Archive for May, 2016

The Big Massive Guide to Rifts

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

Way back in the day, I used to run a game review website called The Time-Waster’s Guide. We covered games of every kind, from board games to card games to roleplaying games and everything in between, and we counted among our contributors such luminaries as a pre-publication Brandon Sanderson (who wrote under the pen name Evil Undead Overlord, or EUOL). With the current Kickstarter campaign for Savage Worlds Rifts, I’ve been thinking a lot about this old site, because I am a Rifts FANATIC. It’s not my favorite roleplaying system, but it is my favorite roleplaying setting, hands down, no questions asked. I love Rifts, and I want everyone to love it, so I’m reprinting (and slightly updating) some of my old articles about it. This article will serve as the central tentpole, with links to the others: it’s a big massive guide to everything Rifts, including what it is, what it includes, and how to break down the grand abundance of available books (82, at current count) into good entry points and playable subsets. If you’ve ever wanted to know what Rifts is, or if you’ve bought into the Savage Rifts Kickstarter and want to know what other resources are available, this is the article for you.

(Please note that I don’t always group things the same way Palladium does, so if something is called, say, a World Book, but is obviously a sourcebook, I’ll put it with the sourcebooks.)

Table of Contents
Core Books
Sourcebooks
Conversion Books
World Books
Dimension Books
Adventure Supplements
Getting Started

Core Books

Savage RiftsKickstarter
This is a new edition of the game that adapts the stories, ideas, and world info into the (way more accessible and playable) Savage Worlds ruleset; if they pull it off, it will be the best of both worlds. Definitely pick this up, and then even with a different ruleset you can pick up any of the original Rifts books and use their copious amounts of brilliant storytelling in your game, with a little adaptation and elbow grease of your own.

Rifts Roleplaying Game Ultimate Edition
My review of the first edition, and my review of the Ultimate edition, which is a huge improvement. If you’re going the Savage Rifts route you technically dont need this, or really any of the Core Books, but they’re beautiful and I recommend them highly.

Rifts Gamemaster Guide
A compilation of almost every skill, map, vehicle, robot, psychic power, and piece of equipment ever printed in a Rifts book. You don’t need it to play, but you’ll want it.

Rifts Book of Magic
Does for magic what the Gamemaster Guide does for everything else. Any campaign that includes magic (and a good Rifts campaign should) will make heavy use of this book.

Rifts Bionics Sourcebook
The third of the compilations: all of the bionics and cybernetics from previous Rifts books, reprinted in a single volume. There’s also a fantastic update of the cyberpunkish City Rat character class. Not as sweepingly useful as the others Core Books, but much cheaper.

Rifts Adventure Guide
The first half contains some of the best GM information I’ve ever read, with specific and useful tips on how to build NPCs, adventures, and campaigns. The second half is not quite as good, but very handy for someone new to the setting–they go into a lot of world detail for North America, and give a lot of adventure ideas.

Rifts Aftermath
Though intended as a capstone to the Coalition Wars series (which we’ll get to later), Aftermath has a much wider use. It updates all of the world info to incorporate the events that unfolded in prior books–in other words, it gives a comprehensive overview of the politics and conditions of the known world, all in one book. If you’re going to travel around and don’t want to buy a huge pile of world books, get this one. Also: there is virtually no rules-based info in here, just pure story and background, so Savage Rifts players can use it with zero conversion necessary.

Sourcebooks

Rifts Sourcebook One, Revised
When Rifts first came out, this was a great follow-up full of juicy little bits of unrelated rules and monsters and world info; today, it’s mostly obsolete. The only can’t-miss section of the book is ARCHIE, an important and compelling AI villain, and you can arguably get all the info you need on him (maybe, kind of) from Shemarrian Nation. Everything else you can mostly get from the Gamemaster Guide.

Shemarrian Nation
A hyper-detailed look at a major villain force in eastern North America. Fantastic if you’re playing in that part of the world, skippable otherwise.

Rifts Sourcebook 3: Mindwerks
A companion to the mainland Europe world book, this book details the evil organization known as Mindwerks and gives some good stats for cyber-psionic devices. Get it if you’re playing in Europe, otherwise you can do without it.

Rifts Sourcebook 4: Coalition Navy
The Coalition is the biggest faction in North America–a group of technologically superior human supremacists. This is their navy. If you plan to do a lot of ocean-based adventures this is fairly useful, but if not then forget it.

Rifts Mercenaries
I’ve never seen a use for this book–it doesn’t add to the storyline, give any significant world info, or present anything important enough to be referenced in other books. Spend your money on cooler stuff.

MercTown
An incredibly detailed description of a bustling frontier town that has a little bit of everything. A fantastic hub from which to base a campaign, in relatively easy reach of all the major movers and shakers in North America.

MercOps
The companion to MercTown: that book has all the setting info, and this one has the story info.

Rifts Vampires
A closer look at one of Rifts’ most popular villain group. If you want to play in a vampire campaign, Vampire Kingdoms and Arzno should both come first, and then maybe New West. After that, if you’re still looking for more, this book’s got your back.

Rifts Black Market
The Black Market in Rifts Earth is not just a way to buy things illegally, it’s an actual organization, which is weird but there you go. This book goes a long way toward fleshing it out, but it doesn’t really scream Buy Me Now.

D-Bees of North America
“D-Bee” is shorthand for “Dimensional Being,” and refers to pretty much anyone non-human. This book is kind of like a monster manual for player races. Flavorful and cool, but potentially unbalancing. If someone wanted to play a non-human, this is the first place I’d send them.

Conversion Books

Rifts Conversion Book One, Revised
Primarily useful only to Palladium superfans who want to bring characters and powers from other Palladium games (Palladium Fantasy, Robotech, Heroes Unlimited, etc.) into the world of Rifts. Most games would be better off without this book to complicate things for them, but the races are pretty handy and the variety is excellent for people who really want it. If all you need is player races I’d get D-Bees of North America first.

Rifts Dark Conversions
Demons, witches, monsters, Nightbane (another Palladium game), etc., etc. Just like the above, but focusing on monsters and bad guys. The Nightbane section presents an intriguing alternate setting for Rifts Earth, if you want to blow your players’ minds.

Pantheons of the Megaverse
A handful of good ideas and a truckful of wacky crap you’ll never use. Even if you want to use gods in your campaign, you can do better than this.

