So, real life has been intruding on my (and my friends') ability to play Rifts lately. This is a familiar story, I suspect, to most people that are into RPGs these days, so I won't dwell on it. Suffice it to say that with any luck, we'll get to play a second session soon.
However, I did hang out with a good friend who happens to be the GM of that Rifts campaign last weekend. Among the topics discussed:
Organic Circuitry. One of the things that has recently bugged me about Rifts is the juxtaposition of ultra-high-tech with a "points of light" infrastructure (or lack thereof). If you assume that there's something like advanced 3-D printing in use, those fiefdoms' ability to manufacture precision technology is a little bit easier to swallow. Still, you'd need access to rare earth minerals for some technology, which I previously said was difficult to imagine in a world without intercontinental shipping. But my buddy suggested something that is probably completely pseudoscientific, but still sounds reasonable enough for me to suspend my disbelief: organic circuitry. Even before the apocalypse happened, scientists had apparently mastered cybernetics, bionics, genetic manipulation, and cloning. They had even learned to artificially induce psionic abilities with the use of implanted technology. So maybe rather than using the rare earth-dependent processors (shut up, I don't know what this stuff is really called) we use today, Rifts Earth's engineers rely on ones made of organic materials. I'm not suggesting that all of the high-tech stuff in Rifts is "bio-tech" in the sense that the term is often used in popular science fiction -- it's not really "alive" -- just that it's organic in nature. (Though if you wanted to posit that this bio-circuitry creates a subtle man-machine interface effect like the alien plant-derived "protoculture" fuel source in Robotech, explaining why your character can use her physical skills and hand-to-hand training when piloting mecha, I wouldn't object.)
Ethnicity and Race. To his credit, Siembieda rarely mentions these things in Rifts publications. There's an offhand reference to some parts of the Chi-Town 'Burbs being less ethnically diverse than others, but that's about it, to my knowledge. But would the concepts of race and ethnicity even really hold much meaning to people in this setting? It's roughly 400 years in the future, and there's been an apocalypse that has destroyed virtually every nation-state in existence. North America has been (more or less) cut off from the rest of the planet for centuries. I like to think that survival probably trumped prejudice in the wake of the Coming of the Rifts (at least, until anti-psychic, anti-magic, and anti-mutoid prejudice emerged). Even the fascist Coalition would probably encourage all humans to recognize each other as kin when faced with literal inhuman monsters from other worlds running around. In North America, at least, racial distinctions would probably have largely broken down by the time in which the original core rulebook is set. There might even be a distinctive North American appearance that is effectively -- though I strongly dislike this term -- a "mixed-race" look. To me it seems likely that the "American" language described in the rules isn't strictly the American English we speak today, but a version that incorporates other tongues.
Old Time Religion. This actually isn't a topic we covered during our weekend rambling, but it's been on my mind lately nonetheless. Real-world religions, as far as I know, are practically never mentioned in Rifts products (likely an extension of the company's aversion to any potential controversy). Still, I've always wondered what religions might be practiced in the future post-apocalyptic world of Rifts Earth. Christianity, presumably, would still be around, but would likely have taken on a somewhat medieval character, considering the quasi-feudal state of affairs in much of North America and the fact that most people are illiterate. Would Islam have spread or shrank? (The Hajj would be a literal impossibility for the faithful.) Judaism, I'm sure, would survive and recover, as always. Religions that had their origins in Asia, like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism would possibly be more widespread. Certainly new religions, including fantastical ones based on the worship of demons, dragons, and the like, would have sprung up, and old, near-forgotten ones would begin to be reinstated with the return of ancient gods. Would new faiths that emerged in the time between our present and the Coming of the Rifts have managed to survive the apocalypse? And what of the Coalition States, who actively enforce illiteracy and obedience to the Imperial family? Would there be a North Korea-esque state of affairs, with an official "state philosophy" based around a pro-Prosek hagiography? I could easily see them encouraging a quasi-deified personality cult of "Prosekism", and closely monitoring other faiths, even censuring them for skirting too closely to "encouraging the spread of occultism".
