A Demand for Change at Palladium Books

Assuming the guise of Geshbourn, God of Lost Causes, I initiated a discussion about Kevin Siembieda and his company, Palladium Books, on the RPGnet Tabletop Roleplaying Game Open Forum. Here on this page, I have reproduced a series of comments in which I outline and elaborate upon my various points of contention. Elsewhere on this site, I provide evidence – drawn from 16 years of press releases and issues of The Rifter – in support of my conclusions, which I continue to update as new details become available. I thank you for taking the time to visit this site and hope that you find it both informative and insightful.

Original Post – Sunday, May 1, 2011 12:54pm CDT [Read on RPGnet Forum]

On Thursday, April 21, 2011, Kevin Siembieda, founder and president of Palladium Books, posted another installment in a series of weekly updates on the company's website wherein he detailed the proceedings of a "Top Secret Conference for freelance writers and artists" held Thursday, April 7 through Sunday, April 10, 2011 at the Palladium headquarters in Westland, Michigan.

The following are drawn from his report:
"I wanted everyone to know about the many exciting ideas and projects we are working on behind the scenes. The plan: to take Palladium Books to the next level and new heights."
"I think great things are coming from Palladium. And soon."
"...releasing at least one new product every month."
"Support all our game lines...."
"Keep our products dynamic and push the envelope...."
"...reach more gamers and find new audiences."
"...carry Palladium I.P.s into new areas of entertainment."
"Palladium Books has the best interests of our fans and supporters at heart in everything we do. We have always tried to create the high quality products YOU want."

Reading these statements, I found myself convulsed by a sudden nausea.

But, I protested, he's been saying this for YEARS!

Oh, yes – indeed he has.

Somewhere along the way (in a relationship that spans 20 years), I acquired an intuitive yet indefinable sense of Palladium's – and, by extension, Mr. Siembieda's – shortcomings, but I never could muster any response other than a sigh of disappointment in the face of his broken promises and hollow assurances. For some reason, though, this latest volley of platitudes struck a chord of pure outrage within me. I charged myself with the task of making a full, factual accounting of recent events that have earned Palladium its widespread infamy so that I might – for the very first time – see things as they really are instead of accepting at face value the threadbare glamour cast by Mr. Siembieda.

To this end, I devoted a great many hours to combing through the first 24 issues of Palladium's quarterly, The Rifter, published January 1998 through October 2003, and more than 250 online press releases and weekly updates from Wednesday, October 23, 2002 through the present day, among other materials. From these, I have pieced together a wearying chronicle of desperate enthusiasm, grandiose claims, unreasonable expectations, latent contempt, overt condescension, defensive posturing, shunted accountability, lame apologies, and, more than anything else, persistent failure.

Palladium has been in a general state of decline since 2003, releasing fewer products with each passing year. Christmas Surprise Packages, Rifter subscription drives, Open Houses, auctions, and branded merchandise are gradually supplanting the publication of new RPG books as its primary source of revenue. It frequently resorts to self-cannibalization by reprinting, repackaging, and revising titles from its back catalogue. Perhaps the most significant challenge Palladium faces is its caricature of a release schedule. How did things go so wrong? How did it become renowned more for what it has not published, rather than what it has?

From what I have learned, the problem can be traced all the way back to October 1985, when the first edition Palladium Fantasy RPG book Adventures on the High Seas was advertised for release in January 1986. January came and went, then February and March, but the book did not come out as promised. A second advertisement appeared in April 1986, declaring, without explanation or apology, that the book would be available August of that year. Well, the folks at Palladium just got so busy in the meantime that High Seas must have slipped their mind. Not to worry, though: they ran yet another ad in October 1986 to set a third target date, electing on this round to go with an ambiguous "early next year". Adventures on the High Seas was finally released May 1987, 16 months after it was originally to have seen print.

And so it began – a ripple turned into a crushing tidal wave of incompetence.

Excepting The Rifter (which, to the credit of its editor, Wayne Smith, has maintained a consistent release schedule for nearly all of its 57 issues) and a prodigious number of reprints and special limited editions (so many that I did not bother counting them), I reckon that Palladium has published 97 books since January 1998. Of these, only 13 were released on time when scheduled in advance, not one of them in the last four years.