World Books

Vampire Kingdoms
A unique look at vampires, especially given that they live in northern Mexico. If you don’t want vampires in your game, leave this book on the shelf. It does have some excellent city descriptions, though, and it’s absolutely overflowing with cool vampire hunting ideas and options. A foundational touchstone to the game as a whole.

Atlantis
Still one of the best world books, Atlantis has info on the Splugorth and their many minions: interdimensional slavers out to take over the megaverse. Definitely a weird book (take a gander at the Metzla, for example), but it has a lot of great villains and evil henchmen, and the section on bio-wizardry is very cool. Probably worth buying for the magic tattoos alone.

England
A weak entry in the line. The druids and the mystic herbology is neat, but the actual world info is pretty lame–combine what you know about Rifts (alien intelligences control everything) with what you know about British legend (King Arthur is cool), and you’ve got the unimaginative premise of this book. I need say nothing further.

Africa
Almost universally considered the worst world book in the game. To be fair: what’s here is good, but most of the info is about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and almost none of it is about Africa itself. It’s criminal to reduce the entire continent to one book of unrelated stuff. Think of it as an adventure supplement and you’ll like it more.

Triax and the New German Republic
Practically a second main book, with all of the classes and equipment and world info to play a game based in mainland Europe. Very tech-heavy, but combined with Mindwerks it makes a great setting.

South America 1
A little on the wacky side, this book is a bit unfocused and suffers from too much power creep. Given the level of detail in other parts of the world, there’s not much reason to go here.

Underseas
One of my favorites, but considered by many to be one of the least useful. The sheer amount of info in here is staggering, and the concepts are very original and intriguing, but if you’re not going to play an ocean-based game then it’s almost completely useless. One of the only game settings I know of where you can play a Humpback Whale with magical whale songs.

Japan
This one always felt a little rushed, but it does manage to present a lot of great ideas. The character classes are incredibly cool, the cybernetics are neat, and the various nations provide a pretty good setting for adventure. This part of the world needs more information (the China books help), but it’s playable as it is and very cool.

South America 2
More power creep, but this time in the company of some interesting ideas. You could do worse, but you could still do a whole lot better.

Coalition War Campaign
A highly detailed new look at the Coalition, the number one villain/hero/nation in North America, who continue to be a very interesting villain as well as a fascinating player character option. Plenty of gadgets for the tech-head, and a good book overall if you’re playing in North America.

Psyscape
Focused enough that it’s almost an adventure book. Has some good ideas and some cool new psychic options, but not one I’d go out of my way to pick up.

Lone Star
Lone Star is the Coalition lab situated in what used to be Texas. The book is full of useful info on mutants, experiments, Coalition plans, and the massive non-Coalition area known as the Pecos Empire. Not bad.

New West
What do you know? The western U.S. in Rifts Earth is pretty much like the western U.S. in the mid-1860s, only with more monsters and cybernetics. A well-balanced book, all things considered.

Spirit West
The mystical (read: Native American) half of the New West. Not nearly as cool as it ought to be, and largely unnecessary. Probably offensive to many Native Americans as well, now that I think back on it. Oops.

The Federation of Magic
Details on the magic-intense part of North America known as the Magic Zone. Some cool new factions, some very cool new classes, and a lot of neat spells. If you already have the Rifts Book of Magic and you’re not using the North American setting, you don’t need this. The world info is pretty cool, though, and it’s one of my favorite covers in the series.

The Warlords of Russia
Another personal favorite. Russia is a feudal land ruled by clashing warlords and their bionic armies. The politics of the various warlords are pretty detailed and suggest a lot of great stories, though the area is of admittedly narrow use (if you don’t want to tangle with the warlords, there’s not much else to do).

Mystic Russia
The magical aspects of Russia. Not as good as its companion, but it’s nice to have both if you want to run a campaign in the region.

Australia
Australia is practically cut off from the rest of the world, which makes it hard to visit but gave the writers a chance to counteract some of the power creep in the rest of the series. It’s an interesting environment for a stand-alone campaign, but hard to work into a larger one.

Canada
You kind of get the impression that they made this book just because Canada didn’t have one yet. Aside from some forgettable rules about cold weather effects, and some very nice bionic classes, there’s nothing in here worth the trouble.

Splynn Dimensional Market
Splynn is the main city on Atlantis, and the marketplace is said to be the wildest in the megaverse. The book does a pretty good job of capturing the spirit and intrigue of a place where everything you could possibly imagine is bought and sold.

Xiticix Invasion
The Xiticix are yet another faction in the turbulent politics of North America, this time in the form of insectile alien invaders. A pretty good book, all things considered, though in truth it mostly functions as a limited Monster Manual for the western great lakes area.

China One
The Ten Hells of the Yama Kings have been rifted straight into China, and the warring factions of Chinese mythology have brought their battles and intrigues to Earth. Focusing solely on the bad guys, China One is not much use without the good guys in China Two.

China Two
With a fantastic selection of wise monks, powerful spirits, and mystic martial arts, China Two is truly the Rifts-ification of your favorite Kung Fu movies. For some excellent bonus Chinese mysticism see Mystic China, a Palladium non-Rifts book.

Dinosaur Swamp
The southeastern pocket of the former US has been destroyed and reclaimed by nature, including carnivorous plants and the titular dinosaurs. Mankind is just one more link in the food chain, and most people live in barbarian tribes or overgrown ruins. A cool place to visit, if you can think of a reason to do so.

Adventures in Dinosaur Swamp
Two whole books and its still not a super compelling setting. It’s a fun place to visit, but lacks any of the major nations or settlements that would make it viable as a long term hub for a major campaign.

Arzno
Another entry in the “American southwest vampires” region, this has become one of my favorite places to set a campaign, tied with MercTown. Super detailed and brimming with story and character.

Madhaven
Like the Dinosaur Swamp, the Manhattan region is fun to visit but will probably never work as a long-term setting. Even setting foot here drives people slowly and inevitably insane, so it’s kind of hard to use for more than a one-shot.

Triax 2
Alas, this is one of the few books I don’t own and can’t comment on. Sorry.

Lemuria
Alas, this is one of the few books I don’t own and can’t comment on. Sorry.

Northern Gun One
Alas, this is one of the few books I don’t own and can’t comment on. Sorry.

Northern Gun Two
Alas, this is one of the few books I don’t own and can’t comment on. Sorry.

