Savage Rifts: A Review

IMG_0783As you may have noticed, I’m kind of a Rifts fanatic. It’s my favorite RPG setting of all time, and I’ve written about it extensively, especially back in the day when I ran a game review website. I’m also a big fan of Savage Worlds, so I was delighted at the prospect of a merge between the two, and I backed the Savage Rifts kickstarter on day one. Possibly hour one. My books arrived in the mail last week, and I’ve read them twice through now (fanatic, remember?), and I have Opinions.

Short version:
Savage Rifts is a fantastic game and you should all buy it. It’s flaws are all little nit-picky things that a non-fanatic is unlikely to notice.

Long version:
Time to pick some nits.

This review is based on the three books that I own: The Tomorrow Legion Player’s Guide, The Gamemaster’s Guide, and Savage Foes of North America. I’ve also read a handful of the pdfs, but in general terms I dislike gaming from pdfs and have ignored them.

IMG_0784Let’s start with the combination of Savage Worlds and Rifts, which is easy to talk about because it feels smooth and perfect. Rifts is a massive game, with an enormous backstory and a ton of character options and more ideas on a single page than most games have in an entire book. It’s always been married to the Palladium ruleset, which is old and clunky and widely disliked; it works well enough, but it’s oppressively detailed in some areas and maddeningly vague in others, and gets in the way of the storytelling as often as it facilitates it. Savage Worlds, in contrast, is a settingless ruleset designed to be fast and cinematic. Take a look at the character sheets and you’ll see the difference: Palladium looks like an actuarial report in comparison. The single greatest triumph of Savage Rifts is that they’ve stripped out all the bloat, streamlined the presentation, and still managed to create a game that FEELS like Rifts. The Ley Line Walker, for example–the game’s main “wizard” class–has half the abilities and barely a fraction of the spells he had before, yet still manages to hit all the same notes. The flavor and the possibilities are all still there. Twelve of the original base game’s twenty-something classes have been translated into Savage Rifts, and they’re all fantastic. Two of them in particular–the Cyber-Knight and the Techno-Wizard–are the best incarnations of those two classes we’ve ever had. The game is slick, playable, and still deeply, intensely “Rifts.” They’ve done an incredible job.

And yet, reading through the books, you get a weird kind of mixed message about it. It’s attributed to a single writer, but it feels like it was co-written by two: one who loves Rifts and knows it intimately, and one who feels embarrased to be there. The gameplay sections all have a distinct undertone of apology. “This classic setting has cool ideas and a ton of incredible stories to tell, but of course I don’t LIKE it. I’m cool, like you.” Look, I get it: Rifts has a complicated history and a lot of people think it’s silly, but I would expect at least the writer to take it seriously. I don’t need to be reminded on every other page that the game is inherently ridiculous–or, to use their favorite word, “gonzo.” One of the things that made the original work so well was that the creator, Kevin Siembieda, always played it straight. Sure, there was some goofy stuff in it, and the power level was hard to control, but it also had high drama and powerful stories and ample opportunities for great roleplaying. A good group can find opportunities in Rifts that you can’t find anywhere else. And you can still find them in Savage Rifts, you just have to ignore the rulebook occasionally snickering at you for playing such a childish game.

IMG_0786And I have other problems, too. One of the iconic classes from the original game, the Shifter, has been left out of the Savage core rules. The Shifter is a magic-user who specializes in the Rifts themselves–a Rift, by the way, is a tear in reality through which words and people and horrifying supernatural monster can pass from world to world. The Shifter used this focus to travel between planes, and to talk to other creatures and beings, sometimes claiming the small ones as servants and sometimes becoming servants to the big ones. It’s a class that exemplified what Rifts was about, and which could not exist in any other setting, and I would suggest that the setting can’t/shouldn’t exist without it. But it was left out: the only core class, I should add, that didn’t make the cut. One can speculate as to why, and the prevailing theory online is that they considered the Shifter an “evil” class, or at the very least not “good” enough to be a hero, and I think there’s something to this theory, but I have another one. They released a pdf supplement about how to translate your favorite Palladium Rifts stuff into Savage Rifts, and used the Shifter as an example. They walk through what they’re doing, and how and why, and seeing their thought process really underlines the idea that they simply don’t understand the class. Gone is the focus on dimensional travel, and gone is the detailed take on supernatural negotiation. The original Shifter really delved into the idea of what it would be like to have a being from another dimension working for you–or a giving you power in exchange for your service–and yet the Savage Rifts version is pretty much just a standard summoner, identical to any old summoner in any old fantasy game. They have a special rule that lets them keep their summoned creature longer than normal, effectively making it a pet class, which is neat but misses the point. Taken with the weird, not-buying-into-it tone, you get the sense that on some level, the people making the game don’t actually “get” the game.

Savage Rifts’ last big failing, which is more annoying than game-breaking, is the Tomorrow Legion itself. This is their own invention, added as a way of providing direction to the players–you’re not just generic adventurers, you’re members of the Tomorrow Legion!–which sounds like a good idea except it’s so poorly executed you wonder why they bothered. The world of Rifts is overflowing with cool nations and kingdoms and organizations that your characters could be affiliated with, and most of them are varied and interesting and have a lot of complex motivations and story hooks. The Tomorrow Legion, in contrast, is about as vanilla as possible. It’s a group of people who live in a castle and do good things–that’s literally the entire story. Why do they live in a castle? Because some dwarves from a rift built one, and then weren’t using it for anything and decided to let the Tomorrow Legion have it. I’m serious. And why do they do good things? Because they’re good people, I guess? There’s no backstory, no texture, and barely more than a couple of pages of description–and most of that is just stats for some of the leaders, which makes the whole thing smack of “let’s put our player group into the setting” syndrome.

IMG_0787Compare this to some of the original game’s standard starting points: Arzno is a city in the desert beseiged by vampires; MercTown is a hub of dangerous work-for-hire and a criminal house of cards; New Lazlo is a mystic kingdom with a brave new plan to bring all peoples and backgrounds together; the Pecos Empire is a lawless wasteland filled with roving warlords engaged in constant battles for freedom and supremacy. Your group could be a salvage crew hunting for artifacts in the Dinosaur Swamp, or officers gone AWOL from the evil Coalition of Humanity, or refugees struggling to get by in the Burbs of Chi-Town–and that’s just North America. These ideas and countless more offer unique history, cool backgrounds, and compelling reasons to explore and fight and tell great stories, and even a one-page overview of the main ones would offer players something solid to work with. Instead we spend all of that space describing a Tomorrow Legion so thin you wonder how they filled the pages at all, and resulting in a story hook somehow even less interesting than “your characters meet in a bar.”

The good news is, the Tomorrow Lefion is SO underdeveloped that you can ignore it almost without even trying, and set your game in one of the parts of Rifts Earth that, you know, made the game interesting in the first place. I admit that not every player has a giant shelf of 60+ Palladium Rifts books they can draw on for information, but even the three core books for Savage Rifts give you enough ideas, and enough world info, to sketch out a great starting point and run with it. If you really want to dig deeper into the setting, the resources are out there–Rifts Aftermath in particular is a wealth of world and story info, with virtually no stats at all so you don’t even have to translate it to a new system. But at the end of the day, you don’t NEED it. The Savage Rifts core books are more than enough to start with, and new books are already announced.

Like I said, I’m a Rifts fanatic. And yes, that means I get passionate about it problems, but it also means this: when I say that I like what someone new has done with it, that means a lot. Savage Rifts has me more excited about the game than I’ve been in years, and that is a huge compliment. Nit-picks notwithstanding, Savage .rifts is a great game, and I can’t wait to dive in and play it.

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