This, of course, does not include the more than 60 specific works that have either languished in a state of perpetual development or were altogether abandoned and disappeared during this period, in addition to a nameless legion of aborted sourcebooks.

The ten titles currently occupying Palladium's release slate have all been stuck "in the pipeline" longer than a year; no fewer than half were scheduled for publication at least three years ago, and two of them have seen their delivery postponed by more than five years.

Such discoveries staggered me as I meticulously tracked each volume, every delay building to a palpable loss of confidence and erosion of goodwill. For an entity whose livelihood depends upon publishing, it is nothing short of a miracle that Palladium has remained in business this long, but if things continue as they have – and, despite the best of intentions, there really is no reason to believe otherwise – it will not be for much longer. Based on the evidence set forth by Mr. Siembieda himself, I can only conclude that Palladium Books has a profound, fundamental inability to establish or achieve goals of any kind, especially one so critical as its revitalization.

The question that naturally arises at this point is one seeking to determine cause and culpability. You may not be surprised to learn – as I most certainly was not – that a veritable banquet of blame has been served up and dished out to myriad convenient targets: authors, illustrators, printers, distributors, merchants, customers, the industry, the market, the economy, the month, the season, the weather, and all manner of mishap and misfortune. While these circumstantial factors may have played some part, it is my contention that the principal fault lies with the one who set the feast.

The comprehensive record of his own statements leaves no question that Kevin Siembieda is the problem behind the problems at Palladium Books. He wields such total control over the company that its fate has become completely subject to his personal vagaries. For instance, whenever he deviates from his alleged work schedule of 10–18 hours a day, 6–7 days a week, feverishly overhauling manuscripts and cultivating dead-end licenses, Palladium's release slate implodes. That this has occurred with such regularity should make it obvious (to everyone but him, apparently) that Mr. Siembieda is Palladium's greatest liability. Any reforms that are to have the remotest chance of success must therefore begin with him.

When will things stop getting better for Palladium, and finally be better?

There has been no shortage of opportunities for Mr. Siembieda to implement real, lasting change at Palladium Books during the past thirteen years. He made as though to welcome them with one hand but held them at bay with the other, never allowing them to take root and flourish, so certain that only he knew what was best for his company, believing nobody else could possibly care about it as much as he did. Time and again, he has failed to realize that Palladium is more than a monument enshrining the vision and achievements of one man.

Mr. Siembieda needs to relinquish his stranglehold over Palladium and let it breathe.

And for Thoth's sake, publish Old Kingdom Mountains and Lowlands already!

– Geshbourn, The God of Lost Causes

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Post No. 55 – Monday, May 2, 2011 12:29am CDT [Read on RPGnet Forum]

The new manager sees that he/she can quickly and more easily do the job their underling is perceived to be bumbling, and steps in...feeling like they're being efficient. – Shane Cubis (Post No. 51)

More than just simple efficiency, there always seems to be a shadow of possessiveness lurking behind Kevin Siembieda's interventions. It is a rare book indeed that is released by Palladium either without his name listed among the authors or with other names cited alongside his on the front cover – as though recognizing their contributions would, in some way, diminish or detract from his own. The frequency with which he rewrites or discards entire manuscripts that fail to conform perfectly to his vision suggests an almost pathological need for control. I suspect that this is the underlying basis of the so-called "creative differences" that have driven a number of highly talented individuals from Palladium over the years.

The case of Bill Coffin may serve as an illustration of this dynamic. Of the thirteen books mentioned in the OP that were released on target, four are to his credit. From July 1998 through May 2002, he was the primary author of nine titles: six for the Palladium Fantasy RPG, two for Heroes Unlimited, and one for Rifts. He was secondary author on five installments of the Rifts Coalition War series and its coda, Rifts Aftermath, and he supplied "additional text and ideas" for three other titles. He also edited the Heroes Unlimited G.M.'s Guide and compiled the Rifts Book of Magic and Rifts Game Master Guide. Last but not least, he wrote the Systems Failure RPG.

At the time of his departure from Palladium, Coffin was lead or primary author of six books in the final stages of production. He was ignominiously demoted to second or third-author status on two of these before their release, and the other four were buried, likely never to see the light of day.