Mutants in Orbit
This is only *kind of* a Rifts book, as it was originally intended as a supplement for a separate game line called After the Bomb, but it does include some conversion notes and represents the “canonical” depiction of near orbit around Rifts Earth. And it’s good stuff, it’s just purposefully difficult to cross paths with in any kind of standard Rifts campaign.

Dimension Books

Wormwood
A fascinating setting that is brilliantly–but only partially–conceived. A living planet with a dark medieval society and a parasite-based magic system. It’s so restrictive that you either have to play it as a standalone or change a lot of the background…most of the other Rifts books choose the latter whenever they reference it.

Skraypers
Kind of like a Rifts/aliens/outer space version of Heroes Unlimited, which means it’s redundant on multiple counts. Unlike Wormwood, no one ever references this one.

Phase World
Rifts in space. With sixexcellent companion books, Phase World is one of the better-supported settings in the Rifts line, probably second only to the eastern US. The same kind of stuff you get in normal Rifts (magic and technology interacting on a grand scale), but done as a space opera instead of a single planet.

Phase World Sourcebook
Some new aliens and equipment and stuff. Hardly necessary, even for a Phase World campaign, but pretty cool.

Anvil Galaxy
Some really good adventure hooks and world (er…I mean galaxy) info. Not quite as cool as the sourcebook, but slightly more useful.

Three Galaxies
A great source of adventure ideas and bad guys–probably the number two purchase for any Phase World campaign, right after the Phase World core book.

Megaverse Builder
A cool concept that doesn’t quite deliver: a system designed to create your own planets and dimensions. Still, it can be a valuable resource for the right campaign.

Naruni Wave 2
A catalog of weapons that are way too powerful, mixed with a bit of world info that, in the end, probably doesn’t justify buying the book.

Fleets of the Three Galaxies
Alas, this is one of the few books I don’t own and can’t comment on. Sorry.

Thundercloud Galaxy
Alas, this is one of the few books I don’t own and can’t comment on. Sorry.

Heroes of the Megaverse
This book is more of a fundraising boondoggle than anything else: an employee stole a bunch of money, the company was going under, and fans could pay money to save Palladium and get themselves put into a book. If you’re in here, you probably already have a copy, and if you’re not, this book will hold no interest for you.

Adventure Supplements
Heads up: I’m not really big on adventure supplements in general, so I’m probably rating a lot of these lower than they deserve.

Rifts Game Shield and Adventures
The game shield is handy if you like game shields, and the adventure info is pretty good.

Rifts Index and Adventures Volume 2
The adventure stuff is okay, but the index is woefully out of date. I’d skip it.

Rifts Adventure Sourcebook 1: Forbidden Knowledge
A bargain for some pretty impressive adventure hooks and info. The setting is the Chi-Town Burbs, which makes the decision easy: if you play in the burbs and need some cool ideas, here you go.

Rifts Adventure Sourcebook 2: Tolkeen Crisis
More expensive and not as good as the first one, but still fun. Skippable.

Rifts Adventure Sourcebook 3: The Black Vault
My least favorite of the four.

Rifts Adventure Sourcebook 4: The Vanguard
The Vanguard are one of my favorite organizations in the game. Great stuff.

Merc Adventure Sourcebook
Get MercTown and/or MercOps first. This one’s okay but unnecessary.

Mechanoids
Though officially classified as a sourcebook, this is an adventure supplement through and through. The Mechanoids make pretty cool bad guys, and the stats and tables are all easy to use. For such a small supplement, it has a pretty epic feel.

Juicer Uprising
Some new world info (it’s technically a world book, but we’re not fooled), and a heap of variants for the Juicer, one of Rifts’ signature classes. The brunt of the book is a series of adventures that take place in North America. Pretty good stuff, on the whole, and more specific than a lot of their adventure books.

Coalition Wars
The Coalition Wars series was basically a super-size adventure supplement, taking the characters through a giant war from start to finish and giving them enough info for a truly immense campaign. The war was waged between the Coalition, a group of high-tech human supremacists, and the city of Tolkeen, a magical metropolis that got a little too big for the Coalition’s liking. I’m not especially fond of this storyline, as I feel it’s too restrictive for the characters to really let loose and do epic deeds, but it has some very good ideas and could provide your group with enough information for years of adventures. The books are very similar to each other, mostly NPCs and adventure hooks, so I won’t go through each one.
* Free Quebec
Though technically a world book, this book is mostly designed as an intro to the Coalition Wars series. Much of what it established was altered by the war itself, so unless you plan to play through the war you’re probably fine just getting the updated info from Aftermath.
* Coalition Wars 1: Sedition
* Coalition Wars 2: CS Overkill
* Coalition Wars 3: The Sorcerer’s Revenge
* Coalition Wars 4: Cyber-Knights
* Coalition Wars 5: Shadows of Evil
* Coalition Wars 6: The Final Siege

The Minion War
These comprise another multi-book adventure supplement, chronicling a big pan-dimensional campaign in which the denizens of hell rise up and try to take over the megaverse. They only really function well if you’re a Palladium completionist, as they tie in almost all of the company’s other games into a single world-hopping storyline. I never really got into them, but that doesn’t make them bad.
* Hades: Pits of Hell
* Dyval: Hell Unleashed
* Dimensional Outbreak
* Megaverse in Flames

Getting Started

Wow! That’s a lot of books: 82, in fact, not counting the three new ones just announced for Savage Rifts. It can be incredibly daunting to try to figure out where to start, or how to condense all of that stuff down into a useable campaign, so I’ve made you a guide. Most of the books described above make an interesting setting to adventure in, but some of them work together to form larger, more cohesive settings ideal for big campaigns. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s enough to get you started. Consider all of these suggestions to be completely optional, and feel free to mix and match at will.

