Thursday, March 31, 2022

Ninjas & Superspies: 1985

Ah, yes, nothing dates a game like references to technology.

Memory Chip - Nothing more than storage for simply numerical or text data. Each chip holds about as much information as 20 typed pages, or enough digital audio signal data for a 10 minute sound recording, or sufficient digital images, for 4 photographic-quality images or one minute's worth of standard video recording. The memory chips can be installed in series for more storage.

This is kind of like the Space Opera situation where computers that run battleships have like 4K of RAM. Don't get me wrong, you can run a space program off computers like that, but your crew will be flipping a lot of gigantic banks of switches and dials.

The guns, technology, vehicles, and entire vibe of this game are stuck in the mid-80s. The cybernetic technology is not, and that feels like it came from an afternoon kid's cartoon with a title something like "Cyber Agents." And yes, there was a toy line to go along with that.

And don't forget the ninjas. Whole lotta ninjas.

So the game is dated?

Yes, and that is why I love it. I get to put together a 1980s playlist on Spotify, watch some of the great movies from the time as inspiration, get the hair right, play some Miami Vice music, and play a great game in a time before the Internet and handheld cell phone usage (they still had them in some places in cars and suitcases).

That computer chip, you bet I am playing that for laughs when the gadgeteer walks up to the team, something like Q out of a James Bond movie, and says, "And this chip holds twenty entire typed pages! Amazing! But please don't give up your day job and think you are going to be a novelist, agent."

250 single-spaced (or 500 double-spaced) typed pages equal a megabyte of computer storage. So this chip is about roughly 80K of memory, and you could say 64K if you wanted to be Commodore 64K authentic and give a little wiggle room for spacing.

And a standard roll of chemically-developed film in the day holds 24 high-resolution exposures (some did 36) compared to four low-resolution images (320x240 or 640x480-ish max) on that chip. Some things were still way better in analog back in the day, like vinyl LPs, Kodak film, rolls of movie film, giant audiotape reels, and stacks of typed pages, but that is cool.

This is very much an analog world. Give up on digital and embrace 80s tape-punk.

And one of the cybernetic upgrades for cyborg parts is a "modem chip." So if you have one of those in your cybernetic hand, plug your finger into a phone jack to transmit the data back to HQ; your hand will make those silly, loud, and embarrassing modem connect noises. You will smile with a smug smirk on your face like this is the coolest thing ever, but 40 years later, we are going to laugh.

And you still would have been cooler than us.

Mid-80s Cool & Tarnish

My game will be set in the nebulous mid-80s era. The end-point is definitely 1985 for any music and cultural references, as the 86-88 era felt like a downturn of cultural energy and tackiness. Once you get Iran-Contra, the Challenger Disaster, Chernobyl, and the stock market crash, the decade starts to lose its innocence and positive mojo. From 89' on, that is the 1990s, and you start to get a lot of modern cultural influences (Simpsons, Seinfeld, etc.). The year 1984 is the high point, but that extended into 85' so that music was cool as well, and the world was riding the 80's new wave. The 80's started to end in feeling in September 1985, so we can just push that through to Xmas and call it our cultural inspiration.

For some, the warts of the 80s may be a bit much. You are talking inflation, AIDS, the rich-poor gap growing, Central American wars, terrorism, drugs, the decline of inner cities, structural intolerance, the farm crisis, the crack epidemic, the S&L crisis, corrupt televangelism, the Satanic Panic, African famines, and a whole bunch of other problems that TV and movies tend to ignore. If you are doing a more lighthearted campaign, you should probably downplay or ignore those elements and live in the plastic, fictionalized 80s that our memories seem to idealize.

Some of those could probably be introduced in spy stories, like the Cold War, terrorism, gun-running to Central America, and the "Miami Vice" style drug trade - but some topics may upset some, so tread carefully and create the fictional setting that you and your players want to play in and agree to ignore the rest.

What You Want them to Be

Some say that every Palladium game is played however the group wants it to play. I heard some say that since these games were developed before the Internet, every group came up with its own way of playing the game, some used d20 (or d30) attribute checks (and that rule is not in the game), some used modified percentage rolls, and everyone figured out how to play these games themselves.

Everyone made up rules to make things work, and that was cool. Houserules to get things working the way the group wanted them to were common, GMs and players just made a lot of things up, a GM made a final ruling on how a situation was handled, and play continued.

And then the Internet came along, and everyone assumed there was one way to play these games. There wasn't, there still isn't, and while things online may be great rulings and ideas for how others play the games, they are not the way you should play.

You need to come up with that yourself.

In a way, the Palladium universe of games exists in this strange temporal time loop, one where trying to tell people how the game is played is like trying to explain love or the meaning of life. This is something you need to find for yourself. The tools are there; it is up to you to use them and build that meaning and experience with your friends.

Many old-school games are like this, and the original Traveller black books were like this. A lot of rules and "how to play" stuff did not exist. You made it up, house-ruled, and every group played Traveller slightly differently. Where rules did not exist gave you the freedom to make the game your own thing. So many of the games of this time had that freeform "you make it up" feeling, even earlier versions of D&D before they simplified the games for younger audiences.

I feel we lost a lot when these games went mainstream.

They stopped being games of imagination, and they became structured play activities.

We Tell You How to Play

Contrast this with today. We need revisions of the games telling everyone how to exactly play everything. Every ambiguity is reviewed by a grand council of hundreds, cleared up, official rulings and compromises made, and everything laid out in boring and exacting detail and procedures. Rules are patched like videogames, and I remember how bad it got during the 4E days when the books became worthless after a few months because all of the information would be horribly wrong.

Even worse, games that push the "official rules" narrative and paint your group in a negative light for breaking with what the company "says" about how the game should be played. You surrender your freedom and creativity to a billion-dollar corporate entity.

Your choice, but understands what they are asking you to agree to.

I feel it is a fast-food, slick, corporatized role-playing experience.

You don't need any imagination to play the games or interpret the rules. I have had some games I DMed where I felt like a DVD player reading the story and setting up the combats. I have seen players dutifully follow the script laid out for them. We had rules questions, and no one needed to come up with an answer. It was in the book.

How You See a Game

I feel that some games go wrong today is they lose that place where rules are left up to the group, and they try to be too much of the perfect reference guide on how everything works. They become more dictionaries than games that invite you to make up your own way of playing.

When our family played Monopoly, we made up all sorts of silly house rules, and we tried new rules every game. That was normal to do. The Free Parking pot of money for fees and taxes. Buying your way out of jail or paying for an extra die of movement. Buying another player's house and moving it to one of our properties. Adding extra houses and hotels with buttons and thimbles. The game was ours, and we decided as a family how we liked playing.

Today I feel we put too much faith in rules and accepted procedures of gameplay like we are all computers that need programming.

And I know some games appeal to those who like more structure.

Other games give you a box full of crayons and paints and tell you to make your own.

To a lot of players today who grew up inside that strict structural definition of what a game is, some of these more freeform experiences may not even seem like games. But to us kids who picked up sticks on the playground, called them swords, and made up our own cool playground games, a few pieces of "this and that" and our imaginations were all we needed to get started.

And the rest was up to us.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Twilight:2000 and Modern War


A very strange comparison today, especially since both of these games should be close in spirit and content. We have Free League's reboot of Twilight:2000 using the year-zero engine, and Zoser's OGL Cepheus Engine (2d6 Traveller style) game of squad combat, Modern War.

Twilight: 2000

You are on your own now...

This is more a Year Zero, survival, resource management, and sandbox-focused game. We have lots of special dice, a map to traverse in any direction you choose (preferably west), and a really tight set of rules that covers everything you need to know to survive and deal with everything the game's random encounters throw your way.

The game feels like sort of a throwback game to the old Avalon Hill Outdoor Survival game. You are given a map of hexes, there are specific rules for how far you move and how encounters go, you expend resources; encounters and combat may expend more resources; you track your health, food, and water; and along the way you are offered roleplay opportunities where you make decisions and expand upon your interactions with the locals.

The game can be played solo with encounter tables, cards, resource tracking, and hex movement - and that is a part of the core design. If you used a GM emulator you can have a lot of fun here since the game supports solo play.

The game assumes World War III has come and gone, and the world is in that post-war phase where everyone is either trying to establish order, get home, get ahead, or just survive. So there is this huge depressing pall over the game where none of this was really necessary, the war was a waste, and the world is struggling to find food and water for the next day.

The timeline stops at the year 2000, and that will be important when comparing these games - especially if you want to use Modern War as a vehicle and weapon resource for this game, which I am highly tempted to do since it is an excellent guide. So all of the equipment in Twilight:2000 will be about a generation out of date compared to today, a lot of these systems are still in service, but there are weapons used in current warfare (drones are a huge one, but not in this book) that only came into service in the last 20 years that have changed the nature of warfare.

Modern War

Let's play army men!

