Unlimited Heroic And Ninja Action From Palladium Games
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  • Unlimited Heroic And Ninja Action From Palladium Games



    In the course of some of the social media discussions of my column about the classic Marvel Super-Heroes RPG last week, a couple of people asked about my talking about other super-hero games. Comic book super-heroes are one of my favorite genres, and I've played a lot of the games that have been published during my years as a gamer. I've touched on games like Champions in past columns, and I'll likely talk about others in the future. This week I am going to talk a bit about the Heroes Unlimited and Ninjas and Superspies games from Palladium Games. The two games are interrelated in my mind (and the games that I have run), and I think between the two of them they cover a lot of ground in the super-hero genre.

    To backtrack a little, comics were my introduction to "geekry" as a kid. When I was five, my parents owned a convenience store, and that store had one of those comic book spinner racks. This was 1973, and while my reading comprehension wasn't the greatest, I remember reading Avengers comics at the very least. This was five years before Star Wars came out (and my mom took my younger brother and myself to see it), and six years before my first encounter with Dungeons & Dragons and role-playing games.

    Fast forward then to my experimental college years, and I found a copy of Ninjas & Superspies on the shelf at the closest game store to where I went to college. The cover grabbed me immediately, a mindless fight between a bunch of ninjas and some SHIELD-esque superspies in jumpsuits. There were bodies dropping, signs that corpses were littering the battleground, lasers firing and katanas slashing. Obviously I had to have a copy of the game, and I bought it on the spot.
    The method of handling the martial arts in Ninjas & Superspies is one of my favorites in role-playing games, which I am sure that will be controversial to some, but the system of bonuses and the different sorts of attacks is a good simulation of "kung fu fighting."

    All of the Palladium Games publications use Kevin Siembieda's heavily house ruled version of the old AD&D 1E rules. While there are some slight variations among the different games, if you know how to play one Palladium game, you will know how to play others, and content or characters from Heroes Unlimited or Nightbane or Beyond The Supernatural or Rifts can be moved between games with a little bit of tinkering. The main difference between the various games is whether or not they are "mega damage" games or not. Just as an aside, how awesome is the idea of mega damage? "How much damage does your character do?" "They do MEGA DAMAGE." The term is probably one of the most metal things that you're going to find in RPGs.

    The concept of mega damage debuted in Palladium's 1986 Robotech role-playing game, and was carried over into the company's Rifts role-playing game. The idea was to come up with a scalable way of handling damage from giant robots and space ships. Each point of mega damage is equal to about 100 points of "regular" damage. Your mileage may vary on whether or not the mechanic actually works in a game.

    Neither Heroes Unlimited or Ninjas & Superspies are mega damage games. A lot of people complain that Palladium games aren't modern, or are "broken," because the games don't feature unified mechanics, or mechanics that cover their favorite things. I could probably make an entire column about the fallacies of obsolescence in role-playing games, or how comparing game systems to technological advances or operating system upgrades isn't really a one to one comparison. I doubt that I will write a column like that, which is probably good for you, me and the RPG segment of the internet. Suffice it to say, that my take on the matter is that just because something new exists, it doesn't mean that the older ways of designing a game no longer apply.


    Can Palladium games be slow in play? Not so much during play, as actual combat in games like Heroes Unlimited or Ninjas & Superspies can go faster than, or as quickly as, older editions of Dungeons & Dragons games. Not everyone will consider that to be a gold standard for "fast" in RPGs, but it can be a lot quicker in places than more contemporary games. Admittedly, it does boil down to person preferences, but I have never found combat to be where Palladium games bog down. Character creation does take time in any Palladium game, because even for a class and level-based game system, there are a lot of options for characters. You have to choose a class, figure out the skills and abilities that your character might have, go back and apply any bonuses that come from the class, determine powers, go back and apply a new set of bonuses to skills and abilities. It takes a lot of time.

    One a scale of complexity, character creation for Heroes Unlimited and Ninjas & Superspies is probably somewhere between D&D 5E and Shadowrun 5E. I've been able to oversee a group of characters making their characters within a couple of hours, but when I'm running a Palladium game I typically set aside a session just for character creation. Typically when I run games, I do them in 2-3 hour long sessions.