The Indispensables
Rifts Roleplaying Game: Ultimate Edition
Rifts Gamemaster Guide
Rifts Book of Magic
(optional: Aftermath, the Bionics Sourcebook, D-Bees of North America, the Rifts Adventure Guide)

I want to play a…

North American Campaign
Rifts Adventure Guide
Coalition War Campaign
Lone Star
Federation of Magic
Rifts Bionics Sourcebook
Rifts Adventure Sourcebook 1: Forbidden Knowledge
(optional: Mechanoids, Xiticix Invasion, D-Bees of North America, Dinosaur Swamp)

Coalition War Campaign
Coalition War Campaign
Free Quebec
Coalition War series
Federation of Magic
(optional: Xiticix Invasion, D-Bees of North America)

Western Campaign
Vampire Kingdoms
Arzno
New West
Lone Star
(optional: Spirit West, Vampire Sourcebook, D-Bees of North America)

European Campaign
Triax and the NGR
Mindwerks
Rifts Bionics Sourcebook
(optional: combine it with the Russian campaign for a larger view of Eurasia)

Atlantis Campaign
Atlantis
Splynn Dimensional Market
Rifts Conversion Book One Revised
Rifts Dark Conversions
(optional: Underseas, Phase World)

Seafaring Campaign
Underseas
Lemuria
Rifts Sourcebook 4: Coalition Navy
(optional: Atlantis, Japan, China Two, or really any book you think looks fun to visit)

Russian Campaign
Warlords of Russia
Mystic Russia
Rifts Bionics Sourcebook
(optional: Mindwerks)

Asian Campaign
Japan
China One
China Two
(optional: Underseas)

Traveling/’Bit of Everything’ Campaign
Atlantis
Vampire Kingdoms
Aftermath
Triax and the NGR
China Two
Underseas
(optional: any specific book that strikes your fancy)

Dimension Hopping Campaign
Phase World
Atlantis
Wormwood
Rifts Conversion Books
Megaverse Builder
(optional: just about any other Palladium book ever printed)

Phase World/Space Fantasy Campaign
Phase World
Phase World Sourcebook
Anvil Galaxy
Three Galaxies
(optional: Atlantis, Rifts Conversion Books, Megaverse Builder)

Rifts: Ultimate Edition

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

Inspired by the Savage Rifts kickstarter, I’m reposting some of my old RPG reviews from back when I ran a gaming website. Rifts is my favorite RPG setting, hands down, and this is a review I wrote of the Ultimate Edition of the core book, which came out about ten years ago. It was originally published in three parts, but I’ve combined them all here into a single post.

Also check out my Big Massive Guide to Rifts

Ultimate Rifts

Part 1

15 years ago Palladium Books published a roleplaying game called Rifts. They expected it to be big, but even they were surprised at just how big it really was. Rifts quickly became one of the hottest games on the market, and 15 years later it’s going strong and is even branching into other realms of media (an N-Gage game releases this fall, and Jerry Bruckheimer is developing a movie based on the property). One of Rifts’ greatest strengths is its sense of growth—it is one of the only RPG settings I know of that continually changes and evolves, with old kingdoms getting destroyed and new ones cropping up on a regular basis. Its other main strength, of course, is its incredible scope: from arcane magic to high technology and everything in between, Rifts is a setting that allows for virtually any hero, villain, or story you can imagine. It is also a very well-supported game, with frequent new releases totaling, at last count, over 60 books. The game and world of Rifts is too expansive for a single review, so I have split this one into three parts; I also recommend that you read our review of the original Rifts core book, which explains the world and background much more fully. (Editor’s Note: the movie and the N-Gage game both died on the vine, though I suppose hope springs eternal.)

The Ultimate Edition is designed to polish up the rules, update the world info to reflect that last 15 years of change, and add more detail to some of the wilder and more imaginative aspects of the game. On the whole it is an excellent update of a classic, though there are some sections that disappoint and certain editorial choices that are hard to fathom.

The most noticeable change is that the book is now hardback, with a new cover and not two but three color sections of interior art. The hardback is a joy to look at, flip through, and carry around—it’s almost sad how much nicer it looks and feels than the typical Palladium soft cover. The size of the book is a factor in this as well—it is significantly thicker than the previous Rifts core book, even if you don’t count the hard cover, and this lends it a very sturdy, weighty feel that I find quite satisfying.

The new cover art is odd—it’s much brighter and bluer than the classic “slaver with blind babes” cover of the old edition, and I really hated it at first. Over time, however, I’ve found it growing on me—it’s a good piece of art, and the subject (a rift with a demon and a wizard) is arguably more representative of the setting in general than the old slaver was. It lacks the dark, gritty feel of the old cover art, but it is still quite horrific in its way. Appropriately, the old cover art has been reprinted inside (minus the title and such), and it was great to see it again in all its glory; my old book is so used and worn that it was amazing to see the painting again in good condition.

The rest of the interior art is hit and miss, though there are far more hits than misses. Many of the color pieces in the original have been removed (particularly the ones, such as the druid, that had little or nothing to do with Rifts). Many of the staples are here, such as the planet, the two-page spread with adventurers looking at a ley line, and of course the Ley Line Walker and the Red Borg. On top of this there are 50 or 60 new pieces of color art, some new, some taken from old covers, and most taken from card art made for the ill-fated Rifts CCG. These are organized into three sections: the world, the characters, and the villains/major NPCs. This art has the advantage of leaning on 15 years of prior work—the world has been fully established, and each picture seems like part of a cohesive whole. They work together to tell a story about what Rifts Earth is like, who lives there, how they live, and what they do. The art is of varying quality, ranging from excellent to amateur, but that is true of all Palladium art. Still, even with a weak image here and there the color sections are great overall—except for the massive N-Gage ad that takes up two pages. It feels like a magazine ad, which is, I’m sure, what they were going for, but it’s jarring and even angering to be drawn into the world of Rifts and then so abruptly wrenched back out.

The final color pictures are a pair of two-page spreads taking up the inside covers, both front and back; both are by John Zeleznik, and his painting of Chi-Town is destined to be a classic.

One particularly odd art choice is the inclusion of new style Coalition armor and vehicles, yet without any of the new stats. Some background here: the main villain of Rifts North America (which is where the vast majority of its books are set) is a high-tech kingdom called the Coalition States. In the original book their look and armor were developed by the artist Kevin Long, and then when it was updated in a subsequent World Book, The Coalition War Machine, the new look was established by the artist Vince Martin (at least I’m pretty sure it was Vince Martin). Long and Martin are two of the best artists Rifts has ever had, so both styles are very cool, and it makes sense for both styles to be represented here. What does not makes sense, however, is to show us both styles but only give us stats for one. The Coalition section makes a big deal out of the comparison, showing “old” and “new” version of some common body and power armor suits, yet the stats section in the back specifically points out that they are stats for the old style without providing any stats for the new. This is an unfortunate omission, and gives readers the impression that they are missing out on something very important.