Bill Coffin is probably about the furthest thing from a "bumbling" novice that you could get. I am not claiming that Siembieda was jealous of Coffin's accomplishments, but I would not be surprised if he was feeling a bit, shall we say, concerned about his own relative status and influence in the midst of striving to do and be everything at Palladium. For the sake of asserting his authority, Siembieda delivered the company a serious blow from which it has not quite recovered.

The expression "cutting off your nose to spite your face" comes to mind.

[Ed.—Bill Coffin shared his own perspective on the madness behind Kevin Siembieda's methods in a now-legendary post on RPGnet: read it here.]

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Post No. 94 – Monday, May 2, 2011 1:33pm CDT [Read on RPGnet Forum]

You assign far too much negativity to it, though, as though each slipped publication date was an act of heresy against you personally. – RainOfSteel (Post No. 79)

Although I have had a lengthy, enjoyable involvement with Palladium RPGs, I do not take its failings as a direct personal insult. The company's present situation is dire by any definition. I felt the need to counter Kevin Siembieda's habitual mendacity with solid fact, revealing to him (and everyone else) the full measure of the problems confronting Palladium in hopes of inspiring him to take an honest, critical look at his role in both causing and perpetuating them. If you lack a sense of what is wrong, you cannot make it right. Coming to such awareness may be an uncomfortable and unpleasant process, but this was my objective.

The rest of your post was your own personal opinions and views of the subject, not "facts".... There is no way you could possibly know any information allowing you to reach this conclusion without being a personal confidant of Kevin S. You're making wild speculations.

You raise a valid point, but I have the fullest confidence in my conclusions. Reading hundreds of Rifter editorials, press releases and weekly updates written over a period of thirteen years by Kevin Siembieda himself, certain underlying themes and trends emerged and became quite obvious without the need for subjective interpretation. The details regarding Palladium's misadventures in publishing, all of which I recorded directly from these sources, only served to confirm my analysis. It is all there for anyone to see.

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Post No. 224 – Thursday, May 5, 2011 9:48pm CDT [Read on RPGnet Forum]

Palladium is now actively soliciting proposals for rule changes on its forum, by which it appears to be addressing a complaint that has persisted amongst the gaming community for quite some time. I think this is a positive step and I hope that it will lead to substantive changes in the future.

As you may have gathered, I also have a couple of suggestions, but it seems unlikely that Palladium will provide me (or any like-minded individuals) with an official venue where I can advance them. I was reluctant to outline any specific recommendations in the OP because I did not want to distract from the point I was trying to make; however, I thought that I would take the opportunity to do so here.

Let me begin with a brief reassertion of my principal claims:
  • Palladium has a documented inability to produce new books in a timely fashion and release them on schedule.
  • This is a problem that has only worsened through the years, and it poses a threat to Palladium's viability.
  • Despite repeated assurances of imminent change, no real changes have been made.
  • Both the problem itself and the fact that it has not yet been resolved are the direct result of Kevin Siembieda's managerial practices.
  • Mr. Siembieda must reform his style of management before any other reforms can be enacted at Palladium.
I cannot dictate the terms of his personal reckoning – should any be forthcoming – but I will at the very least submit a handful of commonsense guidelines that might aid in salvaging Mr. Siembieda's reputation as a publisher.
  • Do not announce that a book is in production – let alone under consideration – until you have nothing less than a completed first-draft manuscript in hand, at which point:
    • Do not predict or set a tentative release date of any kind, not even something so general as a year, and
    • Do not start taking reservations or pre-orders.
  • Do not schedule a book for publication until it is ready for design and layout, by which point you have:
    • Produced a final (edited, revised, and proofread) draft of the manuscript,
    • Assigned all artwork,
    • Determined with reasonable certainty the book's page length and cost, and
    • Secured the necessary authorization or approval for its release (where applicable).
  • Either list every author on a book's cover or none of them. Individuals who contribute "additional text and ideas" are coauthors and should be fully recognized as such.
  • Refrain from attributing authorship by the paragraph or page. This practice should be reserved only for occasions when an entire chapter or section has been scribed by a particular author. Otherwise, limit these credits to the title page alone.
  • Avoid giving a blow-by-blow account of sales at Palladium in your weekly updates. There is no reason why you should make us privy to this sort of information – as your customers, it is really not our concern.
On a final note, in case it has not been clear up to this point, I want to emphasize that I do not hate Kevin Siembieda or Palladium Books. I do not think Mr. Siembieda is a bad person and I do not think the company is a failure. As I mentioned elsewhere, the time I have spent – and continue to spend – on Palladium RPGs is very important and meaningful to me. I do not enjoy seeing the company struggle, and I definitely do not want to see it collapse. Just think of this as a "tough love" intervention, if you will.