Seriously, this game is like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare on crack. You get so many cool toys to play with, a squad-based "adventuring party" fully loaded out with all sorts of guns and explosives, an action-packed military objective like something out of a World War II movie, and you are cut loose to cause mayhem and deal with everything that goes wrong.

You need to survive, but not in the same way. Surviving here means playing smart, saving ammo, using terrain, getting to the objective, and unloading so much hell on your target they turn into a smoking pile of charcoal. And then you need to get out alive. It is like an action movie where a squad of soldiers goes in to "do something" and they deal with tons of complications and problems along the way.

It is like the movie Predator without the Predator. You know, just the cool part at the beginning where the squad goes in and raises hell with the enemy soldiers? That.

The tone of this game is the complete opposite of Twilight: 2000. There is an active military command. World War III is not happening (or has not ended yet). You are a part of an active unit, and you are (hopefully) going home. You are given a mission with an insertion, objective, and extraction. You get to play with all sorts of cool toys.

You do not worry about long-term survival, planting wheat for the fall harvest, marauders, random hex encounters, or rebuilding the world when you get home. When you get home, another action-packed mission awaits!

You are a part of a squad of soldiers. You can play any part of the unit, or create a specialist (like a sniper or demo guy) and have them escort you to the mission location. You can play the machinegunner. Or just a rifleman. The radio guy. The medic. The unit commander. If you play with friends, you can each take one and let NPCs fill the rest.

I am a bit gung-ho, but you can play this seriously and be realistic if you want. If you were in the military you can use all your unit procedures. You can try and get in and out without firing a shot. If all you know are the movies, go to town.

Since the game was published in 2020, all of the gear is up to date. This is not really a great weapon reference for Twilight: 2000 since there is a ton of modern gear in here, many antitank and missile systems that rely on a generation of electronics ahead of Twilight: 2000, and systems that were only in development back then. Many of the vehicles here are in the world of Twilight: 2000, so it is a good resource if you know your dates and hardware, but then again, some of these vehicles were upgraded from 2000 to 2020 so the details probably won't be exactly right. If you are willing to overlook that and "modernize" your war a little to 2020, then you won't have a problem (but you will be doing a lot of conversions).

Great Games, Different Tones

Both of these are incredible games, and the only place where they come close is in production values (but Twilight: 2000 wins that fight with all the extras in the box and color art). The research and data in Modern Warfare is a joy to behold, and you may find yourself on Twitter looking at pictures of destroyed tanks and looking them up in the book.

Twilight: 2000 is more of a "gamers" game and less of a simulation. There are encounter cards, tables, and special dice. Your skills rank up with dice size. There are a lot of almost Euro-game design parts to this, and it all works. They minimize record-keeping and abstract a lot. It all works from a game rules perspective. It also works on a macro-campaign level, much like Forbidden Lands, where you level up, try to improve the world around you, and be a roving group of heroes.

Modern Warfare is a military sim, like the Arma 3 videogame but in pen-and-paper RPG form. It does not assume a destroyed world, and there is a command structure to give you your next mission. You can play almost like the old Squad Leader game did, with mini-scenarios and linked missions, and take control of that unit sent to knock out a bunker or take a house and rescue the VIPs hiding in the basement. You get to drive all the cool tanks and trucks. You get to fly the choppers or call in air or artillery support. You get to take out the terrorist leader and raid his hideout. You get to rescue the downed pilot.

Both of them are incredibly fun, and both can coexist side-by-side. If you are interested in one, I would instantly recommend the other. And they complement each other because the technical, unit, country, weapon, vehicle, and order of battle information in Modern Warfare would be things that Twilight: 2000 would know.

Modern Warfare characters may want to know what is waiting for them should the world go to hell, or at least have that opportunity to play without a command structure and decide what type of hero you would be given complete freedom in a destroyed world.

Both of these have my highest recommendation, great games for different reasons.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Palladium Fantasy RPG: Interactive Character Sheet

If your eyes are not what they used to be, and you find the printable Palladium Fantasy character sheets that you can download pretty much well unusable, this is a great product. You are going to spend a little time learning how this works, but it is a lot less time than you would spend working up your own sheet (or struggling with the official ones). The printouts are way more readable than what I can fill in on those sheets that force you to write 6-point type in pencil.

The only downside is now I want one for the other Palladium games (Ninjas and Superspies, Dead Reign, Heroes Unlimited, etc) besides Palladium Fantasy and Rifts. There is a little room for custom skills and classes in here so you can customize this sheet for specific characters.

It gives you three printable sheets for the character sheet (double-sided), magic (double), and combat (single). The sheet auto-calculates everything, so you don't need to do much math, and you need to follow along with the OCC selections and skill picks with the books - the sheet does not do everything. This is more like a worksheet that holds your hand and does all the math; while the choices and the character design steps you need to do yourself.

The nice part about these sheets is you can save on the cloud and have your characters wherever you go. Make a fresh copy of the sheet for each character!

Also, you can save a dollar buying from the Palladium store since DTRPG takes a cut.

Very highly recommended. Also, it requires Microsoft Excel.

DriveThru RPG ($4):

Palladium Store ($3):

Palladium Fantasy RPG: Combat

So I sat down this weekend to run through a few sample combats using the NPCs from the Palladium Fantasy Game Masters' Kit, and of course, I was sitting there with my "expert bias" and saying, "I know how this is going to go. I have been playing these games long enough to know how this plays, and I won't be surprised."

Well, I was surprised.

So on one side was the pre-gen character Haloric, a 3rd level thief with two daggers and soft leather armor. On the other side, we have Tramon Dess, a 3rd level assassin with many weapons (military fork, sword, daggers) and studded leader armor. The assassin has the advantage here in a few ways; first off, HTH combat assassin versus the thief's basic. The assassin has far better weapons and armor, along with a +4 bonus to strike with most weapons.

This is going to be so one-sided.

I doubt that thief is going to get one hit in.

Now, I house-ruled in a fumble on a roll of a 1, and the assassin kept dropping his weapons. He had to spend an action to pick them up (or change to a new one), so the thief had a little breathing room. But wow, the tension and drama of this fight kept me engaged all the way to the end. The thief actually knocked 30 hit points of SDC and hp from the assassin (with a 1d6 dagger), and the fight was close. Even at times when I thought, "at this point, it is over," the thief's staying power and damage - with a basic HTH skill - surprised me.

At the end of the battle, the thief was reduced to 1 hp, and I had him surrender, so he did lose, but it did not go the way I expected it to. And the parries, dodges, and back and forth with the action economy surprised me.

My Assumptions Were Wrong

I did not remember much about the flow of combat, and the game humbled me, which is good stuff and makes me a fan again. I forgot how cool this system was and why we played it back in the day. It does call back to older systems where combat was more back-and-forth and detailed, and the system was a reaction to D&D combat feeling too basic for many.

A lot of us back in the day "wanted more" from a combat system, and that is why we played this. I forgot totally and fell back on what I read online about how others felt, so I should feel that way. 

Well, yeah, I liked it back in the day, but it is a bit clunky, as many have pointed out...

Not exactly. This is one of the more elegant and easy combat systems that still retains defensive reactions to attacks. The fact we have a defensive step adds to the complexity over a B/X, but how the system handles all this is about the fastest and most straightforward system I have seen in a fantasy game.

I think because I got drawn in by Rifts I missed a lot of the SDC melee fun that makes a fantasy game like this so great. You can get so distracted by giant particle cannons and missile launchers that when you remove that and go back to basics, you rediscover why the original system was such a genius creation and got the attention it did.

Now I am going from "liking the system despite flaws" to "super-fan."

Versus B/X and D&D

It is hard to go back to the D&D style of melee after this. What I like is the combat is not so one-sided after that to-hit roll is made. I hit, I do damage, done, move on! Not really. Yes, I know in D&D, the to-hit versus AC roll simulated parries, dodges, and a lot of "action" hidden in that dice roll, but at times it can feel like a videogame where "I roll, I do damage, next!"

And it feels flat and boring.

Just get this fight done!

Whiff, whiff, hit, 1 hp damage, whiff, whiff, hit 3 hp damage, whiff...come on!

At least if I play a caster, I can do different things.

In Palladium FRPG? Your defenses matter. You can build a defensive build. You can focus on offense. You can do unarmed. You can do a mix. You can do shields. You can mix a little ranged in there. You can do speed versus slow. You manage a pile of attacks and use them for special attacks and defenses. Your armor deteriorates, and you can "take a hit" or roll with a punch to reduce damage (at the cost of an action).

The "fighter game" in Palladium FRPG is incredible and worth the price of admission.

And another thing I love is the game isn't so selfishly one-sided on the attacker's side, like how I feel D&D can be at times. I hit I do damage; you have no chance to mitigate or stop! Come on! Stop slowing the game down! What rule gives you the right to defend or say no? I am guaranteed my damage roll!

