Who is Ross Watson?
Ross Watson is an award-winning game designer, author, podcaster, and game development consultant. He is the creator of the Rogue Warden blog, where Ross discusses game design, conventions, IP management, gaming, and more.
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Here’s the thing: I love the Rifts RPG. This is not to say that it doesn’t have flaws—it has many—and it is not to say that I love every product in the line (I don’t). But overall, Rifts as an RPG setting is, IMHO, both very original and awesomely inspiring. There are tons of cool ideas in the Rifts universe, tons of interesting characters to meet and places to explore and bad guys to defeat. In many ways, it is a GM’s wonderland. Literally anything from anywhere can show up in Rifts, and that’s just fine. I know for a fact that hundreds of Rifts players have brought in the Robotech universe characters and mecha into Rifts Earth. Ditto for superheroes from Heroes Unlimited.
Does this ever happen to you?
There’s even books out there just to convert your favorite character from other Palladium games into a Rifts character.
There’s so much awesome in Rifts that sometimes it overshadows the deep and abiding flaws that exist within the line.
The system is a kludgy mess that is 25 years old—a creaky, D&D-inspired class and level-based system that causes most gamers I know to roll their eyes and sigh. It’s what we, as gamers, put up with in order to play Rifts… not something we really enjoy.
Just to be clear, this is not to say that the system is terrible—there are certainly games out there that are worse, and in many ways, Rifts is still a /functional/ game system. You can play the game with it. However, I believe this game is simply begging for an update.
Some of the writing is… not-so-inspiring. For one example, Rifts Australia is basically all-Mad Max, all the time. I could call out some other books here, but I’m trying to abide by my ground rules of “No hate,” so I’m just basically touching on the issue without getting too far into the details.
Rifts fans have had a long ride with this setting—it’s been in print for over 25 years and while there have been some missteps along the way, the line as a whole is quite an achievement for any gaming company to be proud of. Thanks to Palladium’s early entry into the RPG market, they have a lot of fans out there, and it’s likely that you can walk into nearly any RPG store or club and find someone that either currently plays Rifts or has played it in the past.
The purpose of today’s post is to talk about the books that really made me love the Rifts setting. The cream of the crop from a line of over 80 books (and still growing).
To be consistent with previous posts of this nature, I want to stress that this list is my personal favorites—the books that speak most to me. I’m not saying these are the books that everyone will or should enjoy, but I do hope that the list gives these products a bit more exposure to folks who may not have looked at them before. Also, given the long history of the Rifts line, it’s fair to say that I look at many of these books through “nostalgia goggles.”
(You can find the top ten list after the jump!)
The Dyna-max robot. When you absolutely, positively have to kill every Gargoyle in a 1-mile radius. Accept no substitutes!
I must admit that I am a fanboy of giant robots fighting stuff. Here are just a few examples: I love Robotech and Battletech. I enjoy many flavors of Gundam. Front Mission 4 is one of my favorite console games.
Thus it should be no surprise that Triax and the NGR is on my list of favorite Rifts books. Triax includes quite a few nuggets of greatness for people like myself. Tons of power armor, guns, robots, tanks, more giant robots, epic-giant robots, giant tanks, and much more.
The Kevin Long artwork really sells this book for me, and there’s a great little comic in the center of the book to help detail just what’s going on in the NGR. The bad guys of the setting are also pretty interesting—giant gargoyles who use magic and their innate cunning to dominate much of western Europe.
Additionally, we get introduced to other iconic Rifts bad guys like the Gene-Splicers and the Brodkil Empire.
Some interesting notes; Triax and the NGR was my amongst my first exposure to some sci-fi concepts like “telepresence” robots operated by remote, infiltrator robots and cyborgs like the Terminator, and much more.
It’s important to note that additional material for Triax can be found in the Mindwerks sourcebook, Underseas (presented on this list), and in a sequel product, Triax 2. Apparently I’m not the only one who loves the idea of giant robots fighting for humanity’s survival in the dark forests of Germany!
Best things about this book: I want to pilot a Jaeger robot against the Gargoyles and reclaim Germany for the NGR. I want to explore the Black Forest (or fly above it in my Dragonfly robot).
The Coalition. Are we the baddies?
The Coalition is a humanocentric government that dominates much of North America in Rifts Earth. They are a significant force in the IP and the Coalition’s ongoing campaign of military conquest is a major story factor in the overall plotline of Rifts. The Coalition War Machine sourcebook was the first in-depth look at the Coalition, and it helped cement their place as one of the most iconic and central ideas of the Rifts IP.
Much like the Imperial Sourcebook for the Star Wars (West End Games D6 version) RPG helped flesh out who and what the Galactic Empire was all about, Coalition War Campaign goes into great detail discussing the Coalition, its leaders, and especially its military forces.
The Coalition’s place in Rifts is somewhat controversial. On the one hand, they’re a brutal dictatorship led by some truly evil individuals. On the other hand, they are the de facto saviors of much of humanity (and much of human culture, including many common values) and are, in many ways, the best hope for humanity to thrive and prosper upon Rifts Earth. This ambiguity is sometimes good (in that any GM can basically choose how he wishes to portray the Coalition in his game) and sometimes bad (such as the metaplot for the conquest of Tolkeen, where the Coalition was painted in a very unambiguously cruel light).
Coalition War Campaign provides a ton of player options (as is usual for a good Rifts product), including new classes, guns, power armor, mecha and vehicles. There’s also some interesting playable alien races—which is truly a bizarre place to find them—provided in a later chapter.
This book is good because it brings out a lot more information about the Coalition and their place in the Rifts universe—and I should point out that the following books are also important to understanding to Coalition: Free Quebec, Lone Star, and the Siege on Tolkeen series.
Best things about this book: I want to play a bunch of classes from this book, and I’d love to play in a game where the internal strife of the Coalition’s values vs. the personal agenda of its leaders was a core and central theme.
Cover by Keith Parkinson. Yet another very talented artist who doesn’t do work for Palladium anymore.
One of the first things I need to say about this book is that Ramon Perez’s artwork transforms this product from good to great. Perez’s talent is apparent and it’s fair to say that along with Kevin Long he has shaped a significant portion of what the Rifts IP looks like. In my opinion, nowhere is this more evident than in Federation of Magic.
The writing here is also good; Peter Murphy (in his only Rifts work that I can find to date—someone let me know if he did anything else) and Kevin Siembeida created some fantastic setting material. The concept of “fadetowns” that drift in and out of contact with Rifts Earth is especially cool, and the city of Dweomer and its mysterious Lords of Magic is detailed very well. The true Federation and the City of Brass have some excellent Rifts bad guys, and we also get some smaller setting areas like Magestar and the techno-wizard playground of Stormspire.
The fairly bland magic automatons of Dweomer are probably the least interesting part of the book, but this is made up for in spades by the great character options, gear, and spells presented. Federation of Magic has a good mix of crunch to its setting material, a ratio that tends to vary wildly amongst other Rifts books.
Best things about this book: I want to play a Battle Magus. I want to meet the Lords of Magic and change Dweomer for the better. I want to fight Alister Dunscon in his throne room. I want to visit Magestar and Stormspire and some fadetowns!
Totally 80’s. Totally awesome.
Wormwood is the first of two “Dimension books” on this list, and I think they add a lot to Rifts as a line even if they are basically presenting a way to play the game that completely ignores the core setting. If Rifts Earth is Greyhawk, Wormwood is Dark Sun.
Wormwood has a unique, unabashedly 80’s metal aesthetic that is truly distinct. It’s a setting where light and dark are engaged in a holy war across a living world. Hospitaller knights on motorcycles, symbiotes, and magic that calls upon the world itself to harm enemies or heal the sick are all part of what makes Wormwood special.
The only drawback I can really see is that Wormwood is so specialized and so alien that it doesn’t really plug into the other parts of Rifts nearly as well as many of the other books in the line. Wormwood is definitely worth a read, and the writing and artwork of Timothy Truman brings this awe-inspiring and unusual world to life.
Best things about this book: I want to play an Apok. I want to storm a crawling tower and fight my way to the demon lord at its apex. I want to join the Knights Hospitaller and defend the faithful on a pilgrimage across the worm wastes.
Om Nom Nom.
The brainchild of CJ Carella, Phase World is a sci-fi setting that is fairly distinct from Rifts Earth. In short, it is full of win and awesome.
Now, to be clear, I always pair this book in my head with the Phase World Sourcebook that was released later, as the two together like peanut butter and chocolate into a delicious fusion of sci-fi goodness.
This is the second “Dimension book” on the list. If Rifts Earth is Greyhawk, Phase World is essentially the Forgotten Realms.
Phase world is a kitchen-sink setting (even /more/ kitchen-sink than Rifts, which is impressive) that combines high technology, aliens, galactic empires, psychic powers and spaceships with magic, gods, demons, and dimensional travel. For starters.
Phase World is home to Center, the biggest mega-city ever. And the Kreeghor Empire, which is basically a template for intergalactic mayhem. This book gave us more details on the mysterious Naruni, the United Worlds of Warlock, the Dominators, the Oni, the Gun Brothers, the Cosmo-knights…
I could go on and on. It’s just damn good.
Best things about these books: I want to play an Invincible Guardsman, a Cosmo-knight, a Repo-Bot, a Quatoria. I want to confront the powers that be on Center, discover the mystery of phase shifting, and travel to the Cosmic Forge.
I’m on a boat.
No doubt one thing that you may notice from reading this list is that I’m a big fan of CJ Carella’s work on Rifts. Underseas is one of his earlier efforts, and it is a rich book that is full of cool ideas and concepts.
Right of the top, what does Rifts Underseas give you?
We get some cool information on the Bermuda triangle, time flux, and ley line storms at sea. We get introduced to the Lord of the Deep, a lovecraftian monster at the bottom of the ocean (well, actually, /all/ oceans!). We find out about the floating city of Tritonia, and we get tons of information on the New Navy—the remnants of the old US Navy who survived the coming of the rifts. Plus, demon pirates, more support for Atlantis (which is also on this list) with cool underwater mecha and power armor, and more support for Triax and the NGR (which is also on this list) with information about the NGR Navy.
The artwork by Vince Martin and Kevin Long do a lot to really sell this book’s style and ambience, firmly establishing this product as part of the Rifts line. Vince Martin’s pieces in particular are well-suited to the subject matter.
While much of this book is really cool and engaging—heck, I’d go so far as to say /most/ of the book is this way—there’s a part which talks about intelligent cetaceans and includes rules for playing as a dolphin or killer whale. Including power armor for such characters.
Maybe I’m just traumatized by the Johnny Mnemonic film, but the idea of smart cetaceans getting really involved in my Awesome Rifts Adventures ™ just doesn’t really grab me at all, and I do believe it is the least interesting portion of the book.
By contrast the stuff about the New Navy is just amazing, from their proud history to the unusual ways in which they have managed not only to survive but to keep the traditions of their service alive and well.
Best things about this book: I want to play a Sea Titan. I want to help the New Navy find a home. I want to visit Tritonia and fight Atlantean Kittani raiders underwater and Horune pirates on the seven seas. I want to explore the Rifts Earth Bermuda Triangle and come out alive.
AKA Drug-crazed maniacs rebel! What? You were surprised at this?
Few books have as many cool ideas packed into one place as Juicer Uprising. Yet another great Rifts book by CJ Carella (I did tell you that I’d be mentioning his name several times on this list), Juicer Uprising focuses on a particular character class from the core Rifts book known as the Juicer. These warriors are surgically enhanced with a set of combat drugs and an injector that circulates these powerful substances through the body. Consequently, Juicers are incredibly fast, strong, and tough, ranking amongst the most dangerous men-at-arms in Rifts Earth. However, this enhancement has a cost—Juicers live only a handful of years after undergoing the process, leading to a “burn bright and burn out” lifestyle.
Juicer Uprising takes a much closer look at this concept and provides a great storyline to go along with it—first, the city of Kingsdale is introduced. Basically, Kingsdale is a place you can get nearly anything. Someone is claiming to have found a way to keep Juicers from dying. In fact, however, the Juicers are being brought back as undead known as Murder-wraiths!