When you’re done flipping through the art and decide to start reading, you’ll notice that the book has been reorganized according to the modern RPG philosophy of “setting first, rules last.” Palladium jumped on this trend back with Beyond the Supernatural 2 and Splicers, and it’s nice to see them following it with Rifts—it helps establish the setting so much more strongly when you can open a book and get right into the setting and story. In the case of Rifts, this means we get immediately introduced to Erin Tarn—a traveling historian and NPC who has been used since the earliest Rifts books to reveal world info “in character” via book excerpts and journal entries. I kind of like Erin Tarn, and it’s good to see her back in action, but I have to admit that I was hoping they would sweep a few of her sillier aspects under the rug. For example, it was revealed in the Germany World Book that Erin Tarn is an A-list celebrity over there, that her books are best-sellers, and that a sexy young CG model of her is the star of a popular TV show. This bends my suspension of disbelief a bit past the breaking point, especially considering that the New German Republic holds tightly to official government policies that are in direct conflict with many of Erin Tarn’s most basic beliefs and most common writing topics. I’ve always considered that little detail to be an embarrassing lapse of judgment on the part of the writers, yet here it is, discussed anew, and so I suppose we have to deal with it.

After Tarn introduces us to the world and to herself, she goes into detail on each region of the world, and into much greater detail on each part of North America. This is essentially an update to the similar section in the original book, reflecting the new info released in the 60 or so books that have since come out; in that sense it is also an abridgement of the setting book Rifts: Aftermath, and is surprisingly complete considering just how short it really is. We get all kinds of wonderful info in this section, and it presents the world in intriguing detail—you will still want the World Books for any region you intend to spend a lot of time in, but this overview gives you enough info to get by (and, more importantly, to whet your appetite).

Part Two

The OCC section (O.C.C. = Occupational Character Class) is the real meat of the book—there are no generic archetypes here, just a ton of complex and interesting character options. Some of the updates in this section are more complex than others, but all are excellent. The only true flaws in this section come from what has been left out rather than what has been put in.

For starters, the old Borg OCC has been split and recombined with the Headhunter OCC. The Borg used to get a choice between Full or Partial Bionic Conversion, and the Headhunter was a sort of semi-Partial Conversion that lacked a lot of oomph. The new system splits them into two clearly-defined classes that each fill a different niche: Combat Cyborgs are Full Conversion borgs, and Headhunters are Partial Conversion borgs. The “generic tech soldier” territory that the Headhunter used to fill is taken up by the new Merc Soldier OCC, which gets a variety of skill packages to choose from that help make the class unique. The Merc feels a little unnecessary in some ways, since any class could potentially work as a mercenary, but that’s a problem with the name more than anything else; like I said, it fits the “generic tech soldier” type perfectly, and in doing so fills an important hole.

The Glitter Boy doesn’t get any new rules or stats, but it does get a ton of new background info. Apparently Glitter Boy pilots (Glitter Boys are super-powerful suits of power armor, so named for their laser-reflective surface) are ancient heroes and knights errant, which is new but not surprising—Glitter Boys have always seemed to fit that niche and have that history, but it’s never been explicit. Now it is. This addition of history makes the class endlessly more appealing—no longer are you simply choosing a suit of armor, you’re choosing a legacy that will shape your character in meaningful ways.

Cyber-Knights, another of the combat classes, get a major upgrade as well, but I’ll talk about them in a minute.

The “scholar” classes are all more or less the same as before, with the addition of some class-specific abilities that help make them into more than just skill lists. Each gets its own version of the “Find Contraband” skill (the Cyber Doc, for example, is really good at finding bionics and cybernetics) and a few other powers (Rogue Scholars get bonus to recognize authentic artifacts and restore them. Even the Vagabond, renowned as the world’s weakest character class in the world’s most dangerous RPG setting, gets a bit of a buff—they can “eyeball a fella” to try to size up their motive, attitude, and background. They are still a weak class, in terms of combat and skill balance, but now a little more interesting and viable as a roleplaying choice.

The scholar classes also include the first major hole in the book: the City Rat. This has always been a fascinating class, with a lot of cool cyberpunk flavor, but it has also been an undeveloped one—until the Rifts Bionic Sourcebook updated them with five or six subtypes and a lot of extra details and information. Sadly, not only did none of that excellent material get reprinted here, the class itself wasn’t updated at all—not even any new abilities like the other scholar classes got. It may be that they’re counting the Bionics Sourcebook as the City Rat’s update, which I can sort of understand—if you’re playing a cybernetic character you should have the Bionic Sourcebook anyway. Still, it’s sad to see such a cool class get the cold shoulder.

The psychic classes are more or less unchanged, though the Dog Boys get a great deal more description than before. Dog Boys are one of Rifts’ coolest classes—mutant dogs designed as psychic trackers and expendable soldiers, created and used in great numbers by the Coalition. They are led by Psi-Stalkers, another very cool class of mutant humans who eat psychic energy rather than food. That the Coalition, champions of human supremacy and purity, not only use such soldiers but rely on them heavily is a fascinating point, and the background presented by the book explores this relationship in more detail than before. If the Coalition ever changes its policies, it will be because of the Dog Boys.

Of more interest is the Dragon Hatchling class, which has been significantly changed. The opportunity to play a dragon, with inherent magic and psychic ability, skin like a tank, and nearly limitless shapeshifting power, has always been a hallmark of Rifts—it’s like a signpost in the core book that says there are very few, if any, limits in this game. It’s also a sign of the game’s inherent imbalance, though I kind of like that; things aren’t balanced in real life, and as long as the players are working together and the GM knows what he’s doing, having one character stronger or tougher than the others is not a terrible thing. What they’ve done to the dragon in Ultimate Rifts is throw out the old subtypes, borrowed from Palladium Fantasy, and add in six new Dragon subtypes that are unique to Rifts. Each has its own specialty (breathing fire, controlling minds, etc.), and most of them are pretty much the same old subtypes with a new name. This is not bad—the old dragons were good, and didn’t need to be changed, so just changing the name for the sake of flavor is an acceptable change. I know a lot of people on the Palladium message boards were upset about this, but I think it’s fine.