After all, a God of Lost Causes strives to keep causes from being lost.

[Ed.—The aforementioned Palladium rule-change discussions are as follows: "A Little", "Medium", "A Lot", and "Anything But This".]

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Post No. 235 – Saturday, May 7, 2011 4:16pm CDT [Read on RPGnet Forum]

At the risk of crossing the line into tedium, I feel it necessary to point out that despite Kevin Siembieda's insistence that Palladium is ready, willing, and able to change and his efforts to recharge interest and restore confidence amongst the gaming community, he has neglected to address a very important question: How?

Recent discussions have centered on – and have been purposely limited to, in certain cases – product and content: overhauling, updating, or streamlining Palladium rules and game mechanics; revising the organization and presentation of material; licensing properties; and so forth. While I neither dispute the fact that these are significant issues nor doubt the sincerity of Mr. Siembieda's intentions, I am at the same time very concerned that this will amount to nothing more than appeasement and distraction. Comments and suggestions made over the past few weeks are probably not much different than ones they have heard a hundred times before. There is little to no mention anywhere of practical strategy – in other words, the means by which all of this can and will be achieved.

To give but one pertinent example, Mr. Siembieda declared in his April 21, 2011 report on the Palladium Creators' Conference that one of his primary objectives is to release "at least one new product every month."

I am not deliberately trying to be obtuse here, but what does that even mean?

By "product", is he speaking only of RPG books, or does this include prints, greeting cards, keychains, coffee mugs, baseball caps, sweatshirts, and other branded merchandise? Is he referring to special limited editions like hardcover or "manga-sized" volumes? What about "revised", "updated", and "expanded" titles, or books that consist almost entirely of material that has already been published? He has scheduled reprints and used that as evidence of hitting target release dates, so is he also counting them here (a "new" reprint being one where they ran out of the last batch)? Regarding "every month", Palladium has effectively suspended all production from October through January over the past five years in order to focus on Christmas Gift Packages, so will that no longer be the case?

I think you get the idea.

Mr. Siembieda can talk about "what" all day long – and he most certainly has – but without devoting any time to "how", he undermines the possibility of durable, meaningful reform, especially since, as I said in my OP, the burden of that reform falls squarely upon him.

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them. – Henry David Thoreau

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Post No. 244 – Tuesday, May 24, 2011 3:11am CDT [Read on RPGnet Forum]

I am not attempting to revive a discussion that has long since run its course, but I wanted to relay something that I thought would be of interest. Given that it closely relates to the OP – in particular, the evidence upon which I based my claims – this thread seemed the best place to do so.

Last week, on Tuesday, May 17, Palladium Books launched an updated version of its website, thereby completing a project that had been underway since June 11, 2010. At the same time, its archived online press releases – numbering more than 250 and dating back to October 23, 2002 – disappeared. As I mentioned in the OP, I spent several days scouring these for details that I used to track the development of almost 90 titles at Palladium through the years. While most of them were not immediately accessible via Palladium's main page, they were hardly concealed from public view; anybody could find them with little to no effort whatsoever. And now, unfortunately, they are gone.

In the process of refurbishing its website, would Palladium have deleted all of these press releases and weekly updates anyway? Perhaps. Yet I cannot help but wonder if this thread – and the notice it received – gave Palladium additional incentive to "cover its tracks". After all, people are not often inclined to leave something that has become a source of embarrassment to themselves just lying out in the open for everyone else to see.

At the very least, I still have the notes from my research and, of course, the website to which I posted most of the information contained therein. For whatever it may be worth, I shall continue to monitor the titles currently in production at Palladium Books and update my site accordingly.

[Ed.—Palladium's site features press releases only going back to March 3, 2011, but all the rest can be found using the Internet Archive "Wayback Machine".]