On top of all this, the book contains a Juicer sport known as Murderthon, a variety of different kinds of Juicers you can use for your character (including the awesome Dragon-juicer, who uses the blood of dragons rather than drugs to fuel his system). Naturally, this book contains quite a bit of new gear and toys (like rocket-boots!), and goes over Kingsdale and the environs nearby in detail.
I like to hold up Juicer Uprising as possibly the best example of a Rifts sourcebook. It’s nearly over-the-top, gonzo, and full of great ideas to get things moving for your Rifts campaign.
Best things about this book: I want to play a Dragon Juicer and fight in the murderthon at Kingsdale. I want to tangle with a group of Murder-wraiths and learn the limits of my own mortality when my Juicer upgrade starts to wear off. I want to burn bright rather than fade away!
Slaves welcome. Another Keith Parkinson cover, by the way.
Definitely, I believe that Atlantis was one of the sourcebooks that cemented Rifts’ place in the RPG market. Atlantis was simply unlike anything else at the time, and still contains a number of unique features that sets it apart.
Rifts Atlantis details the Atlantean race and the history of their continent–thought lost forever—that has recently returned through the rifts. It turns out that this once-great civilization has been conquered by the vile alien Splugorth and their slave races, forming a concentrated pocket of alien aggression right off the coast of North America. Atlantis is a really interesting setting, combining some features of decadent Rome with influences of Lovecraft and Conan.
The Splugorth have their Kydian powermasters, their blind Altaran warrior-women, bio-borgs, and magically tattoo’d slave gladiators—just to name a few of the strange and unusual creatures you’ll find within. The artwork by Newton Ewell helps lend a very alien feel to the book, and although it includes a lot of familiar tropes (such as unbreakable swords, evil slaving overlords, and intelligent apes) it feels very fresh and new even decades later. Atlantis is a place where normal humans are definitely not welcome, and it serves as the stronghold for one of the setting’s greatest villains. The types of characters you can make who are from Atlantis are like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and they are all bizarre and powerful entities on Rifts Earth. The machinations of Atlantis resonate through many of the other books in the Rifts line, including two books on this list: Mercenaries and Underseas.
Atlantis is one of those books that never fails to inspire some kind of neat idea when paging through it, and I think its uniqueness alone serves as a worthy mark of distinction.
Best things about this book: I’d love to play a Kydian powerlord, an Altaran warrior-woman, a Hawk-ohrl gladiator, a bio-borg or Maxi-man. I’d like to wield a greater Atlantean runesword, battle Sunaj assassins and Kittani warmasters, and lead a revolt against Splynncryth, the ruler of Atlantis.
Rifts Mercenaries is one of my favorite RPG books, period. It’s a nifty book that includes an interesting organizational generator, a “character sheet” if you will for your own mercenary organization—an innovation that was definitely ahead of its time. Naturally, the book includes a lot of cool new classes, player options, guns, gear, power armor and vehicles—but all of this is still welcome, particularly as much of these options are versatile and common in many adventuring groups. The book also showcases half a dozen existing mercenary organizations, all of which are interesting. One of the best parts, for me, is how the various merc groups show off how you can put together a truly varied player character party—for example, a pixie, a cyber-knight, a dragon hatchling and a full conversion cyborg teaming up with a master psychic and a witch.
For the full experience, I highly recommend picking up the Merctown supplement as well, which is an in-depth look at a really neat setting for Rifts; the city of Merctown. A bunch of cool adventures and adventure hooks are included in the book. There’s also another tie-in product named MercOps that provides even more adventure support. Basically, you can’t go wrong playing Rifts if you decide to make your group a bunch of wandering Mercenaries. I actually wonder if this wasn’t one of the primary themes that Kevin had in mind when developing the setting from the start!
Best things about this book: More information on the Naruni. Chipwell armaments! I want to play a Merc Headhunter and form my own mercenary team to take down a Pecos bandit lord and carve out my own little piece of Rifts Earth!
Two books full of pure awesome.
I’m cheating a little bit by putting two books together in the top slot, but I don’t feel like you can have a meaningful discussion of one without the other.
Hands down, I believe that these two books are the two best Rifts supplements out there. I never fail to find something inspiring or another cool idea tucked away within these tomes. These books have multidimensional mercenaries, stealth cyborgs, alien invaders, techno-wizardry, bizarre animal mutants, cities of gold, Incan gods… and that’s just for starters.
CJ Carella really outdid himself on these two books. He’s gotten some flack from Kevin Seimbeida about the rules from these books, but in my opinion, that’s an unfounded criticism—what is true is that CJ put in every cool idea he could think of and then went out and found some more.
Comparing these two books to the other World Books is just unfair. It’s a crime how forgettable China and Africa are, for example, in comparison to South America 1 and 2. I challenge any Rifts fan to read these books and not find something interesting for their character or their game.
Best part of these books: Tons of character ideas. Ultra-Crazies. Amazons, Anti-Monsters, dinosaurs, a dragon and lizardman nation, vampires! I could run entire campaigns set in South America… and it would be awesome.
Continuing in the vein of both my King for a Day concept (wherein I blog about what I would do if I were somehow in charge of stuff) and in the recent posts about Palladium books, today’s post is all about both of those things deliciously smashed together like peanut butter and chocolate.
Suddenly I want to watch this movie.
Two Scoops of Changes in Every Box
If I were King for a Day at Palladium, I would have two major things on my mind—two big changes that, IMHO, that would be absolutely necessary.
A New Way of Doin’ Bizness
The first big change would be to modernize and revolutionize the way the company does business. This is a deceptively simple idea, but to break it down, here’s what I’m thinking:
- New approach to production. InDesign is the new in-house tool for layout. Everything is done on computers.
- New approach to development. All projects would have a developer (probably each LINE would have an individual developer). All books would have a modern approach to development that leverages vision documents, book plans, discussion groups, and—above all—a highly professional approach to working with freelancers, all-inclusive: editors, writers, artists, proofreaders & playtesters. Contracts would be clear and required at the beginning of each project. Expectations would be made very clear, and I’d implement a system where there’s at least one review step between assignment and turn-in to avoid any “Dark Reign”-style mishaps. Freelancers would be encouraged to take ownership of their assignments. Line Developers would be encouraged to take ownership of their lines. This means owning both the good and the bad, both the triumphs and the mistakes—but personal investment cannot be overvalued.
- New approach to content. Each line would have its own webpage. Each product would have a free preview and web enhancement built into its production budget. I’d especially want to reach out to some of the more celebrated and talented freelancers from Palladium Books’ past to work on the new generation: CJ Carella, Bill Coffin, Jason Marker, Josh Hilden—those names would be at the top of my list.
It’s amazing how often I need to actually say this out loud.
No doubt I’d want to bring on board plenty of great writers I’ve worked with before personally to add some kick (and since there’d be no guarantees that any of the “old crowd” would actually be willing to come back, even under new management).
A Brand New System for a Brave New World
The second big change would be a complete and thorough overhaul of Palladium’s house system. Ideally, I’d like to keep much of what is iconic and cool from Palladium’s system (as much as possible), but the overriding goal would be a modern, smooth, clear and consistent ruleset.
No doubt there are at least dozen different ways to implement a system upgrade, but I think I would lean towards creating something original rather than using an outside system like Savage Worlds. Systems are part of an IP’s identity and I think there’s room to keep some of that identity while still getting a much better system in place.
I’d have some plans for the main Palladium Books lines as well…
Skull squadron. Accept no substitutes.
I’d continue to update the Robotech line with new and interesting material that expands the universe. Particularly I’d like to get some good adventure books into the pipeline. I have plans for an in-depth review of the Robotech RPG at a future point, so I’ll keep this section short and sweet. I’d like to see more focus on the themes of Robotech, more background information, and mechanics that help immerse players in the Robotech universe… with a lot less “gun and mecha porn.” Not that having new guns and mecha isn’t cool, but the current set has a bit too much of this and not enough of the other stuff.
If possible (and I have no idea how possible this would be, given the situation with the IP and the rights with the license), I’d love to re-release the older books. At the very least, I’d love to offer them for POD or electronically as PDFs, and I’d wager you could make a profit on those sales. (I know I’d buy some of the books I’m missing from the line!)
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Seriously, if you ever liked TMNT at all, you should watch this.
Again, I’m ignorant of the license issues with this game, but it would definitely be awesome to build another edition of this game. Updated with information about the different incarnations of the Turtles (has anyone seen the excellent movie Turtles Forever, as an example?) and naturally featuring the new smooth house system, this one would definitely be aimed at the nostalgia factor. Probably not worth continuing as a full line, but as a one-off, I think it has potential.
And now for the big one…
Kevin Long is the man.
In my opinion, Rifts is an IP goldmine. It has a compelling and unique setting with tons of interesting characters, locations, organizations and technology. The first thing I’d want to do with Rifts is feature a huge release for the second edition. Using the new, smoother house system, Rifts 2.0 would be the biggest launch I could afford—I’d put a big marketing budget on this one. I’d have an open playtest of the rules, I’d have plenty of previews, I’d talk about the game on podcasts, I’d have a quick-play preview at Free RPG Day, and anything else I could think of.
(A huge opening at Gen Con with guys in Coalition and Ley Line Walker costumes comes to mind…)
(A huge opening at Gen Con with guys in Coalition and Ley Line Walker costumes comes to mind…)
I’d definitely make sure to try and hire back artists like Kevin Long, Clyde Caldwell, Wayne Breaux, and Ramon Perez (and many more) to bring the art of Rifts 2.0 to life.
After the big release of Rifts 2.0, I’d look at some other ways to leverage the IP. A slick boardgame would be a good investment—I’d hire someone like Eric Lang or Kevin Wilson to look at the IP and create something truly awesome. I’d also look into acquiring the rights for the long-lost N-gage game, Promise of Power, and see what it would take to release that on the apple store as a game for tablets and iphones. I’d look into developing a small isometric turn-based strategy game for the Coalition War Campaign, again for tablets and iphones.
For the RPG, I’d task my line developer with working up some additional new dimensions to round out the “Dimension Books” side.
I’d also like to revisit (and revise) some of the more problematic areas of Rifts Earth that could really use some polish—Australia, Canada, England, I’m looking at you! The role of the Coalition would need to be looked at more in-depth (are they the saviors of humanity or the worst thing ever? It would probably be a good idea to figure that out!) and the system would need to take into account the unique archetypes of the setting, such as Glitter Boys and Techno-Wizards.
I’d want to look at areas of Rifts Earth that could use more information—Rifts Hong Kong, anyone?
Personally, I’d love to see some expansions to my favorite parts of Rifts Earth, such as Atlantis, the Mercenary books (how about a revised and expanded Mercenaries?), South America, the New Navy, the New West, Kingsdale, Merctown, Triax, Wormwood, Phase World, and many more.
And the Rest
To be perfectly honest, I don’t really have any concrete thoughts in mind as to what I would do with the other Palladium Books’ lines, aside from update all of them to the new ruleset and make sure they’re all available as PDF for people who want them.
Ross Watson’s “Big Book of Borgs.”
One of the poster boys of Rifts, along with the Ley Line Walker, Juicer, Coalition Soldier, and Glitter Boy.
I’m tacking this on to the end of this King for a Day piece, as is it is still a bit of a dream rather than reality but less about me being in charge of the entire company. 🙂
Keep in mind that the ideas below are just the basics of an outline for a proposal—I had plans to add a lot more detail and flesh out a lot of the concepts here if the company liked the initial pitch.
Once upon a time I had a fierce desire to write a book for Rifts. I wanted to create a sourcebook for cyborgs, especially partial- and full-conversion cyborgs (some of the more iconic images of Rifts Earth!). Now, Rifts already had a bionics sourcebook (a collection of various bionic parts and bits from the rest of the line) and the main entry in the Rifts RPG.
My “Big Book of Borgs,” however, was going to be less about the toys (although it would definitely include some new bionics, some new ‘borg bodies and limbs, and so forth) and more about the experience of being a borg in Rifts Earth.
I wanted to discuss the various famous cyberneticists, from the back-alley street docs of Kingsdale to the Coalition cyberneticists in Chi-town. I wanted to showcase some specific Borg NPC’s and have a substantial portion of the book set aside for roleplaying as a Borg. How would it change your worldview if you were nothing more than a brain inside a massively armored bionic body? For one thing, I’d make sure that I could do some basic repairs on myself and carry around a spare toolkit just in case! For another, I’d have less trouble jumping in front to protect my friends, knowing that if an arm gets blown off I can just find a mechanic and repair it!
