What makes Palladium games unique in the roleplaying world? What makes them unique in good ways and bad.
The good, or at least interesting, unique features of Palladium games are the opposed roll combat system, the easy modification of the rules, and the late Silver Age and early Bronze Age comic book sensibilities. The bad unique items are the organization and the dominance of the Rule of Cool.
Opposed Roll Combat
While not the only game to it, Palladium was among the first systems to use an opposed roll in combat. As I pointed out yesterday, the ability to dodge a successful hit is in the system since The Mechanoid Invasion. Most systems treat dodging or parrying as a maneuver that gives a penalty to the attack of an opponent. In Palladium, dodge and parry are action you can take after a successful strike. You roll your dodge or parry just as you would an attack role with a successful roll being one that equals or exceed the roll that hit you. Ties go to the defender.
If the attack is a nat 20 then only a nat 20 dodge or parry will block it. While that might sound impossible the odds are only 1 in 400 which means a year of weekly play has pretty good odds of seeing it at least once. The odds of it not happening fall below 50% after 277 rolls.
One effect this has is to prolong combats. Another is to open a variety of strategic choices. Do I give up my next attack to dodge? The choice is made before damage is applied, so you have to weigh what your armor, or you, can still take against the cost of losing an attack. While similar trade-offs occur in other games with dodge and parry rules, they are done with less information and, in my experience, used less often.
Palladium Books is, in some ways, the last of the Old School game companies. Chaosium is older as is Flying Buffalo. Chaosium’s BRP, while descended from RuneQuest has more new school sensibilities than Palladium’s system. Tunnels & Trolls by Flying Buffalo is as old school and arguably even more easily modifiable. However, FBI never ran with it the way Palladium has with the Megaversal System.
A lot of the modifications are in the form of optional rules in the books. Unlike most hit point based systems, Palladium includes an optional wound system. It also includes optional bleeding out rules to emphasize the difference between hit points and SDC.
An interesting modification implied by the rules, but not spelled out, is in the perception rules in Nightbane and Rifts: Unlimited Edition. Perception is a d20 roll with three target numbers for easy, medium, and hard to perceive events. For cases where a character is using a percentile skill, say stealth, against another character’s perception the system suggests a roll over on d20s. The percentile skill is divided by 15 (Nightbane) or 10 (Rifts) to get a modifier for the active character.
For those wanting a pure d20 version of Palladium, the skill conversion mod is right there. Adopt the three targets and compute the skill from the percentiles. It could get fiddly, but it is an example of how easy to mod the system is.
Comic Book Sensibilities
If there is one constant in Palladium games it is the characters are heroes fighting to protect the weak, who may be themselves. Palladium games, even Nightbane, their entry in the playing a monster games of the 90s, are heroic. While the alignment system provides three evil alignments it rejects true neutrals. In reading the good and selfish alignments there is an emphasis on heroic characters, from 70s Clint and Charles Bronson outside the law types to paladins to Han Solo type rouges.
Another reoccurring theme is the power of art. If you think art was badly drawn or utilitarian until White Wolf came along, you haven’t looked at a Palladium book. I talked about the art in The Mechanoids Invasion being part of what I bought despite claiming I didn’t care about art.
These two items are the best example of what I call the comic book sensibilities of Palladium. If you want to run a Palladium game you need to read comic books, especially books that emphasize the Marvel style of the late 70s and early 80s. This doesn’t just mean Stan Lee, although Kevin often has a similar tone when directly addressing the reader. It means even the fantasy game has a feel closer to Claremont’s run on The X-Men, the Wolfman and Pérez era The New Teen Titans, and the Paul Levitz era of The Legion of Superheroes than fantasy or science fiction of the 70s or later. Even the gritter games like Nightbane have a feel closer to Keith Giffen’s “Five Years Later” stories in LSH than more horror oriented monster stories.
I do not know another game company with a similar sensibility as their default.
In a way this is a flip side of the last two positive items. One reason you can modify the rules easily is they are disorganized enough that they leave gaps, requiring you to fill them, or contradict themselves. Contradictions from one game book to the next are somewhat common. In the modern era this is a big problem.
Even if you don’t have a desire for the tightness of a GURPS or a Third Edition D&D the organization is an issue. While they are not quite as bad as original D&D the same kinds of assumptions about background knowledge of the hobby are present. The organization is more stream of consciousness than anything else. “Hey, we’re talking about fighter type player characters, so here are the combat rules,” is the thinking. This has improved some, but not enough.
One reason for the “not enough” qualifier is the sheer size of the rules. Rifts has nearly 40 world books and nearly 20 dimension books. All have rules materials, even if just new character classes. Heroes Unlimited uses random tables to assign powers, but adds new powers in supplements without adding new tables. Powers Unlimited 3 added ones using all powers to date when it came out, but that was after two more books in that sub-line, plus others in the line.
Still, to hearken back to easy to modify, that encourages GMs to build random power tables optimized to their table.
The Rule of Cool
The Rule of Cool is a big motivator in lots of media. In same amounts it is just a more abstract version of the sensibilities unique characteristic. What isn’t cool about Stan Lee’s loyal readers comments, Sunboy running 30th century holographic D&D, or a Mechanoids’ mothership the size of North America. They are fun, they are awesome, and they get you reved to read a comic or play a game.
The problem is they soon devolve into laser pistols able to hull a future tank in one hit yet no one adopts it as their primary weapon. Instead they send out tanks unable to survive the infantry they are supposed to overrun. This is at its worse in Rifts, where the Megadamage system from Robotech that only applied to vehicles got applied to dragons, human armor, and handguns. The two South America books for Rifts, often derided as overpowered come from the “why not mount these weapons on tanks made out of the same infantry armor, but in pairs” question the game creates.
As an aside, the use of the word “mega” for everything from the multiverse to hit points, is another place where a fun comic sensibility crosses into the negative side of The Rule of Cool.
I hope I’ve given you a glimpse into the unique things about Palladium that keep me coming back, especially those comic sensibilities and old-school DIY mentality. At the same time, I hope you have a glimpse into what often leads attempts to play Palladium games to fall apart.
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