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Post No. 303 – Sunday, June 26, 2011 8:37pm CDT [Read on RPGnet Forum]

People here are not outlining the problems with Palladium, they are outlining their problems with Palladium. – sneaker (Post No. 282)

How anyone could read the OP – let alone the ensuing discussion – and suggest something like this is beyond me. The whole point of my reviewing more than 250 press releases and 57 issues of The Rifter from the past 13 years was to gauge the precise dimensions of Palladium's chronic inability to release its books as scheduled, thereby to determine the underlying cause of that which even Kevin Siembieda admits – over and over again – is a significant problem (of course, I go a step further and assert that Siembieda himself is the real problem, something he is likely never to acknowledge or admit). I did not manipulate or distort the facts as I found them, nor did I disregard any data that contradicted my hypothesis; the evidence was altogether overwhelming and required no subjective interpretation. It is not even necessary to go to such lengths as I did in order to reach the same conclusions.

In short, it is not merely that I or anyone else thinks this is a problem, this is an actual problem that threatens to be Palladium's undoing, and there is no indication whatsoever that it is being seriously considered or addressed by those in a position to do so.

To illustrate, when the April 21, 2011 weekly update came out, there were 11 books in development at Palladium, five of which had been scheduled for publication (for the most part, Palladium no longer assigns specific target dates to pending releases until just before they are shipped; otherwise, its schedule does not get any more specific than citing the month of release, which is sometimes qualified with "early" or "late"). It should come as no surprise that these books had their release dates bumped a couple times over the following nine weeks. Why, you might ask? The reason is quite simple, and it is the very reason that accounts for more than 13 years of delayed and disappeared titles: Kevin Siembieda has not finished writing (or rewriting) them.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

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Post No. 324 – Monday, June 27, 2011 11:22pm CDT [Read on RPGnet Forum]

In other words, Simbieda is Palladium and Palladium is Simbieda [sic].... – sneaker (Post No. 308)

I found your comment amusing, but it does not quite reflect my position. Yes, Kevin Siembieda founded Palladium Books and has remained at its helm for three decades – which is without question an impressive feat and would be in any industry – but for all that, he and Palladium are not one and the same, and furthermore, they never have been. However, considering some of the things that have happened over the years – or rather have not happened, as the case may be – there is some doubt as to whether Siembieda himself is aware of that, and I would venture to say that this doubt underlies almost every complaint and criticism that has been leveled at him.

Very few of us are – by ourselves – able to dictate the terms of our lives; in other words, we are not really our own masters (this is not necessarily good or bad, it simply is). Thanks to Palladium Books, Kevin Siembieda has achieved a level of autonomy that many of us will never experience, and for this he is legitimately worthy of respect and admiration. Yet, also because of Palladium, he does not possess nearly as much freedom as one might think. I cannot help but wonder if Siembieda launched Palladium as an enterprise "of, by, and for" him alone and subsequently operated under that particular notion for 30 years, there being certain times when it exerted a stronger influence over him and his decision-making than others. The obvious problem is that no company can remain viable for long with that sort of guiding principle. To be sure, it might carry you some distance, but eventually it will cause you to stumble, and if in that moment you cling to it to keep from falling, it will take you down.

Something definitely happened at a critical point in Palladium's history to reverse its fortunes – and no, it was not the "Crisis of Treachery". I figure that during the period from 1999 to 2001, Siembieda was presented with a choice – or rather a series of choices, as this sort of thing is rarely so dramatic – wherein he was called upon to finally relinquish a measure of control and evolve in his position at Palladium. With his company rounding out its second decade, Siembieda had reached the outermost limits of his former capacity and could not be everywhere and do everything at once (i.e., The Peter Principle). The thing of it is, though, he no longer had to. Foremost among other assets, he had a stable of outstanding talent working for him who could be trusted to handle Palladium's various game lines with a minimum of guidance and oversight. The company had long since taken on a life of its own; if only its master could loosen his grip on the reins and just let it ride, who knows where it might lead them?

Chances are Siembieda was not replaced by a "pod person" at some point along the way. He is, on a certain level, the same Kevin Siembieda today that he was yesterday, the day before that, and so on. At the same time, there are elements and aspects of him that have changed throughout the years, some of them quite dramatic, others less so, and these changes can just as easily be an advance as a retreat, "positive" as well as "negative" (each of us undergoes a similar process, of course). Taken together, one might argue that Siembieda becomes more of "himself" with each passing day; for better or worse, the greatest share of this "becoming" has occurred in his role as chief of Palladium Books.

