I was shuffling some boxes around in the loft the other day, routing through box after box of books looking for one to read. One particularly big and heavy box contained all my RPG books, both Dungeons and Dragons and Palladium, and I thought, ‘It’s been quite some time since I last did a ‘Remember When’ post,’ so, let’s look at the Palladium Fantasy Role-playing game.
Created and written by Kevin Siembieda, Palladium Fantasy RPG (PFRPG) was released in 1983, and became the first perfect-bound softcover RPG ever marketed. It became a popular alternative to the dominant Dungeons & Dragons system, and was noted for including unusual player-races and classes.
Character creation is, indeed, a far more elaborate and in depth process. There are eight attributes, which include the likes of Mental Endurance and Physical Beauty; fifteen player races, which, beyond the usual Human, Elf, and dwarf, includes Troglodytes, Ogres, Changelings and Wolfen; twenty-two player classes, from soldier and thief, through cleric and monk, to Summoner and Diabolist, and they are just the ones included in the main rule book!
Each class comes with it’s own skills, and a player also has the chance to select extra skills, many of which come with a class bonus, on creation and further ones as they advance in level. They also get some basic starting equipment, different for each character class, and an amount of money to spend.
One area that PFRPG was particularly praised for at the time was its use of magic and psionic powers. Magic-users have something called P.P.E. (Potential Psychic Energy), which is used to cast spells. If a magic-user knows a spell, and has enough P.P.E. then he can attempt to cast it, irrespective of the spell’s level. The difficulty for our wannabe mage is trying to find and learn the spells in the first place.
It’s not all about conventional spells either; the Diabolist is all about power words and wards, of which there are numerous pages depicting the symbols that are used in their creation. The Summoner uses circles, and through them tries to bend powerful creatures to his will, and once again there are plenty of diagrams of said circles.
And then there is the world itself – the world of Palladium. The core rulebook gives an excellent overview of this world – A Timeline summary; a World overview including basic maps that highlight the different Empires, their inhabitants and distinguishing features.
Throughout the book there are plenty of reference guides to help fill out this world, such as herblore, alchemy along with metals and gems, there’s even a whole chapter given over to Demons!
The core rulebook was revised in 1990 and in 1996 a revamped second edition was released. This saw many major revisions, especially in the area of world building, and it also made the game more compatible with the many others in Palladiums Rifts Megaverse.
Along with the core book there were numerous source books released, each getting a second edition revamp in their own right. These each explored a different area of the Palladium world, bringing the Countries, Empires and Kingdoms to life. Some included in-depth maps of towns and cities; others added new character classes (yes more), plot hooks, monsters and more.
The artwork contained within the covers of the majority of the books is standard black and white pen drawings, some of which is quite good, whilst some of it, well, isn’t, and is pretty basic, somewhat reminiscent of the early D&D books. The cover art also varies in quality – The ‘Further adventures in the Northern Wilderness’ and the ‘Old One’ is nothing to write home about, and yet the cover of the ‘Adventures in the Northern Wilderness’ is extremely well done and highly detailed.
The Palladium Fantasy Role Playing Game is still around today; I haven’t seen it in the shops for a long, long time – it is readily available on the Internet though – and I haven’t come across anyone who actually still plays it, but there’s probably a good reason for that, as I shall cover below, as I talk about my memories of the game.
Some time in the late 1980’s I picked up a copy of the first Edition rulebook, I can’t remember where I got it from or what possessed me to buy it, probably my unhealthy interest in all things fantasy. I already had several D&D books – the basic and expert sets as well as the player and GM’s 2nd Edition rulebooks – though I had yet to find anyone who shared my interest enough to actually play the game. I also managed to get my hands on Book II: The Old Ones and Book III: Adventures on the high seas.
I finally played my first D&D games during my trade training at RAF Halton in the early 90’s, and it was when the GM decided he’d had enough, and, by his own admission, he just wasn’t cut out to be a GM, that someone else needed to take over running the games.
This is where I came in, but I had a penchant for in-depth character generation and development, and this made me choose Palladium as the game of choice. The first edition core book, if I remember rightly, contained a one off adventure at the rear, but the two additional source books I had included a wealth of information for running a campaign. They also included additional character classes: The Monks, Illusionist, Gladiator, Pirate, Sailor, Acrobat and Tumbler, Bard and Actor, and Prestidigitator.
I think there were about 5 players; I ran each one individually through character creation, and then took that character on their own little solo adventure to develop there character (since then I’ve always tried to do this when starting new characters). This went down extremely well, with much fun and laughter as there were often many spectators to our games.
Two of these adventures have always stuck in my mind, and both were very different from each other. The first was an Assassin, and he’d just arrived in town with the mission of joining the Assassins guild. He met up with a beautiful young woman and a romance was in the air, and, as she was a member of the guild, she vouched for him to go through the initiation ceremony.
He met up with one of the guild’s senior members who gave him the outline of a mission to carry out, and informed him that they would provide any equipment he may need. Then they told him whom the mark was to be – yes, you guessed it, the beautiful young lady with whom he was falling in love with!
