Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sometimes Rules Are Overrated

Over the past week I was looking through my bookshelves, trying to figure out what I could sell in an effort to make room for more stupid crap I don't need. Unfortunately, I am far too much of a packrat to ever sell a book, even those I'll never ever read again. Chemistry textbook from 1992? I might need that after the Apocalypse. One whole shelf is devoted to Palladium rpgs, and I had nearly forgotten about them. Which is a shame as TMNT was not only a great comic, cartoon and video game, it was also a rather fun rpg. Transdimensional TMNT is probably the one rpg book I wanted more than anything else simply due to the picture of a "devolved" human; it looks like a giant floating fetus and that's alright. I'm not ashamed to admit that TMNT was the second rpg I ever owned, nor that I played it quite a bit. I must have rolled up a few hundred characters over the course of the summer when I lived in Ohio as a kid, nearly all of them used in some crazy Palladium Fantasy RPG game I was running. That was another good game, Palladium Fantasy. Sort of a high-powered D&D with all sorts of cool crap that truly could be called disturbing. Perhaps Pat Pulling was onto something...was there any need to actually have several pages of summoning circles? As a gamer, of course, but it didn't do much to placate my mother who insisted D&D and other roleplaying games were evil. The second edition of Palladium Fantasy took a game I actually like and turned it into a festering turd. So much for upgrades. Beyond the Supernatural was interesting, and I played it only once, mostly because horror is not really that appealing to me. Plus, I had around three editions of Call of Cthulhu which is vastly better. Still, as a modern horror game, it's pretty good. Robotech...holy crap. Nearly all of 9th grade biology was spent goofing off and playing Robotech in the back of the classroom with a couple other guys. I'd write up new characters and adventures in French, then we'd play during last period. We also played a Heroes Unlimited game for a while, which turned really weird after I got Ninjas and Superspies. Suddenly everyone had a martial arts-using character and the game morphed from super-heroics to a modern film noir replete with every single Bogart cliche I could think of. Did you know that Malta isn't the only country with a gold falcon? I think mine was from Morocco, or maybe Rhodes. Possibly both.

The most popular and well-known (perhaps infamous) Palladium game is of course Rifts, and yes, I definitely have a copy. It was a banner day when I received the main rulebook for Christmas in 1990, having looked at it for over two months, sitting alone on the shelf at the local gaming store. I bought every release after, finally giving up at World Book 5. Yesterday, however, I got a good deal on a stack of Rifts at the used bookstore and my collection doubled overnight. So much for clearing the shelves.

My first impressions of Rifts were 1) There is A LOT of cool shit in this book, and 2) Oh I see they didn't revise the system. The system I speak of is of course the clunky POS Palladium "megaversal" system, which is simply AD&D extrapolated into a fantasy game then converted for use to every other genre imaginable. I never had a problem with it when we ran combats in TMNT or Robotech, and was already familiar with "megadamage" due to the latter game. Still, I wasn't impressed the system hadn't been updated nor thrown out completely for something better. Instead of doing the game justice with an actual rewrite of an old set of rules, the Rifts setting was instead simply tacked onto the existing with a few additions. Kitchen sink does not begin to describe Rifts. You want cyborgs? (Fine) Wizards? (Yep) Soldiers and ninjas and aliens. (Definitely) Psionic-using dragon ninjas? (Yeah, we can do that) How about dolphin mercenaries with bionic eyes? (Give me something hard) Okay, a centaur from another dimension whose bottom half has been replaced by an anti-grav tank chassis, rides a robot donkey, can cast demon magic, wears a suit of armor made from bark, shoots laser beams from his hands and is invulnerable to fire. (No problem) Most of that stuff was added in subsequent books; the main rulebook is quite conservative when compared to later supplements. None of that crazy shit makes Rifts a bad game, however. The biggest knock, of course, is the system itself.

But is the system THAT bad? Honestly, no. It's not great by any means, sort of a weird skills-based/leveling amalgam with some contradictory combat rules thrown in. I wouldn't call it terrible, though. We never had any problem with it for many years, and while I wish it was cleaned up, Rifts is extremely playable as-is, contrary to numerous blog posts and messageboards. AD&D is far more arcane and difficult to understand, which I suppose is like saying quantum mechanics is more difficult than calculus: to someone with no experience both are as incomprehensible. In the end, Rifts succeeds as a fun game in spite of moldy mechanics. I've seen a few conversions of Rifts to GURPS...yuck. Somehow all the flavor gets ripped out and becomes much more mundane. Quantifying things with points demonstrates the disparity between character power (city rat vs. dragon?), but so what? Game balance is nonsense anyway. My most fondly remembered character of all-time was a Rifts vagabond adventuring with a bunch of high-powered PCs. One had superpowers, another was a wizard, etc. During part of the campaign we had to go into a Coalition city and find a contact. The players were trying to figure out how they'd get past the psi-stalkers and guards and whatever else. The Coalition hates non-humans and meta-humans with a passion. I suggested that I simply walk in and talk to the guy. They had forgotten that my mundane background was in fact a huge asset in this situation. Game balance? How many points is "mundane" worth? No idea, but GURPS: Rifts just wouldn't work. Yes, the system kinda sucks, but no, it doesn't impede fun whatsoever.

