3 Things That Other RPGs Could Learn From Rifts
It has been nearly fifteen years since I first started chucking dice (I was a late bloomer). In that time I've played hundreds of games with dozens of Game Masters in just about every imaginable setting. I've finally settled on what I consider my home systems; Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons, which sing to me such lovely notes. Still, I never forget my past and where I came from.
While many a gamer who has been doing this for more than 15 years has cut their teeth on things like AD&D and Call of Cthulhu, I was baptized in the fires of a needlessly complicated system where game balance was a laughable concept, and Mega Damage was king! I am of course speaking of Palladium's offering for the Post-Apocalyptic crowd; Rifts.
Some of you may have played this game long ago. Some may even still be playing it. And even if you've never heard of it, there is a damn good chance that, if you read comic books in the 90's, you've seen the ad for this particular game.
For those of you who have never had the privilege of indulging in the game, let me lift back the veil a bit. Rifts is set in a post-apocalyptic Earth. A nuclear war broke out and one of those happy little nukes hit a nexus point(currents of magical energy converging on a single point), the result of which was a butt-ton of interdenominational and interplanetary rifts opening up unleashing all manner of monsters and magical beings. The human race is nearly wiped out, giant robots walk across the landscape, and the world is filled with mutants, psychics, mages, steroid freaks, and cybernetically enhanced psychopaths.
It was a weird game.
"You know you're going to have fun when the class name is literally 'Crazy'"
Despite that, is was an incredibly detailed, highly entertaining setting with a lot going on. The only failing grace was that the system that it operated off, Palladium system, was an overcomplicated pain in the ass that made character creation more of a trail of patience and force of will than an actual set of mechanics. I won't go into details here (another article for another day), but suffice to say it did not resemble the streamlined systems we know and love today.
Still, I feel that Rifts still has something to offer games these days, as well as their Game Masters.
When it comes to settings, Rifts stand out, and not just for the mechanics. The setting is what makes Rifts so memorable. Blasted wastelands, the ruins of modern day Earth, inhuman creatures lurking about, robots, cyborgs, magic, psychics, and big guns. But it is more than just that. There is a rich history that is revealed through the writings of the NPC Erin Tarn. She tells of how humanity had reached a new golden age of technology and science. Diseases were all but eradicated. Then came the apocalyptic war that inadvertently opened the rifts the setting derives its name from.
After that is a lot of wanton slaughter, supernatural monsters, and mechs. The truly cool thing about the world of Rifts is the number of factions keeping folks safe from those nasty creatures that go bump in the night. The Coalition (which we will get to in a moment), The Federation of Magic (which sound like a bunch of good guys, but are super dicks), Tolkien (yes, there was a part of America named after the Lord of the Rings guy), the Cyber-Knights, the New German Republic, the friggin Knights of Camelot, and countless others.
The idea that humans were so outnumbered that they needed to form these factions is typical in a lot of post-apocalyptic settings, but in Rifts that air of hopeless that often permeates the whole game is gone. Instead, you not only have people who have survived but thrived. They've risen from the ashes, built a society.
It's sort of inspiring, in a horrifying kind of way.
2. The Coalition
The human race is on the brink of extinction. Monsters from other dimensions hunt and kill (the lucky ones) millions of people. It is looking grim, but in steps The Coalition. This highly military, technologically advanced faction beats back the darkness and builds themselves a city on the bones of old Chicago, which they now call Chi-Town.
Humanity is saved! People flock to Chi-Town where they are protected by The Coalition States. It is a utopia for the human race, a new golden age, and it is all thanks to... Nazis?
"You know what son? Let's be cyber nazis. What could go wrong?"
And while they don't outright come out and say nazis, they are so totally nazis. I mean, look at that. Right down to the black uniforms and friggin skulls! Also, the guy on the left? Minister of Propaganda. Need I say more?