The magic classes have more changes than anyone else, with two new classes and two old classes that got major (major-major) updates. The other two classes remain pretty much the same: the Ley Line Walker is still the primary wizard-type spell caster, and the Mystic is still the basic combination of magic and psionics. Both classes are solid and needed nothing new, so author Siembieda wisely chose to leave them alone. The two new classes are another story, in that both feel unnecessary and tacked on.

One new class is a version of another: the Ley Line Rifter is a new kind of Ley Line Walker who has most of the same powers, but a slightly different spell list and one replaced ability. Instead of a Ley Line Force Field, the Rifter gets the ability to piggyback on virtually any form of magic travel that happens in his vicinity. Whether this tiny difference justifies a whole new class is a very good question, to which I answer no. Still, combined with the dimension-focused spell list it makes the Rifter, at the very least, into an interesting option that fits into the setting pretty well.

The other new class, the Elemental Fusionist, is a disaster. It was designed as part of the N-Gage game, and included here solely to advertise the video game. The world of Rifts is big enough for anything, and the Fusionist could certainly find a place, but that place is not in the core book and not in this dull, incomplete incarnation. To think that we could have filled these fives pages with some of the really juicy classes from other supplements—variants of the Cyber-Knight, Headhunter, or City Rat; common classes like the Mind Bleeder or Simvan Monster Rider; established elementalists like the Warlock—it makes me sad to see this half-formed publicity stunt tainting my book.

I wouldn’t mind so much if it were a more interesting class, but it isn’t. Their basic concept is that they combine two elements in cool new ways (hence “Fusionist”), but in practice this concept is undeveloped and kind of silly—there are only two types, rather than the six one would expect given the existence of four elements, and neither can really do anything that a properly trained Warlock can’t already do. The big gimmick of the fire/water Fusionist is that they can cover themselves in flame, which is redundant with the Burster, a pyrokinetic psychic with the same big gimmick, and a longstanding icon from the original core book. The earth/air Fusionist is similarly dull in that all he can really do is throw rocks around. Fusionists do have one thing going for them, however, their backstory presents them as a kind of quasi-elemental being, not learning about nature, but truly becoming part of it. This is reflected in the fact that buildings and civilization really screw up their powers, which is a neat and flavorful aspect to the class. Unfortunately, their “can’t use magic in cities” drawback is literally the only cool thing about them. The concept of using two elements together is fascinating—how would water interact with earth? With air?—but the class as it stands doesn’t look at of these other combos, and fails to properly explore even the two combos that it does look at. I would not begrudge this class’s appearance in another supplement (though I would prefer that it be more fully developed), but I wish they had not been included in the “Ultimate” edition of the core game book.

But enough about the bad classes—let’s talk about the good ones. Ultimate Rifts is worth the price simply for what it does with three classes: the Cyber-Knight, the Shifter, and the Techno-Wizard. These are the three iconic classes that best represent the world of Rifts—they combine magic and technology, or make dangerous use of the rifts themselves. They are the most unique classes in the book because they are classes that could not exist in any other setting; perhaps because of this, they were not very complete in the original book because they were not very well understood, even by the author. We have since had 15 years to live with these classes and get to know them, and their new presentation reflects that knowledge with a huge wave of extra explanation, deeper exploration of their possibilities, and a much-needed power boost for the Cyber-Knight, which has historically been much weaker than its background and lore would suggest.

The Cyber-Knights were expanded on greatly in the sourcebook Coalition Wars 4: Cyber-Knights, and fans have been hoping and praying that some of that info would be included in Ultimate Rifts; though not all of it is here, there is enough to make Cyber-Knights into the cool psychic cyborg superheroes they are supposed to be. We learn more about their training and background, and we get a ton of new rules for their cyber-armor and Zen Combat—a sort of psychic martial art exclusive to Cyber-Knights. Zen Combat gives them a lot of abilities that fill gaps in the character, and since these abilities are strung out along a level progression system they are not overpowered. The major power upgrade comes in the realm of psionics—Cyber-Knights were formerly limited to minor psychics, but they can now be major or even master psychics. All in all the Cyber-Knight upgrades were substantial, flavorful, and perfect for the class and the setting.

Shifters are a tricky class—they are magic users who specialize not in spells but in the creation and control of rifts, and the summoning and control of demons and monsters. Shifters can travel through the megaverse more easily than any other class, with an impressive array of rift-based abilities, but their greatest strength in a game setting is their ability to summon supernatural beings—controlling the smaller ones and allying themselves to the larger ones in exchange for power. These are very cool abilities, and Rifts handles them quite differently than a lot of games by making summoning into something dangerous and flavorful. In D&D, for example, people toss around summon spells like they were shooting arrows; it’s almost as if the creatures you summon are sitting in some kind of extra-dimensional ammo clip waiting to be hurled into combat. In Rifts, summoning a demon takes time and involves a huge battle of wills to see if the summoned creature is willing to go along with your plans. The being will hang around longer, act more autonomously, and come back to hurt you if you use it carelessly.

Even more intriguing is the prospect of allying yourself with a powerful supernatural entity, perhaps a god or Cthulhu-like intelligence. This is an optional thing for Shifters, and one they will have to think about very carefully—it brings great power, but at the expense of becoming the servant of a being with schemes and plans you know very little about. Like the smaller summoning ability, this is great because it blends character stats inextricably with story, and keeps things nice and balanced in a way that gives the GM plenty of control.

The supernatural link aspect of the Shifter was expanded quite a bit in the Dark Conversions sourcebook, and that material has been reprinted and expanded even further in Ultimate Rifts. The original core book talked about the supernatural link but didn’t give anything really concrete to back it up; Dark Conversions added a lot more, giving a specific type of link and what benefits it would have. Ultimate Rifts has five very specific links instead of one generic one, and the class is much better and more interesting because of it.

The final class is possibly the single most Rifts-ish class in the entire game—a class that couldn’t exist anywhere else, being intricately tied not only to the story of Rifts Earth but the mechanics of the world itself. I am speaking, of course, of the Techno-Wizard: a magic user who casts spells through machines and constructs. It’s kind of steampunky, with the obvious absence of steam; perhaps magepunk is a better term. Or perhaps the best way to explain them is to give an example: when a Ley Line Walker wants to cast a fireball spell, he does a little chant, waves his fingers, summons his magic energy, and casts a fireball spell. When a Techno-Wizard does it, he pulls out the gun he made last week—a laser gun with the energy source ripped out and replaced by a network of rubies and circuits—channels magic energy into the weapon, and shoots a fireball out of the barrel. They can make swords that turn into bolts of harnessed lightning, shotguns that fire slugs of telekinetic force, and anything else you can imagine. They are the original artificer class—the one who makes and relies on magic gadgets—and they are the ultimate expression of the magic/technology fusion that defines the world of Rifts.

