Classic RPG Review #10: The Palladium Role Playing Game

softcover, revised edition
by Kevin Siembieda
1983/1991 Palladium Books, Detroit MI, USA

Palladium Fantasy as this game is also called, is very much a one man effort. Both the rules, descriptions and the very crafty grey pencil artwork are all made by Kevin Siembieda. As such it's a laudable piece of work. Twohundred seventyfive pages of work. In small font.

But it leaves you pretty much in the dark how the game is played. In the introduction Kevin says he's “not going to bore you with some lengthy explanation or history of role playing”. But I wish he would have. Without this statement one might have suspected this book was not a game, but a bundle of stencils from an old style, classic Dungeons & Dragons home brew set of rules. Then again, maybe that's exactly what it is. Old style home brew.

If you assume it's like D&D, then it's indeed possible to make something of it. Then it's another dungeon delving, hack and slay, search and destroy, loot and loot type of game. Old style. Home brew. And this book features a complete different set of tables, classes, races, specific rules, and monsters. And more even, a big collection of spells and wards.

The spell lists are probably the best of the whole thing. They are so colourful, the descriptions sometimes so gross, and the pages of runic drawings so intriguing that you'd think to be holding an actual magical tome. You could get scared that some of the spells actually work. Someone else must have thought so too, because a special note on one of the fist pages says: “ALL of us at Palladium Books condemn the belief and practice of the occult”. That's a relief then. The next sentence says “Dedicated to the Defilers”. That does not help.

But the Defilers are just a gaming group whose imaginary characters imaginarily wrecked some imaginary evil temple. Nothing occult or demonic. That's just the old style thing again. Old style where undiluted evil, tough monsters, powerful items, and combat tables and statistics are more important than story. Because the story is mostly the same. The evils locked themselves up in some underearth tunnel system, and the heroes break in to slay them and steal their ill gained treasures. In passing they also save the local townsfolk or the universe, but that's just secondary.

Palladium does have a game master section with a sample adventure, but that starts only at page 250. After the full seven pages of world information. And the other twohundredforty something pages are for monsters, races, classes, spells and combat rules. So it is clear what's deemed important.

If old style is your thing, you might want to scrounge the book for ideas. You might even give the rule set a try if you are bold. If it's not, you may enjoy the drawings, the feel, and especially the almost real looking spell book sections. You could even use it as a spell book mock up in one of your games. It's just as good looking, cryptic and intriguing as it should be for that purpose.

(rules are old style D&D like, suited to dungeon delving and experience point collecting, but with little flexibility in character design, and little realism, finding specific rules can be a nuisance in the big book)
(especially the art work and the look of the spell books are very inspiring, but most descriptions are too brief and just suited to old style search and destroy gaming, less to real role playing)
(if you know old school D&D the playability may actually be better, but if you don't it may be far less. You might not even be able to start)
(occult looking spell books with 290 spells, 60 wards, 50 magic circles, excellent artwork, 20 classic D&D like character classes, lots of monsters, demons, devils, gods, and practical interpretations of alignment – evils do not always torture for pleasure for example, according to these lists. Lots of look up tables, and lots of percentage dice rolling)


october 2009


Pick #23: Princess Bride RPG?

Liked the movie? Haven't got the book? Still not up to playing such a complex player character as Fezzik the Giant? Nobody to role play with because everyone's having Christmas with family? Everyone except you?

You might be wishing for a role playing game suited to play something with the feel of the Princess Bride. But there is no official game I could find. Others also wondered, and they suggested games like Wushu or Swashbuckler. Either would do, but actually most fast games would do, if you allow for good fencing and wittyness. One forum visitor stated that there in fact was a special Princess Bride game in the making, but the Morgenstern Estate stopped it.

Maybe I'll have a go at writing one too.

But I guess if you're reading this you are on your own, all alone, right?
So there's no time for face to face rpg anyway, is there?

No worries. You can play the game – a truly syndicated Princess Bride game. Okay, it's just a video game. It's not all that special, I guess. Probably wouldn't buy it. Guess. But it has a charm, and you can play some of it online. Check it out. You might even find it addictive.

Or go get a life. Merry Christmas!

Now, let's try and get Westley and Buttercup across the swamp one more time... ah, darn.