Much the same with parents and their children, when we send our creations out into the world and share them with others, we cannot claim full and total ownership over them any more. If they are to properly grow and flourish, they require tending by other hands. Along these lines, Palladium Books is not Kevin Siembieda, and Kevin Siembieda is not Palladium Books. The company does not belong to just him; in fact, it ceased to be completely his when he published the first book bearing its imprint. Countless others – from authors and illustrators to customers past, present, and future – have a stake in Palladium, however large or small those might be. Without maintaining this perspective, Siembieda neither can nor will be able to guide Palladium Books to its fullest potential. As it is, that potential – with respect to releasing new books on schedule – remains bound to and ultimately hampered by his personal limitations: since he is basically one man working by himself, he cannot accomplish any more than one man is able (there is only so much that any of us can do). In the event this practice does not change, books will continue to be delayed, manuscripts will continue to be shelved, and profits will continue to decline until the day comes when Palladium is – at last – "of, by, and for" Kevin Siembieda alone.

[NOTE: I have said this before, but I want to say again for the sake of clarity that I do not hate Kevin Siembieda or Palladium Books. I do not think Kevin Siembieda is a fundamentally bad person or Palladium Books is an irredeemable failure, nor do I wish for either to come to a bad end. Hard as it may be to believe, the things I say and do around this topic are motivated out of concern for both.]

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Post No. 325 – Tuesday, June 28, 2011 5:07am CDT [Read on RPGnet Forum]

General speculation on this forum is just that. The way you're discussing it appears to be an attempt to elevate speculation to some higher plane of "rightness". – RainOfSteel (Post No. 305)

You made a similar comment up-thread to which I already replied, but I will again object to your broad dismissal of my statements as mere speculation. I would not have even considered writing the OP in the first place had I not been completely satisfied that my research was as diligent and thorough as it could possibly be. The content of what I wrote was, for the most part, suggested to me by the material I reviewed, not composed beforehand to filter the information it contained. I realize that marshalling a profusion of evidence does not necessarily make one "right", but I confidently stand behind my claims. We may have to agree to disagree about them, but they are hardly without basis.

You're making the mistake of thinking that whatever K.S. was talking about matches what you're talking about just because you want it to.

Seriously, it is not as though I was attempting to decode passages from James Joyce. Whenever I came across something that Siembieda wrote, such as, "Let's face it, Palladium Books is cursed. We're never going to get a book out on time. And when we do it's a miracle..!" [The Rifter 15 (Jul 01) p.7], or, "...Palladium has exhibited an exceptional inability to meet its deadlines." [January 9, 2009 weekly update], I did not really find that much room for interpretation.

Your opening post asserted certain conclusions about K.S. that only someone who was the personal confidant of K.S. could possibly know... it almost seemed to me that a Palladium insider had decided to come here to RPG.net and broadcast internal issues about Palladium. Then I discovered that you were just making up those conclusions...

Despite you calling them into question, I fail to see how my qualifications are relevant here. I do not need to be a "personal confidant" of Kevin Siembieda to indicate certain things he has done that I find objectionable and then try to determine the rationale or motive behind those actions. I do not need to be an "insider" to discuss what I feel are serious problems at Palladium Books and then devote my time and energy towards uncovering their cause. Forgive me for seeming impertinent, but, held up against such standards, are you yourself qualified to offer commentary in this thread?

As I mentioned in the OP, the idea for this whole undertaking occurred to me after having read "Every day, in every way, Palladium is getting better and better!" once too often. Certain others may have had a similar reaction, but I did not observe anyone else moving to respond at the time, and I doubted very much whether anybody would take the same approach I had formulated. So, in my mind, the question "If not me, then who?" was all the justification I felt the task required.

Palladium's inability to meet its production predictions in no way shows that they have not considered the matters under discussion here... Just because there is no indication that you can see, doesn't mean that Palladium did not consider any of these matters. You have no way of reaching this conclusion.

I am willing to concede that Siembieda et al might have these matters duly under consideration; however, from my "unprivileged" vantage point, I have not seen anything which outwardly demonstrates, signals, or suggests – in other words, indicates – that this may in fact be the case. One tries to make do with what is available, and that can be as good a way as any to reach a conclusion.

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For the "official" story, visit Palladium Books Online