This chapter of Tools for Dreaming is an attempt at pushing a philosophy I call “conscious design,” in contrast to what I see as the problem of unthinking repetition of RPG design cliches. This is so, so not me lording over other people. There are so many design cliches that I struggle with all the time. The influence of Apocalypse World has helped me get better at realizing my RPG ideas, but I’m well aware that that comes with a set of deign cliches too.
“Engage in conscious design.” That’s my most important bit of design advice, not only for RPGs, but for anything. I put it on a T-shirt even.
When you design a game, you can do just about anything, but you need to do it consciously, and be aware of the effects things have on play. That’s a lot harder than it sounds, but it’s something that RPGs need to get better at. There are patterns that RPG design falls into, and while there’s merit in using methods you and your audience are familiar with, the unthinking repetition of well-worn conventions may have stunted the medium’s growth. That’s to be expected when such a large portion of this hobby is dedicated to relatively minor variations of D&D, but unless Wizards of the Coast or Paizo are seriously looking at your resume, you shouldn’t be beholden to Gary Gygax’s highly specific vision.
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.
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.
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.
The recent spate of Story Games threads about d20 have got me thinking a bit about alignments. Alignments in RPGs are a weird thing. They’re a defining feature of the #1 RPG, but they’re fairly rare in the range of RPGs that have been published. And like a lot of things in D&D, they’ve become a fixture of the game while kind of losing sight of the way they were originally intended, much less the source material that Gygax and company pulled the concept from.
D&D style alignments are rather awkward when it comes to describing morality per se. I know in playing D&D I’ve ended up making lots of True Neutral/Unaligned characters, and for certain D&D haters love to harp on it as one of the game’s flaws. While the 9-point alignment system is okay for describing characters in terms of how they relate to a society, it gets weird when you consider clashes with other societies. Will a Lawful Good paladin have a problem with slaying orc women and children, who his Detect Alignment power tells him are objectively Evil?
Another place I ran into some conundrums with alignment was in the various Palladium games. Palladium has of course clung to an alignment system that started with AD&D’s and went into something more to Kevin Siembieda’s liking, including the “No Neutrals” rant based on the idea that a True Neutral character would just stand there. To be fair, neutral alignment was rather vague until D&D 3rd Edition or so, but it’s nonetheless weird to see rants against aspects of AD&D 1st Edition as recently as a new Robotech RPG published in 2008. This in turn led to animals being True Neutral in D&D (which made perfect sense to me; ethics are a matter for the sentient) and if I remember correctly Unprincipled or Anarchist in Palladium. It also didn’t allow for characters with different ethics depending on who they were dealing with. At one point I was writing up a race of tiger aliens (closely based on the Kzin), who would be perfectly good (Principled or Scrupulous) to each other, but treated those not of their own species as non-entities, utterly unworthy of respect. I ended up giving them a good alignment with a parenthetical, though I was maybe 15 years old when I was writing that. It might seem like an unlikely quandary, but in real life every people wants to believe they’re good, and it seems like there’s a constant struggle to own the meaning of “good” in the first place.
Pre-AD&D, alignment was inspired by the works of Michael Moorcock and Poul Anderson, and were limited to Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic. More importantly, these reflected cosmic affiliations rather than moral leanings per se. That makes them less constrictive on character motive, and easier to relate to the setting. It’s less the difference between being nice or mean, and more like the difference between being Alliance or Horde. Adding the Good-Evil axis complicates this, but thinking of alignment as an affiliation lets Alignment Language make some small amount of sense. Planescape was probably the best D&D campaign setting for this, since everyone was a short jaunt away from the Outer Planes, which were manifestations of the alignments in the same way that the elemental planes represented the building blocks of the physical world. Truly being Lawful Good makes more sense if Tyr’s domain of Lawful Goodness is a place you can just go out and visit.
I don’t know that I want to be so overwhelmingly negative about alignments, but I do think that to the extent that the concept has merit, it hasn’t really been used to its full potential. Online conversations about old-school D&D too often seem to treat alignment as an excuse for DMs to dole out XP penalties, while in the more recent edition wars there seem to be a lot of complaints about how 4th Edition has deprived DMs of the ability to rob paladins of their powers. I still like the various D&D approaches better than the Palladium approach of copying and pasting the same ranty alignment rules from a few decades ago into every single game, regardless of genre. While alignments can sometimes produce interesting questions (and some amusing image memes), without giving it some cosmic significance or otherwise going beyond what they have been I feel like the whole concept can’t compare to good Aspects, Beliefs, Instincts, Values, Relationships, etc. in terms of informing how RPG characters relate to the world.
Though amusingly, Erick Wujcik’s Mystic China (one of the few Palladium books I’ve kept) adds a Taoist alignment.
Which strikes me as a little weird. Even if it’s not an assumption of the rules, when you have settings like Forgotten Realms where the gods are a little too involved in mortal affairs, a paladin who goes against his religious principles could have much worse things to worry about than whether or not he can still lay on hands.
And I hate to sound quite so negative about Palladium (I had a lot of fun with their games in high school), but the treatment of alignments are a prime example of how the Megaversal system rules have basically been frozen in time since the early 80s.