RPG News #6: Superstar closes in 7 days

Not sure if you're a Pathfinder fan, or an old style gamer with a wish to be published by Paizo. But maybe you'd like to see your name printed as the author of a brand new fantasy module. And possibly start your run of fame from there onward as a game designer or writer of game modules. You could, by entering the running RPG Superstar 2011 competition.

Since I bought something from the Paizo site, they keep on sending me updates, and I  guess they did at least something right for not ending up on my spam list. So have a look if you dare. Your first round challenge: design a wondrous item in 300 words or less, and send in your idea before the new year. Your entry will become sole property of Paizo of course. I wonder, would that mean they'd sue you if you publish your own idea elsewhere? Here for example? Would be weird.

Well, you have plenty ideas, don't you? One to pay for potential fame is a small price.


Movies for Gamers #7: The Princess Bride

This is part of a series of reviews of movies particularly interesting or inspiring for role playing. Because of their setting, style, characters, editing or story. Read the introduction here or here if you are new to this series.

An absolute classic of classics. The Princess Bride was made in 1987, but it's still fresh, silly, full of witty lines and humour, and sweet and romantic at the same time. Well, kind of romantic. It's a fairy tale about true love, TRUE LOVE, Trooo... Luv... And yet it's for all ages. All ages that understand English.

The Princess Bride was masterfully filmed by Rob Reiner, who also did When Harry met Sally (another classic you should see). The book and script were written by William Goldman, who also did classics like All the President's Men. Yes, he's old, I know. I'd say classic. Did I say classic? I'm overdoing.

The film is a frame story – told as a story within a story. We see how Peter Falk reads the book to his grandson, who at first is not interested in it because it does not contain sports. But as the story develops, he wants to know more and more – just like we do. Even about the kiss. The kiss that surpassed all kisses since 1642 BC. Now is this silly? Yes it is. And it gets better.

The Princess Bride book is about farm boy Westley, and Princess Buttercup, who are in true love with eachother. But of course they can't tell each other, for she is a princess and he is... well. Westley and Buttercup are separated, and the rest of the story is how they find eachother again. And on their quests they meet Fezzik the Giant, who was once "unemployed in Greenland" (you should use a nasal voice while saying this). And Inigo Montoya – “my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die”. Vizzini, whose brain will match anyone, Rodents of Unusual Size, the Dread Pirate Roberts...

Perhaps the movie is too witty to make into an average adventure. It will be a feat to play like this – although it would be a great trip. Quotes galore – have a look here and here if you already saw the movie. Otherwise see it first. And think about it, could you do an adventure session like this? This silly, this fast, this witty? Maybe you can, can't you?

Whether it would work or not would mostly depend on your playing style. And whether at least some of your players are good at thinking up silly quotes. And the game system - or the way you use it! - should be simple and fast to allow for it. It will be easier to use say - Risus, or Fudge, than Role Master or d20. Too much realism would also be crippling. Actually I think my own "Santiago Joe" would be pretty good for it, as it has the pace built in, and needs no dice whatsoever. You'd only have to adapt it for fairy tales. Maybe I'll do that too for a later free game. Keep you posted.

Another thing you might consider is to actually fit such a zany story into your regular campaign as a framed story. Just like the Princess Bride is a story within a story, you could do a role playing game in a role playing game.

Imagine the player characters come to storyteller wizard Goldman. They need him to help them. But he wants them to do something first. He is sitting at the fire, and he begins to tell them... a story. Then, as the story develops, the player characters (and their players) are engaged in the story, role playing new characters made up on the spot (in Risus, or Santiago Joe). These new characters then have to solve this story within the story first, before Goldman will do what they want.

So the player characters would have to play... second tier player characters! Lost already? Go watch Inception, that's six tiers - or was it five?

Anyway. Just get the Princess Bride (off the shelf again). And have a Merry Christmas.


Pick #22: Dark Dungeons... differently

The Dark Dungeon(s) name seems to be a favorite for games. Not just for SM sites. Unbelievable, but here's another one. And it's a paper and pen role playing game! Now, I do wonder if all these people using the Dark Dungeon(s) label are aware of us?

This is not just a new game. It's a retro-clone. Dark Dungeons emulates the original Dungeons & Dragons rules, completely rewritten for copyright reasons. It's not the only in it's kind, but this one looks fairly good. Over 300 pages in three columns, under the WotC open gaming license. There is quite some (now public domain) artwork from Gustave Dore. All the more confusing, because our own blog header is also a small strip of Dore art.

