Saturday, July 1, 2017

My Life as a Gamer: Palladium's Brilliance in Liminality

Palladium Books' fantasy line has its gems of brilliance. I previously posted about one of my favorite adventure modules, which is in an out-of-print product (Adventures in the Northern Wilderness). It was in that long-gone supplement that Palladium presented the Wolfen Empire as being literally Roman Wolfmen. It was simple, evocative, and brilliant even for a no-nothing teenager like me.

Now, decades later, that brilliance is even brighter given all that I've learned since; there's a lot to build an exciting campaign around in that simple premise (and I want to do just that someday). Today? You need to hunt down the successor book: The Wolfen Empire

If you're not used to Palladium's way of writing and publishing material, don't expect the production quality of Wizards of the Coast or Paizo Publishing. Palladium began when publishing was still laid out by hand using wax templates, and even though they (at last) use desktop publishing software and other more recent technologies the company founder still wants the final product to look like it came off the printer in the 1980s. The sincere, earnest quality is as much a result of their adherence to small-printer norms of that day as it is from the half-mad enthusiasm of Palladium's founder and shot-caller: Kevin Siembieda.

You'll get adventures, general social and geographic information, some NPCs, and maybe some toys to play with. To the jaundiced eye, a Palladium product might seem amateurish- and unacceptable from someone who's been a player since the days of Classic Traveller. Yet therein lies a surprising strength from which Palladium's enduring appeal (and audience loyalty) stems: you're expected to fill in the blanks on your own.

That's right, Palladium's games lean a lot of that very exploitation of liminality that I've talked about previously. The Mech Pilots cry because the rules are insufficiently comprehensive, and sometimes contradictory, requiring the Game Master to be Referee and issue rulings to cover the gaps. The Storyfakers cry because, for all the talk of epic tales, Palladium's games are as rooted in the wargame lineage as Dungeons & Dragons and play best that way- as GAMES, first and foremost, and no concern at all to narrative tropes or other such nonsense.

The way Palladium gets away with this is by leaning heavy on iconic imagery and archetypal characters. That Roman Wolfman? He's in the full Legion garb of a Post-Marian soldier, and so's the rest of his unit. It's not hard to conceive of the speed with which Wolfen adapted pack-based hunting and fighting to Roman Legion discipline, with Centurions being civilized pack leaders and units being raised not only from the same tribe, but from the same generational cohort of the same clan. Neither is it hard to see how the viciousness of Roman politics acquires a new meaning when the "Romans" are humanoid wolves.

I bet you PulpRev folks are already having ideas on how this would be a hell of a story, in the mode of Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic Mars books. Congratulations, you're ready to play. You already know what you need to get going. It's just down to deciding on some details, then it's time to grab the books and start rolling dice. This is how Palladium remains a player after over 30 years in the tabletop RPG scene. You've got to admire that sort of tenacity-through-audacity.

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