Rifts

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.

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