The scenario played out perfectly; he recced the location of the hit – she was returning to port on a merchant ship after being away on business, and it was to be as she disembarked – he obtained some magical quarrels from the guild, which supposedly would ensure she died instantly, and he nestled down in a high tower awaiting the arrival of his mark.
My friend played his character brilliantly; the stress and strain of his first assassination coupled with the constant self doubt brought about by hitting someone he not only knew, but had formed a relationship with, came out superbly as one moment he was all for packing it in, and the next he firmed his resolve to take the shot.
In the end, after a tense moment when he almost didn’t do it, he fired his arrow true, saw her collapse to the floor, and made his escape.
The truth of the matter though, hadn’t been fully explained to him. The young lady was quite high up in the guild, but her identity had been compromised and people were out to get her – she needed a way out.
Enter our young assassin, and two birds were killed with one stone – she got a way out, and he was initiated into the guild. If you hadn’t twigged by now, the guild made sure he obtained his equipment from them, and of course, the quarrels weren’t your standard affair, being highly magical and only rendering the victim to a deep state of unconsciousness.
She changed her identity and kissed him goodbye, but she did keep a keen eye on his development within the guild. He, on the other hand, was quite miffed with it all, and though he agreed to sign a retaining contract with the guild, he felt it would be far less stressful to take some time away and adventure.
The other introductory solo adventure that sticks in my mind was the Bard’s. I gave him a simple task – something like get everyone in the bar to buy you a drink, thus spreading your fame across this part of the town, or something along those lines – but it isn’t the actual details that bring back the memories, it’s what happened when he entered the bar…
Someone spiked his first drink, maybe another highly competitive Bard, on whose toes he was treading by just being there, and this caused him to lose his voice.
The room in which were playing was a four man dorm, and needless to say there were at least half dozen others in there, so what happened next was hilarious – I made him act everything out ‘charades’ style, and everyone else in the room took on the role of the bar’s occupants.
I knew the player would rise to the occasion, as he was very much an extrovert and, as we would say, a ‘character’! Everyone was laughing and hurling abuse, just like the real thing, and of course, this attracted more people. Before we knew it he was playing his part to a packed audience, and when he finally collapsed to his seat, exhausted by his trials, I asked them all if they felt he’d passed the test – it was an overwhelming Yes!
Okay, nice memories, but how does this reflect upon the Palladium Fantasy RPG? The same thing could take place within any fantasy RPG, right?
Indeed it could, but first experiences of anything in life are often the ones that shape your feelings towards it, and these extremely pleasurable and entertaining opening games of Palladium, left me with a soft spot for the game even now.
Note, I say even now, because since those days of the excellent first edition the game has seen a new and updated version – the dreaded second edition!
Unfortunately I lent someone my first edition rulebook many, many years ago, and never had it returned. So, when I came to want to run a game sometime later, I had to purchase a new one, and after trawling the Internet I bought a PDF version of the second edition.
My memories of the first edition are a little hazy after nearly 30 years, but I remember it being a well laid out, easy to learn, and uncluttered piece of literature. Whereas, just flicking through the second edition as I am now, I wonder how any first time player even manages to create a character!
Rather than all the character creation being in a logical order at the front of the book, it’s scattered throughout the pages. Though it states, ‘…creation of a character is relatively simple, requiring five main steps…’ It then goes on to list those steps, and it would have been fine if everything you needed to accomplish this were included within each step.
The steps are a brief outline of creating your character, but you need to keep skipping around the book to find further information relating to these steps. For example – Step 1: you determine your attributes by rolling dice; for a human 3D6 per attribute, but for non-humans consult the racial summary chart in this section. It is not included within this section, and you have to flip to the back of the book in order to find the racial descriptions and within that lot it tells you how many dice to roll for each attribute. But, according to the steps, you don’t choose your race and class until step 4, so how do you know how many dice to roll in step 1?
It continues in this manner throughout character generation, and it’s all further complicated by the fact that nothing is short and concise. Every paragraph, be it a simple skill description or a more in-depth look at how magic works, is devoured within fluff – Now, I like background information as much as the next person, but sometimes it needs to be separated from the core rules.
There’s nothing worse than trying to confirm a rule, especially during a game, only to find it lying hidden and confused within a multitude of unnecessary words.
It could be that we’ve been spoiled by the likes of D&D’s 5th Edition, which is concise and very well written, but then even the old D&D 2nd Edition I used to play was better than this.
Take the time though, and weed out the information you really require, and there is still very good game here, let’s face it, not much in terms of game play mechanisms have actually changed since the 1st Edition, it’s just the world has expanded and fitted around it.
The Alignment system is a joy, and one that I cross over to D&D. It has good, selfish, and evil, but they are broken up into moral codes like principled, anarchist, or aberrant, and each has examples of how a character should react.
An anarchist (selfish) may keep his word; lie and cheat if necessary; never kill an innocent, but may harm or kidnap them… and the list goes on – it is a very simple system to use, and much tighter than many other systems.