Well, no, a defender's skill matters. Combat isn't just an "attack bonus." You get a skilled swordfighter on the other side, and they are parrying blow after blow with ease, and you are sitting there frustrated why your five hits didn't do 5d8 damage to the other side by now. They didn't land. The other side's skill contributes to defense. There isn't a good way to factor in defensive skill in D&D to AC since if you raised AC, the combat would get more whiff and less satisfying.

Thief Fight!

Let's have a battle between a first-level thief (3hp, +0 attack, AC 7[12]) and a sixth (15hp, +2 attack, AC 7[12]) in B/X, given normal weapons and armor (each with a dagger, d4 damage). The higher level thief has a better chance to hit, so overall higher DPS by 10%. The only real deciding factor in this battle will be wearing down hit points, and that hit bonus. There is no skill difference factor in AC (DEX may modify AC, but that would be the same for both given similar abilities and is not skill).

In Palladium, the higher-level thief will have defensive skills that will likely prevent a lot of damage from happening, or deal with the lower-level thief in different ways, like entangling, disarming, or other less-stabby methods. But as I noted in my sample combat, being less skilled does not make this one-sided, and smart play really matters.

Smart play matters. The choices you make in a combat round matter.

That is what I want in a game.

Longer Combats, More Interesting

Downsides? The combats are longer but way more interesting. You have to be careful designing adventures like your typical D&D dungeon crawl, where you can stick 12 orcs in a room and expect the party to clean them up in a turn or two. D&D always had this feeling of playing like a videogame where you could cleave through crowds of enemies quickly, and while that is satisfying on one level, it leaves me feeling I want more if I feel enemies should be treated with a little respect.

One-on-one battles are interesting here. I could see a fight with two orcs holding a bridge behind a tipped-over cart and two giving fire support from the opposite riverbank with bows as a cool climactic battle for a party. Throw a caster in there for some extra spice. The battle will take a little longer, but this will be a detailed and complex challenge for a party to pick apart and defeat.

Solo Play

Better yet? This game feels great to solo in. Since the characters are more detailed, you could just play one and have this great, detailed, and gritty adventure as the story of one hero against the odds. Leveling up means something, and you get varied and different bonuses as you gain power. I tried soloing in B/X and it felt flat, the whiff game came up and I just wasn't interested. I couldn't do enough, there weren't great character build options, and I needed a little more expressiveness and detail in combat.

Here, there is a second level to resource tracking as armor SDC needs to be tracked and repaired. You need to rest up and recover SDC, but losing hp is serious and takes downtime to heal. The build options create choices in combat, and I get this epic Street Fighter feeling when a battle begins. I can build an offensive, damage-forward berserker. I can build a shield fighter. I can build a nimble, parry rogue. I can build a gladiator with varied weapons. I can build an unarmed specialist.

Rules Light with Moderate Builds

I feel a tendency to put rules-light games on such a high pedestal that we lose sight of why we like a little more detail and crunch to our games. The options here are fantastic, and solo play feels really attractive just because of the options and unpredictability of combat. And for solo play, I want characters I can customize, build, and have a moderate level of complexity to the character build system.

The combat rules here are still rules-light, but the characters are of moderate design complexity. Compared to a B/X game where it is light in rules and light with builds, the extra complexity in characters combined with a combat system that leverages build choices creates a fascinating level of depth that I can't pull myself away from.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Mail Room: Heroes Unlimited

Don't be the game master who promises your group a superhero game, picks Heroes Unlimited, has everyone create superheroes...

...and then send them all into Rifts.

I have heard this happening more than a few times; like somehow the non-Rifts Palladium RPGs are "gateway games" to get people into a Rifts campaign. Yeah, we started in Dead Reign, but...


You made a promise to this group to play THIS game. Do not pull a fast one on your friends! They want to be the X-Men, not run around as Rifts characters.

It makes me happy I have banned Rifts from my Palladium-verse for the time being, and I am considering and playing these games by themselves without using them as "starting zones" for the eventual Rifts game everything ends up as. These are fun games and they deserve to be played on their own, in their own universe, and given their own moment to shine without the Rifts Cinematic Universe showing up and turning this into the one game to rule them all.

A parallel Palladium Universe where Rifts never happened.

And no, this parallel universe isn't going to eventually end up in Rifts.

How can that happen? Well, the superheroes of Heroes Unlimited stopped the plot a long time ago and Rifts never happened in this universe. The demons are pretty angry they can't ride MDC motorcycles, but hey, whatever. Anything that used to be linked to Rifts - but does not come from the world -  goes back to the closest aligned universe as SDC entities. The gods in Pantheons of the Megaverse? Back in Palladium Fantasy. Some of the other strange alien intelligence monsters? Probably in Beyond the Supernatural or Nightbane. Some things ended up in After the Bomb, others in Dead Reign.

I am happy with my SDC Cinematic Universe (SDC-CU) and it will stay the way it is.

Whenever I played Rifts it wasn't "that" connected and I tended to treat outsiders as special NPCs instead of the norm. I liked those who came from the world and gave them the spotlight, and the game felt more grounded and real.

I had the original game and this is my first time with the revision. I am looking forward to exploring this and playing with it as a part of my SDC-CU. I am going to set these games in the era I want them to be set in, and not all of them will be the current day. With Heroes Unlimited, I would love to set my game in the '90s with those Jim Lee-style heroes and X-Men attitudes. The Ninjas and Superspies game needs to be in the Chuck Norris, Rambo, Schwarzenegger, and action-movie 1980s (plus the technology is right). Beyond the Supernatural is the early 2000s. Dead Reign is the 2010s. Nightbane feels like the 1990s. Basically, the publication date of the game is when I am setting them.

Looking forward to this one, and no, I am not doing any copyrighted characters from Marvel or DC in this universe. I am happy to randomly generate them all and let the chips fall where they may. I am done with a lot of those trademarked characters anyway and want to move on with my own creativity.

More soon.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Mail Room: Modern War

Where did this game come from? Wow, this one is amazing, a clear S-Tier military game. Even if you just like looking at pictures of guns, military systems, and tanks this one is a keeper as a reference manual. Want to know more about those pictures of the knocked-out tanks in Ukraine? This is your game.

Want to play a marksman in a marine squad sent to clear a building from Central-Asian rebel mercenary snipers in a destroyed eastern European city under siege? This is your game.

It is a unique game because it assumes you take the roles of members of a modern military squad, and you play one member of it while the rest of the squad fights alongside you. So when your squad of marines gets pinned down in a gas station by mortar and small arms fire, you can play the marksman with the sniper rifle, pick off the mortar spotters harassing you, and move before an enemy drone homes in on your position and you get hit by missiles or artillery.

In short, you can play everything you see on the news and be a fictional hero in any war you can dream up or the ones you don't need to dream up and go on social media to check on.

The reference material in this book is incredible, with pictures of everything, stats, and you get much more here than a military weapons book you could get from Amazon. And you get to use all that cool stuff in battle, fire the ATGMs, use the rifles, launch the grenades, call in fire support, dodge the drones, and evac by chopper.

The rule system uses the Traveller-like OGL Cepheus system, and it is rules-light and blazingly fast.

The OGL by itself is incredible, and the fact creative people can use it to create games like this and share them with the world is an amazing thing. While the new Twilight:2000 game is a cool sort of dice-and-chart survival-focused experience with storytelling and NPC interaction, this is a much more real and immediate hit of military action roleplaying where you are sent in to get a job done and get out alive.

This game may hit a little too close to today for some, as you can watch a video on Twitter of a battle happening, and your games will be shockingly close to that experience. You can play "what if" scenarios where NATO goes into a hotspot, and squads are sent to grab objectives and complete missions. Again, if this gives you more worry and stress than interest, stick to more escapist games.

I grew up wargaming with my brother and loved military systems and history. This book and its supplements are a gold mine of great memories and fun data. My first reaction was this was a game that feels like a modern war roleplaying game version of the classic Squad Leader wargame - and that is a game I always wanted but never had.

I would love a WW2 version of this game done to the same level of detail. That would be another S-Tier game for me.

You layout a mission for a squad to complete, load up, insert into the LZ, and move to contact. You play one person in that squad and pick your role and position. Then, things go wrong. You adapt and overcome. And your fate lies in the dice and the actions you take.


Palladium FRPG: Monster & Animals

This is a great book.

And why play Palladium? The fans are some of the most die-hard and best around. People that don't like it, don't play it (but they complain about it a lot). Those that are left are there for the game. I ran with the Aftermath system as our house rules for nearly 10 years for sci-fi, fantasy, and modern games. Palladium and Rifts feel like throwback B/X games in comparison, and plus I played TNMT and Rifts back in the day and loved them.

The attack roll and the defender having a chance to react are very cool, cinematic, and tense rules for combat. Do they drag out combat? Yes. Are they worth it? Even more so! Very few games can you outclass an opponent in so many ways that make a difference, and a good defense is a viable combat option.

Back to the book.