There are game mechanics issues to consider as well—what built-in weapon do you choose? Melee or ranged? What skills can find new and interesting applications when you’re a Borg?
Lastly I’d have the book present a chapter on the role of a Borg in a typical adventuring party in Rifts. What does the Borg do that the Ley Line Walker and Glitter Boy can’t? Where does the Borg best fit in and stand out with his unique abilities? How can you build a Borg character to be more than just “the big guy with the big gun?”
These are the basics of the book I wanted to write for Rifts. However, the business practices of Palladium Books changed my mind—it’s a shame, since I’d still love to write this book someday (see Part 2 of my Publisher Profile on Palladium Books for more).
I’m taking a quick break from my more introspective blog posts to do some interviews with guys I know in the RPG industry. Never fear, gentle reader—I have lots more to say about Palladium’s books, Superhero RPGs, and I have a bunch of reviews I need to get around to writing. Just be patient… they’ll all appear on Rogue Warden in due time. 🙂
Who is John Dunn? John is a witty, fun-loving, and charismatic guy, plus, he’s a molecular biologist in his “real job” and moonlights as a freelance writer for RPGs.
Now, John’s a stand-up guy and I consider him not only a friend but a valued colleague—we worked together on a number of Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay books. John’s a professional’s professional—if there were a “professionalism in RPGs” panel, John should be sitting at that table.
You can find out more about him and his great Hope Preparatory books at http://www.meliorvia.com/.
With no further ado, let’s jump into the interview!
(Note: My questions are in red, John’s answers are in black)
Hi, Ross. Thanks for the opportunity to blather on a bit about myself. It was very kind of you to give me the chance to talk about the things I value in gaming and my design philosophy.
RW: Can you tell me a little about yourself as a gamer and as a game industry professional?
I’ve been a role-playing gamer since around 1980. I started with AD&D, and moved on to a whole lot of other systems with my friends in grade school on through college and up to the current day. Through the years, I’ve played a number of different war games, including Battletech, HeroClix, and Warhammer 40,000. I played a fair number of CCGs, in the early nineties, but I stopped mostly due to a lack of time. Through the mid 2000s, I was pretty active on the Dark Age of Camelot and World of Warcraft MMOs, but decided to quit playing MMOs so I could devote time to writing.
In terms of actual game play, I’ve most often been the GM in my play group, at least partly because of my control-freak tendencies, but also because the rest of my game group lets me. I like to focus on games that are about collaboratively telling a story, with the interactions along the way serving to drive that. I’ve enjoyed other play styles as well, but that seems to be the one that works best for my current group.
As a game industry professional, I’ve been a developer, a writer, an editor, and occasionally a layout artist or art director. My professional credits include work on Shadowrun, Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay, and Hope Preparatory School (for my imprint, Melior Via). My first professionally published RPG work was released in 2006, but I’ve been dabbling at various levels of amateur work since the early 1990s.
And the last thing left in the box is…
RW: How did you get your start in the RPG industry?
In the early ’90s, I started writing RPGA convention adventures for a variety of different game systems including Teenagers from Outer Space, Shadowrun, and Paranoia. By that point, I’d burnt out on traditional D&D (H4: The Throne of Bloodstone —there wasn’t any point after that), so when the organization chose to limit the game systems they’d support, the market for the materials I was most interested in writing was gone.
To get my writing fix while I was in grad school, I started participating in a RPG focused Amateur Press Alliance called MOTiVE. During this time, I did some playtesting work for Steve Jackson Games, WotC, and West End Games. I also volunteered as a game demonstrator for a few different companies.
Who ya gonna call?
In 2004, I started writing for Shadowrun again, with their newly launched Shadowrun Missions campaign. After a surprisingly short period of time, I found myself in charge of the campaign’s development and also working as a freelancer. Over the next few years, I went from a convention volunteer to a brief stint as one of the Shadowrun line developers.
I decided to pursue a different writing direction in the summer of 2009 and parted ways with Shadowrun to begin some independent work. That work ultimately led to the launch of my imprint Melior Via (www.meliorvia.com). On the way, in 2010, I responded to a posting on Fantasy Flight Games’ web site for freelance authors. Sam Stewart was kind enough to give me a shot working on Rogue Trader for Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay. In 2011, Melior Via launched Hope Preparatory School, for ICONS and M&M3e as its first line. Since then, I’ve been rather busy working on various freelance projects in the evenings and on weekends.
One of my personal favorites.
RW: What is something great about working in the RPG industry?
I’ve had the tremendous fortune to collaborate with some great authors and developers on a variety of projects over the time that I’ve been freelancing. The materials I’ve worked on are incredibly cool, but the people I’ve gotten to know far trump that. I love it when I get a chance to have a brainstorming session to talk about the early stages of a project, and how we might spin it. Just discussing the merits of different approaches and how they might reflect upon a licensed property, taking into account play styles, settings, and even business concerns, is a blast to me. Then, getting to see how co-writers took something that we talked about during brainstorming and just ran with it always amazes me. It’s just stunning to see how talented and creative these folks are.
RW: What is something really bad about working in the RPG industry?
The biggest problem that I see with the industry is that it is far too difficult to make a living wage within it. Many of the most talented writers either need to leave RPG writing for another industry or work within the game field on a part time basis. The only way I can imagine solving this would be to see a dramatic uptick in sales volume or a comparable price increase, and I just don’t see either of those happening.
The flip side to this is that every Game Master who builds his own world is actually creating an RPG. There are thousands of talented creators with great materials that just need a little bit of refining and polishing to be turned into cool publications. Because of this, the field never seems to lack for new creators. I can completely understand why word and art rates are what they are, as at the end of the day most of the creators can be replaced because of the available pool of talent. I just wish that there could be a more viable option.
RW: How has your perception of working professionally in the RPG industry changed over the last 5 years?
I’d like to think that I’ve learned a lot about how to interact with writing professionals in that time, which suggests that this could easily become a lengthy essay (too late, right?). So, I’ll try to limit my scope on the answer. I’m just going to focus on what I believe to be the most important lesson I’ve learned in that time.
I love writing. I love seeing my name in print (or e-ink) at the start of a book. I love getting a payment as a reward, especially if it’s something that I would have done for free.
I want to continue writing whenever I can for as long as I can.
Less about politics than you’d think…
From my perspective, those two facts mean that I need to have as many happy clients as possible. (For my self-published work, I see the people who have been kind enough to purchase my creations as my clients.)
I need to focus on writing what my clients want to see more than I need to focus on writing what I necessarily want to see. I need to be receptive to criticism, from authors, from reviewers, and from fans. I need to temper complements from all of those sources, so that I don’t go overboard and revel in it. At the end of the day, if my clients are happy, then I’m going to be happy.
When I first started writing, I thought I’d get to put down pretty much whatever I wanted on the page, and I’d just have to figure out a way to sell it. That proved to not be the most effective strategy for continuing to find work. Writing to please myself is something I can do in the distant future when I’m happily retired and looking for ways to fill my free time.
RW: You’ve been in charge of your own projects before… how would you do things differently now as opposed to the first couple of projects you were in charge of?
When I started developing projects, I had very limited ability to impact payment terms, credit assignments, and final proofing. Having worked as a freelancer, I think that it is absolutely vital that freelancers be kept in the loop on the status of their projects and compensated in the fairest manner possible. I also believe that it is vital that freelancers have every opportunity to sign off on the final version of their projects prior to release (i.e. after playtesting, editing, and layout). Consequently, on all of my Melior Via projects, I try very hard to focus on making sure that the creators are paid in a prompt manner (which is not dependent upon publication date) and that they have an opportunity to review the “final” version prior to release.
RW: What do you believe is the most important aspect of professionalism in the RPG industry from the viewpoint of the freelancer? What about from the viewpoint of a publisher?
Professionalism is a word that encompasses a whole lot. To me it starts with a combination of attitude and presentation. At the end of the day, I put my reputation on the line with every contract that I sign. The industry is small enough that if I have an unsatisfied client, I expect other professionals to learn about it. That’s from my perspective both as a freelancer and as someone who runs a small publishing house. Consequently, I believe that it is vital to maintain a sense of professionalism at all times.
From a freelancer’s perspective I try very hard to observe my contract in the way that the client wants it observed. That means delivering the product that the developer asked for, in the time frame requested, adhering to the style guide and any secondary agreements (e.g. NDAs). Sometimes managing all of those expectations is difficult (particularly when there are necessary changes required within a particularly tight deadline). In those situations, I think the most important aspect of professionalism is communication. If an editor knows that a revision may be delayed beyond a deadline, they are generally understanding as long as they have some degree of notice. Similarly, if I need to push the boundaries of a style guide in order to accomplish some particular aspect of my design goals, then I need to make certain the developer is aware of that in advance and receptive to the idea.
From a publisher’s standpoint, I think reliability is often even more important than communication. When I contract a freelancer to do the job, I need to know that I’m going to get a product that fits with the terms of the contract, the company’s style guide, and arrives on time. If a freelancer cannot manage to meet all of those requirements, or at least offer me a good explanation for why not, then I’m unlikely to contract with them again.
RW: If you could change one thing about the RPG industry, what would it be?
That’s easy: It’d have a much, much larger player base. If there were more people playing RPGs and buying RPGs, producing RPGs would be far more economically viable. Part of that can be done through running public games, even demos. However, I’ll admit that after doing that for years, I simply don’t have the time to do so anymore. I wish I did, and I salute those who do so. I think that’s the most important role anyone can have in the effort to perpetuate the hobby.
RW: How do you engage with the fans of your work?
I try to be active on message boards and mailing lists that are relevant to my interests. I also attend several conventions each year. Unfortunately, my degree of activity is usually proportionate to how busy I am on current projects. I’ll admit that I’ve been fortunate enough to be pretty occupied with projects over the past year, and sadly that’s impacted the amount of time I’ve had for reading forums and mailing lists. Similarly, since the birth of my daughter in 2007, I’ve had to restrict the number of conventions that I attend.
At this point, my favorite message boards are RPG.net, dakkadakka.com, and the FFG forums. I also follow the icons-rpg Yahoo! Group and the Torg mailing list.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as an RPG professional?
I think I’m pretty lucky that I have to actually think about this one for a moment. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in a lot of great collaborative works. Comparing and contrasting them against one another to identify a favorite isn’t easy for me.
For a long time, I’d have said the Denver Shadowrun Missionscampaign. That took more than two years of my life, and saw a free release every single month for 25 consecutive months. I made some great friends working on it and learned a ton about RPG publishing. I’m still very proud of it, but I don’t think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.
The Black Crusade has begun! It was great working with John on this one.
The released product that I am most proud of now would have to be the Character Creation chapter for Black Crusade. I knew that introducing a more freeform system of character design and advancement to the Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay line was a risky move. I’m very satisfied with the way the final product ultimately turned out and pleasantly surprised by the positive response that it has continued to garner.
RW: What do you feel is your greatest setback as an RPG professional?
This is a challenging question, Ross. That’s partially because there are a few things that I don’t think I can discuss due to contractual obligations. It’s also partly because I’ve worked with some fantastic developers and editors who have saved my reputation on more than one occasion. I know that I’ve been extremely fortunate, and I’m grateful for the opportunities that I’ve received.
Which, interestingly enough, includes rules for the most obvious augmentations, if you know what I mean.
And I think you do.
I’d probably have to go with the presentation of my Cyborgs material in Augmentation for Shadowrun. There were some issues with the development path that book followed, and the way that material was reassigned to another book (Arsenal). I don’t think it was an unmitigated disaster, but it meant that there was a year between the time the book was introduced and when the material I wrote was actually useable. Fortunately, it’s been several years since those both released, and with both products now available, they work pretty well.
RW: How do you reconcile working on a game that, on the one hand, requires a set of rules… but on the other hand, encourages GMs and players to break the rules or come up with their own?
One of my core concepts in game design is that the GM knows what his gaming group wants far better than I do. I try to make it a point to defer to Game Master discretion on a regular basis. I see the rules as something to provide a general framework for how a session should proceed, but never something that’s inviolate. In my mind, story is king. The rules are something to fall back on to help tell a story, not something to drive it.