And such a following! The forum is already full of posts, and it's only from his year. It must be the game name. Then again, they used the same evangelic booklet as inspiration (see pick #4). The writers even named one of the example characters Black Leaf, played by Marcy - just as in the Chick tract. Oooh. Otherwise the game looks pretty harmless.

Have a look. Even if only out of curiosity.


Classic RPG Review #9: Warhammer Fantasy Role Play

by Richard Halliwell, Graeme Davis, a.o.
1986 GamesWorkshop Ltd., Nottingham UK

To be honest, I never played this game, even if I loved the setting and I had a group nearby that revelled in it. At the time I was heavily promoting my own new role playing game, and a good friend used my rules for the Warhammer adventures instead. So I guess the dark, gunpowder flooded, warpstone infected, mutated dwarven, undead gothic horror, demonic magic version of Germany that Warhammer introduced was pretty good.

And the artwork is still pretty good too. Lots of black ink, chaos, axes and beards everywhere. Quite much like your average role playing group. No wonder it sits well with us chaotic and bearded nerds. Except that I did not have a beard nor an axe then. I never realized at the time, but the sprawling battle scenes, and the 16th century feel of the artwork are surely inspired by the 16th century artist Albrecht Altdorfer. If you don't know him, look him up and be surprised at the similarities to the whole Warhammer “raaah. Battle!” concept. And the Warhammer capital of the old Reich (“Reik”) is named Altdorf. That should be a clue.

So, the setting is inspiring and the artwork is dark and cool. How about the game itself? Well, that's based firmly in the miniature war gaming camp. Not the realistic wargame sort, but the quick and dirty, yet fun sort. Player characters have statistics as if they are soldiers of a tin men army too. Yes, they also have skills, and might even grow personalities as the game progresses. But they basically start out as a line of statistics, more than in other role playing games.

I suspect that the designers of Warhammer FRP like to play large fantasy battles. And one day they thought, hey, wouldn't it be cool to give our tiny heroes some specials? That's what it looks like. Personalised miniatures. Okay in itself, yet a different school of thought than say, radio theatre.

That the player doesn't have to be to close to his (or her) hero, you can also feel in other rules. If a hero has a mandatory hatred for another race for example (like dwarves hate orks), then you have to check your cool to avoid fighting. Sorry guys, couldn't help it! I just happened to split my axe in his head and now we are in big trouble... In many other games the player has to decide for himself, here the rules force you to proceed to combat. I guess the designers love combat. Chaotic combat.

Perhaps this game is best enjoyed with meticulously painted tin men in a huge chaotic diorama like you can see in the Games Workshop stores nowadays. Citadel Miniatures, sponsor and probably now owner of the game would like you to think so. And it sure may be fun if you have lots of money and time to spare. Otherwise imagination works wonders too.

Other than that, the hardcover is over 350 pages thick with practical rules, scores of monsters, spells, skills and careers, and best of all a fleshed out world guide and a first adventure. Artwork abounds, the font is readable (that's more than many current games can say), and the lay out gives the tome a magical feel. If you can lay your hands on an old copy it may well be worthwile. Even if you don't play the game, you'll find a lot of inspiration in it.

(rules are practical, detailed, and fairly easy to learn, but they lean much to the war game side)
(the worked out dark fantasy setting, and the rich career, skill, spell and monster templates make you want to play)
(if you like fun war gaming, this may be the game for you bridging war gaming and role playing, if not you may feel your heroes remain somewhat cardboard)
(dark medieval fantasy, with Teutonic-Moorcock-esque religion, lots of gunpowder, bombs, chaotic dwarves and horrific mutations, rules encourage militaristic, somewhat detached play, but with humour)



Pick #21: Grognardia

One of the most proliferous bloggers on role playing is James Maliszewski on Grognardia. He got infected with the role playing virus in 1979 - two years before me - so he's the senior one here. This Canadian's blog is huge... and good in fact.

I suspect James either secretly is a writing machine, a team, a wizard, or... he has no other life (nah). He started Grognardia in 2008, and since produced well over 1500 posts. Several daily. He even apologizes if "there aren't many posts today". But then I guess, he has over 600 followers to keep happy, so that's quite a family.