Let's take a step back from our journey through Palladium FRPG, let's open the monster book and check things out. Over 160 pages of illustrated monsters, followed by a further 80 pages of illustrated animals?

Not to mention the dozens of additional possible player races presented here. Since orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, ogres, troglodytes, kobolds, and trolls are main-book player races (yes, amazingly true) we get even more fae and humanoids in this book including brownies, fairies, leprechauns, mermaids, nymphs, satyrs, sprites, fae, pixies, evil toads, treant-like will-o-the-wisps, and more as possible player races.

Palladium FRPG was one of the first "play as a monster" fantasy games (outside of Tunnels and Trolls), and they continued to support and kept adding options every time they added creatures to the game. A lot of fantasy games feel stingy when it comes to player race options, or include these "product identity" options that force you into a piece of copyrighted content as your player identity (and of course, they control it and you lose that part of your character should you ever want to publish a book about them).

Also, remember that demons, elementals, dragons, and undead are mostly covered in other books. Humanoids are the main book characters, so if you need an orc or goblin, spin one up with a class. PFRPG does not do the typical "orc entry in the Monster Manual" thing. For one, it diminishes the entire race as a 1 HD monster. And another, PFRPG is built off the assumption that every monster in the game is created and played using the same system, has levels if there is a class, and plays and fights as hard as the heroes - using the same rules.

More? We Got More!

Do you want more options for player races? Get the After the Bomb game and create unlimited types of mutated animals as player characters. Play a parakeet paladin. Play a cattle thief (an actual cow, as a thief). A noble chicken. A diabolist goat. Remember in the After the Bomb game you have these sliding scales of size, mutations, and how human they are. That parakeet could be a 12-foot tall brute. You can give them animal-specific powers too, like tunneling, flight, swimming, or other special abilities.

Get Heroes Unlimited and design a "whatever you want" sort of character. A lost android. An alien. An intelligent tree. An intelligent energy cloud. Or really any other idea you could take from a comic book.

The options of player races and forms in the Palladium FRPG are endless, and things get even crazier if you assume that random Rifts pull in aliens, humans, creatures, and others from across time and the universe into this fantasy world - just no Rifts stuff or MDC weapons, please. The idea of a "reverse Rifts" fantasy world with Palladium FRPG as the base world and the rest of the "normal PF universe" as those rifted into this reality seems very cool to me and would feel like a lower power-level version of the Rifts game but based in fantasy.

But Fewer Monsters is More

Not in the quantity of them in the book, but this is one thing I noticed reading your typical B/X adventure versus a Palladium FRPG one. In B/X, you will often get these 40x40 rooms with the entry, "And 30 kobolds in the room." Blam, fireball target, I know. Because B/X runs numerically simple, you can throw a Gauntlet videogame number of creatures in a room and still be able to fight them all in a night's setting.

We did a number of conversions of B/X modules to Aftermath back in the day, and we hated these rooms. First off, in a combat system with some meat and bones on it, and that gritty one-on-one feeling, you do not need 30 kobolds to challenge a group of players. Six is a huge group, and I suspect in Palladium FRPG this is also true. Reduce the monsters in number since they will be tougher than the typical d4 hp, +0 AT, and AC 7 [12] "all you need to know" of the typical B/X kobold.

Kobolds in PFRPG will have parries, SDC, hp, attacks, and all sorts of other meaningful play stats. Give a few special weapons, dispositions, and tactics. Maybe one will charge while a few others hold back and take cover with short-bows. Maybe one fights with a shield and short spear. Maybe another hurls insults and only attacks those who get near.

If you have fewer, varied, and more interesting foes that use the terrain of the area the entire fight is better for it. Whenever you convert an adventure up to a more gritty and detailed combat system, reduce the number of enemies and individualize them. B/X is so simple it can get away with these cut-and-paste enemies with a few meaningful stats. With more detailed and grittier combat systems that emphasize blow-by-blow fights, you need fewer foes - but with more detail and variety.

And this is Palladium FRPG, there are books full of strange melee weapons, so bust out those spontoons, oncin picks, runkas, meat cleavers, frying pans, cudgels, pry bars, ice picks, spades, shears, and talwars. Giving them all short swords is so B/X; part of the fun of this game is opening up your weapons book and pointing at a picture, and saying, "this."

This happened to me at a middle-school lunch once. We were recounting our Palladium adventure, and one of my players said, "and one attacked me with a quaddara, I blocked with my kukri, while the other threw a mongwanga at us!" And all the D&D kids at the other table turned and stared.

One of them stated, "There are only three types of swords."

We laughed.

Never so proud to be called nerds by them at that moment.

Monster Have Horror Factors

One of the cool things about Palladium FRPG is some of the monsters have horror factors. If you are walking along and all of a sudden a giant grizzly bear rears up on its hind legs right next to you, yeah, you are saving against a horror factor to avoid being temporarily stunned. Critically fail this and I just may rule you are affected by temporary random insanity or fail by a huge margin and you may run in flight.

Yes, the game has the Call of Cthulhu-style horror mechanics, and they even apply to a few fearsome predators, all undead, and every supernatural creature. It is great stuff, and it helps keep the monsters from becoming a "ho-hum, another beholder" style of familiarity.


Undead in the Palladium RPG are a special case. You will find most of those in the book Land of the Damned Two: Eternal Torment. Skeletons and other animated dead raised by spells are at best temporary creatures without that undead "soul" keeping them alive. And of course, if you want Zombies, check out the Dead Reign game and go to town with hundreds of different types of zombies.

There are ghosts, specters, mummies, and entities like poltergeists in this book. Just none of the B/X standards like skeletons, zombies, ghasts, or wights. It probably would not be too hard to convert a B/X monster in since you could start at a 3d6 human attribute and SDC base, set hp to PE, and add +1d6 hp per HD. For SDC I would say HD x 10. For attack bonus, use the base PP bonus, and give them an HTH combat style and WP, count their HD as their level to calculate all of the other combat bonuses. For AR use the closest armor.

Ghouls? Main rulebook, page 318, counted as a demon - so not technically undead. It makes sense since they "eat flesh" and undead don't need to eat anything. Wraiths are also greater deevils. So there are some things that are different here than your standard B/X assumptions.

Remember, every monster should be different and you can have variations - I am still of the mind monsters should be unique and scary creations, and lists of them are less important. When in doubt, grab something from the book like what you want, change a few abilities, and play. Or generate a quick character and modify the numbers up or down based on threat, set a level, add some more hp and SDC if you need to, and play.

Undead aren't really a "primary" monster type as they are in D&D. They are more of a story monster linked to a specific area of the Palladium FRPG world. I get the same feeling with demons and deevils, and I kind of like not having every monster type roaming everywhere in a fantasy world. Of course, I am free to change that and put them wherever I want, but to stick to the game's lore, if you have undead in an area, that is a really cursed area close to the realm of the dead and there is a good reason for them being there.

D&D has this lore where undead exists everywhere, lying around, and hiding out in crypts. In the Palladium FRPG they only exist in cursed places, likely close to the realm (or a place of) great death. It is an interesting difference between games and the assumed lore of the settings, and worth noting.

Different, but Cool

I like this book. It does its own thing and sets you up thinking differently about monsters than your standard B/X bestiary. Sometimes we can repeat the same monsters so many times they become boring, and I like what they did in games like Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Dungeon Crawl Classics by letting you come up with whatever monster, whatever powers, whatever attacks & defenses, and whatever stats.

Yes, this is way harder for the GM, but it is so much more fun at the table.

I am prone to do that here since this game is so close to Rifts anything could be out there and crawling around, and the players should never really have a firm grasp on what they are fighting and how it reacts. To me, the monsters given here are not as important as using their stats and coming up with my own. I can use my quick system to invent a couple, stat them out, and just let them rip. It doesn't matter much if the next ones have the same exact stats, since everything should be a little different.

So in a way, using this book as a "monster bible" is not what I see it as. This is more a baseline for the standard abilities of creatures in a couple different classes and gives me base templates to modify and create my own monstrosities from. I may use some as-is, and I may not.

This is a highly recommended book. Very nicely done and a useful resource for the game.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Palladium Fantasy RPG: Wolfen Empire

They have never reprinted Palladium RPG Book IV: Adventures in the Northern Wilderness, so if you are looking for a "book 4" for your Palladium FRPG collection you will find some of the same material in the Wolfen Empire book. You can also throw the old "book 5" Further Adventures in the Northern Wilderness into the Wolfen Empire compilation, so the second edition books have a numbering gap jumping from 03 to 07. I suppose they are leaving those open for a reason, but as far I know, all 2nd edition books are in print. If you want the 1st edition books to fill the gap, get them in PDF.

It looks like the older 1st edition books were more pure adventure books, while the 2nd Edition books switched to a mixed "rules expansion plus adventure" format. I feel this is a good format change since you are expanding your game with each new 2nd edition book that you add.

There is some content only found in first edition books, as I read, so it is worth having these if you are willing to convert the stats to the second edition.

