To say Palladium’s rules, especially the version presented in Rifts, have a poor reputation among much of the RPG Internet community is an understatement. The most common complaints are the rules are badly organized and contradictory, Mega-Damage Capacity is broken, the system is just a clunky version of D&D, and it’s for power mad munchkins. While true they create problems of different severity.
Let me kill the last one first. Yes, Palladium, especially in the Rifts is a power gamer’s wet dream. My answer to that is “so what?” FATE and HeroQuest, both games I own and have for years (my first FATE rules were the downloaded PDF circa 2000 and I bought Hero Wars), are story oriented gamer wet dreams. I do go running them down for that. I appreciate them for that. Similarly, I appreciate the design of Palladium’s rules provide a certain kind of bronze age of comics feel. An argument that other games give that same feel better than Palladium is something I’m willing to engage. Proclaiming that giving that feel alone makes a game bad is a subjective judgment I won’t.
The core Palladium system is mostly house ruled D&D although to the point it’s a cousin and not in the immediately family. This was obvious way back in the early 80s with The Mechanoid Invasion so why should it be different today? Given the number of games built on a Classic D&D chassis both in the past and today this is a twist on “I don’t like D&D” and should be treated as such. Classic D&D and variants have done a decent job of powering a variety of games over a variety of genres for the life of the hobby. I won’t reject Palladium on that one.
Mega-Damage Capacity (MDC) is where I do start having issues with the system. For those not familiar with MDC it is a form of super hit points at a 100:1 scale. One point of MDC damage is equal to 100 points of SDC/hit point damage (SDC is Structural Damage Capacity). However, the scale does not work the other way. Doing 100 SDC, even if done in a single attack, does not do 1 MDC. Palladium originally did this for their Robotech RPG line and it actually works well there. A punch from a Veritech in guardian or battloid mode will smush a human big while a punch from a human on the Veritech is just going to result in boxer’s fractures. In Robotech MDC only applies to mecha and futuristic war machines and heavy weapons.
In Rifts, however, there are hand held MDC damage weapons as well as living creatures with MDC instead of SDC/hitpoints. This is where the system starts to break down. When a simple laser pistol can do a minimum of 100 SDC/hitpoints personal combat is going to disappear. Moving outside of tightly controlled areas means wearing MDC armor all the time. As you might guess, MDC in and of itself will take up at least post so I’ll get into it in more detail later.
The biggest issue with Palladium rules and Rifts specifically is it is an unorganized mess. Although there are fewer typos it is, in many ways, less organized than OD&D. At best it is as organized as the original DMG which was the worst organized of the original three hardbacks. However, I think OD&D is a fairer comparison because a lot of the rules starting with character creation make assumptions that you get RPGs, specifically late 70s/early 80s RPG culture. Rules are scattered hither and yon. For example, the character creation sections tells you in step 1 to roll 3d6 for attributes. This is correct but if you do this and get to step 5 to select an occupational character class (OCC) or racial character class (RCC). If you pick the RCC of Dragon Hatchling you use a different set of rolls. This isn’t a huge issue because for the Dragon Hatchling you can just add some extra dice but it is still a bit of disorganization which can lead to flipping pages. Given RCCs appear in a lot of supplemental books as well is a huge organizational problem. Another good example is plenty of equipment descriptions but not basic item-price list.
In fact, I’ll say this disorganization is bad enough that even though I think by the book Rifts is possible (yes, even with MDC) I’m not sure with just the book Rifts. I used to make cheat sheets but I don’t have them anymore. I also think, especially having learned TeX, that I can build better ones now. As a result in parallel with my setting design I’ll be doing Rifts cheat sheets, which I’ll provide for download. Building cheat sheets on classes, races, and equipment also make it easier to lay out what I allow and what is not in the campaign. It also makes it clear what side of contradictory rules I’m taking.