Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Palladium Parable

When I was a teenager, I had a crazy uncle who gave me a stack of notebooks from his old D&D campaign. It was a gonzo mash-up of house-ruled First Edition AD&D, some Gamma World, and lots of stuff of his own invention, all set in this sort of crazy kitchen sink post-apocalyptic landscape peopled with cyberpunks, dragons, giant robots, and demons.

That uncle was Kevin Siembieda; those notebooks were collectively called Rifts.

Obviously, ol' Kev is not really my uncle, but he comes solidly out of the Stan Lee school of customer relations. Back during the height of my Palladium fandom, I felt like I had a somewhat personal relationship with the guy thanks to his personable writing style. And as for Rifts being a disorganized mess of a mash-up, so were most RPG products back in the early 90s. Hell, I remember one of the main selling points of games like GURPS or 2e AD&D was the fact that those rulebooks had indexes and clear chapter headings. No joke, kids.

I recently wrapped up a pretty epic 2e campaign (which I'll be writing about presently), run online with my "original" gaming group. We had such success revisiting a previously-maligned game of our youth that we figured we'd charge right on into another one in the form of Rifts.

I have to say that the core 2e experience holds up really well thanks in large part to that vaunted "organization," as well as the fact that, well, it's D&D, and even for one of the most maligned iterations of that game there are still a ton of great resources, both in-print and online, to tap.

Rifts (and Palladium games in general), on the other hand, feel like this sort of fossil trapped in amber, a call-back to another time. I'd argue against the common wisdom and say that the Palladium house system works, given a few caveats - although I've assembled the obligatory house rules document to fine-tune it to how I want to see it run. What I'm actually finding most difficult is extracting the actual usable material from the wall of two-column-formatted text. (I had to laugh when I recently saw someone call Palladium books "the Chilton Auto Repair Manuals of the RPG world" - so very true.)

Palladium games are almost universally packed to the gills with great ideas and settings, but when it comes time to actually stat things up, to generate NPCs and adventure locations and so forth, I'm finding myself hitting a bit of a snag. Once upon a time, sifting through ideas to find the "crunch" was de rigueur for the harried GM. I guess I have grown soft and weak in the years since, the years in which the RPG industry learned about a little something called "information architecture" and began applying it to their books.

I want to like Palladium games. I really do. But getting down to the nitty-gritty and actually trying to assemble something gameable is proving tougher than I thought. I'm reminded of how I got spun off on my own little "conversion project" some six years ago, the last time I tried to run Rifts. Who knows how this little venture will play out this time?

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