The problem with Techno-Wizards is that they exist to make new items, yet there has never been a good system in place to explain how these new items are made. The most a PC could hope for was to go through the books, pick something that looked cool, and then “build” it by asking the GM’s permission and spending slightly less than the sale price. In all my games I’ve had several people use Techno-Wizard items (any magic user or psychic can operate them), but no one has ever played a Techno-Wizard. That is likely to change now, with the addition of some very complete construction rules that will allow Techno-Wizards to build virtually anything they want, with any combination of spells and effects. The costs are still a little prohibitive, so you won’t be running around like MacGuyver building a new thing for every situation you encounter, but you’ll be able to design and build new weapons and devices that no one has ever seen or imagined, which should be incentive enough. It’s also possible to upgrade parts of an existing machine—binding an elemental to the engine of the group’s ATV, so it has a perpetual power source, or adding a magic net launcher to a mounted rifle. Techno-Wizard items have always been the source of some of Rifts’ best ideas (I especially love the Bottled Demon missiles and Death Cloud cannon in Phase World), and the reins of that power have now been handed to players. It’s a wonderful addition that should put the Techno-Wizard back in its place as powerful, iconic class in the world of Rifts.

This section is followed by another description of the Coalition, in much more detail this time (along with a snarling picture of Erin Tarn that makes her look like a hunchbacked troll). This section includes a large assortment of Coalition classes for use as NPCs, AWOL characters, or even normal characters in a Coalition campaign. This section was in the original core book, but here they have added a large description of how to use Coalition characters, and how to separate the official policies of a nation from the actual attitudes of its members. Just because the Coalition is evil doesn’t mean that every soldier in its army is a sadist, a murderer, or even a racist. Most of them are victims of propaganda, and they might change their opinions quite a bit once they get out in the real world.

Overall, Ultimate Rifts expands an already impressive array of very imaginative and unique characters. If it does nothing else, is can be considered a smashing success on this point alone.

Part 3

The psychic power and magic spell sections in Ultimate Rifts are, as in the original book, admirably large, but I’m not going to go through and look for additions. The equipment section hasn’t changed much either, with the notable addition of Skelebots—a Coalition creation from Sourcebook 1 that has become an indispensable staple. I would have liked to see more in these sections, given that we have 60+ books of new info that could have been included, but an exhaustive list here would have been unnecessary—this material is enough to get you by well enough. Once you get serious about the game, I highly recommend that you invest in the GM Guide and the Book of Magic, which are crammed full of all the spells and equipment you’ll ever need. (Editor’s note: in the time since I wrote this, the line has expanded well past 60 books, reaching 82 currently published with several more announced.)

The game rules have been changed more than you might expect. There have been some very good additions, such as Perception roles and the “cinematic combat” rules from recent games like Beyond the Supernatural 2; they have also added the concept of low attribute penalties. Attributes in Palladium games have always been very weird—everything below 16 doesn’t matter for anything other than roleplaying, and 1 is functionally the same as 15 as far as the rules are concerned. Now there are not only penalties for very low attributes, but bonuses to other attributes to help compensate. These changes still aren’t likely to be incredibly prevalent, as it is rare for an attribute to be 7 or lower, but it’s nice to have so much detail and information about the full range of attributes.

There are a few rules changes where I’m not sure what to think. For example, armor will now absorb all damage from a single attack, no matter how tattered it may have been. If you’re wearing MDC armor with only 1 point left, and take a volley of missiles right in the chest, it will absorb all of the damage before disintegrating. I dislike this because it’s hideously unrealistic, but at the same time I like it for its improved survivability and cinematic effect. This gives characters one last chance to get away from a losing battle—and they’d better get away, because they’re now unprotected in a raging battlefield. I would have preferred some rules for pass-through or impact damage (i.e., taking a bit of damage when getting your suit knocked around), but this keeps things simple and fun.

The skill section is greatly expanded, by more than I expected, and there’s even an added list of penalties for high-stress situations. There are more skills, more uses for skills, and more synergy between skills; all in all it’s a great improvement. The Robot Combat Elite skill has been expanded, too, and should be much easier to understand.

(Editor’s Note: The Savage Rifts kickstarter is working very hard to make this section of my review obsolete, combining Rifts’ amazing story and world with Savage Worlds’ far more playable rules. If you’ve been avoiding Rifts because you don’t like the rule system, you can now jump in with Savage Rifts and use the older books as a massive source of brilliantly wonderful setting and story info.)

At the end of the book we get a section designed to help ease people into the world of Rifts. Palladium recognizes that the game can be overwhelming for beginners (and sometimes even for veterans), and offers some advice to help get you started. Most of this advice takes the form of a “user’s guide,” similar to our own, which purports to go through each book and explain what’s in it and how it can best be used. I am sad to say that this section is incomplete and pretty lame. For starters, the book descriptions are invariably positive—which makes sense, because they’re their books, and they want to sell them, but it is not always true. The exception to this is Rifts England, where I was astonished to see him say that the art was “bland.” Now that’s a point I will grant, because England had some occasionally awful art (including a picture of the Nexus Knights that has always bothered me immensely), but it is not the worst artistic offender in the Rifts line by any means; this comment is also rather maddening compared to the upbeat praise for some of the books that really are bad, like Rifts Africa. I don’t expect them to be very harsh in what is essentially a catalog for their own books—I’m not expecting an unbiased review—but it seems weird to even start down the path of criticism if you’re not prepared to go all the way.

A much bigger problem with this section is that, as I said, it’s incomplete. It’s split into thematic sections, and the “Books containing magic” and “Dimension books” are the only ones to get any description at all. The other sections, including topics like “North America,” “Exotic settings,” and “D-Bees and Monsters” are just lists of titles, with no further info, and the “Coalition States” list has one book with a description surrounded by six books without one. It gives the impression of a project they started but never finished, and it leaves the whole section neutered and useless. If they were going to include that section at all they should have taken the time to organize it better and do it right. Again I point you to our version; it’s a little more objective than they would like, I’m sure, but at least it gives a useful appraisal of what’s in each book and how to use them together.