RW: If you were a shadowrunner, you’d be a…?
I’m a lifelong fan of Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni novels, particularly those in her Camber of Culdi series. The series focuses on a race of psychics and magicians whose abilities regularly come into conflict with their faith in God, as members of a church that is extremely similar to the Roman Catholic faith. I see the Christian Theurgy path of magic, as presented in Street Magic as being very true to that series. I would absolutely be a Christian Theurgist. I’d probably be human. My spirits would all manifest with an angelic style, based upon calls to the various Archangels. My spells would focus on Illusion, Health, and Manipulation. I’d most likely also work with the Silvestrian order, but I wouldn’t be a priest.
RW: What’s your favorite RPG that you have no involvement in?
Storm Knights, assemble!
Torg from West End Games. I’ve loved the cross-genre play style of that game since I first saw it in Waldenbooks in 1990. After puzzling through what initially seemed like a mind-boggling complex system, I eventually came to understand the core concepts and they just clicked for me. I love the way that the game can start with a feel of total camp, move to one of high fantasy, then to abject horror through the course of a single game session, usually over a series of scenes. I also think that the game mechanics and world description do a fantastic job of enforcing genre emulation effectively.
RW: What do you look for… and what is a red flag… for a random freelancer submission?
I mentioned earlier that I was a coordinator for Shadowrun Missions when it was entirely a fan-based effort. During that time, I saw a number of things that were troubling. Some were routine—e.g. proposals that didn’t involve a spell check or good grammar. Others were less common—e.g. proposals submitted with the text color set to orange.
Ultimately, the thing I looked for the most was a sense of professionalism. When an author was offering his services, I wanted to see evidence that he could do the task. A first impression that included a nice CV is a wonderful thing. When that’s not possible, one that shows attention to detail (including spelling and grammar checking) helps a great deal. Somebody that knows how to use the Oxford Comma, promises a reasonable delivery date for a well-scoped project, and can differentiate between “they’re,” “there,” and “their” has the potential to be a fantastic freelancer.
RW: If you could pick up the dice and play an RPG right this very instant, you’d play…?
Torg. In fact, I’m running a session Monday night. For all the reasons that I mentioned earlier. It’s my favorite game. I just wish I had an opportunity to write for it.
Last post, I went over many things about Palladium Books—as a publisher—that I really like and admire, which mostly has to do with their portfolio of awesome games and game settings.
This post is going to be different. Very different. In keeping with my ground rules, I’m doing my best to ensure that there’s no hate here—but, gentle reader, you should be prepared to experience my dissatisfaction with a number of things having to do with good ol’ Palladium.
(Editor’s Note: Once I got started, I just found that I had more and more to say. Warning to you up front, gentle reader… this is not a short read!)
Welcome to the Dark Side…
Why Talk about Palladium?
It seems like every online discussion about Palladium at RPG.net instantly turns into a flame war, with mod warnings thrown around like confetti. I feel that there is a polarized view of Palladium when it comes to online discussion, split into two groups: Pro-Palladium and Con-Palladium. There are, of course, numerous posters who fall into the middle of these two camps. I would put myself there as well.
However, I do feel that there are things about Palladium that should be… nay, must be discussed.
In general, I think gamers need to talk about publishers more often and in more meaningful ways.
We as gamers should talk about quality and professionalism. How will things ever improve if we don’t talk about it? Communication is a powerful tool in any industry, and I think it’s time to start using that tool more effectively.
The Head Cheese
Kevin Siembieda is the co-founder and president of Palladium Books. He’s the man in charge. You can’t meaningfully discuss the company without discussing Kevin as well—for most intents and purposes, he isPalladium.
(Read more about Palladium after the jump!)
Dealings with Fans and Freelancers
Something that is very important to me, both as a gamer and as an RPG industry veteran, is professionalism. People certainly don’t work on RPGs to get rich—it’s about a love and respect for the product, for the traditions and history of RPGs. Getting my name right in the credits has always been extremely important to me, for example, because I feel that is where the true worth of my work is when writing for RPGs… I can point to it on my shelf and say “I made that.”
This is why I must express dismay at the way Palladium books handles their employees, their fans, and their freelancers alike.
Let’s look at employees first, and for the record, I am counting as “employees” writers who have done multiple significant books for the company, whether they were actual full-timers or not.
There have been a number of stories directly from ex-employees of Palladium about the working conditions there, from creators that I like and respect. Among them are names you might recognize: Bill Coffin. CJ Carella. Josh Hilden and Joshua Sanford. Steve Conan Trustrum.
These guys are all earnest, hardworking, and talented professionals. They were all treated poorly by Palladium books.
You can read Bill Coffin’s story in his own words here:
CJ Carella had his work specifically called out by Kevin as being “subpar” and “unbalanced” in the Rifts Game Master’s Guide—publically shaming someone who works for you is not a class act, especially when CJ’s work on the line is, IMHO, some of the most creative and interesting pieces of the Rifts IP.
In the words of Bill Coffin: “…it took some balls to criticize a writer for taking liberties with an engine whose official F.A.Q. and errata is literally longer than a large sourcebook itself.”
Josh Hilden and Joshua Sanford poured a lot of hard work and creativity into their zombie horror concept RPG Dead Reign, only to have Kevin claim the book was “not good enough” mere months before publication. Dead Reign was then re-written by Kevin giving only nominal credit to the original creators.
Another interesting post by Mr. Coffin describes the Palladium method of working with freelancers on manuscripts for their books:
Taking the above into account, it seems clear that in my opinion as an RPG professional, Palladium Books presents themselves as very disconnected from the current ways of doing business—and thus, a particularly disappointing indictment as unprofessional.
Just as an example, at Fantasy Flight Games, I managed three different game lines and dozens of projects with freelancers where I used modern practices such as clear vision documents, book page layout plans, and discussion groups to make sure all questions were answered and everyone knew what they were working on at any given time.
This is how you make quality RPG products in the modern market. This is how you keep talented freelancers working for you instead of the competition.
I feel that Palladium’s business practices and methods of dealing with their freelancers have definitely hurt them in that many of their more talented and established creators don’t work there anymore. Despite my own documented love for Palladium’s games, I myself am extremely hesitant to engage in any work for them based on their reputation at this time. And that’s a damn shame. 🙁
Lawsuits, Lawsuits, Everywhere a Lawsuit
Palladium has gained a reputation as being particularly litigious—many fans, for example, have received cease-and-desist letters for posting conversions of Palladium games to other systems. This tendency has even been noted in their wikpedia entry and as far afield as tvtropes.
Palladium also has a history of suing other game companies, including (pre D&D) Wizards of the Coast.
Most recently, Palladium sued Trion, a video game company making the Rift MMORPG (since that was too similar to “Rifts”). That suit was settled out of court, and there are many gamers (myself amongst them) who credit this settlement with Palladium’s recent surge of announced product and convention attendance.
A note to the courts: You’re just encouraging this kind of thing, you know?
Is there a Coalition Lawyer Brigade?
I myself have been warned by other gamers that posting this very blog is likely to provoke legal action from Palladium. Personally, I’m skeptical about that… we’ll just have to wait and see.
Palladium’s legal actions regarding fans of their work come across as (and I can think of no other word to accurately sum this up) hostile—Kevin has explained that the company does this “in order to protect their rights,” which sounds reasonable enough… except that Palladium is essentially alone in actually legally attacking the people who enjoy its products. I can think of no other company that sends cease-and-desist letters for simply making fan conversions of Palladium game content… especially when such conversions (nearly 100% as far as I can tell) are done entirely on a not-for-profit basis.
I’m certainly not alone in noticing and being concerned by this habit, as shown in this article:
Now, I’m no legal expert, but I have worked with quite a few licensed intellectual properties. In my experience, I’m definitely skeptical that these actions are necessary to legally protect a copyrighted IP. If it were, I would imagine you’d see a lot more companies following suit (pardon the pun). Naturally, if someone were using Palladium’s IP on a for-profit basis, that’s an entirely different kettle of fish, and I would definitely support legal action against that sort of thing.
Buried in the Past
Palladium has a reputation for being extremely slow to adapt to the modern market. One good example of this is their core game engine, which has not been significantly updated since the 80’s. Many design choices (classes and skills, attributes, alignments, etc.) reflect a very “old school” approach.
Looking at Palladium books since their founding, one would be hard-pressed to find many substantial differences in publication since the 1980’s. Palladium publications share the same overall production quality (which admittedly is not bad). The layout and presentation remains entirely static—two columns of text, no sidebars, with often seemingly random placements of art and headings. The editing, unfortunately, does not seem to have improved either—one example being a misprinted weapon range (of 1600 km) that was cut and pasted into more than 5 different books.
I’ve heard from many sources that Palladium used the old “paste board” method of layout, as in physically placing strips of text on a board using adhesives up until very recently. This is why the layout of every Palladium book is the same, and why many books have awkward placement of creatures or rules that are out of order. One source has reported that, in fact, the first Palladium book that was not laid out by hand pasting text to boards was the Shadow Chronicles hardback, released in 2008.
It wasn’t until 2009 that DriveThruRPG (ably represented by Sean Patrick Fannon) talked Kevin into bringing Palladium books into the world of online publishing and PDFs.
A particularly bizarre example has to do with Facebook. Faced with questions on the Palladium forums about a Facebook page, the company initially responded setting one up for the company would take considerable time and effort, and therefore would be put off until after the company’s website was updated.
A fan promptly created a Palladium Facebook page in roughly 15 minutes.
The company did eventually create their own Facebook page—far in advance of their own projected timetable.
Kevin’s response to the incident can be found here:
Relations with fans, freelancers/employees, and the changing nature of the market are not the only challenges that Palladium Books has faced. In 2006, it was discovered that a former Palladium employee named Steve Shiering had stolen and embezzled roughly $850,000. This became known as the “Crisis of Treachery,” and resulted in a personal appeal by Kevin Siembieda to fans of the company for assistance.
I’m very pleased to say that I contributed to Palladium’s continued existence during this time.
However, recovery from these challenges seems slow. Palladium’s release schedule has suffered greatly, with many products essentially becoming “vaporware” or indefinitely delayed. Kevin’s assurances to the contrary increasingly have not matched with the company’s actual releases, as shown by the following site:
Meanwhile, Palladium has resorted to sales of what could charitably be described as “bonus material” in order to survive: shot glasses, coffee mugs, ball caps, t-shirts, art books and even such things as pencils and bookmarks are marketed on the Palladium website as “the latest releases.”
There’s no doubt a market for such things… this is why Cafepress exists, after all. However, I do question how prominent items like these are on the company’s web site when what I would expect to be the core of Palladium’s business—their roleplaying books—continue to languish on a very sluggish schedule.
Palladium’s recent absence from Gen Con—the “superbowl” of roleplaying games—has been noted, but the company was present in 2011 and it is my hope they will continue to attend. Any RPG company that skips Gen Con is taking a risk… Gen Con attendance is one way of communicating to your customers that your business exists, that your products are good, and that your prospects are healthy. Avoiding Gen Con does the exact opposite. One example is the recent retreat of White Wolf from attending Gen Con (or in having a booth with product in it…) that has contributed to the perception of that company’s decline.
Another small setback involved Palladium’s only video game, entitled “Rifts: Promise of Power.” The game was made (and is said to be good), but was developed solely for the ill-fated N-gage system.
Just speaking for myself, I’m dismayed by what I perceive to be happening at Palladium–that the company has become a one-man show under Kevin’s increasingly tight control, resulting in a loss of creativity and overall quality.
As an example of what I mean, the early Rifts books are an amazing display of content that had never really been seen before: Wormwood, Atlantis, Underseas, the South Americas books—all bursting with interesting and unique ideas. Unfortunately, the last few years have seen releases that, to me, seem much more derivative and re-hashes of older material, such as the re-release of Vampire Kingdoms (expanded and updated).
For me, another good example is the Dimension books. Just the name of this category is exciting, and ties in well with the idea that Rifts Earth is connected to dozens of other dimensions. However, we’ve only really seen four dimensions so far: Hades/Hell, Phase World, Wormwood, and the Skraypers dimension. Whilst these are all interesting dimensions (particularly Phase World and Wormwood), this seems like a missed opportunity… especially given the longevity of the game line. It’s been over 25 years… why haven’t we seen more dimensions?
