Wednesday, April 8, 2015

New Buildings in the Old Neighborhood

Finally...after months and months, perhaps years at this point...of looking and longing and pondering, I finally clicked "Buy it Now" on Dead Reign.

Dead Reign is a zombie apocalypse roleplaying game by Palladium Books. That's right, folks: Palladium. The father of Rifts. Yes, they're still around. No, they haven't changed much. And I just bought their latest game.

Palladium Books, helmed by Kevin Siembieda, has been around since 1981. Palladium Books RPGs were indie before indie was a thing in the hobby, old-school when today's old-school was new-school. The books were printed in these thick, softcover volumes where the gloss on the covers would always peel. Their early games had a grungy, inconsistent layout, stuffed with typos and contradictions. The writer (often Siembieda himself) would take this hyper, defensive voice in his writing, almost like he was defending his design decisions right there in the text. And the system? Oh man, the system was awful. It melded all these weird abbreviations...S.D.C., M.D.C., P.P., P.B., M.A., M.E.., put them on a 3-18 scale that it consistently broke (stats for gods would often have scores right up into the 100s), and then had a skill system that used a whole different, percentage scale. It's like Siembieda took Call of Cthulhu and D&D and wrapped them together with duct tape...when he was 13. Without playtesting. And then somehow published it and called it a game.

Then, in 1990, Siembieda released Rifts. It was an absolute fever dream of ideas...interdimensional travel, sci-fi technology, medieval societies, aliens and mutants and cyborgs and magic and psionics, and King Arthur is back and Atlantis has risen from the was like every fantasy and sci-fi franchise was thrown into a blender and then scribbled down in a WordPerfect document. It was fucking crazy. And the system, which barely held together under relatively plain circumstances, spun apart. There was this class (called "Occupational Character Classes," or O.C.C.s) called the Glitter Boy that fired a rail gun so huge it had to plant itself into the ground with six-foot long pylons or the kick would send it flying backwards. The book also had a vagabond, a wandering human with absolutely no redeeming skills or special abilities. Both of these classes were in the corebook. There was no practical reason to take the vagabond over the Glitter Boy.

Rifts, to this day, is one of the biggest RPGs ever made, in terms of sheer, literal page count. In addition to its own magazine (the Rifter) it has somewhere in the neighborhood of ninety sourcebooks. Not to mention, since it's using the same bizarre contraption of a system as every other one of its books, it's fully backwards, forwards, and sideways compatible with every other book Palladium has ever released. So, yeah, you could play in this crazy setting as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, if you wanted to. (P.S. Palladium Books did a licensed TMNT RPG in 1986. It was glorious).

So if you're new to Palladium, you're probably wondering "If this system is so bad, how is Palladium Books still around?" That's a valid question. Palladium's system has flown in the face of common logic for nearly 30 years. It is too technical to be a rules-lite, cinematic-style game, but not nearly consistent enough to be a robust, universal system. So how is it still around?

The answer, at least in my humble opinion, is because of Palladium's style. Maybe it was just timing, but I grew up with Palladium Books. They supercharged my imagination like no other game did, or ever has since. I mean, re-read that paragraph about Rifts. Seriously. The creative chaos of that setting is the apex of Palladium's design philosophy, such as it has one: throw fucking everything at the wall, and the shit that doesn't stick? Pick that up and throw it again! Just fucking throw it! Palladium games are pulp RPGs...not an emulation of the pulp genre, but actual, literal pulp role-playing, right down to those cheap covers and layout hack-jobs. True pulp, not trendy retro pulp.

And the, the art. If pictures really are worth a thousand words, then Palladium books have shitloads of words in them. I remember sometimes I would just sit there on my couch or on the living room floor and just stare at that artwork. It, to me, was better than any comic book (and, of course, it was the best of both worlds in the TMNT RPG, his art combined with Eastman and Laird's original work on the TMNT comics).

There is something so scrappy, so defiant, so rough-and-tumble about Palladium games that I find myself just smiling warmly when I think about it all. I remember reading Apocalypse World and how Vincent Baker said balance doesn't matter in his games because it's all about the conversation, all about the story. But 20 years ago, in Rifts, I'm sure Siembieda said something similar. The gameplay certainly seems to imply it. Palladium games aren't about the balance, or even the rules making sense; they're about spilling the contents of your brains right onto the table and finger-painting with whatever's there.

The rational, forward-thinking part of my brain knows that my irrational love of Palladium is just nostalgia, and as of such I've managed to avoid ever even thinking about bringing Rifts back to the table. But I have a weakness, Dear Reader, and that weakness is zombies. So combine the most wildly creative, spunky, attitude-laced RPG maker of my youth with the zombie apocalypse...and looking back, it's amazing I even held out as long as I did. I pity the young, sophisticated gamers who end up at my table the day I bring Dead Reign out. They're going to hate it, and I'm going to love it.

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