Sunday, April 04, 2010

This is How I Roll

I've been playing role playing games, of and on, since I was about 13 years old. In that time I've dabbled in a few different gaming systems, the most prevalent of which is the various versions of the classic, and most well known RPG, Dungeons & Dragons. There are still some (mainly fundamentalist, right wing Christians) who think these games, especially those in the fantasy genre, are evil and “of Satan.” The truth is that there is really nothing in any of these games that has every influenced any of my religious beliefs. While it is true that these games, like any fantasy novel, do borrow concepts from many myths and philosophies both ancient and modern, those ideas/beliefs get muddled into a completely fictional setting. Playing D&D and the like, for me, actually caused a development of a love for reading, history, philosophy, et cetera. But today's blog is not about me espousing the virtues or reasons for indulging in role playing games; it is about comparing two such systems, namely Dungeons & Dragons (aka, the D20 System) and Palladium Fantasy Role Playing Game.

Several months ago, as we were weaning ourselves off of our World of Warcraft addiction, my best friend and I were discussion how much we missed the old school table top role playing games. The idea of a group of friends sitting around a table, rolling dice and actually immersing ourselves into playing a character versus sitting in front of computer mindlessly pushing buttons sounded pretty good to us. One of the things we had done to try to stop playing WoW was to try out Dungeons & Dragons Online, because it was free to play. It was playing DDO that got us to talking about wanting to play D&D again. The problem was, I live in North Carolina, he lives in Georgia and the rest of the guys we thought might be interested in playing D&D again were spread out across other parts of NC, Texas and Michigan. We were already used to using a program called Ventrilo (“Vent” for short) while playing WoW, which would allow us to speak to each other, but we still needed to be able to see each others' dice rolls, the map and miniatures. That's when we discovered OpenRPG, which is a virtual tabletop program allowing for all that. And so, with a little recruiting and instruction on how to download, install and setup Vent and OpenRPG we were able to begin our project of once again enjoying D&D without having to all be in the same physical place. Not long after we added the game RIFTS to our repertoire of games to play on Saturday nights. Rifts, being a Palladium system game, is what has led us to where we are now; converting our D&D characters to Palladium Fantasy RPG characters.

RIFTS was my first introduction into the Palladium Books system of games. Other than a few other, smaller games (such as Star Frontiers and Top Secret) I had pretty much played D&D exclusively my entire gaming life. There were a lot of similarities between D20 and Palladium, but there are a lot of differences too. As to which is the superior system, well I guess that's subjective but I'm starting to find that the D20 system is to limiting and basic for our tastes. Hence, the decision to convert from D&D to PFRPG for our fantasy genre game. There are, of course, pros and cons to both, and no RPG system is perfect. Our group simply prefers Palladium for it's more realistic combat style and the ability to have a more customized character than is possible in D&D/D20.

I've found forums on which people have complained that Palladium is an archaic gaming system (it was first introduced in the early 1980's). Maybe, but there's an old saying, “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.” D&D wasn't broken, in my opinion, yet TSR, Inc. decided to launch 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in 1989. AD&D 2e was horrible! It took all the flavor out of D&D (certain races and classes were taken out) and introduced “THAC0” as a game mechanic which made the combat rolls more difficult to calculate than simply using the various charts found in the original AD&D. Not long after, TSR, Inc. was bought by Wizards of the Coast, who rescued D&D from oblivion since TSR was on the verge of bankruptcy. Uncer WoTC, D&D was reborn under a 3rd Edition which introduced the “D20 System” and the “Open Gaming License.” This was actually quite brilliant as it opened up the market to development of materials for the game from multiple sources. It remains, in my opinion, the best version of D&D to ever come down the pike (sorry, I'm not interested in 4th edition D&D as I feel it has digressed into being to much of an amalgamation of miniatures and MMO-type combat mechanics). So, while D&D has introduced various editions and changes over the years while Palladium has stuck with its tried and true system since 1983, I still contend that Palladium's system still works just fine.

In both games it is necessary to create, or “roll”, a character before you can begin play. While I'll admit here that D&D has the edge over Palladium on time consumption and simplicity in the character creation process, Palladium seems to allow for more well rounded and unique/customized player characters (Note: since I currently play a Wizard in my group's D&D campaign (and forthcoming conversion to PFRPG) I'll be using that character class as my example later in this blog). The basic process in D&D goes something like this:
  1. Choose a race (human, elf, dwarf, etc.) and class (fighter, wizard, rogue, etc.)
  2. Roll dice to determine ability scores (Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma)
  3. Select Skills & Feats
  4. Select Spells (if your class uses them)
  5. Roll dice to determine how much money (gold pieces) the character begins with and buy equipment (armor, weapons, etc.)
The process in Palladium is almost identical (roll for ability scores*, pick skills), but the difference comes in selecting skills (Palladium doesn't use “feats”). In D&D, each class has a set of “class skills” which they can use their skill points on at full value (1 point for 1 rank ratio) and the rest are considered “cross-class skills” which are taken at half value (in order to gain 1 rank, you have to “spend” 2 points). In Palladium, you can pretty much take any skill you want (with some restrictions), but your class gets bonuses for certain categories of skills. What this means is, in D&D a Wizard is pretty much a Wizard, while in Palladium, a Wizard can take weapon proficiencies or other skills that could allow him to have rogue like abilities or even be highly skilled with a sword and become a “War Wizard” if he wants. In short, Palladium isn't as limiting in what the various classes can or cannot do as D&D seems to be. Palladium also assumes a certain amount of starting gear the character already owns, which makes more sense to me than having to go buy it. Admittedly, I can create a D&D character is less than half the time it takes me to create a Palladium character, but part of that is the fact that I'm still learning the Palladium system.