I suppose the whole point of this post is to demonstrate that a huge part of my gaming past was using a system of mechanics derided by many people, yet I never had a problem with it. It's easy to read a set of rules and say they don't work, but in application many things are tolerable, even enjoyable, when used properly. Spell-casting and psionics use in Rifts (and other Palladium rpgs) is actually one of the better aspects of the game, easier to understand and employ than a lot of other games. The combat system is fun and fast, even if it shows signs of old age. There are virtually unlimited character options available to players which means even the hardest to please can find something appealing. So, yes, I don't think Rifts or any of the other games are necessarily well-written or sophisticated, but they're a lot of fun to play. There are many rpgs with elegant rules that while interesting just aren't that great when played (Burning Wheel...I really like the rules but find it boring during play). Rules are important, but often overrated. If you're having fun, the rules are doing their job.


  1. Well said. As a fellow gamer from Ohio whose mother thought D&D was evil and played tons of TMNT and Robotech in study hall, I really appreciated this post. I also remember (and still own) my first copy of RIFTS, fun stuff!

  2. I had the Palladium Robotech book and a couple of supplements, which I bought during my Battletech craze, mainly for the art and background. However, I never actually played that game or any other Palladium products. Siembieda's writing style has always turned me off--something about his use of sentence fragments just bugs the shit out of me. A Robotech campaign would have been cool, though.

  3. TMNT was either the second or third rpg or hobby game I ever bought. My friends had the Robotech books. Transdimensional TMNT was one of my favorite books. Gamma World Third edition was our rpg of choice, though-- we played it to death. I think its reputation is even worse than Palladium's as far as rules go, but we had a blast.

    Question for the guys that played Robotech: We played a lot of Battletech, so when looking at the items on a Giant Robot Dude in Robotech, we were aggravated by the fact that there was so much stuff there that you'd never choose to target. Did you just ignore that stuff and always attack the "body" of the mech, or did you make random hit tables?

  4. I just noticed Blogger finally implemented a proper comment reply function, but I shan't use it!

    Kevin Siembieda's writing style is actually irritating at times, I must admit. It's obvious the guy has a lot of great ideas and is really enthusiastic about those ideas, but fuck...get an editor. Quite honestly, if Palladium would clean up the rules, get a real editor and raise the production value of their books, they would be doing fine. I've been reading their message boards over the week and there must be 50 threads from hardcore fans pleading for these things. Then he wonders why the company has been on its death bed for 10 years...

    Regarding Robotech, whenever I ran the game I would just use Computer Logic, i.e., the higher the roll, the better the shot. Generic hits always went to main body, with higher rolls to more vital systems, within reason. Near misses would be randomly assigned to a non-vital system. I think GM discretion is the best way to run combats. If a PC's pilot's compartment was breached, for instance, I'd give them the benefit of the doubt and let them fight a bit more, subsequent hits causing a few hit points of damage due to excessive heat or something. Whatever increased tension. Robotech is very Space Opera, Battletech is definitely hard SciFi, even if the science behind the mechs is horribly wrong (AC/20 range comes to mind...) Space Opera rules mean PCs don't get killed by a random laser blast from a random dude. But they sure as hell need to run when they're getting their asses kicked.

    1. Okay, being a big nerd, I have to say that based on your argument rules actually do matter. If rules really didn't matter, then GURPS Rifts should work just fine. GURPS Gamma World should be awesome. But it doesn't work that way.

      Crappy rules systems are often good at one aspect of the genre or setting they're optimized for... and sometimes their sheer awfulness is just part of the fun. I mean, GURPS might have critical successes... but it doesn't have Military Geniuses pulling red results with tech V items. It just doesn't!

      At any rate, complete freedom from any sort of pretension is often fun.

    2. I never said rules don't matter, I said they were overrated. Rules do matter; in fact, I am a major advocate of different systems for different games. The rules themselves provide flavor to a game that cannot be duplicated with a different rules-set. My whole point is essentially, yes these rules are kinda crappy, but so what? They succeed.