Category Archives: The Industry

The End of the Robotech RPG

Palladium’s Robotech RPG was the first RPG I ever played, and one I played extensively through middle school and high school. That’s probably why I feel the need to write about it in the wake of the news that, presumably because of the fiasco of the Robotech RPG Tactics Kickstarters, Harmony Gold decided not to renew Palladium’s license.

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The cover of the original Robotech RPG core rulebook.

Hindsight being 20/20, Palladium’s “Megaversal” ruleset was a very poor fit for Robotech (less so for stuff like TMNT and Rifts). On the one hand the ruleset was pretty average for 1986, but on the other hand Mike Pondsmith had published Mekton in 1984, and West End Games put out the brilliant Ghostbusters RPG in 1986, so a better Robotech RPG design clearly wasn’t impossible. The Macross Saga part of Robotech (which was a relatively straight localization of The Super Dimensional Fortress Macross) was about the power of love and music during a desperate war against an unknown enemy. Palladium essentially used a mutant D&D variant to create a sci-fi military RPG with giant robots, and didn’t make any effort to address even the basic conceit of confusing the enemy’s emotions with pop music. I don’t know that we would’ve appreciated a system that did Macross justice back in high school, but I do know that in our games Palladium’s rules didn’t contribute all that much to the experience compared to the effort that the GM and players put in.

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The DVD cover of the Macross movie, which unlike the Palladium cover, shows that it’s a story that involves characters that are human beings and not just cool transforming robots.

Of course, the Robotech RPG line was nonetheless successful, and put out a series of books with pictures of giant robots and such over the course of 30 years. I distinctly remember going to a convention panel about Robotech: Shadow Chronicles, and hearing the Harmony Gold people present saying that they were very happy with Palladium. Of course, that would’ve been in 2005 or so, and in the intervening 13 years Robotech RPG Tactics happened.

Despite a pretty profound obsession with all things Palladium overtaking our group in high school, we tried several other games (Toon, various World of Darkness games, GURPS, etc.), and moreover once out of high school everyone who stuck with RPGs found (and in my case designed) other, better games. Of course, making games that aren’t exactly top-notch design-wise isn’t a crime, and isn’t nearly as much of a liability in the industry as you might think, but even setting aside their lackluster game design chops, Palladium seems to be pretty dysfunctional as a company. They always seemed weirdly litigious and technologically backwards, and while some of the things they did to go against the prevailing trends turned out well (like doing softcover books at a time when RPG rulebooks were mostly hardcover and boxed sets), based on what Bill Coffin said about Kevin Siembieda’s approach to publishing books, it’s just not a good process creatively, business-wise, or on a basic interpersonal level. Even for weird little indie stuff, a certain amount of delegation is essential to get anything done, and a basic level of respect for your contributors is a must.

A miniatures game based on Robotech isn’t for me personally, but it’s kind of a no-brainer overall, and the Kickstarter for Robotech RPG Tactics raised $1.4 million. Of course, if you mainly produce products in the form of books, miniatures represent a massively complex undertaking that requires a great deal of expertise. That would explain why Palladium partnered with Ninja Division, which has successful games like Super Dungeon Explore and Relic Knights, but the whole thing has been a giant mess, which reached a new low with the loss of the license and a suicide attempt by the designer. Along the way there were major manufacturing issues that a company like Ninja Division with multiple miniatures games under their belt should’ve been able to avoid, which made getting manufacturing in China set up more expensive and time-consuming, and resulted in poor quality miniatures. All of this news comes to us with Kevin Siembieda’s writing, which never misses an opportunity to include a trademark symbol, and has things bolded at random. Watching from the sidelines I’m not going to try to untangle all of the blame, but it’s a pretty huge mess, and a lot of people aren’t going to get the game they paid for.