    Advancement is pretty simple, because it is mostly a matter of adding level bonuses to existing skills and abilities. Like the source material the games emulate, characters really don't gain new powers or abilities when they advance in levels. The advancement bonuses are either in the section dealing with the character classes, or in the write-ups for the individual skills. The advancements are also standardized, and don't change as the character goes up in levels.

    One place where these games have a flaw is that their presentation is fairly bare bones, and mostly unchanging over the years. The only real changes in the layout and design of their books came when they changed from old wax roll cut and paste physical page layouts to more modern electronic layout and publishing manners. One problem in both methods is that mistakes tend to be preserved, and propagated, as rules are copied and pasted from one book to another. The information design of a Palladium book is dense, and it isn't always easy to find material at first, because rules can end up in a number of different places. The lack of indices can also make finding rules difficult. This can add to the learning curve for a Palladium game and add to the perception that the games are broken. It can also be a pain in the behind when you need to find something during play. Palladium can definitely improve in this regard.

    One strong selling point for Palladium's games is that they aren't as expensive as other games. Most Palladium games are softcovers, and the printing is done in black and white. While the games all have a number of supplements available for them, they are ultimately unnecessary to have. Palladium games are self-contained and inexpensive. My copy of Heroes Unlimited is 352 pages with a cover price of $26.95. I picked it up probably 15 or so years ago, replacing the earlier edition that I bought in college. My copy of Ninjas & Superspies is still the copy that I picked up in college in the 1980s, which cost $14.95 and has 176 pages. A quick peek at the Palladium website shows that Heroes Unlimited is still priced the same, while Ninjas & Superspies has increased to $20.95. It is really hard to find a lot of role-playing games with these page counts, at these price points. The games are also more or less the same games they were when I first started playing them. Heroes Unlimited has added a lot more material since the edition I first picked up in college (it was originally about the same size as Ninjas & Superspies when I started playing it), while Ninjas & Superspies is unchanged.

    This can mean that material that you buy for these games is always going to work. If you happen to find a copy of the Justice Machine supplement for Heroes Unlimited (which I have never had, and would love to own a copy of), you can still use it with the current version of the game. That also means that you can convert material from your Rifts books, or other Palladium game lines, to Heroes Unlimited. Considering the gonzoness of most comic book universes, this can be a feature rather than a bug.

    Palladium games aren't going to be for everyone, but I think that if you are a fan of the OSR, or the various retroclones, that there will be something that will appeal to you in games like Heroes Unlimited or Ninjas & Superspies. They are good games, and there are solid reasons why they have stood the test of time. Yes, games like Rifts have been adapted to more contemporary game systems, but for those looking for a different sort of experience there is a lot of good stuff to be found in these games.

    Like a lot of old school games, Heroes Unlimited doesn't have a great deal of explicit setting to it. The core book is fairly setting neutral, while supplements do sketch some of the basics of a setting (if you want one for your games). The implied setting that you get from the types of character classes and character options seems to be defined by the sensibilities of mid to late 80s comics like the Marvel Comics books from that era featuring the X-Men, as well as the early super-hero work published by Image Comics. The tone of the game is gritty and features a mix of aliens, mutants, magic and deviltry that will be familiar to comics fans. While you could play more "four color" games with Heroes Unlimited, I don't think that is where the strengths of the game lay.

    I suggest checking the games out, if you haven't already. I have gotten years of entertainment out of Palladium games, and they have survived the recent ongoing purges that I have been going to scale back my physical possessions. Heroes Unlimited was my gateway to these games, and these worlds, and it could be yours as well.
    Comments 15 Comments
    1. Jer's Avatar
      Jer -
      All of this love for Palladium and no love for the one Palladium game that consumed more of my nights and weekends when I was in junior high/early high school than any other? Where's the shout out to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness? Making up weird mutant animal heroes and fighting ninjas was where most of my pre-Rifts Palladium experience was had.