This book is fewer rules, more background, and lots of adventures; so if you are looking for expansion classes and other core material you may feel a bit underwhelmed. The information is incredible though, and the Wolfen is one of the races at the heart of the Palladium FRPG experience so it is not to be missed. This truly has that feeling of the northern Michigan wilderness during the winter, where the soul of this game started, so I would not say skip this one since to understand the world you need to start here.

The Wolfen are Cool

This is a Roman Empire-like collection of wolf-person tribes that are just cool in the way gritty TNMT is cool. They are not furries, since those tend to be over-sexualized and cute in an anime way. The humanoid animals in all the Palladium games (especially After the Bomb) are these gritty, mean-looking, tough, angry beasts and almost an anti-furry in a way since they have that snarling, narrow-eyed look that makes the classic "dark" ninja turtle style-art work so well. They look bad-ass and cool, even the more regal pictures have this look they could turn savage and start tearing throats out quick.

They are very much the noble savages sort of collection of tribes and clans, and they have taken an inhospitable, frozen wasteland and turned it into their home and a powerful empire of commerce and civilization. The Wolfen are unique and help make the Palladium world what it is, so they are one of the signature elements to the world and the game as a whole.

The worldbuilding in this book takes center stage, and the mix of savage plus civilized just works so well for them. There are no specialized classes and special rules in this book for them, just an exhaustive gazetteer for their lands. With notes on their religion, military, government, currency, trade, and all sorts of great information.

Monsters of the North

We do get new stuff, which is cool, and we get a monster section with some hefty encounter charts and a random table of adventures. The monsters are all cold climate beasts and they add a lot to the lands.

I would have liked to see some more monsters here, and possibly a few NPC classes. As it is, the section works as supporting material and I would also recommend the Monsters & Animals book for more creatures that live in this area.

I would have also liked to see some more gear, like sleds, snowshoes, different parkas, climbing and survival gear, and maybe rules for ice fishing. I lived in the far north once and know what it is like, and having that specialized cold-weather gear would have felt right to me. We probably have it in other places I know, but I missed it here. Winter weather charts and specialized rules for sleet, lake ice, hoarfrost, ice fogs, wet snow, dry snow, snowbanks, avalanches, and other weather types would have been fun too.

That cold weather, it has certain moods and swings, tempers, and calm moments; and it is more than just ice and snow. It is really another character in a scene and adventure you need to deal with.


The book closes with adventures like many of the other books do. They run about half the book, 80 pages, and provide a good mix of travel, social, combat, town, and other non-dungeon adventures. There is only one small cave map, so the adventures are more story-focused than dungeon crawlers.

It's Cold, Really Cold

To sum up, a book that is more focused on setting than rules, and this feels like a good change of pace from the previous books that felt like more rules and less setting. The sea adventures book felt almost entirely rules, so this being the next book after that gives us a little balance back to the series.

Compared to my other "ice kingdom" books I have read for settings, such as Icewinddale for the Forgotten Realms, this one stands up there with one of the best. The atmosphere, Wolfen, and flavor of these savage lands just work so well together, and it has this "winter of death" feeling to everything here. The civilized turn to the Wolfen is a great choice, and it shows a different, non-stereotypical take on something a lot of games would just leave at bloodthirsty werewolf tropes and call it a day.

And it does feel like the Palladium FRPG by this point is hitting its stride and not making up for needed content. We have gods, dragons, old ones, pirates, bards, travel, ships, demons, and elementals out of the way - now it is time for more world-building.

Would I have liked Wolfen classes, magics, and professions? To be honest, I would. I did feel the book was a little light on the new stuff to play with, but given the amount we just digested with the previous books, I get why laying off the avalanche of rules and classes would be a good thing.

But having grown up in a small town on the Canadian border, I get the feeling this book went for, and it is really one of those that lies at the heart of this game. Those long, cold, endless days of winter where the darkness never seems to end, the bitter dry cold and the sudden storms and shifts in weather create a hearty breed of settlers in an equally harsh land.

This game came from those long winters with nothing to do outside; so when you look at this book, you realize that the spirit of the creators of this game is in this volume, howling like a distant wolf in the wind.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Palladium Fantasy RPG Book I: Dragons & Gods

Wait, is this a Rifts book?

That cover looks a lot like a Rifts cover to me...

In a way yes, in a way, it is for every Palladium game. This one feels like a crossover book with a lot of Rifts information and dual-statted dragons, gods, monsters, and demons of the Palladium universe. If you are strictly playing a Palladium FRPG game, this book is as close as Rifts as you can get.

Every god, demon, and dragon in this book know about the Rifts universe, but they are just a little quiet about it. In my PFRPG universe, everybody knows what happens when they open the door to Rifts.

The guy who writes these articles is spending a lot of money on books.

And he has forbidden that.

For now.

Yeah, they listen to me because I buy the shelves around here. If I say I am just playing and collecting JUST the fantasy game, all these aliens, gods, and super powerful dragons stay quiet.

Everything We Didn't Have Room For... the core book. Except for the bards. Later, bards. Why did you leave the dragons out of the core rulebook of a fantasy game? Same reason I bet they left demons and devils out of the Old School Essentials books. You will need to start cutting a lot of good stuff out, and you run the risk of shorting the content you really want to slow down and spend a lot of quality time on. You have to ask yourself, is it really worth leaving them out of the core book if they are an integral part of the rules?

It is frustrating, but if you cut it out of the core book and do it later well, then that is cool.

With dragons, this is a really close call, I feel. You can argue in Old School Essentials that you can play the game without demons and devils, pull them in from Labyrinth Lord if you want, and be just fine. They are promised in a later book, and given the quality of what we got already, I am looking forward to this addition to the game.

Back to Palladium FRPG. Dragons? Really? Out of the core book? And the gods? Okay, they better be really, really good to warrant a second purchase just to have what many people consider core elements of a fantasy game. The bar here is a little higher set than the OSE and demon situation because what is a fantasy game without dragons and gods?

We shall see...

Dragons First!

I get why this book came separately. Dragons are powerful things. This is like the "high-level companion" for the Palladium FRPG, a mixture of the old Deities and Demigods book for AD&D and a Monster Manual II focusing on high-level foes. We have a few dragon-like lower-level creatures to add to the mix, but dragons are not something you want to be fighting unless you are from...

...a place we are not talking about yet.

Hey, you can play a dragon hatchling as a player character? What? Okay, that is cool. You will level as slow as molasses, but you will be an OP character alongside a low-level party. Balance that with running around and acting like a mostly invincible kid, curious about everything, doing random things, getting underfoot, setting the tavern on fire, and generally half of the time being a nuisance and danger to your friends, and that should balance things pretty well. And yeah, dragon hunters, mages looking for dragon blood, mercenaries hired to take the dragon, dragon slayers looking to slay the dragon, and all of the outside trouble this gets you into.

But hey, you wanted a baby dragon to come along with the party! So cute!

This is Palladium FRPG. If you like it, keep it in. If not, exclude it. It isn't balanced or even recommended, but damn, is it fun to do once or twice. Another trick for the Keeper of Lore to pull out when someone compares their game to AD&D and, "Why aren't you playing that?"

The dragons here break the D&D mold a little, with dedicated fire and ice dragons, and I am sure you could make other elemental variants if you wanted to. We are not doing the "box of crayon" color dragons here, and that is a cool difference. They are supposed to be unique and have differing breeds, and that helps them stand apart from each other some more.

So far, so good, and I can give this book a pass for having the dragons here since time was taken to make them special and unique parts of the world and lore.


Oops, there is something else we needed in the main rulebook. They are certainly different than the elementals you are used to, and some of them are dragon power-level enemies. Like an air elemental the size of a tornado. Or a 40-foot tall fire elemental, like a forest fire coming at you, and you pick up a sword and say, "I got this." 

They do have minor elementals, so there are some "monster" level creatures here to use in lower power games, so it is nice to see the balance. Many of them are epic-level creatures, and I can see why these waited for the next book. Sometimes if you put an enemy this powerful in the main book, it will blow everything else away.

Alien Intelligences

Sometimes giant Cthulhus visit this world the size of houses with incredibly massive psionic and magic powers visit this world and fry everyone's brains for miles or break off shards of themselves to do the same but in a weaker form. I feel the Palladium Fantasy FRPG world is like Rifts without power armor and MDC energy weapons, and I would be right. Life is hard here.

These are also of "Dragon Ball Z" power level, so again, they fit the theme of this book.

I suppose these are better for the controlling power force for evil cults and the evil tribes of remote islands, so these fit in as scenario and story supporting elements. You don't really have too much like this in the normal D&D style of worlds, so it fits. It also gives me this strange feeling that the Palladium FRPG world is really, really different than what we are used to with your normal D&D style of world construction.