Hope Yet Remains
Welcome to the New World Order, citizen
I realize that this blog post has been very negative in tone, so I want to once again reassure you, gentle reader, that I do not hate Palladium Books. In fact, I started out by praising all the things that I really enjoy and respect about the company and their products.
I also want to end this blog post on a high note by describing the ways in which I see Palladium improving.
- In terms of production quality, Palladium has produced a number of hardback books, including Rifts Ultimate Edition which also incorporates color inserts! Perhaps this is a sign that the company is looking ahead towards better production values (and dare I say… color artwork?) in the future.
- The Palladium Books website, post-upgrade, is very good and I dare say it is quite modern. It does put many other publishers to shame!
- Triax 2 and the recent revival of the Robotech license are also good signs that the company can produce quality books.
- The Palladium Open House is a small convention that the company runs once a year in the summertime, taking advantage of the company’s warehouse space to run games, meet with guests, and provide a great (and affordable) experience for attendees. I definitely plan on attending sometime just to check it out. I applaud the decision to start up the Open House and I hope it continues. This is how a smaller publisher can really leverage its strengths and I think that other publishers could learn from it.
- Palladium continues to enjoy the support of a hardcore and dedicated fanbase. I would classify myself as a Palladium Books fan. The company has done well to parlay their early success into a longevity that many other publishers would envy.
I want to see Palladium Books continue to succeed and grow, but I do think the company—and particularly Kevin—needs to acknowledge their missteps and learn from them.
It’s time for Palladium to “level up.” The game system badly needs an overhaul. The production quality needs to use modern methods to improve. Palladium should and must act like a professional company in their dealings with freelancers and fans. More involvement from quality creators needs to be incorporated into the development process so that situations like Dark Reign don’t happen again.
Palladium is making strides in these directions, but I feel that the company needs to be more bold. They have a lot of great ideas, but time is running out—and the market is not kind to those slow to adapt.
I’d like to close out this post with a link to a respectful and reasoned appeal to Palladium Books by a friend of mine:
I decided to put up something new on the blog today; a “publisher profile,” where I talk about a particular RPG publisher and describe some of my thoughts on their portfolio, business practices, and anything else that comes to mind. Having a taste for alliteration, I chose Palladium as the first company to discuss in this manner. 🙂
(Editorial note: While writing this, I found out that I had a lot more to say than I first imagined. Therefore, I am breaking this up into multiple blog posts. Stay tuned for Part 2. I may even need a Part 3)
A Lifelong Friend
I definitely want to begin this discussion on a high note. I’ve been a fan of Palladium’s books since the 80’s—my friends and I would play the /crap/ out of games like Rifts, TMNT, and Robotech through the early 90’s as often as possible. The newest book for any of those lines caused my gaming group in junior high and high school to instantly get together for a discussion of its highs and lows and how best to work it into our campaigns. I was a very lively and memorable Rifts campaign during my years in the military as well.
I’ve lost count of the number of Rifts and Robotech characters I created, the adventures and campaigns we enjoyed. Through the decades, I’ve culled my book collection many, many times… but Palladium’s books have stayed on my shelf.
Heroes Unlimited, Ninjas and Superspies, and even the weapon compendiums published by Palladium have spent time amongst my collection, and there’s quite a few books (which I intend to talk about later at length) that I read and re-read over and over.
Just to give you, gentle reader, an idea of the depth of my appreciation for Palladium’s overall line of work, I intend to write future blog posts that are reviews of individual books (starting with Century Station for Heroes Unlimited), overviews of lines as a whole (definitely for Rifts) and discuss other lines under my already-established series (such as King for a Day).
The bottom line is that Rifts, TMNT, and Robotech are three /pillars/ of my early roleplaying game development as a player, a GM, and a designer. I would be completely remiss in writing this post about the company without acknowledging that up front.
As you can see from the heading to this section, my appreciation for alliteration is showing again. 🙂
Palladium’s book lines have changed a lot over the years, but there’s always been some standouts. For me, those are three lines in particular: Rifts, Robotech, and TMNT.
A future blog post is going to cover this game system in much more depth. For the purposes of this post, I’ll simply say that Rifts is a beautiful, gonzo sci-fi setting with tons of stuff from any and every other genre you can think of. This amazing setting is unfortunately tied to an outdated, clunky mess of an RPG system. That having been said, I love playing it and will continue to do so at nearly every opportunity.
I will unhesitatingly point to TMNT as a guide to “how to do a licensed RPG right.” The original creators of TMNT, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, pitch in to add a special comic strip just for the core book for this line. Every bit of it feels like it was designed to help you create your own adventures in their world.
Although Palladium no longer makes TMNT (and it is essentially dead as one of their product lines), I consider it to be one of the defining features of their company.
I have a strained love affair with Robotech—on the one hand, I love the show (although it is very dated by modern animation standards), I love the mecha, I love the characters, I love the style. On the other hand, there’s things about it that really bother me, and among them is the RPG. Almost a polar opposite to TMNT, the Robotech RPG is basically just a bunch of stats and pictures of ships and characters with very little tying it all together or any attempt to really make it feel like the show.
And, when it came out, I frickin’ loved it. My original copy of the Robotech RPG is dog-eared from constant reading and reference. We played the hell out of this game, even if it wasn’t much of a game, because it was cool. Kevin Long’s artwork had a lot to do with that, along with the obsessively-detailed stats for each type of mecha and the (albeit scant and underdeveloped) information about the show and the storyline.
Again, this is a topic I intend to revisit in the future.
And the Rest
I don’t have much to say about the other Palladium product lines, other than I generally find them at least somewhat interesting. I hear a lot of good things about Palladium Fantasy, for example.
For the record, I count Chaos Earth and the Mechanoids as part of Rifts. Other lines include:
- Ninjas and Superspies
- Beyond the Supernatural
- Palladium Fantasy
- Dead Reign
To be Continued
So this post turned out to be quite long, and I decided to split it up into multiple posts. The next installment in this series is going to take a hard look at Palladium’s history, business practices, and ways of dealing with freelancers and fans alike. I should warn you, gentle reader, that much of what I have to say is less thancomplimentary—this is why I wanted to start things out by telling you all about the things I enjoy and admire about the company before digging into everything else. So stay tuned for more coming up in part 2!
In the last few instances of Superhero Studies, we’ve looked at the great, the good, and the bad. Now it’s time for the Weird!
That’s right folks, let Matter-eater Lad show you the way it’s done.
When it comes to RPGs, I have an attraction towards the strange and unusual. I own several books—Eldritch Ass Kicking and Heartquest amongst them—just because they are oddballs. There are some books that are famous… or infamous… for being truly “out there,” books like Lancer’s Rockers and The Slayer’s Guide to Games Masters.
Since I’ve been covering the superhero genre of RPGs in this series so far, I think the time has come to look at the weird ones in the bunch and examine the top 6 Superhero RPG Oddballs.
Ross Watson’s Top 5 Superhero RPG Oddballs
These entries are placed in no particular order (leaving things a bit chaotic just feels right, with these books). Just to be clear, I think these books are all fun in their own way—unlike the previous entries, this list is not at all about general quality. It’s about those books that make you stop and say “Wait, what? They actually made a book about… that?”
Find the oddballs after the jump!
#1: Autoduel Champions
Duellists, I think you’re going to need a bigger car.
Designed by Aaron Allston and illustrated by Denis Loubet, this is an interesting and well-designed product. It’s definitely an oddball—when I think of superheroes, do you think that my next thought is naturally that of a post-apocalyptic bloodsport? This product aims to change that! Autoduel Champions is a quirky and fun book, worth owning if you are a fan of either license.
Autoduel would itself have more RPG elements in later years, and Champions would also certainly evolve, but a crossover product like this was almost unheard of during its time. In some ways, I think was a brave step for both publishers.
Also known as “Huge… eyes, no pupils.”
A fun furry-themed webcomic, Supermegatopia has been around for a while and is perhaps best known for quirky characters and some adult content. It’s certainly a whimsical world that contains superheroes such as Topless Lass and Titmouse, all illustrated by the talented pen of “The Brothers Grinn” AKA Drake Fenwick. Topless Lass, for example, has super-strength, but only when she’s half-naked. I bet you can guess which half.
And then Team Frog Studios (Nightshift Games) made an RPG out of it. It’s not a particularly good RPG, but it does manage to capture some of the whimsical fun of the webcomic, which is why I’ve placed it in the oddball category. If slightly naughty anthropomorphic superheroes having crazy, goofy adventures is up your alley, then check out the Supermegatopia RPG.
For more information, see the following review at RPG.net:
Bagel man to the… rescue?
Described as “the first-class roleplaying game for third-rate heroes,” Stuper Powers is a humorous take on Superheroes and RPGs in one, very affordable package (copies sell for less than 5 $). For what could have been a lazy, phoned-in excuse for a game, Stuper Powers actually stepped up to the plate with some clever ideas for crazy powers (Bestow 70’s Hairdo being one of my favorites), and gives you pretty much what you’d expect. It’s not much more than a “joke game,” but it is written with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
For more information, see the following review at RPG.net:
#4: Lucha Libre Hero
You are no match for the might of El Espectro… he fights for Lucha and all of Mexico!
Another Champions product hits the list with Luche Libre Hero, the sourcebook for roleplaying as masked Mexican wrestlers (or Luchadores). The Luchador genre may seem extremely silly and campy for those who aren’t familiar with it—I certainly had my own preconceptions and concerns.. that is, until I actually played a game of Luche Libre Hero.
GM’d by my friend and excellently-capable gamer Bill “Teh Bunneh” Keyes, the Lucha Libre Hero game suddenly opened up before my eyes and I found myself immersed in the world of “El Espectro” as we battled Dracula and his vampire brides for the sake of all Mexico. All I can say is that I heartily endorse this product and there is a ton of fun to be had inside… even if it is the very epitome of an oddball product.
For more information, see the following review at RPG.net:
#5: Superbabes, the Femforce RPG
“Okay, Giganta? Next time, not so much on the giant growth inside the base, please.”
Femforce was a comic book from AC Comics that began publication in 1985 and combined Bronze-Age superhero action with Good Girl Art-inspired visuals. Superbabes is the RPG of the comic book universe of Femforce, and at first glance (or even second or third) it can often be mistaken for being merely a superficial and sexist product.
I’d like to go on record and say that Superbabes is actually chock full of fun. The writers of the comic and the writers of the game don’t make any bones about the subject matter, and in many ways they actually succeed at creating a decent game (better than many on the top 10 missteps list, in fact).
One of the game’s more innovative and interesting mechanics is the unfortunately named “Bimbo points.” The regrettable moniker aside, this game mechanic is actually one of the first examples of giving the player some narrative power in the game, a mechanic that was later adopted by games like Savage Worlds and Hollow Earth Expeditions.
My recommendation? Put aside preconceptions of sexism and check it out. The names of the NPCs alone are quite enjoyable, including “Alexandria the Greatest” and the female robot adventurer “Maidenform.” In addition, the Femforce universe is actually quite dynamic and interesting, full of unusual and compelling characters.
One of my personal favorite supplements for this RPG is called “Game of the Century,” which sets up a superpowered baseball game between heroes and villains—not your ordinary superhero fare!
For more information, see the following review at RPG.net:
Now I want to try my hand at making some Superbabes NPCs… let’s see. How about “March Harriet?” “Judith Prietht?” Maybe I’d better stop now. 🙂
Lately I’ve been mentally comparing my Superhero Studies series of blog articles to the spaghetti western “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Using that film’s title as a building point, the first two articles in this series were about the “Good”—so, gentle reader, you ought to have an idea of where this is going next!
We’ve talked about the Best, now for the Rest.
Ross Watson’s Top 10 Superhero RPG Missteps
I fully expect this blog post to be one of the more controversial ones so far—whenever you discuss “bests and worsts” there’s likely going to be a reaction. In a way, I welcome this—I usually enjoy hearing different viewpoints about a game, and from time to time, I’ve even gone back and changed my mind due to particularly insightful feedback. So, don’t hold back! Go ahead and post your reaction to this list in the comments… I promise to read all of them. 🙂
I do this not in anger, but in sorrow
I’m calling these books “missteps” because I do believe that to be the best description of how I feel about them… many of the products in the list below could have been great, if it were not for some pernicious setbacks and flaws.