There are apparently people talking about a class-action lawsuit against Palladium, and I have to wonder if that will be the thing that finally tanks the company. I have a hard time applauding the demise of yet another RPG publisher–and one that defined my early years in this hobby no less–but then given everything we know about Palladium, it’s surprising that they’ve managed to keep shambling along this long. The Savage Worlds version of Rifts is a great illustration of how the company has a lot of wonderfully zany ideas with potential, but apparently lacks the ability to really compellingly implement them for anyone not impressed with lists of increasingly more powerful guns and robots. Savage Rifts got me excited about the story possibilities of Rifts North America in a way that Palladium’s own Rifts books never did. Their attempts to branch out beyond RPGs haven’t gone that well either, most notably when a Rifts video game got made, for the widely mocked failure that was the Nokia N-Gage.

Regardless, I hope that the talented people who’ve worked for Palladium like C.J. Carella (who created Nightbane and made some great contributions to Rifts), Kevin Long (whose art defined a lot of the look of Rifts and Palladium’s Robotech), Vince Martin (who among other things did all kinds of unique designs for the Naruni and Rifts Underseas), and Newton Ewell (who did phenomenal work for Rifts Atlantis and Pantheons of the Megaverse) have all found more and better employment. Likewise I hope that people remember Erick Wujcik’s legacy.

Of course, Harmony Gold is another company that has a pretty bad reputation, on account of being so litigious about their tenuously-held Robotech rights that they’ve gone as far as to block the sale of Macross toys manufactured in Japan, not to mention going after anyone who uses designs even vaguely similar to those seen in Robotech. HG turned the licensing issues with BattleTech into a protracted mess, and now there’s a whole thing with the “Unseen” BattleMechs. All of that probably makes Harmony Gold a worse company than Palladium, and while they too made something that defined my early years, the fact that their rights to the anime that make up Robotech expire in 2021 (and given that Tatsunoko sued Harmony Gold, they probably won’t opt to renew it) means that if nothing else we’ll go from a litigious American company to the benign neglect of the odd combination of multiple Japanese companies that hold the rights.

Anyway, that’s our dose of industry drama for today. I outgrew being angry about Palladium a while ago, but every now and then I end up seeing posts online and thinking, “What’s Kevin Siembieda done this time?” You have to be passionate and not too concerned with making money to get into RPG publishing, but then I have to wonder if the fact that I haven’t heard about similar fiascoes with, say, independent comics is just because I’m not as plugged in or what.

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On Fair Process and D&D

Ages ago I read the book Blue Ocean Strategy, and while I’ve never found any practical use for its core message, it contains a section on what’s called “fair process” that I’ve found incredibly useful. Fair process is basically the idea that when you make changes, even clearly beneficial ones, people are more likely to accept them when you clearly explain why you’re making them and what the benefits will be. The book talks about fair process in terms of convincing factory workers to give a new manufacturing system a chance, but I’ve also found it to be a useful way to approach things like pitching an RPG campaign to your friends. I mention it because the D&D team at Wizards of the Coast provides some examples of failures of fair process.

For fans of D&D 4th Edition, the Character Builder was a downright essential tool, which made it vastly easier to navigate the game’s ever-growing array of options when making and updating a character, and for that matter (thanks to the ability to print character sheets with pre-filled power cards) in play. It had a bit of a rocky start–which isn’t a big surprise considering that we’re talking about a tabletop company producing and maintaining a fairly sophisticated software tool–but it grew into a cornerstone of their D&D Insider online service. Then at some point, probably because it cannibalized books sales and was pirated a fair amount, they decided to switch to from an offline tool with online updates to a purely online service. We have no way to know whether or not it was a good idea in terms of getting more D&D Insider subscription dollars, but it’s pretty clear that they handled the launch of the new tool pretty badly.

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From a fan’s perspective, what happened was WotC stopped updating the Character Builder without any explanation, even as they were hyping up the release of the new 4E version of Dark Sun. They went completely silent for a while, and for my part I initially only heard about the new CB version through rumors on forums. It turned out that it was going to use Silverlight, an application framework from Microsoft similar to Flash, but which most people either didn’t use, or used only for Netflix. Silverlight doesn’t enjoy a great reputation, and Microsoft themselves started phasing it out after a final update in 2011. On launch day, the new CB was buggy and barely functional, and while it had the new Dark Sun character options, it was missing the Inherent Bonuses option that the setting book strongly encouraged using.