This fantasy world is more like a strange shard of reality that pulls in all sorts of strange and quite strange alien, psionic, and magical life. It is almost like a Rifts without all the OP Rifts technology, if you get what I mean by that. This is actually what I wanted from a game in this universe since there are times I felt the high-tech stuff in Rifts overshadowed the interpersonal, story, and dramatic elements.

You could play this game completely like Rifts and drag in all sorts of characters, creatures, and themes from all over the universe and toss them together in a fantasy world if you wanted, give them factions, and have them fight it out. What's better is no military technology or MDC, just swords & magic. Create crossovers with the non-Rifts worlds?

That really sounds cool to me.

Spirits of Light

We get angels next, and these are cool. A lot of divine power guides feature angels or servants of light, and this feels par for the course. The power level is again high, and I am sensing a theme here. I would have liked an angel-style RCC as a character option, though.


We get a strange mix of Egyptian mythos, renamed Norse gods, unique ones, and gods from everywhere else. It seems like anybody can drop into the Palladium FRPG world and say they are a god, even picking a name similar to another major god and having people worship them.

They even say you can use the Rifts book Pantheons of the Megaverse and use gods from this book too, so there is potentially a Locknar (god of mischief and deceit of the Northern Gods) and a Loki (Norse god of mischief, Norse pantheon) running around in this world at the same time. Maybe it is the same god but called a different name in a few places.

But you can't take technology, motorcycles, and power armor into Palladium FRPG, Rifts gods, so behave over here. And don't complain! I am only buying a "few" Rifts books, just a few, I promise!

Still, it is cool these gods are presented as options since we had some clear favorites from our Rifts game and it would be cool to see them come back and set up shop in the Palladium FRPG world. You get all the heavy hitters here like the Norse and Olympians, and even some that will fit into the world lore nicely like the Aztecs.

You can also play as a Godling or Demigod class in this book if the GM allows it, so you can literally play a Hercules-type character if you wanted. It isn't recommended, but hey, this is a game where you tape it all together and if it is an option and you want it, you have it. There are a few other classes in here like Valkyries and Asgardian High Elves that may interest a few, so that is cool too.

No wonder this book has a Rifts cover.

Deevils and Demons

We get a strange mix of demons and "deevils" because dey-evil, I guess. These are all gods instead of demons on a character level, so they are suitable for lore mostly. There are a few demon books with more "monster" level states for these creatures, and those books are guessed it...Rifts (but they include the non-MDC stats, more on those soon).

Dragon Gods

We have dragon gods to finish up the divine powers. We have a few interesting ones here, and they cover the bases of good, war, knowledge, and death. The dragons even have an ancient church and following scattered about the world that is good lore and background material. More good dragon-related stuff here, and this really adds to the world.

Magic & Holy Weapons

The book ends with a short section of magic and dragon-slaying weapons. I wanted more here, so this feels like it could be expanded in the future. To be honest,  To be honest, I would have rather had this in a magic items and weapons book.

To Wrap...

I really feel Palladium FRPG deserves a second look. It frequently gets labeled with the "but a lousy rule system" label I think is unfair. You get into a D&D-style game, and the rules are really inflexible. In three books, I saw Palladium drop-in character classes on a whim, create entire new magic systems, create new optional rules subsystems, and continuously change how the game can be played.

It is also not easy to drop in superheroes, modern characters, ninjas, mutant animals, or any other character type into a game as quickly as this - outside of GURPS or Savage Worlds. The more books you have, the easier it gets for anyone to drop into your game, want to play something off the wall, and you can make it happen.

Modern weapons and vehicles all work the same too, in case you cross things over. And if you keep everything to SDC worlds and say "no Rifts" you are not dealing with out-of-control power scaling.

If a D&D type game, that is not always easy since you are forcing someone to choose between a set of standard classes and races, and then they need to fit their idea into that bucket. And you get a lot of themed options here, so it is not as open as a GURPS or Champions, where you start with a blank slate. Your starting points here are easy but flexible: mutant animal, superhero, survivor, typical fantasy class, or something different.

You could play Palladium Fantasy with superhero-style heroes out of Heroes Unlimited and just say the world is like an MCU-type world but all fantasy trappings and technology. You get complete control over character design while avoiding the modern world and the superhero hangups. Archer Man in a superhero world is precisely like Felthwin the Ranger in a super-fantasy world.

Monsters, powers, magic, combat, the world, and everything seamlessly work the same. This is not easy with B/X without doing a lot of glue work and conversion. Here, you buy a new book, and it is all usable instantly like plugging in a video-game cartridge and adding to your library.

Few games can do that while remaining this modular.

Adverse to the Verse

While we loved D&D 4 and the battle-chess game, the worst part about the game is the endgame let us down. From level 10 on, the game was about traveling the planes. The great wheel. The D&D cosmology. All the iconic locations like some endgame MMO floating continent raid content.

In short, the D&D Multiverse.

And we got this feeling the base worlds of the games, such as the Forgotten Realms, Grayhawk, Eberron, Dark Sun, and all the others, felt like level 1-9 sandbox MMO starter zones in 4E. It did not feel like there were high-level challenges on these worlds, since the high-level expansion books went all-in on the cosmology. A starting town did not need much more than a surrounding area map. You did not need a world map for any of these places other than something like a "what starting zone do you want to begin in" sort of question before your super amazing planar adventure begins.

That boring old starting town you defended and grew to love? Forget about it! Best for like, a home for your gates and a place to store treasure. It is too low level, the monsters around there push-overs, and the shops have junk, so it's best to move on and hang out in Sigil, Planescape, or somewhere cool like that with easy travel options to different planes.

Mind you, Planescape is cool all by itself for different reasons and it can be its own campaign. But not used as a "high-level area" to diminish equally great settings elsewhere.

And our game died because we got sick of the same-old Multiverse that has been overdone and used as a reason for everything, and every unique campaign setting had to be fit into it as a starting zone. A pale comparison of the Grayhawk of old with its high-level dungeons and the super-deadly world, and one you did not need to leave on your way up to the most potent levels in the AD&D 1e.

You could drop a high-level dungeon on the world a few times, but it didn't feel right. The book had this assumed progression path, and it mirrored your typical MMO. Get to the Elemental plane of Fire and start doing Tomb of Horror raids, which will get your gear score up so you can do Temple of Elemental Evil. Part of this was D&D 4E's strong MMO feeling, which felt great at the start but devolved into the grind and numbers game later.

When the 4E expansions detailing the places came out, our game started to crater. We had a cool world with high-level areas and challenges developing, but the Wizards 4E cosmology model took over and we did not even see this coming.

In the old days? Planar travel was strange and weird and something you did not really want to do. You had the ethereal plan and silvered cords and the chance of getting lost forever. Today, planar travel feels like air travel, you go to the airport, get on a plane, and it is nothing special. This feels like the case even in D&D 5e, sometimes more so with the anything-goes Magic: The Gathering science-fantasy content in there, and it does not appeal to me.

And the Multiverse is the generic setting content that will sell regardless of whatever setting you begin in, and the publisher doesn't have to split the market by supporting one campaign setting over another.

Verse: Not Really a Place...

And these days, it feels like the Multiverse is getting marketed harder and harder as the default setting, like some tech-company wannabe wagon-hitching to Facebook's Metaverse. Writers, being writers, tend to chase buzzwords and get hired by Netflix, comics, or other big-money outfits and they tend to follow trends and please their employers. "Verse" is also an NFT-style buzzword and increases the parent company's stock valuation.

A Verse is a nebulous thing you can hang existing IP onto while having infinite room for new ideas as me-too-isms, and you are hoping to elevate your new IP alongside the old IP by linking them through the Verse and selling them as paid-for optional expansions.

It isn't really a real place at all.

And most importantly, it is a vehicle to sell you new things.

A Verse is actually a marketplace.

Our Pathfinder World

We had a cool Pathfinder 1e world and the first thing we did was cut it off from the Multiverse. Getting there or going there was impossible. Leaving it was impossible. We did not do planar adventures. You could not gate out and leave.

All the monsters and NPCs lived there and nowhere else. The highest level creatures roamed the land. The place was packed and cool. The highest-level dungeons were on this world, out there, waiting for you to find them. You had no reason to leave because the gods forbid it, and face it, your entire experience of leveling to maximum level was on this world and waiting for you to grab that brass ring.

There was no Verse.

When I start Pathfinder 2 I am doing the same exact thing. One world, one sandbox, no way out, nor do you need a reason to leave.

And this world remained compelling and interesting all the way up until the end, even after our D&D 4E game died out. I can honestly say there really was no D&D 4E world of ours since it became that nebulous "Verse" creation that we never really could wrap our heads around, it was this vague cloud of ideas and places, and it never really became something real to us. The starting area was the best, and the rest of the 4E cosmology was junk that was easily forgotten.

I feel it is the same thing with Grayhawk and the Forgotten Realms to me these days; those are what I remember. Those are what is real. Those are the things I love.