You see, the way that The Coalition saved humanity was by uniting humanity against the monsters. After awhile, the monsters were anyone that wasn't human. Just to be clear, there are as many peaceful and harmless monsters, here called dimensional beings (or D-Bees for short), as there is the kind that wants to eat the goo inside your eyes. Still, The Coalition sees no distinction between the dangerous ones and the peaceful ones. Further undesirables include practitioners of magic and psychics, both of which are, in The Coalitions eyes, decidedly not human.
"You stand accused of being green. How do you plead?"
The thing is, even though you might not agree with the way they've done it, you as a human being can understand where they are coming from. Imagine if Earth was overrun by what we can assume to be aliens. They kill off at least half the population, set up empires, enslave people (and those are the lucky ones). Would you not have a mad-on for anything not-human? Fear and the drive to keep the human race alive drove these people to new heights of technology and forged a people that could beat back world-ending threats.
So, to recap; the human race, the race you as a human belong to, was saved by a group of human supremacists that based their entire empire off of Nazi Germany circa 1940. Feeling a little dirty? You should. In Rifts the distinction between what is right and what is evil is blurry as hell. I mean, the saviors of humanity are running around with these!
"The PR department is making a kinder, gentler Coalition... with Skelebots"
But that's the fun of Rifts! It can make you detest the bad guy and still kind of root for them. In games like D&D and Pathfinder we are often introduced to irredeemable villains or outright physical personifications of evil with few exceptions. To cast in this gray-scale of morality would play merry-hell with alignments and the very concept of divinity.
I have personally used the Coalition as a basis for a kingdom in one of my Pathfinder homebrews. A largely militaristic and religion-oriented society, the kingdom was very anti-magic, employing only government licensed war mages that were treated like second-class citizens. Practitioners of magic were executed and non-humans were oppressed with very few exceptions. The catch is that their anti-magic rhetoric has actually stopped several catastrophic magical events and event prevented a world-ending cataclysm.
Bad guys that do good things make for interesting bad guys, and make you question what "bad" really means. Always ask questions.
3. Splatbooks That Build A World Instead Of A Catalogue
So often major publishers fall into the trap of over saturating the market with a new product every month, be it a module, world book, race book, class book, setting book, or something in between. And while these all add a little something to the overall game, it also detracts a bit as well. D&D 3.5 had 44 different classes, Pathfinder currently has 36 (not including archetypes and class variants). Already you have a lot of customization, but isn't that a little much? It is nothing compared to Rifts.
Rifts, on the other hand, has 259 different classes. That doesn't include racial classes or other beings from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Heroes Unlimited, Ninjas and Superspies, or the original Palladium Role-Playing game (all of which are compatible and feasible in Rifts). Now that seems really excessive, except when you take into consideration how it is presented.
"With a butt-ton of books."
While other publishers will dedicate whole books to new classes and races, Rifts did it in a way that built upon the already existing world. New races and classes were introduced with different parts of the world, their cultures, and how those entities interacted with that corner of the globe. Every single class and race, no matter how outlandishly unbalanced it was, fit into that part of the world and could easily be exported to other parts of Rifts-Earth.
While it may be very setting-centric, it doesn't diminish that each character class and racial class was in itself a piece of world building. They were important to the setting. If you removed the fighter from D&D or Pathfinder, the barbarian, or a battle cleric, or any number of variants can step in, and it would have no effect on the setting it was in. If you remove the Triax Glitterboy (yes, glitterboy is actually a thing), then the supernatural creatures that run rampant over Europe would crush the New German Republic and rule over the continent with an iron tentacle, or whatever it is they have at the time. Each class is a little piece of the world. Remove it, and you remove a piece that makes the setting more interesting.
There we are. Three things that Rifts has done well, and other RPG's could take a page from their many many books. Just not from a mechanics standpoint. Or a balance standpoint. Or a market standpoint. Wow, thank the Gods the setting is so good.
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Roll well, my friends,
+Ed The Bard
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