Switching to a Silverlight-based online-only service, especially mid-stream with an impressive subscriber base, was not a great idea, but months of radio silence followed by a buggy launch was about the worst approach possible to selling it. While some people would’ve undoubtedly been unhappy regardless, WotC needlessly burned a ton of goodwill with the abrupt and forced change. It’s incredibly easy to plot out a better strategy for the exact same piece of software, where you let people know in advance, and let the old CB continue updating until the new one is definitely ready so that users can make a smooth transition.

More recently, with the launch of 5th Edition, WotC had been totally silent on the matter of foreign language editions of D&D. It varies a great deal by country of course, but a lot of publishers all over the world have put in a lot of hard work to bring D&D to other markets. Where in the U.S. D&D can be the dominant RPG in part by virtue of saying “Dungeons & Dragons” on the cover, in many other markets it takes a lot of work to make it a success. In Japan it has to compete on an even playing field (possibly even at a disadvantage) with Japanese games like Arianrhod and Double Cross, but Hobby Japan made both 3rd Edition and 4th Edition a success there. Hobby Japan eventually received word that there would be no foreign language licenses for the foreseeable future. Japanese fans made fan translations of 5e, and HJ eventually decided to license and publish Pathfinder instead. Similarly, the Brazilian publisher that had put out previous editions of D&D in Portuguese picked up the licenses for Pathfinder and The One Ring to fill their fantasy niche.

Wizards of the Coast has been licensing Gale Force Nine to produce various D&D accessories, and more recently they announced that GF9 would be handling licensing foreign language versions of D&D. Licensing different aspects of D&D to other companies has a long tradition dating back to the early days of TSR (when they gave Judges Guild a handshake license to make various D&D play aids), but from what I can tell this arrangement meant that the previous licensees that WotC had build up relationships with got left in the dark for something like 2-3 years, and then a new partner came with the offer to let any publisher apply to negotiate a contract from scratch. The press release from Gale Force Nine states that “The first translations will be French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Polish, and Portuguese, with more to follow,” and from what Andy K has told me, the Japanese publishers he knows are all scratching their heads wondering who exactly is supposedly doing the Japanese version.

So again, even if you’re dead set on the plan to let a partner set up totally new foreign language licenses, going totally silent on business partners who’ve invested a massive amount into making your game a success in their market (and by extension, ignoring the fans in those countries) is a pretty blatant failure of fair process. The D&D team has an unfortunate tendency towards opacity, and while there’s the distinct possibility that at least some of it is what the corporate culture of Wizards of the Coast and/or Hasbro forces on them, it’s nonetheless a detrimental way of handling things.

I wound up thinking about all of this because of the current situation with the Brazilian version, which has created a bunch of industry drama that you can read about in this Medium post. But basically, three Brazilian companies formed a partnership to publish a Brazilian Portuguese version of 5th Edition, and one of them broke ranks to get an exclusive contract with Gale Force Nine, screwing over their partners.

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With a lot of Brazilian fans declaring a boycott and generally raising a stink about it, yesterday Gale Force Nine put out an announcement saying:

Currently, we are speaking with all parties involved in Brazil to sort out the situation. Our goal is to ensure fans can enjoy the products in their local language of choice and we are committed to supporting those fans and their community. As such our product release plans for this market are on hold until we fully investigate and hopefully resolve this issue. We apologize to D&D fans in Brazil for any delay this may cause but we’ll do our best to have a solution in place soon.

Going by the dates, the Medium post came out on March 23 and GF9 responded on March 24, which would make significantly them more responsive than the D&D team.

Personally, I kind of feel like after more than a decade I’ve just done enough with D&D, and don’t particularly feel the need for more when the medium offers such tremendous variety. But I’d rather the people who want it are able to enjoy it, so I hope that the international versions get sorted out before too long.