Tentpole Settings

I recently got my hands on a POD reprint of one of our favorite campaign settings of all time, the original AD&D version of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Set. This was before the novels and GMNPCs ruined the world, and again, this was a world we purposefully cut off from the Verse, much like we did Pathfinder's Golarion later.

And we loved this world, and it was one of the best campaigns we ever ran.

I had the feeling I wanted to use For Gold & Glory, and then later Castles & Crusades to replay this original campaign setting, and again cut it off from the Verse to let it shine on its own. I would love to experience this place again like we did.

And a great setting does not need a Verse at all.

A weak setting does, and worse, a Verse encourages one-shot settings and acts as a collection for them. Then they supposedly sell you the idea that dozens of weak settings are somehow better than a single great one. A Verse ultimately ends up in choice paralysis and a collection of settings you never really want to go back to, remember or care about.

This is what happened to our 4E game. No place we really visited in the Verse we ever really wanted to stay in, and a new more exciting place always popped up to replace the old one, and we threw out the last place we visited on the Verse like day-old junk food. It felt like an exercise in hoarding for one-shot campaign settings.

And the only thing we felt gave any of those throwaway places any legitimacy was the original campaign worlds all that stuff was linked to, like the Forgotten Realms. And what happens is the tentpole setting withers and an endless procession of throwaway one-shot settings entertains players like a low-attention span diet of junk food.

Our tentpole campaigns did suffer when linked to the Verse. Not much happened there. The big evil people were out in the Verse somewhere, gating and teleporting in like some sci-fi enemy every once and a while. The great world that once held a thousand stories was sidelined, the nostalgia place they fought to protect, and ultimately unimportant.

My Fault?

Do I suck as a DM none of this worked out for us? Maybe. My players agreed with me though. The less Verse we had in our game worlds, the more they wanted to return to them. The worlds we cut off and isolated flourished, and we came back to those for years. The worlds on the Verse felt like a strip mall on a freeway interchange, with an ever-changing roster of chain stores that came and went. The more they became like every other well-visited place in the Verse, the less interesting they got.

Even the Verse-based enemies tended to feel like GMNPCs. They had a universe of infinite options to cause trouble in, but they somehow chose the places the players cared about to threaten and attack. It got to be like a Saturday morning cartoon where the villain gates his forces in, a battle happens, and the bad guy flees through a gate to fight another day.

And the sad part is these bad guys had infinite lands and places they could have been spending their time in, but no, they just had to go after the players again. Seriously, why are you threatening this one world when you have infinite elemental planes to be evil in? And infinite parallel worlds? And infinite fantasy worlds on the prime material plane?

With our one-world model, there was one infernal hellish place. They want to cause trouble, they come up to the surface. They can't leave either so we got this deathmatch fight between demons and the heroes, and the demons could take a part of the surface world - and it meant something. With very tight limits on realities and the world, the conflicts and fun multiplied.

I don't like infinite X versus infinite Y in infinite Z places stories. Maybe I don't run Multiverse games right. Maybe they are just not my thing.

I have problems with them, and in my style of play is a more grounded affair with places with history and meaning and other areas of great danger and peril. I like building a world, starting in a small place, and expanding outwards. And I like the world we play in to feel important and the center of our universe.

You take that away with an infinite Verse, and all of a sudden the world we loved feels very unimportant and small.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Palladium Fantasy RPG Book 3: Adventures on the High Seas

This one is a must-have.

The obvious? Ships, waterborne travel, and ship combat. Mariner, pirate, and sailor character classes. Sea trade rules for running cargo. You get to be a pirate. And if you have the Ninjas & Superspies book you can have ninjas and pirates fight each other. Great stuff.

The not-so-obvious? Bards and entertainers of every type. Jesters and acrobats. Necromancers. Shamans. Gladiators. Rules for changing classes. The elves' night-vision ability was left out of the main rulebook, and a few rules clarifications. You can have a dwarven bagpiper. A juggler that throws knives. A stage magician. An actor and the picture of this class is of a dwarf, so we have a Game of Thrones reference decades ahead of its time.

Bards alone make this a must-have, and you have clowns in here as well.

Ninjas, pirates, and clowns? That sounds like my first adventuring party. You could build a dungeon adventuring circus out of the classes in this book. Or a circus of evil.

And then over 100 pages of islands, maps, descriptions, and adventures on them to have. And you get a catalog of ships in the world, rules for weather and sea travel, and then ship-to-ship combat. If book two was "the archetypical first setting," then book three is the "sea adventures" book plus a lot more.

We will get to book one, Dragons & Gods, soon.

Expanding Out

I like how these world books are slowly expanding out. One of the first three gives you a setting. Another covers dragons and gods. The next lets you hop on a boat and explore the world. It feels almost as if these books were written as the author's original campaign expanded out and needed more and more information, and they were published as they built and created the world.

Hey, we need to leave this first kingdom! We need boat rules! And some island adventures to keep people busy with while we work on that next major world location book! And you know what, let's keep the original campaign fresh with some more character options! What haven't we got yet? Bards. Everybody loves bards. Balance them with a cool combat class, like the gladiator. Some new evil NPC classes as well. Great book! A total crowd pleaser!

We have some rules updates too, can we get them in?

Again, Palladium FRPG is a game written like a stream of consciousness. It is an endless series of articles that look like they were pulled from fan magazines and newsletters. Like Rifts, it begins with the first book and extends off into infinity.

And one of the important things to remember is that old-school design. You have the basic character creation, combat, and task resolution mechanics that apply to all games. And everything else is malleable and optional. You are not trying to play a perfect, by-the-book game of Palladium FRPG. What the game teaches you to do is build that unique best-in-the-neighborhood game master. The mythical Keeper of Lore possesses this cool collection of books, articles, sources, magazines, and even materials from other games to pull into a World of Awesome.

And this is what made the strange kid with the collection of Palladium books so awesome compared to everyone else who played AD&D.

Over at Dan's house, I am playing a pirate. Tommy is playing a ninja. Vass is playing a longbowman. Billy is playing a necromancer.

A what? Aren't those, like fighters and thieves? And like, a magic-user?

Nah, AD&D lost its cool when it went to the second edition, they took out all the fun stuff and sold out. If my parents are cool with me playing it I don't want to play it. Plus in this game, you can summon demons if you want and be evil. Or a psionic assassin. Or a...

Aww cool!

I exaggerate a little, but this is how it was in our neighborhood. There was this oddball "Losers Club" and if you played something cool they were in. And they were the kids to hang with and be friends with. And they collected the books you did. And even if something was "not what everyone else did" that made the Losers Club special and cool. Palladium, for us, was that game.

This was before Nintendo, before home computers, before cell phones, before the public Internet, and before a lot of stuff. Saturday afternoons were boring. We had television, but no cable TV. You rode bikes or stayed indoors and played roleplaying games.

With B/X Out There, Why...?

This is what I ask myself as I read these books. B/X these days is incredible and full of choices. Basic Fantasy and Old School Essentials are great. If I want an AD&D 2nd Edition experience I have For Gold & Glory, or better yet, the streamlined and well-supported Castles & Crusades.

Sometimes I have had enough of D&D.

There are times I feel that everyone has a retro-clone and I have dozens of them. I have the best ones out there, and I have played them all. I have settled on the few I like. I have gotten to a point where if I want a specific edition of the game I know exactly what game to reach for to have the best feeling experience as I remember it.

For B/X, Old School Essentials, and I can pull in a lot of cool stuff from Labyrinth Lord.

For AD&D 2nd Edition, Castles & Crusades. I do have some nice PoD Forgotten Realms guides to get nostalgic with and ban these GMNPCs from my game, just like we remembered it.

If I want AD&D 1st Edition I hear OSRIC is wonderful. I am a little more partial to AD&D 2nd Edition though, just because of when we were really hot on the game during the 90s.

For AD&D 3rd Edition, um, I do have a lot of Pathfinder 1e books. They broke one of my shelves once.

You may prefer other editions and that is cool. These are the ones I like and have settled on lately.

But what if I want something else? Not a B/X or AD&D retro-clone? Well, there is Forgotten Lands. Dungeon Fantasy is out there. Runequest and Rolemaster. Conan. And a lot of other fantasy games too, there are many.

But what about one I have a history with? Those games are a narrow few. We had Rolemaster but liked Spacemaster better. It has to be fantasy. And preferably from the 90s and not AD&D 2nd Edition.

This is a personal choice since we did have a huge Rifts game and a very cool TNMT game too. There were crossover characters in our epic decades-long game from the Palladium FRPG world. This was always a book I flipped through and wished we had enough time to play together, but we never really got the chance.

It was too hard to break out of our established D&D characters and worlds. That Forgotten Realms campaign was one of our main games for years.

So you know what they say about tomorrow, don't regret something you could have done today.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Palladium Fantasy RPG Book II: Old Ones


There is this paragraph at the beginning of this book, right after describing this world "Old Ones":

In the fantasy setting of the Palladium world, magic replaces automatic weapons, nuclear bombs, and biological warfare. It is the great equalizer that can make the poor or the weak as powerful as a king or a dragon. Like any resource, and like the duality of human nature, magic can be used for good or evil.

