able to incorporate mainstream sci-fi stuff into our games (our fight with the Predator was incredible and I wish we could replicate that sometimes). It made the game not only attractive but allowed it to grasp us with its user-friendly access to add our imaginations into it (something I have not found with D&D, WW, GURPs, Para, FR, etc.).

    It was that attraction that has kept Palladium and Rifts in my heart for over a decade now. I am proud to categorize myself as in the rank of gamers older than Palladium and owner of many pieces of memoribilia (Red & Gold Hardback, Mint condition Manhunter, Original Mechanoids) and take great pride in the level of work that went into my happiness.

    Yes, the rudimentary artwork and slip-shod editing were on occasion annoying, but in some childish way they game the game system its own character. Another aspect I truly enjoyed for it felt as though the game was coming from real people & real gamers, instead of the carefully packaged and brilliantly created Tactical Strategy Rules (Gygax D&D, way before WoTC) packages of the 70’s.

    However, I must confess, that as I grew older the flaws did become more glaring, and I unfortunately did not have the pleasure of being published by the Rifter, though I did have a few interesting chats with Wayne Smith, CJ Carella, Brom, Breaux, and other freelancers who associated with PB.

    Reality became that Palladium was a gaming company of the old-school variety, Siembieda set in his ways and unwilling to let others touch or meddle with his “baby” except to bring more to the table. (IMHO this probably had much to do with the dissolution of his marriage to Maryann, who is a wonderful woman, professional and kind) And of course the words of the various writers and artists that have worked there. The reality began to spoil the fantasy and the original hand-drawn, cured, and framed portraits of memory I had of the game, began to fade in the waning sunlight of truth.

    However, years later, I still am very much in love with the concept, despite the often-time too real truths that have been revealed (that portrait looks nothing like it used to, but it still hangs proudly) and I find myself drawn back to the game time and time again, if not for personal reflection of times with friends gone by, reference materials for a script of some sort, editorial use, or even to run a one-shot with friends and dust off the old d12.

    I have to say that I support Palladium despite the truths and apparent “drama” that occurs there. I would be saddened to see them go, and it would be merely another swipe at the table-top gaming circle that would ultimately leave it a little more dead. In other words, the moment I heard about the controversy, I quickly bought a massive order from the online site and secured my hand-done print. Folly, maybe, but now I will have one more bit to remember it all by.

    Nostalgia or not, the game was apart of many of our lives, and love him or hate him, Kevin Siembieda brought it to our tables month-in and month-out for 25 years. If not to help support the industry and keep variety on the table, all should support it.

    If not, then we simply show that table-top gamers have, as a whole, decided that monetary loyalty to a single system outweighs the pull of imaginative variety in the game and that the Table Top RPG, the grandfather of all RPG’s, will one day count itself amongst the headstones of Parachute pants, 8-Tracks, and the Fade.

    Memories of worlds forgotten, because our eyes never left more than three paces in front of our feet.

  2. Wow. I can’t believe I missed this long and thoughtful comment until so many months later. Thanks for reminding me of why I got into RPGs in the first place. :)

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