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.