Once you’ve cracked the actual rules, then you can take the time to explore the world of Palladium, and it is here that the game really shines, especially when you start to add the source books.
The original ones I had – The Old Ones and Adventures on the high seas – were superb. The Old ones covers the Timiro Kingdom, and every city, town, and fort is mapped out. All the buildings of note are detailed, some with just a name, others in detail, and there are many N.P.C’s listed with all their attributes, items, personalities, and information on how they fit into the location in question.
All this detail is great for choosing a base of operations for the characters and saves the GM a lot of prep time. The included adventures are also highly detailed, though they can prove challenging for a new GM as they tend to fall on the complicated side, especially those that aren’t your basic dungeon crawl.
I remember playing the ‘Hidden Temple’ scenario with a few different groups, as it was one that could be completed in a single sitting. There were a few outstanding things included within this adventure, starting with the two N.P.C’s that are met right at the start and go on to play a pivotal part later on.
They were an Elf by the name of Lin, who was a wizard/Assassin (yes, you can combine character classes quite easily in Palladium), and the other was Grizzle-Bok, a Wolfen Ranger.
Both are of selfish alignments and, after much debate, will form an alliance with the characters to enter the Temple, with the proviso that, if found, they get a to keep an ancient book that they have been tasked with retrieving from the Temple.
A GM can have so much fun with these two characters, and I don’t recall ever playing them the same way twice – being selfish they tend to do things that will benefit themselves, but often wrap it up in such a way that makes them look good! In some adventures they ended up being great allies, and fighting for the good of the group, whilst in others, they would shrink back into the shadows and look out for themselves, especially the Elf.
And once, they even started an argument amongst themselves, which split the characters loyalties!
The other highlight of this adventure was the ending – coming across the Throne in the final chamber of the Temple. A huge skeleton sits upon the throne and commands a small army of lesser skeletons and golems; his task is to protect the remains of the Temple.
The fun starts when the huge skeleton is killed – the throne calls out to its next victim, luring them to sit upon the throne and use its powers – of course, if the Elf should read the runes on the throne, which tells of immense powers being bestowed on the person who sits on it, he may be somewhat hard to convince not to sit down, and the skeletons start to rise again, ready for battle!
The Adventures on the high seas contains a plethora of information on the islands throughout the Palladium world, including the ships used by the different nations. Again there are many plot hooks, but they require a bit more work on the GM’s part to pull together, but can be highly rewarding.
I played many adventures from this book, and there were some epic struggles for the characters to overcome. One campaign, The Sea of Despair, especially sticks in my mind.
It began with the characters returning by ship to their base, only to get caught in a storm and the ship wrecked. This creates an intense challenge for the characters – do they strip off their heavy armour or risk drowning, and what about all that lovely loot they’re hauling around?
Things go from bad to worse for the characters, as the island of Lemaria, upon which they’ve washed up on, is inhabited predominantly by women, and any men in the party have to accept there are the inferior sex, or end up thrown in the slave pit.
Once they managed to prove themselves they get the freedom of the Island, though not to leave it (if only they could!), and there were several short adventures in the local towns and ports, all of which were pre-mapped in the book. This pushed the characters up to a high enough level for me to introduce them to the main event – The Forbidden Isle of Set
The Isle is actually within a lake located on the Island of Lamaria, and plays host to some particularly nasty characters, and even a few Demons!
There’s a circle of immortality, which also bestows traumas upon anyone who tries to use it, and there have been a few, most of which are now warped individuals intent upon death.
Unfortunately we never got to complete the campaign; the group started to get broken up as people got posted away to sunnier climes, but it left me with some very fond memories, and maybe, one day, I’ll revisit the Isle of Lemaria with a whole new set of characters.
But, would I? Looking through the second edition of the game now, it looks and feels dated. The mechanisms are over complicated, especially compared with the latest games on the market. Character generation is confusing, and though I once liked the combat system, which has developed from the first edition, it feels slow compared to many of todays latest games.
And I think this is the biggest issue – during the 90’s, we wanted and expected different things from a RPG compared to what we do now, or at least I know I did. I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself as a GM into a world of complex rules and game mechanisms; reading all the background information and building up a complex world for my players to explore.
But nowadays I want something that is intuitive, fast, and less tight. I want the players to role-play rather than build a character of statistics, and I will reward them for their efforts.
There are too many character classes within the Palladium Fantasy RPG that are just far too unattractive or difficult to play. The Diabolist and Summoner are good examples of this; the rules contain pages of descriptive information for these classes, but only someone with a wealth of experience would ever consider playing one, and then, the complications they introduce to the game slows things down ten-fold.
These two classes in particular, don’t fit into a party very easily either, and at low level are likely to take a back seat once the action gets going.
However, if you have an interest in Fantasy RPG’s, and already have a system you like, the source books could provide you with a wealth of plot ideas and adventure hooks. It wouldn’t take an industrious GM long to convert things, and the entire Palladium world is pretty much mapped out in the many source books released for the game; there’s also that alignment system that is definitely something to consider using within your own games.
In the end, it’s a game that my heart still loves, but my head tells me it’s just too much trouble!