Why? I guess because James is a long time insider of the hobby. He has written for quite a few games too, and knows many people of at least the second hour. Grognardia shares a lot of his knowledge and nostalgia. You can browse and get lost on the blog for days. It's wonderful if you want to just muse or let your thoughts wander about the hobby. Have a look.

I just wish he'd use a tag cloud to sort the subjects.


Movies for Gamers ##: Inspiration for Role Playing Games

Why on earth review movies on a role playing blog? Because they're inspiration. Because they're a trove of ideas, not just for stories, characters, monsters, items, and locations. But often a trove of ideas for story telling techniques too.

Recently the first reaction to my application for the RPG Bloggers came in. Unfortunately (at that time rightfully) the reviewer attended me that he could not understand from the feeds that this is in fact a paper and pen role playing blog. Should you wonder too – let's say it again. Movies are a great inspiration source. Don't be afraid to plunder them for ideas, for feel, for soundtracks to play during your game – or planning for your game.

Afraid that players will recognize where you got your ideas from? Don't worry. Mix and match ideas from different movies, combine as you see fit. As long as you don't expect players to act out a whole movie in detail and follow its plot slavishly – you're fine. Better even, the players might be flattered to play alongside movie greats, or at least proud that they recognized where you got some ideas from.

Movies are a fine way to get your imagination started. And some are very good at it. That's why I bring these movies up here – in a paper & pen role playing blog.


News #5: Free Traveller Starter Set

I have The Traveller Starter Set on my shelves. Reviewed it a few months ago. So I don't need the free pdf. But you might want it. It's really a great game. Still is. And DriveThru is giving it away for free. This december only.

So, go get Traveller Starter if you dare. It will cost you... your life? No.
It will cost you... your Soul? Maybe. But not likely.
It will cost you... lots of Credits? No, t will cost you nothing really.
Just your clicks and time.


Movies for Gamers #6: The Brothers Grimm

This is part of a series of reviews of movies particularly interesting or inspiring for role playing. Because of their setting, style, characters, editing or story. Read the introduction here or here if you are new to this series.

The Brothers Grimm is another of those underrated movies. Even when it's one made by Terry Gilliam, former Monty Python member and director of such classics as Brazil and Baron Munchhausen. Haven't seen these either? You're in for a treat. Gilliams movies tend to be lavish in art direction, full of understated humour, and overall they're plainly bizarre.

In lead role is Heath Ledger – the one who died mysteriously after playing his last role as the Joker in Batman Returns. He plays Jakob Grimm, a kind of ghost buster in medieval Germany. Together with his brother Will played by Matt Damon, he sets out to rid the country of ghosts. Or rather dupe the townsfolk into believing they do so, while the ghosts are impersonated by their accomplices.

But one day our heroes stumble into our movie and find a real witch. And a real ghostly forest. There theey have to prove to be more than charlatans. The witch is played by Monica Belluci – of uncanny beauty and unexpected role choices such as in Irreversible and Malena. And she gives whole new meaning to the tale of Rapunzel. Fortunately they have tough woodswoman Lena Headey to help them out. Even if she doesn't trust them one bit, rightfully.

The Brothers Grimm is a joy to watch, and a trove of ideas to use in your games. Almost all of the characters in the movie would make cool player characters, and the ones that don't are good antagonists.

Just figure, the player characters travelling around to dupe townspeople into believing they can take care of ghosts, and then they have to take care of a real one! Very good for inventive players who play thieves for example, but have to face undead - without a cleric who can turn these undead at hand.

The evil forest quickly featured in a few adventures I did. Horrifying... displacing trees. Changing forest exits...

Best of all, The Brothers Grimm shows how you can twist any fairy tale into a grim story excellent for more grown up role playing. Imagine the sleeping beauty as a horrible vampyre. Have a look.


Pick #20: Indiana in Atlantis

Actually I don't have the time to play old games all the time. Not even adventure games. I have a family. I have work. But from time to time I also have nostalgia.

One game I loved during my roleplaying heyday in the 90-ies was this one. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. It runs like a true Indiana Jones movie, with humour, twists, mystic science, and Nazis. The engine is simple, with lots of point and click. Puzzles, not arcade. I wonder why the story has never found its way into any of our regular pen and paper games. It's sure good enough!

Recently the game has been rereleased by Steam - the guys that also run your Left4Dead games. Last time I checked they asked about 4 euros for it. Worth it. Although you could have a peek if it's still here too. Yes, it will probably run on a webbook. Enjoy!