In my very first blog post here on Rogue Warden, I made some ground rules about the content of my blog—amongst them was a rule called “No Hate.” I am firmly sticking to that policy, more so than ever when it comes to discussing products I feel that are seriously flawed. The list of books below are on the list for what I believe to be very good reasons—I don’t feel any are worthy of hate, and I would definitely encourage you, gentle reader, to consider this list more as books that did not live up to their potential rather than abject failures.
As always, this is my personal list, and I am not attempting to claim that these books are not loved by many (I am sure that some of them have lots of devoted fans, in fact). Just imagine I am writing “IMHO” at the end of every entry. 🙂
A bit surprisingly, I felt compelled to break the pattern from the first two posts in this series and include some base RPG systems on the list rather than skipping over them as is my usual wont. These products are in ascending order going from least disappointing to most disappointing.
You’ll note that a lot of the products on the list have some things in common; amongst them an inability to live up to their title and inarticulate or incomprehensible rules issues. I’ve tried to keep my criticism of “objective quality” to a minimum, but I’ll warn you ahead of time that I plan to pull no punches. It is no accident that #’s 6-10 are the ones that “almost got it,” and are actually fully functional games (with supplements!) and the upper 5 are… not so much—these are the ones with the most serious problems.
Find out the top 10 missteps after the jump!
#10: Heroes Unlimited
I don’t understand how he’s holding that shield…
Heroes Unlimited is a bit of a mixed bag—one of its supplements actually made it onto my top 10 Superhero RPG Products list, after all. Of all the books on this list, HU is probably the one I felt most conflicted over adding, but I do feel that it has some big issues.
First, Heroes Unlimited seems to have trouble “getting” superheroes. As part of the Palladium lineup, it has a lot in common with games like RIFTS and Ninjas & Superspies, and in places, it reads like a supplement for those games rather than its own line. The characters you create right out of the book feel anemic and more akin to superspies with extra abilities (although later supplements address this issue with “megaheroes”), and the technology presented for robots and bionics is both outdated and rarely particularly well-suited for superheroic action. The final nail in the coffin, unfortunately, is the absolute reliance on random rolls to generate your character—always a big flaw in my opinion for a superhero game. Where random rolling is forgivable in some cases (Villains & Vigilantes and the TSR Marvel Super Heroes games come to mind), here it just adds one more level of frustration.
Lastly, despite its title, Heroes Unlimited actually provides only a narrow variety of character roles for the superheroic genre.
Would I play it? Yes, absolutely. In spite of its flaws, Heroes Unlimited has a lot of potential in the right hands (see my post of the top 10 for Century Station as an example!).
For more information, follow this link to the RPG.net review:
#9: Champions New Millennium
Forward… into obscurity!
I know there are at least a few readers right now who are slyly saying to themselves “I /knew/ there was going to be some Champions books on this list!” Well, you’re right. Champions is a superhero IP that has gone through some of the rockiest transitions in the RPG industry, having changed hands a number of times with almost dizzying speed.
One of the tougher points of transition was when Champions was acquired by Cybergames in the early 2000’s. Allen Varney has a great article on the history of Champions (which, interestingly, does not discuss Champions New Millennium) at this link, for those interested:
At any rate, Champions New Millennium was an attempt to re-launch Champions using the Fuzion system, a creation of R. Talsorian games (better known for Cyberpunk and Mekton) around the same time as that company was producing the (quite excellent) Bubblegum Crisis RPG books.
Champions New Millennium, however, failed to appeal to either audience. It was at best a clunky conversion of the normally precise Hero system into the more freeform Fuzion, and it did not really seem to know what kind of game it wanted to be in the end. Lacking any compelling setting, campaign, or NPCs, New Millennium didn’t satisfy Hero or Fuzion fans and eventually faded away. I give the creators of this game respect for trying to keep Champions alive, but the product in the end is quite a disappointment.
Would I play it? Yes… there’s enough of a game here that I would enjoy taking it for a spin.
#8: DC Heroes
Hell of a cover, though. I’d love to see how /that/ battle turned out!
I consider this entry to be possibly one of the most controversial entries on the list. Lots of people enjoy and are fans of DC Heroes. There’s no doubt that DC Heroes was successful as a Superhero RPG—it has a ton of published supplements and has been around since 1985, which is quite a pedigree. It is important to note that this was the very first superhero RPG that I personally picked up and attempted to play.
I say “attempted to play” because I found the system to be very difficult and frustrating. First, your character’s “Hero Points” are used to buy new abilities or enhance existing ones, essentially the experience points of the game. However, DC Heroes also expects the player to spend these Hero Points during play to boost your die rolls at crucial moments. I’m all for having methods of boosting effects in games (one of my favorites being the Savage Worlds “bennies”), but if doing so actually hurts my character in the long term? No thanks. Making this worse is the fact that villains and enemies also have hero points to spend against YOU, with no real penalty for doing so.
On top of that, the logarithmic nature of the system (if I have a power that is 1 AP stronger than yours, my power is twice as strong) and many aspects of superheroic roleplaying that are simply left up to the GM drains the fun right out of the game for me.
Lastly, the campaign advice given (at least in the first edition of the game) is fairly bland and uninspiring, although this may be a result of the wildly changing nature of comic books at the time of this product’s release (as Crisis on Infinite Earths had just happened in the market).
For more information, follow this link to the RPG.net review:
Would I play it? Yes, but with many reservations.
Achtung! Our bullets are useless!
When I first picked up Godlike, I nearly fell in love with the book—the setting and the concept are quite excellently presented and detailed. The idea of playing with superbeings in WWII—and not in the normal “Golden Age” style, but one far more realistic and gritty—is a compelling one. In fact, although this product is on my list, I definitely recommend checking it out just for the setting and concept material alone.
However—and this is a big however—the game is seriously let down by the rules system attached. Godlike was one of the first examples of the ORE (One Roll Engine) system, and unfortunately, this attempt is deeply flawed. Numerous rules contradictions, unclear examples, and extremely unbalanced common builds makes this game an exercise in futility. The system does not lend itself towards characters feeling particularly “super” except in a few narrowly-defined ways. This particular issue refutes the game’s title—making many characters feel “somewhat special” rather than truly like the Gods.
In addition, there are an abundance of ways to “break” the system—one particularly memorable character that derailed a game I was familiar with involved a Talent (Godlike’s word for superbeings) with super-eyesight and a sniper rifle that turned every encounter into a farce.
The bottom line for Godlike is this: It was a simply suberb idea that was crippled at the starting gate by its rules.
For more information, follow this link to the RPG.net review:
Would I play it? Yes, I’d give it another shot (no pun intended) but only after discussing things thoroughly with the GM.
#6: The Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game
Pay attention: this is what a great cover looks like.
Let me start out by saying I have never played this game personally. That having been said, the game’s lack of market success is enough in my eyes to label it a “misstep,” and I believe I can reasonably articulate the reasons for that.
Also known as Marvel SAGA, this game was created during the final days of TSR and attempted a rather unique innovation in game design. Marvel SAGA dispenses with dice in favor of a card-based task resolution system. However… and this is a huge however… that resolution system suffers from some extremely unclear writing. I gave up trying to understand how to play the game about halfway through, and I have yet to meet someone who can fully explain to me just how to play the game.
Now, there are great RPGs out there with some viciously unclear rules writing (TORG being the prime example I can think of), but adding that flaw onto an already unusual and niche system such as the SAGA cards firmly placed this game into the category of “too difficult to understand.”
That all being said, the production values, artwork, and overall “feel” of playing superheroes is done quite well.
Would I play it? No, unless I could find someone who really understands the system to teach it to me.
For more information, follow this link to the RPG.net review:
#5: The Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game
Punisher says “Buy this book. Or else.”
Much like #6, I haven’t actually attempted to play this game. Also known as the “Stones edition”, the Marvel Universe roleplaying game is unique in that it was released directly by Marvel and developed by Q.E.D. Games.
This game again is diceless, using a system of “stones” to represent a character’s abilities and to resolve tasks. In many ways, this system does have elegance to it and has some admirable qualities… unfortunately, the game also requires the GM to adjudicate far too much in any given situation. A vague and often inconsistent chart is provided, ostensibly to help dictate just how many stones are required to accomplish a given task—but leaves aside any “situational modifiers” that may apply (leaving it up to the GM).
Going diceless is already a difficult row to hoe (achieved with success only by Amber), but requiring the GM to basically sculpt each encounter from scratch is, IMHO, going too far and definitely qualifies as a “misstep.”
Lastly, the characters provided in the game have some glaring errors as to their relative power levels and are built on a wildly divergent amount of stones, resulting in some very confusing comparisons. This is particularly jarring when you consider that the game was released by Marvel themselves—one would think they would have a better handle on their own characters.
Good production values and art go a long way towards making this game more enjoyable, but in the end, it simply did not grab the attention of this gamer.
Would I play it? I’d like to try it out just to say that I have, but I must admit I wouldn’t seek it out.
For more information, follow this link to the RPG.net review:
#4: Superhero 2044
Awkwardly drawn heroes to the rescue!
Published in 1977, Superhero 2044 was the first superhero RPG ever. I should probably be a bit more generous considering its age, but I do feel that this game has plenty of serious flaws that draw some deserved criticism.
Superhero 2044 suffers a severe lack of many basic aspects of a superhero RPG. Nearly unplayable by the rules as written, the experience of Superhero 2044 is chock-full of bookkeeping and very light on fun. Underdeveloped and inconsistent rules plus the lack of a robust super power setup unfortunately resigns this book to the upper portion of the list.
One of the product’s few saving graces is that it does have some interesting and innovative rules for superhero patrols. Plus, it is very important to note that this product had significant influence on the superhero RPGs that followed it, including Golden Heroes and my own beloved Champions. It also has an interesting setting and quite a few fun ideas (particularly the weekly planning sheet of the character’s activities), but alas… not enough to save it as a game in its own right.
For more information, follow this link to the RPG.net review:
Would I play it? I’d probably give it a try, but likely only as a one-shot.
#3: Heroes Forever
Look, it’s… that guy. With the… thing.
A much more recent entrant into the superhero RPG oeuvre than Superhero 2044, Heroes Forever unfortunately also falls into my personal category of “objectively bad.”
There’s not much to say about Heroes Forever besides that it does have some great ideas—essentially an alternate universe with lots of nations shifting around, Greek Gods, and so forth—that read a lot like a cool fusion of RIFTS and Heroes Unlimited. Alas, these great ideas are utterly betrayed by a terrible presentation, confusing and arbitrary ruleset, bad production quality, embarrassing typos, and questionable taste… for example, one book has stats for Jesus, Mosses (sic), and Lucifer.
Would I play it? Not very likely. A few beers might get me to reconsider.
#2: European Enemies
Aha! One of the few covers where Seeker isn’t getting his butt kicked!
One of the few products on the list that is not intended as a system, European Enemies is a supervillain sourcebook for Champions 4thedition. It’s tough to explain how painful it is to write about a book like this when one is such an enormous fan of 4th edition Champions like myself.
It must be said that European Enemies definitely deserves its spot on this list—I consider it to be definitely objectively bad in quality and a great example of how not to write a supervillain book.
Ostensibly, European Enemies is intended to provide bad guys to challenge a superhero team from across the ocean. What you get, however, is a confused mess of highly stereotypical (at times, offensively so) characters with little that is interesting or unique about them and quite a few of whom are written up in ways that simply do not work in the Champions system. According to the rules, some of the characters in this book kill themselves within seconds of activating their own powers, whilst others simply make no sense with their abilities.
One sterling example is Godfather (naturally, the Italian supervillain is a mafia boss…), who—despite his public identity and reputation as a Mafia Don—has somehow been appointed a diplomat to France and granted diplomatic immunity. And that’s just scratching the surface.
Ultimately, the verdict on European Enemies is that it not only fails to achieve its stated goal, it actively hurts the product line as a whole… quite a dubious achievement.