Minor complaints aside, Ultimate Rifts is a great book and a much-needed update. I was expecting it to be vastly different from the old one, but they’ve taken a simpler approach that, now that I see what they’re going for, is probably much better—it’s not a ton of new rules and info, it’s the same old game made more playable and more consistent. Most of the updates are flavor-based, which is a great focus, and most of the rules updates are for classes that really needed the help. The result is a great book that managed to improve on most of its strengths, and should help get a lot of new players into the game—and a lot of former players back into it.

Rifts

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

Inspired by the Savage Rifts kickstarter, I’ve decided to dust off some of my old RPG reviews from back when I ran a gaming website. Rifts is my favorite RPG setting ever, and this is a review of it I wrote about thirteen years ago.

Also check out my Big Massive Guide to Rifts

Rifts

Most roleplayers have heard of Rifts before, though what they’ve heard about it is different in almost every case. Some say that it’s full of imagination, while others say it’s wild and unfocused. Some say that it’s gritty horror, while others say it’s a swashbuckling adventure. Some say it’s the coolest game ever made, while others say it’s a powergaming munchkinfest. At some level or other, they’re all right.

Rifts was first published over 13 years ago by Palladium Books, an RPG publisher that had already seen a lot of success with their previous games: homegrown stuff like Palladium Fantasy and Beyond the Supernatural, and licensed titles like Robotech and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They used the same rule system for every game, and one of their big selling points was that you could combine the different games together. In many ways, Rifts is a direct result of this attitude: what possible explanation could there be for combining magic, elves, demons, superheroes, dinosaurs, ninjas, mutant animals, giant robots, psychic powers, bionic warriors, and alien invaders into a single game? Rifts gave people an opportunity to do just that, and did it without falling into a generic and flavorless rut. Rifts has more possibilities, and more background information, than almost any other game you’ll ever play.

The premise is simple: Earth used to be a very magical place, but the ley lines (circuits of magic energy) grew weak and thin, and magic all but disappeared. Technology grew and civilization advanced, until one day a small nuclear exchange in South America started a chain reaction. You see, each living thing contains a certain amount of magical energy, which is released—and doubled, which is key—at the point of death. When the bombs went off, localized though they may have been, an enormous amount of people all died at once and thus released an unprecedented surge of magical energy. The ley lines were re-ignited, magic rushed back in, and the face and fabric of the planet were changed forever. When the apocalypse finally subsided mankind was all but wiped out, and Earth had become a dimensional nexus linking innumerable worlds and realities—the most powerful such nexus in millennia, and therefore the most valuable resource in the “megaverse.” Demons and aliens and entities from all over the megaverse staked their claims on the new Earth, and the battle for ultimate control began in earnest. The story starts a few hundred years later, as man is struggling to win back a homeworld bursting with both magic and technology.

(A portal between dimensions, by the way, is called a rift. Hence the name of the game.)

Though the backstory is epic and immense, your adventures on Rifts Earth can take place at almost any level. You can play homeless wanderers in the Chi-Town Burbs, a vast shanty town plagued by violent gangs, supernatural predators, and oppressive military peacekeepers. You can play inside of Chi-Town itself, or any number of similarly high-tech human cities, full of cyberpunk hacking and espionage. You can venture into the wilds of North America and spend your time saving villages, searching for relics, fighting in massive wars, or delving into political intrigue—the typical D&D stuff, really, except that your elven wizard might be teamed up with a cyborg, an alien, and a psychic mutant dog.

And that’s just North America. There are sourcebooks with supplementary material, conversion books that help you bring in elements from other palladium games, guidebooks that help you create and run adventures, and a plethora of World Books detailing other areas of Rifts Earth—82 books in total. You can go to Europe and fight with the New German Republic in its war against a massive army of gargoyles, or you can go to the risen continent of Atlantis where alien intelligences rule a society of monsters, and literally everything (including sentient life) is for sale. Russia is a constant battle of bionic warmachines and political intrigue, while Mexico is under the diabolical fist of the vampire kingdoms. Australia is a wasteland dotted with enclosed and exclusionary paradises, and the oceans are home to a number of seaborne civilizations both human and monstrous.

And that’s just Earth. There are Dimension Books that explore other areas of the megaverse, from the gothic horror of Wormwood to the vast space opera of Phase World and the Three Galaxies (a remarkable setting in its own right that can be played without ever visiting Rifts Earth). Beyond that, there’s a handful of adventure books and even a six-part series detailing the characters and processes of a major North American war.

As you might be able to guess from these descriptions, Rifts’ biggest downfall is its sheer size and variety—there’s simply too much for a lot of people to deal with. When each player grabs their favorite race or class from one of the more than eighty available books, it can be hellish for a GM to try to fit them all together into a cohesive group with a comprehensible motivation and story. Rifts’ background is expansive and its storyline is very rich, but trying to use too much of it at once causes an overload that has killed more than one of my campaigns. It’s usually best to sit your players down beforehand and discuss what and where you intend to play: are you going to travel all over the planet or stay in one place? Do you want to fight cybernetic outlaws in the New West or mystical oni in New Japan? Are any of the player races allowed (and there’s tons of them), or should you restrict it? Rifts will literally allow you to play just about anything in any setting, but on the down side an unwary GM can very easily find himself with more than he bargained for.

Regarding the system itself, well, it’s Palladium—most people already know it, and they either hate it or tolerate it (I know very few people who love it). It’s a stat-oriented RPG system that allows for a lot of mixing and matching during character creation, but virtually no big changes during character advancement—no multiclassing and no new abilities, though your starting abilities continue to get stronger. Combat is more detailed than that of d20, which makes it a little deeper and a lot slower, but there’s a lot of ambiguity in certain areas that can call for (or allow, depending on your outlook) a certain amount of house rules. I’ve often heard Rifts described as “The best game to steal ideas from,” and ideas are definitely it’s strongest suit. (Editor’s note for 2016: The Savage Rifts Kickstarter is designed to target this exact problem, by transporting the phenomenal story and setting into the far more playable ruleset of Savage Worlds. Everything I’ve read for it looks amazing.)

The sheer quantity of books in the line can be daunting, so also check out my Big Massive Guide To Rifts: what you absolutely need and what you might want to steer away from.