      Palladium is an acquired taste. I think it's hard to pick up if you weren't playing Palladium games when you were 12-13 years old, even if you did play AD&D 1e or similar games. Who has that kind of time to devote to devouring rulebooks that size other than a young teenager? And their games have that weird 80s aesthetic to them that reminds me nostalgically of my pre-teen and early-teen years - the kind of thing that makes the Netflix show Stranger Things such a nostalgia fest.
    1. J.L. Duncan's Avatar
      J.L. Duncan -
      Played a lot of Palladium back in the day. Loved TMNT, ported that to N&S and HU. As far as superhero themed games we've been going the opposite direction in regards to crunch. I'm currently looking at OneDice Supers, Simple Superheroes and Save the Day. One of those will serve as a filler (when folks miss) for my live group...
    1. lyle.spade's Avatar
      lyle.spade -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jer View Post
      All of this love for Palladium and no love for the one Palladium game that consumed more of my nights and weekends when I was in junior high/early high school than any other? Where's the shout out to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness? Making up weird mutant animal heroes and fighting ninjas was where most of my pre-Rifts Palladium experience was had.

      Palladium is an acquired taste. I think it's hard to pick up if you weren't playing Palladium games when you were 12-13 years old, even if you did play AD&D 1e or similar games. Who has that kind of time to devote to devouring rulebooks that size other than a young teenager? And their games have that weird 80s aesthetic to them that reminds me nostalgically of my pre-teen and early-teen years - the kind of thing that makes the Netflix show Stranger Things such a nostalgia fest.

      I think my first TMNT character was a wolverine with some good hand-to-hand skills and several large firearms. That game could get pretty gonzo.
    1. Jester David's Avatar
      Jester David -
      I have some fond memories of Heroes Unlimited. It was probably the first RPG I played from a book rather than loose half-remembered rules.
      While the first RPG I bought was D&D, back in junior high, it was very quickly followed by Heroes Unlimited. I played the hell out of that game. Looking back, I likely played D&D for a year before I segued my group to Heroes Unlimited for another couple years. More D&D followed, then more Heroes Unlimited and then mashed up with Nightspawn/ Nightbane (that was a cool setting; I regret not getting more of the accessories for that).
      Much of my time looking at the books was lonely fun: designing characters and creating new heroes. I made so many, many heroes… I got pretty good at hammering out characters quickly.


      Although, I tried the rules a couple times later, around 2002-3. Between 3.0 and 3.5, during a break in my Forgotten Realms campaign. By that point, I'd actually stopped to read the book and the rules, and was playing straight rather than half making things up.
      At that point I promptly fell out of love with the system. 3rd Edition D&D ruined it for me. The imbalanced nature of the rules was more glaring. The difference system mastery and optimization made was staggering, and the range of power level between characters was huge. You could have one character doing 5 damage each attack and another doing 50 damage each attack.
      It's a game system that works best when you ignore the game system...


      Part of me respects Palladium for sticking to the one ruleset and even retaining the classic presentation despite the passage of 35-years. Everything was and is compatible.
      But mostly I look at the books with their horrible editing, poor arrangement of rules, curious author rants, and other oddities and just roll my eyes. I feel embarrassed for the company. There are small indie publishers doing Print-on-Demand books with higher production values and better presentation than Palladium…
    1. PHDungeon -
      I think these days it's the dated layout of the books, more so than the "dated" rules that push me away from palladium games. I went back to some of my rifts books the other day, and the text was so dense and hard to sift through compared to today's rpgs that I couldn't look at it for more than a few minutes.


      I started playing rpgs with Marvel FASE RIP. Years later, for supers, I started playing Mutants and Masterminds, but right now ICONS is my go to game for supers. It's kind of the love child of Marvel FASERIP and FATE, with a touch of M&M. It's fast and easy to make characters, and fast and easy to run. The action has all the comic feel you'd want without any bogging down or fussiness.
    1. Dire Bare's Avatar
      Dire Bare -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jester David View Post
      There are small indie publishers doing Print-on-Demand books with higher production values and better presentation than Palladium…
      Yeah, but those were different times man . . . . .

      Of course, Palladium is still kicking out books, and if that hasn't changed much, then, yeah, it's pretty sad.
    1. Desh-Rae-Halra's Avatar
      Desh-Rae-Halra -
      "Neither Heroes Unlimited or Ninjas & Superspies are mega damage games. A lot of people complain that Palladium games aren't modern, or are "broken," because the games don't feature unified mechanics, or mechanics that cover their favorite things. I could probably make an entire column about the fallacies of obsolescence in role-playing games, or how comparing game systems to technological advances or operating system upgrades isn't really a one to one comparison. I doubt that I will write a column like that, which is probably good for you, me and the RPG segment of the internet. Suffice it to say, that my take on the matter is that just because something new exists, it doesn't mean that the older ways of designing a game no longer apply."