The combat system is probably where I've seen the most criticism of the Palladium system, with claims that it “takes to long” and causes the game to “bog down.” I have to laugh at that, because that's pretty much how my group feels about the D20 combat system, and we find the Palladium system to be both faster and more realistic. This is due to the fact that D&D (especially the 3rd and 4th editions) essentially requires the use of miniatures and a map-grid when engaging in combat. The D20 System of combat (without going into a lot of overt detail) works something like this:

Attacker rolls a 20-sided die, add/subtract any bonuses/penalties to that roll;if the result matches/exceeds the target's “Armor Class, the attack hits; roll
to see how much damage you do based on the weapon you were using; defender
subtracts damage from their “Hit Points”; repeat until until someone quits or is
dead/unconscious (hit points at zero or less).

Sounds simple enough right? Well, it is, but where it fails for me is that because of the whole Armor Class thing, you basically have to stand there and take it when someone rolls a successful hit. Where D20 bogs down in combat is the having to move around miniatures, which becomes tricky with rules like “Attack of Opportunity”, which is a sort of ridiculous rule in my opinion (I won't go into detail about it because it would take to long, but you can click on the link to find out more if you'd like). By comparison, Palladium combat becomes a bit more realistic:

Attacker rolls a 20-sided die adding/subtracting any bonuses/penalties to the
roll; a result greater than 4 is a potential hit; defender can either attempt to
parry or dodge the attack by also rolling a 20-sided die and adding/subtracting
bonuses/penalties; if the Defenders roll matches/exceeds the attacker's roll,
then the attack fails; if the defenders dodge or parry roll fails, then the
attack is successful and attacker rolls for damage; if the damage roll does not
exceed the Armor Rating of the defender's armor, then the defender, nor the
armor take any damage; if the damage roll exceeds the Armor Rating, the the
remainder deals damage to the “SDC” of the armor first until it is destroyed;
once the armor has been broken through, then the defender begins subtracting
damage directly from his hit points; rinse and repeat until someone quits or is
dead/unconscious (hit points at zero or less).

Ok, so Palladium's combat sounds more complex, and it is. But the point is, it's more realistic. The player has the choice to either stand there and take it or try to dodge or parry an attack, while in D&D, your hands are tied – all your abilities to parry or dodge are automatically built in to your Armor Class. If you have a low AC, you are pretty much screwed, but in Palladium, even an unarmored, non-man at arms, character has a chance to either parry or just plain get the hell out of the way. I also like how Palladium uses a combination of damage mitigation (Armor Rating) and the concept that the Armor itself absorbs damage (SDC) before the person does until the armor is destroyed. It also adds the realism that the character will, eventually, have to have his armor repaired or replaced. I can see where some think that Palladium combat can bog down and take to long, but I prefer its realism and flexibility versus D&D's use of miniatures and basically reverting to board game when combat breaks out. Also, D&D combat can bog down much worse than Palladium's when non-standard actions (actions other than simple attacks) such as grappling and tripping are attempted (again, there's just to much information to even attempt to explain it all here).

Where Palladium really shines over the D20 System is the use of magical abilities and spells. Palladium magic works more like the magic seen in movies and fantasy novels. While in D&D, a Wizard for example, has to carry around a spellbook and spend time each morning memorizing the spells he wants to have access to that day. The D&D Wizard is also limited in which spells he is allowed to learn (my Wizard is 5th level, but only has access to spells up to 3rd level in power) and how many of each level he can memorize and cast per day. Palladium, on the other hand, uses an ability called “Potential Psychic Energy” (PPE) which is indicative of how much magical power the Wizard possesses. The Palladium Wizard can also learn spells of any level at any level of experience (e.g., a 1st level Wizard can learn and cast a 9th level spell). Each spell has a PPE cost; as long as the Wizard has enough PPE in reserve and knows the spell, he can cast it at anytime. Rest, sleep or Meditation allows the Wizard to replenish his spent PPE, and as the Wizard gains levels he gains more PPE and therefore becomes more powerful. I love the fact that my Palladium Wizard will never have to say, “Wow, I know a great spell that would be helpful in this situation, but I didn't memorize it today so I can't use it.” versus the D&D Wizard suddenly becoming useless in such a situation because he didn't prepare the “correct” list of spells that day.**

Don't get me wrong – I'm not shitting on D&D. I still think it's a good (if somewhat rudimentary/introductory) role playing system. I just like the Palladium system better, particularly when it comes to skill selection and use of spells and magical abilities. Both systems have strong and weak points. D&D defiantly has the advantage on resources of materials and tools since it allows its fan base to produce and share materials via the internet and other sources. Palladium, without a doubt, needs to ease up on its stance on copyrights and intellectual properties (they've actually gone as far as suing or threatening to sue people for doing fan-sites on the internet). So, in a nut shell, I hate how Palladium the company (particularly the CEO) does business, but I love the gaming system itself. Comparatively, I really love the way Wizards of the Coast markets D&D and allows fan-sites and other publishers to produce materials, but find the system itself to be a little lacking in areas such as realistic combat and character customization.

Whichever system you choose, enjoy and keep those dice rolling!

~ JC

* Note: the ability scores in Palladium (and their approximate D&D equivalent) are Intelligence Quotient (Intelligence), Physical Strength (Strength), Mental Endurance (Wisdom), Mental Affinity (Charisma), Physcial Prowess (Dexterity), Physcal Endurance (Constitution), Physical Beauty (no specific equivalent but Charisma basically covers it), and Speed (no D&D equivalent).

** This is only a small sampling of how the magic systems work in both D&D and Palladium as both systems have several classes that can cast spells, and have different types of spells, not to mention how the two systems handle psychic ability.

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