I get the feeling we will see this again. In fact, I feel this is one of the most important paragraphs in the worldbuilding and the Palladium FRPG game. The fact we have evil classes in the main book alongside the others is a huge part of this philosophy.

Magic is a resource used for good and evil.

Any revision to this game needs to keep this central theme, as one of the parts I love about these rules is that it does not judge you. You pick an alignment and the world is your sandbox. You are not a part of an "adventurer class" of citizens. You select an occupation, race, and alignment. This is your character. You have the option to play good or evil, but not neutral.

You are forced to make a choice when you begin, and it isn't easy.

I love that. You are not some smug hero with min-maxed stats, a vague morality that lets you justify anything, and a near-perfect start. You get this feeling your character is real, with strengths and weaknesses, quirks and little problems here and there, random 3d6 stats down the line, things you will and will not do, a pack full of junk and you feel real. You are still better than average, but you still need to work to get better.

The characters are more difficult to create than B/X, but I feel like I have more after I am done. With B/X I am 3d6 down the line, pick race and class, roll hit points, buy gear, and I am done. The classes here force you to make a number of related skill picks off of a list, and you are deciding if your ranger needs rogue skills, horsemanship, medical, espionage skills, or a science. You are making a decision to upgrade your hand-to-hand skill to a fighter-like "expert HTH" level or keep it at a basic level of self-defense.

This is almost like B/X with some of the class customization of Pathfinder 2. Not every ranger is the same, nor are any of the other classes.

This entire game has this strange Aftermath style feeling to it and I love it. It is quirky, with hidden gems and pitfalls of rules and systems everywhere, with some expected fantasy tropes and a ton of ones you would never expect. It mixes Earth-style myths with alien influence. It creates a sandbox world full of good and evil and in between, and lets you make the moral choices.

It is funny how some games that are not these hyper-optimized game design examples of perfection and smooth mechanics appeal to me. Life isn't perfect, and I like strange and unique things which mirror it.

Spin up evil characters, kill the troll's war chief, and make them your army. Or play the good guys. Or play something in between and selfish. Unlike games that see alignment as "troublesome" and something that starts player conflicts, this game uses alignment to empower your character's actions. I picked the alignment, what is and isn't allowed is in the list, we all agreed on this game, it is all paid for, and let's go.

Some groups out there, and I have seen this on Youtube playthroughs, only allow the good or selfish alignments, and that is your choice.

But you are free to make it.

The Old Ones

This book starts with a description of the Old Ones, the primordial beings who created the Palladium world and brought all of the different life forms to the world. These are almost Cthulhu-like creatures, but without the iconic forms and more just mountain-sized, always changing, alien intelligence, evil blobs of flesh. The Old Ones enjoy the misery and suffering of others and eat these emotions as nourishment, beings of pure magic with incredible psychic power, and made of the flesh they enjoyed feeding on the emotions of.

These beings are not given stats here, just described since they are one of the original forces in the universe and lying underneath the surface with their manipulations, cults, plots, and weavings upon the world.

When you get a Palladium expansion book it reads like a magazine. You get articles, new classes, new races, little rules additions, discussions of different topics, new places, and adventures.

Minotaurs, Monk Scholars, and Illusionists

We then get a new race of minotaurs with history and discussion. We get two new classes, a monk scholar and an illusionist (with new spells). They are fun additions, some feel more like NPC classes, and I can see the illusionist being a fun class to try. Due to the all-over-the-place class balance of Palladium, classes don't really need to be balanced or compared to each other, they are what they are. Some classes are OP, some are OP in a limited area, some are support classes, and some are for the bad guys but you are free to try them.

Minotaurs are an interesting race connected with the Old Ones who live far underground and are a great supporting class to the Old One lore.

Monk scholars feel like an NPC class, but they are these vow-of-silence style fighting type monks.

Illusionists have a shorter list of spells and feel like they could be expanded, but this looks like an interesting variant magic class for

Travel Notes

We get a short article on the speed of overland travel here, which feels like it belongs in the main rulebook, but is needed for supporting a campaign setting. Again, the article-style nature of Palladium rules means as you buy books you get more and more. Is this a horrible organization of rules?

Well, yes.

Is it fine in the overall scheme of things?

Well, yes.

If you are a completist you will likely say this belongs in the main rulebook. But if you go back to the time, even books like the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide reads like this long series of related articles. This is how it was done in the old days, you read magazines and threw together your game out of what you wanted to use, tossed out the things you didn't, and hung everything together on a framework of ability scores and task resolution.

These days we demand games be these pinnacles of clarity and organization and presented so there are zero questions if an edge-case situation comes up. In the old times, games were a hobby, and ideas were shared in magazines, core books, expansions, modules, house rules, and third-party products.

Back when I started playing, there was no Internet. Even BBS systems were incredibly rare. No one had home computers. Local groups shared information through newsletters published in hobby shops. Fanzines were popular. Dragon magazine and other game publications came out every month and were devoured the day they came out.

The "game" was never really a defined set of rules anyone could point to and say "I play by this book."

The core books were where you started.

When you entered a group's game the dungeon master was the literal keeper of the lore, and that included all of the supporting material that the group liked to use in its games. This was a mythical level of knowledge and power and elevated the group's DM to a level more than just today's DVD player sort of "run the adventure" dungeon mastering. You had to be Gandalf and were seen as one, and great DMs with collections of lore and house rules and source information were neighborhood legends. And every group and game was different.

The fight against this started with tournament modules and convention play, and that is how we got to today with official rules and sanctioned play. Corporatization and mainstreaming of the game took over.

Palladium sticks to the old ways, with rules as modular articles, and this is very true to how we played and organized our games back in the day.

Atlas of Timiro

The book then turns into an atlas of a typical "starting kingdom" sort of area that reminds me of the Specularum area of Mystara, and it comes with a ton of maps and city descriptions. This is an amazing resource, with page after page of fantasy towns that go down to notes on the individual buildings.

I like that some towns are just run by thieves and miscreants. There are bad places in this land run by bad people, liars, cheats, and they will do anything to keep their rackets running. We have rich and poor, tolerant and intolerant, and the entire area does not feel like your typical "fantasy painting" game world. There are a lot of messes to clean up and many that will never be.

We have forts and maps, and force totals in each, which is nice coming from an ACKS background.

I really like this section. It is easy to compare this to the atlases I am used to and have my eyes glaze over and ignore the endless lists of buildings and maps and want more premade story-type content. But every town here is a mini-sandbox, and you are supposed to create your own stories, so while very dense and informational, the work is up to you to make all this come alive instead of having someone write you a story of "X does this to Y now go adventure in Z!"

Instead of buying vegetables at the store, this book gives you rich soil, seeds, a plot of land, water, fertilizer, and a long growing season. Again, this is how we liked to do things back in the day. These days we get a lot of premade stories and content, and you are not required to use much imagination to come up with a plot and adventure. Back then, having all this information and background data on an area meant we could weave infinite stories and plots with all of the things we were given here.

A lot of people say Palladium is terribly organized and complicated.

I say it is a wonderful time capsule that preserves a lot of the old ways and gives you the tools to play how we did back then. It was more work, but then again, we weren't spending hours on social media each day so we had the time to use our imaginations and create stories.


Amazingly, the book does finish with a section of adventures, dungeons, travel missions, and all sorts of interesting situations that can happen here - and they all tie into the lore of the area presented earlier. There is a good mix of different length missions and situations, with maps and monsters, treasures and locations, and NPCs to meet along the way.

Are they organized well? Not really, but if you have been following along you will know why. They are sort of a journal of the designer's play sessions, and they talk about what "the first group" did during these adventures, along with sidetracks, other missions they took, and detours along the way. They sort of end in a big battle in an Old One temple with a grand finale, and then the book ends.

The endnotes say the original group had a year's worth of gaming in this book, and there are plenty of places to make your own. The Old Ones tie together a lot of the stories, locations, characters, and adventures here so it is an interesting book and if you slow down and read for understanding, an amazing peek into the past.

Unlike today, where we expect an adventure module to take us through a movie-like experience, the older games were more like sandbox adventures where you were given a huge box of Legos and you built your own cool stories and conflicts. Here, yes, you are given a string of scenarios, but you don't have to play them in order (or at all) and can use them as background for your own stories with the Old Ones.

I like the new games, and the Castles and Crusades game feels like the best implementation of a classic D&D style experience. It is filled with fun and nostalgia, is balanced and organized, and hits all my nostalgia checkboxes. Old School Essentials rocks as a B/X clone.

So why play this?

Well, for the same reason I would play Super Mario Brothers or the original Legend of Zelda game. One could say they are primitive experiences and not worth playing, but to many of us, they would be wrong.

Once you know why, you know.