      I'd actually LIKE to see an article on this.
    1. tgmoore's Avatar
      tgmoore -
      Palladium Books NOT Palladium games.
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      While I don’t think Palladium’s rules have aged so well, I will never not have a soft spot for TMNT & Other Strangeness.

      On the opposite side from the OP, I dislike mega-damage. It was the beginning of the end of my enjoyment of their RPGs. It didn’t help that back in the day the GM had a habit of getting a new Palladium RPG, having everyone port their characters over from the last system, and then killing them off.

      I still think about running a Palladium Fantasy RPG campaign one of these days, though.
    1. Von Ether's Avatar
      Von Ether -
      TMNT is fondly remembered in my circles and the Palladium system works on that level.

      It's when Rifts enters the picture when the system starts to stumble and if you try to play several of the classes across several supplements that it just flails.

      Quote Originally Posted by Jester David View Post
      It's a game system that works best when you ignore the game system...
      Which is what KS does himself from what I hear. It sounds like he's more of a "apply the rules when he wants something to stick and improv the rest," which is a legit method of GMing, just not so much when it comes to game design.
    1. William Dilbeck's Avatar
      William Dilbeck -
      [QUOTE=Desh-Rae-Halra;7113862]"Neither Heroes Unlimited or Ninjas & Superspies are mega damage games. A lot of people complain that Palladium games aren't modern, or are "broken," because the games don't feature unified mechanics, or mechanics that cover their favorite things. I could probably make an entire column about the fallacies of obsolescence in role-playing games, or how comparing game systems to technological advances or operating system upgrades isn't really a one to one comparison. I doubt that I will write a column like that, which is probably good for you, me and the RPG segment of the internet. Suffice it to say, that my take on the matter is that just because something new exists, it doesn't mean that the older ways of designing a game no longer apply."

      I want to read this!
    1. spectralhunter's Avatar
      spectralhunter -
      Oh boy, this article brings back memories. I loved TMNT (Anyone remember the mental illness tables in the earlier editions? That was fun.). My first character was a cheetah mutant with guns and swords. He had a whole boat load of weapons... I liked the system at the time and my little group played Heroes Unlimited and Ninjas & Superspies. The sheer number of different martial art forms in N&S made it a unique game. We eventually finished off our Palladium run with Robotech, another game that has a special part of my childhood.

      The books were cheap but the art was beautiful. I still marvel at all the mechs in Robotech drawn by Kevin Long.

      One small thing I really liked about Palladium is their stance on alignments. I loved they didn't have a true Neutral alignment because no one can be truly neutral and be able to make decisions. They called it what it really is: Selfish.
    1. Nutation's Avatar
      Nutation -
      I never played Heroes Unlimited. Characters are generated semi-randomly, so what I did do is use the book as a source of endless characters ideas I then reproduced in Champions. The characters I created seemed to span a wide range of power (mind, I never played the game), so you have to be one to enjoy playing a superhero team that has both Thor and Hawkeye.
    1. bolen -
      Don't characters in the very random nature of the heroes unlimited game have VERY different skill sets. I really like old school systems like DCC and Hackmaster but it seems to me that the extremely random nature of the Palladium system would lead to wildly different characters (much worse than old school D&D did and make it unpl ayable or at least not fun for the wimpy characters. Am I mistaken? Why?
    1. Greg K's Avatar
      Greg K -
      Heroes Unlimited: revised with the blue background Steranko cover was one of my least favorite superhero games of all time. I took it home and, after looking it over, returned it the next day for store credit at a small monetary loss. I didn't think the class/level, D&D armor class type system, or D&D style hit points per level worked well for the genre. I was also disappointed on how it did not support the wide range of powers or power levels found in comics. How different is the version shown in the original post differ from the original revised edition?

      As for Ninja's and Superspies, I loved the martial arts rules and enjoyed the combat system more than D&D. I do wish I had checked out Palladium Fantasy back in the day.
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