My friend (and Champions Guru) Michael Surbrook has made an attempt to fix the various entries on his site, located here:
#1: The Foundation
A world in black and white, with a color strip in the middle apparently.
My friend Derrick Thomas did the cover art for this product, which is one of the only reasons I’m aware it exists. The other reason is the sheer amount of bad reviews this product has received. The Foundation is held by many to be objectively bad. I happen to agree, which is why it holds the #1 spot on this list.
Like Heroes Forever, there’s not much to say about the Foundation; it is obviously a rushed product in every way, and contains very little of merit. There are no guidelines on character creation and very little overall effort to model the superheroic genre. It features as “vital statistics” the measurements of its superheroines.
Overall, the Foundation is underdeveloped and devotes much of its content towards an underwhelming and bland setting. I unhesitatingly recommend skipping this product and leaving it off your shelf.
I wish there was something here to offset all the negative comments, but there really isn’t anything I would feel comfortable endorsing. Sometimes, a book is just bad, and in this case… it’s the Foundation.
For more information, follow this link to the RPG.net review:
Last post, I started out my “superhero studies” with a look at my personal top 10 favorite superhero RPG products. However, there’s much more to the superhero RPG genre that just the ones I mentioned as being my top picks. In fact, it was quite a struggle during the selection process because there were so many good products out there. This time around, I wanted to take a good look at some of the very notable superhero RPG products that, while they may not be in my top 10, are still definitely worth a look. I don’t really plan on going quite as in-depth with these products as the top ten list, but I am going to present a good capsule summary of why they’re worth your precious time and money.
Teen Titans… GO!
Ross Watson’s Top 6 Notable Superhero RPG Products
Just as with the last post, these products are my personal picks for good books that would be of value to most superhero GM’s, but I’m not trying to claim they would be great for everyone and every campaign. Unlike last time, these products are primarily sourcebooks, but I am also including a series of adventures into the mix as well.
Wait, what? Only one Champions product on the list? Heresy!
After looking at my top 10 and seeing that 8 were from the Hero System, I decided it was a good time to try and widen my gaze a bit when it comes to superhero RPG products. Have no fear, HERO-philes… I do plan on going over my favorite Champions supplements at some future point in this blog. 🙂
Check out the entries after the jump!
#6: GURPS International Super Teams
We’re sending someone in to negotiate!
Just like the #10 spot in part 1 of Superhero Studies, it’s difficult to fill the last slot in a list when there’s so many deserving candidates. In the end, I decided to go with one of the more obscure superhero books and give it some much-deserved attention: GURPS International Super Teams (or IST).
GURPS IST takes an unusual look at a superhero universe, attempting for a modicum of socio-political “realism.” Superheroes are organized into International Security Teams working for the United Nations, so there’s definitely a globalistic viewpoint at work. Some of the threats and challenges that IST’s are expected to overcome include not only nuclear proliferation (this book was published during the Cold War) and supervillains (of course) but also more real-world issues like hunger, warlords, and life in third-world countries.
The book details some interesting organizations outside of the IST and presents a different version of the world as we know it—a world changed by the presence of organized superheroes.
One of the things that I think it is really cool is the way the book presents the idea that the player characters make up one of these IST’s—complete with a support structure in place (including a PR guy!) and a handy way for the GM to steer the campaign by presenting issues handed down from the UN Security Council.
GURPS IST has some serious flaws that, unfortunately, keep it from being a great product. For example, the emphasis on alien races as part of the setting detracts from the focus on realism and real-world issues, and some of the NPC’s suffer by being either too involved (i.e., not leaving enough room for the player characters to be protagonists) or bland. However, GURPS IST is definitely an interesting and unusual take on superheroes and their role in the campaign.
Cover art by Derrick Thomas
There is a set of books containing superheroes and supervillains from Blackwyrm Games known as the Algernon Files. Full disclosure: many of the people who worked on these books are friends of mine and were in my gaming group when I lived in Louisville, so there’s definitely a bias present. For that reason, I’ll keep this summary extremely short: These books have a lot of great characters, unusual NPC’s, and good comic-book art—Derrick Thomas’ art really helps bring these books to life. Some flaws hold these books back from being as useful as they otherwise could have been (for example, too great a focus on the pre-existing superheroes of the setting), but they’re a solid addition to any superhero GM’s bookshelf.
#4: Necessary Evil
Nobody conquers the Earth but ME!
This next entry presents a unique and distinctive concept for superheroic RPGs—what if all the heroes died fighting an alien invasion, and the only ones left to defend the Earth are the supervillains? Welcome to Necessary Evil.
The concept alone should sell this book, but to keep this one short and sweet I’ll just briefly go over some of its strengths: The idea is well-presented throughout the book and the history of just how things got to be the way they are hang together. If you’re looking for an interesting take on superheroic (with the “hero” part being a bit…different), definitely check out Necessary Evil.
For more information, you can find an RPG.net review here:
#3: MX1-4, The Future In Flames Adventures
Special delivery: one Sentinel Trio!
Ah, good ol’ TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes RPG. I have so many great memories of this game—It’s very likely that I’ll do a full review of this sometime or at the very least cover it more in-depth along with other superhero RPG systems. During its run, the TSR MSH game (also known as FASERIP to its many fans, an acronym referring to the character’s abilities in the game) produced a ton of adventures. The most memorable of which, for me, was the MX series that dealt with a classic X-men storyline “Days of Future Past.” This storyline presented an alternate future where mutants like the X-men were hunted down by a facist regime employing tame mutants, Sentinel robots, and grim federal agencies.
The MX series of adventures (or, as I like to call them, the “Future in Flames” series) takes another look at this alternate future and presents a series of compelling adventures for superheroes dealing with the particular challenges of such a future. The MX series involved some very talented writers and presented some gripping action scenes, but for me, the most interesting part about them is how the adventures took a very cool comic book storyline and turned it into something that you, as a player, could get involved with and change for the better. I never felt more like a hero than when I was trying to help mutants escape their concentration camps! These adventures are fairly rare and hard-to-find these days, but I highly recommend them for any superhero GM who wants to try and experience some classic X-men action.
Do they go to school in a… castle? Color me confused.
Hero High is an excellent sourcebook by Lucien Soulban for the Mutans & Masterminds game. Don’t let the disappointing cover art scare you away—the material in this book is very, very good. Hero High is a great toolbox for young superhero games. It contains a school setting, villains, adventures, and (my personal favorite) a ton of advice on how to get the themes and experiences of high school across in a superhero RPG. Hero High is definitely the best (IMHO) product to attempt this particular genre, and I highly recommend that any GM looking to set his game in or around a high school should check it out! Hero High is yet another of the growing number of supplements that really deserves a thorough review here in the future.
#1: Autumn Arbor
Blue guys, green guys… I’m the one ruling the city.
Lee Szczepanik created this setting book based on his own campaign, and it is quite impressive. Autumn Arbor is chock-full of passion for the superhero genre, and every page showcases some of Lee’s excitement and enthusiasm. There are a few gaffes in the writing (one in particular, also mentioned in the review linked below, attempts to provide a rationalization for the Japanese-American internment in WWII, which definitely was a misstep), but overall the book has a fresh and distinct view of a typical superhero city setting. The book has some surprisingly high production values, and there are some really interesting and different superhero/supervillain teams presented in the book. A couple of my favorites include the Vignette Gang, composed entirely of superheroes with art-related powers and the Daring Dynasty, a somewhat-dysfunctional family of superheroes.
While Autum Arbor doesn’t quite hit on all cylinders like Century Station or San Angelo, it is absolutely worth your time to check out, and it has a particular style and attitude all its own. Lee definitely has a distinct look at the superhero genre and I think there’s a lot of value to be found to Autumn Arbor.
For more information, you can find an RPG.net review here:
I’ve been a superhero RPG fan for a long, long time. It all started when I chose to branch out from D&D during the 80’s with the original DC Heroes RPG from Mayfair. From there, I graduated to the color-coded charts of the TSR Marvel Super Heroes game and was eventually introduced to GURPS Supers and, what I consider a landmark moment in my growth as a gamer, the “big blue book” of Champions 4th edition. Later on in life I would also try out Mutants and Masterminds and Heroes Unlimited. On top of all that, I have tons of other superhero games that I own but have never played, such as Golden Heroes, Villains and Vigilantes, and many others.
Recently, I’ve been going through my large collection of RPGs doing a bit of cataloguing and remembering all the great fun I’ve had with these games over the years. For the blog, I thought it would be fun if I put together a few posts detailing my thoughts about many of the superhero RPG products on the market, beginning with—what I consider—the best of the best.
My favorite is Hello Kitty girl.
Ross Watson’s Top 10 Superhero RPG products
Let me start out by saying that the list presented in this post is entirely personal—it is /my/ favorite products, and while I believe that these books are all great and deserving, I’m not attempting to say that they are going to be the best for everyone’s varied tastes or home campaigns. Secondly, I’m not going to cover superhero RPG systems or adventures in this list… instead, I am focusing on sourcebooks, which are generally aimed at a specific genre, setting, villains, organizations, or rules to assist with (IMHO) the typical interpretations of superhero gaming.
Also, these are products that I personally have read and used in my superhero gaming. Necessary Evil is a great book, but I haven’t really used it yet, and I hear great things about Kerberos Club, for example, but neither is on the list for the reasons stated above.
At a later date, I do plan to discuss specific superhero RPG systems, and definitely stay tuned for further discussion of superhero RPG products in general in the next installments of this blog post series. Looking at the list below, it is painfully obvious that I have a distinct preference for the HERO system. Out of the top 10, 8 are Champions books. Of those 8, half are from the 4th edition of that game, so that should be fair warning to you, gentle reader, just what to expect. 🙂
Lastly, this “top ten” is arranged in a very loose order in increasing level of usefulness to a typical superhero GM.
(The entries themselves can be found after the jump)
Now, with all of that out of the way, let’s begin the countdown!
#10: Classic Organizations
Alas, not the greatest cover art in the Champions 4th ed. lineup. Watch out, Seeker!
I must admit, I struggled over the #10 spot on this list—there are /many/ excellent superhero products out there. In fact, I plan on a follow-up post that covers the “notable” superhero RPG entries that competed but did not quite make it onto the top 10 in the near future.
Classic Organizations is a Champions 4th edition product and is one of the oldest (next to Strike Force) products on the list. What makes Classic Organizations such a useful and interesting book is that it is actually a combination of four different products, each one showcasing one (or in one case, two) group perfect for most superheroic campaigns. The book begins with Neutral Ground, a section that covers a particular club that, as the name suggests, is considered off-limits to super-battles and is a good place for heroes and villains alike to meet, talk, or simply relax. I’ve often found that encouraging your players to talk things over with the villains can be just as (or sometimes, even more) effective than just encountering them only in confrontations and fights. Next, the book covers Red Doom, describing two superteams from the USSR (this book was made in the late 80’s, and the view on Russian supers inside is definitely dated from that period…). Some of the characters are quite interesting and unique (such as St. Peter’s Star and the Scarlet Sentinel), but many others are fairly pedestrian and unimaginative (Perestroika comes to mind…). Primus and Demon forms the next part of the book, showcasing a government agency named PRIMUS that is very reminiscent of SHIELD from the Marvel Universe that nevertheless has some distinct and unique features, and a supervillain group of magicians, sorcerers, and supernatural creatures that goes by the code-name of DEMON. Lastly, the book ends with a look at the goofy and comedic group, CLOWN—many Champions fans are divided about CLOWN, but I find this section of the book to be less about something I’d use in a campaign (making fun of superheroes is something you shouldn’t do lightly, especially if the superheroes are the player characters!) and more for the interesting and unusual write-ups. Classic Organizations is worth a look for inspiration, cool characters, story hooks, and adventure seeds.
#9: Villainy Amok
I didn’t intend it, but there’s a “superhero wedding” theme starting to build here…
The first of two products on this list to feature the creative skill of Scott Bennie, Villainy Amok is an extremely handy sourcebook chock-full of classic superhero scenarios. From bank robberies to towering infernos and alien invasions, Villainy Amok gives the GM everything he needs to stage a fun and engaging scenario for his superhero team. One thing I really appreciate is that some of the art pieces tell an entire story by themselves.
