Publisher Profile: Palladium Books, Part 2

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.
Brains….

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:

Questionable Future

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.

Personal Notes

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.

In Conclusion

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:

4 responses to “Publisher Profile: Palladium Books, Part 2

  1. Yer a brave man. I didn’t know about all the links, and I’m copying and pasting this sucker now just in case. 🙂

    I liked the Examiner article by the way; didn’t know about it.

  2. Ross, one thing that I think is endemic to some of the problems at Palladium is Kevin Siembieda’s absolute insulation from, or outright denial of, legitimate criticisms that hamper otherwise excellent products. For example, he postulated in the Palladium newsletter that less than 1% of people surveyed felt Palladium needed to change it’s system. But who did he ask? People attending the Palladium open house, his friends, freelancers working for him, and people who have quite literally invested in Palladium to different degrees. He literally dismisses people who criticize the system as not being worth consideration. In his own words: a) That many of Palladium’s relentless critics are, not customers (i.e. they do not buy or play our games in the first place); b) some are outsiders who have never actually played our games and point out what they think they see as weaknesses and problems (i.e. comments like, “the game system is broken”); c) some have different tastes and prefer other styles of role-playing rules (resulting in comments like, “the world settings are great, but the rules suck,” or “I wish Palladium would change their rules to be more like Game X”); and d) some are dissatisfied with our product, me or the company.

    Now, I love Palladium in some respects. I’ve spent far, far more money on their products than any other company, and with every new release it’s been hard not to immediately reach for my wallet. That’s how great the setting and fluff is. But actually playing Rifts is outright punishing, and unless the GM is outright ridiculous with loot, your characters will be down to scrap metal by the third encounter, because even the lowest NPC mook will hit often and do significant damage. That’s a valid criticism from the customer.

  3. Thanks, Ross. Though this blog post is over a year old, it added perspective and helped me a lot just now in light of my recent experience with Palladium, and Kevin’s unprecedented rewriting of much of my recent Rifter article (which left me very perplexed).

  4. You’ve done a bunch of Rifter articles from a quick google search. Was there something different either in scope or source material about the article that was changed?

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