Rifts: Ultimate Edition

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.

One Response to “Rifts: Ultimate Edition”

  1. Club says:

    I agree with you, with a good GM and players, rifts can be one of the best, most diverse settings out there.

    But all it takes is one loonie or munchkin player and the whole campaign gets thrown off kilter. Somebody chooses to play a class/race out of tune with the rest of the group, and the whole thing becomes a trainwreck of MDC. And theses players are the least likely to accept that the GM is going to tell them to build something else. The alternative is kicking them out of the group, and that always goes so well. And no, you can’t have a restricted coalition mini-missile rifle.

    I haven’t tuched rifts in a decade, but it was the system both some of my favorite and worst roleplaying memories happened in.

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