Villainy Amok is the only Champions 5th edition product on this list, and there’s a good reason for that—although I would argue it would be a standout book for any superhero RPG. The only reason it isn’t higher on the list is some of the production values (art was a particular problem for Champions 5th edition), and it should be noted that while Villainy Amok is great for one-shots and single sessions of an ongoing campaign, it does not offer a lot of support for long-term campaigns. These are extremely minor flaws, however, for a very, very good book that deserves a spot on any superhero GM’s shelf.
For more in-depth information, here’s a link to an RPG.net review of the book:
#8: Classic Enemies
Art by George Perez. Look out, Seeker! D’oh, too late.
This, along with the #1 entry on the list, is the product that drove me wholeheartedly into the embracing arms of the Hero System—Classic Enemies is a brilliant collection of bad guys for any superhero game. Lovingly illustrated by the incomparable Pat Zircher, this book has everything you require for a really good and fun superhero rogues’ gallery. This product introduced me to the world-conquering threat of Dr. Destroyer, the infamously powerful and feared villain team known as Eurostar, the slightly goofy collection of opportunistic thieves known as GRAB, and many, many more.
While the book does contain some missteps (Monster, I am looking at you!) overall it presents an extremely wide array of distinct and iconic supervillains that range in power from a threat to the entire world to someone your superheroes pause only briefly to defeat. The back of the book also presents Stronghold, a supervillain prison—complete with write-ups of the robot guards and the controversial “hot sleep” stasis technique to subdue especially dangerous supercriminals. Overall, this is a fantastic product and definitely very useful for any superhero campaign.
#7: Strike Force
Art by Denis Loubet. Time to smash some robots!
Strike Force is one of the earliest examples I can think of that really takes the time to tell the reader how to run a superhero campaign. It has some of the best GM advice ever published (albeit in short and sweet compact form) and provides a ton of fantastic guidance for what to do… and, even better, what NOT to do. Strike Force is basically Aaron Allston’s home superhero campaign turned into a sourcebook, and there is a lot of stuff packed into this product; the team itself, their protégés, their enemies, their home base, their history and adventures. However, what really sets Strike Force apart is that it is a guidebook to how this campaign succeeded, and there is a lot to takeaway on how to improve your own superhero game and bring your players group with you on the journey.
There are some flaws to the book; the GM advice, while absolutely great, makes up a smaller percentage of the book than you’d expect. The book was published in 1988, and compared to many modern sourcebooks it is quite dated. Lastly, it is definitely aimed at the mainstream superheroic genre, so it may not be applicable to games that are wildly variant from that tone. However, I think there’s something in Strike Force for every GM, no matter what system or setting. Possibly one of the best sections of this book describes the process of “bluebooking”: where the players continue to tell stories about their characters when away from the table, describing their actions and events that take place between each session. My players for the Shadows Angelus campaign (you can find a link to this over on the right) took to bluebooking with an intense passion, and I have Strike Force to thank for much of that campaign’s success.
This book is a great addition for any game, but is particularly effective for superheroic games, and it deserves all the praise it has achieved.
#6: The Ultimate Powers Book
I love that the cover is entirely composed of dudes who mimic or steal other people’s powers.
The title for this product says it all—from a very ambitious premise, the product manages to mostly pull it off—there are very, very few superheroes you can’t build using this book. I would go so far as to say (for me) that this is the benchmark against which all other “powers” books are judged. Plus, the random charts are amazingly entertaining for some beer & pretzels fun making crazy superheroes. For serious gamers, the main attraction is going to come from sheer inspiration, as there are dozens upon dozens of powers and origins to be found within the covers of this product. Internal Limbo? Age-shifting? These plus lots more powers that I had never even thought about are included.
It’s fair to say that the book has its flaws, however, from some awkward layout and art to many powers that are merely variations on the same theme. Overall, I am extremely fond of the book and I do still consider it to be extremely useful to a superhero GM.
It is important to note that the addendums and errata for this product are nigh-essential.
#5: Century Station
Art by John Zeleznik. I find most of his art really wierd, but this one is actually pretty good!
This book deserves its own review (and I certainly intend to provide it, eventually). Suffice to say for now that Century Station is a very underrated setting book for superhero games. Century Station provides a great background for superheroes of all origins and ties it together with a surprisingly distinct, dynamic, and interesting background. Personally, I love Century Station and recommend it to anyone who wants to find some great storytelling hooks for his campaign and a great place to stage the adventures of his superhero team. Bill Coffin is the author on this one and he has created, IMHO, one of the truly pro-active settings where superheroes don’t just sit around waiting for the trouble alert—in fact, they are highly incentivized to get out there and bust some supervillains before time runs out. An interesting list of characters, NPC’s, and zones rounds out this top-notch sourcebook.
Along with #3 on the list (no fair skipping ahead), Century Station is a guide to how a superhero city/worldbook should be done.
The Blood Red King hovers menacingly in the background…
Scott Bennie’s masterpiece is the setting book known as Gestalt. In the Gestalt universe, superheroes and supervillains are the expression of an individual idea or concept—they are not just a superhero, they are a symbol. Gestalt takes a really interesting look at how superheroes get their powers and provides some unique approaches—you could make a Gestalt of Cooking that is a fully capable (and impressive) superhero, as just one example. “Iron Chef” would have a whole new meaning in Gestalt…
On top of that, the book features some truly brilliant and inspired examples of what the setting is capable of. The standout, for me, has to be the setting’s major villain—the Blood Red King. As the Gestalt of Murder, the Blood Red King is one of the most impressive, terrifying, and spectacular supervillains I’ve ever seen in any IP, ever.
Art by Storn Cook. He’s possibly done the most Hero System book covers to date.
San Angelo ranks very high on this list for one simple reason: it is a fictional city that /lives/ and /breathes./ Pat Sweeney somehow bottled lightning for this book, and his talent and passion for the subject is evident throughout the book. Kurt Busiek and Ken Hite both praise this product, and I would love to add my voice to that choir—San Angelo is simply the best superhero setting book I can think of. This is very high praise, and it is tough to top the truly excellent Century Station (sitting comfortably at #5 on this list), but San Angelo manages it with aplomb. The city is extensively detailed, from its history to the citizens and shops and neighborhoods that make up its vibrant and intriguing whole. In addition, San Angelo has some very, very good supplements (Enemies of San Angelo and Denizens of San Angelo amongst them) that build and expand on this setting even more. If you are a fan of realistic superhero settings, the Astro City comic books, or are just looking for an extremely well-built example of a fictional metropolis, look no further.
My only criticisms are that some of the NPCs aren’t quite as compelling (although the supplements really help in addressing this) and the book would have benefited from making sure to set aside some areas for GMs to develop, simply because the rest of the book is so well-thought-out and detailed it seems to be almost begging for a GM to come in and make it his own. All in all, these flaws are tiny in comparison to the amount of things this book does right, and it absolutely deserves its spot on this list.
For more in-depth information, here’s a link to an RPG.net review of the book:
#2: Normals Unbound
Seeker, look o… okay, never mind.
While superhero RPGs revolve around the concept of heroes and villains with special powers, not too many choose to comment on the not-so-super people in the world that really bring a setting to life. Normals Unbound is a sourcebook that provides dozens of “normals”—everyday people—that can take a mundane superhero RPG campaign and turn it into something truly special. The book contains NPCs from all walks of life, from the crippled-but-brilliant sibling to the super-base butler, from the karate instructor to the radio DJ, this book has it all.
In addition, Normals Unbound doesn’t limit itself to only normal either… the book also includes a wonder dog, retired superheroes, a vampire (!) and an Artificial Intelligence. All of these characters are part of the wonderful tapestry of normal folks that you’d find in any quality comic book. Grab Normals Unbound to add some perfect foils, romances, enemies and allies to a superhero’s secret (or not-so-secret) ID in your superhero campaign. Why did I rank this book so high on my countdown? I consider the immersion of a campaign, the feeling of “bringing the world to life” in the players’ imaginations to be a critical concern—and Normals Unbound is one of the best tools in the toolbox, IMHO, for accomplishing just that.
#1: Champions in 3-D
Featured on the cover: Backworld!
The #1 spot on this list is a book that has never failed to give me some great ideas for my superhero games—Champions in 3-D. The purpose of this book is to provide GMs with guidance and settings for taking superheroes on journeys to other dimensions. This is a time-honored trope in comics and superhero adventures in general (The Justice League cartoon featured this prominently, as an example), and Champions in 3-D succeeds wildly at its task. There are a handful of detailed, fully-developed dimensions to visit, from a swords-and-sorcery fantasy world to the realm of dreams to a world of Cthulhu-like horror. My personal favorite is Backworld, a bizarre mirror-universe where the heroes are villains and vice-versa. Each of these settings includes a full adventure for your superhero team to explore the dimension and meet its unique challenges. The book also contains a useful random-dimension generator, and the last third of the book is entirely devoted to presenting one-page short dimension concepts, with some wild ideas (such as Viking World and Wimp World—both great for less serious campaigns) alongside many more useful and interesting dimensions that are suitable for a wide range of campaign types.
Why is it #1? I picked up Champions in 3-D at a time when I was getting a little tired of the typical superhero RPG game—on patrol or in the base, waiting to encounter a “trouble alert” or get attacked by a supervillain. This book helped wake me up to the ideas that there’s a lot more out there to do, to explore, and more importantly, to experience as a superhero and how best to bring that across in an RPG.
If you want to celebrate the archetypical superhero adventures through space and time, this is the book for you!
I have eight bookshelves.
Just typing that out makes my brow furrow—who needs /eight/ bookshelves, really? And I should be clear—eight bookshelves is not enough. These eight bookshelves are groaning under the weight of all the books I’ve collected over the years. These bookshelves are stuffed to the gills with more books stacked on top of them.
I’ve always been a bookhound from an early age—my father got me started reading a lot of high-quality sci-fi and fantasy, and we made monthly trips to Waldenbooks (back when they had a special card you could get). Things only escalated when I got out on my own and had a disposable income. I would estimate I’ve spent easily $50,000 on books in my lifetime, possibly as much as two or three times that amount.
It’s important to note that the current eight-bookshelf situation is actually an improvement… once I started working professionally in the game industry, it was my standard practice to get two copies of everything I worked on. At a minimum. Plus, working at Fantasy Flight Games provided me with easy access to tons of extra games at a low discount price, which meant… well. My eight bookshelves are what remains /after/ I’ve culled through my collection at least half a dozen times to get rid of stuff I just didn’t care about or didn’t play. This is after losing a big chunk of books and comics lost due to a really nasty eviction of my parent’s house (which is an entirely different story).
Once upon a time, I was one of those guys who swore that I’d never give up my books. That, no matter how useful pdfs and electronic media is, no matter how good it looked or convenient it was to transport or reference… you’d have to pry my books from my cold, dead hands.
Keep in mind, these are just my RPGs… novels, DVD’s, and video games take up four more bookshelves…
Moving out to Texas, though, definitely made me reconsider my stance. Eight bookshelves is a lot, even for a bibliophile. It’s approaching Hoarders-level of collecting “stuff.” So, nowadays, I am definitely looking more at pdfs and electronic media. I am very, very carefully considering what I collect and want to put on my shelf. In fact, recently a co-worker offered to sell me a large collection of Judge Dredd and 2000 AD graphic novels. I mean, these were in great shape, with all the classic stories and his price was dirt cheap. My inner nerd was saying “Hell yes! Take the books!” but I had to stop and shake my head. “Sorry,” I told my colleague. “I’d love to give them a good home… but I have eight bookshelves full of stuff already and I need to really be careful about what I choose to keep these days.”
Fortunately, my colleague is a really classy guy. He laughed, and nodded, and looked me in the eye. “Me too,” he said.
You have too many books already, citizen!
So what did I keep?
I focused on games that I felt had some intrinsic value to me. That’s obviously a very subjective qualifier—the old FASA Renegade Legion boxed sets, for example, are something I feel have a very distinct and unique style that I’ve never quite seen captured before or since. So I kept them… despite having never played any of them (and if anyone wants to try out some of these games with me… /please/ contact me!).
I kept anything that had been signed by the author or developer. I kept any games that I remembered playing and enjoying, or /wanting/ to play (such as Exalted). I kept anything that I thought I might use for inspiration someday. And man, that is a long, long, long list.