Heavy stuff? Pointless blather? Offensive drivel? You decide.
Last week, I discussed a style of campaign that was suggested in the original Rifts rulebook, but has been largely ignored since: one based around seeking knowledge forbidden by the Coalition. There are plenty of other opportunities that don't involve giant robots duking it out with dragons, though. Here are a few more that are implied by the material presented in that book:
Exploration and Survival. Most of North America -- heck, the entirety of Rifts Earth -- is supposed to be trackless wilderness, filled with dangerous entities from other worlds. O.C.C.s like the Wilderness Scout, Vagabond, and even Warlock are tailor-made for a campaign in which the players are trying to help civilization regain a foothold... or stop it from re-despoiling nature. Coalition Military. I've never really seen the appeal of roleplaying a futuristic Illinois Nazi, but there's certainly plenty of Coalition material (and O.C.C.s) to work with, especially if you've got players that are willing to question orders. You could do much worse than to read Stabilizing Rifts' thoughts on how one might run a cerebral Coalition-based campaign.
Fighting Crime In a Future Time. Alternately, a campaign focused on the law enforcement wing of the Coalition military could be interesting. Again, Coalition O.C.C.s (including sanctioned Psi-Stalkers and Dog Boys) would be the ones to go with. A police procedural set in Chi-Town -- or, even more tantalizingly, the 'Burbs, where things are bit wilder -- sounds like it has potential to me.
Smash the System. The Coalition are easy to hate. Playing anti-Coalition ideologues and agitators could be either be straightforward violent fun (blow up the Nazis!), or (if one was so inclined) a rumination on themes of surveillance, resistance, patriotism, and terrorism. (Wait, can you do that with Rifts?) You could also do a "we're the badguys" campaign and play the evil psychics, sorcerers and demons the Coalition insist are hiding in every corner. Either way.
Repo Man Is Always Intense. These are by no means the only possibilities for non-"blow badguys up for money" campaigns. On Google+, Benjamin Baugh recently pitched me an idea he called Hard Repo, which puts all of my half-baked ideas to shame:
Dig it. There's room in Rifts to run all kinds of lowlife crime shit. Heists, scams, con-games, etc. You can't put three exclamation marks after shit like that, so it doesn't get much attention in the rules. But there's room for all kinds of shenanigans. One of my great abortive games which never lived was Hard Repo. Repossessing robot vehicles, runeswords, mortgaged souls, cybernetics etc. It's the worst job in the whole world.
I have a feeling Benjamin intended Hard Repo to be somewhat parodic, but I love the concept. The big question would be "if we're repo men, who is hiring us to repossess this stuff?" You could have the player characters be unaffiliated specialists in re-acquiring goods that hire themselves out to anybody that can pay, but that skirts a little too closely to the standard "Mercs & Mages" setup. It would probably be more interesting to put them in the employ of the Black Market (a concept that was originally quite sketchy, but has recently been fleshed out). Or, if you were interested in a more exotic angle, the player characters could be working for one of the various Phase World-based factions (the arms-dealing Naruni, perhaps?) or even the most notorious merchants in the Megaverse: the Splugorth. An campaign idea like this almost writes itself, and it provides opportunities for interaction with practically every corner of the Megaverse, not just the starting playground of North America.
The point is that the Rifts setting provides the raw materials for adventures that are potentially much more interesting than the typical "wandering do-gooders/soldiers of fortune" template that is the default mode of play for so many roleplaying games. I hope somebody out there is using them.
"What do the player characters do?" It seems like in recent years, this is the first question that designers of a roleplaying game ask themselves. They then go on to design the game system around the answer to that question. This results in laser-focused games like the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which placed that focus squarely on heroic characters kicking a lot of monster ass with cool powers. (Which is fine.)
Rifts dates from an earlier era of game design philosophy that was popular in the 1990s; one that places emphasis on the setting concept. While a typical mode of play revolving around traveling mercenaries fighting villains emerged fairly quickly in Rifts, it initially wasn't entirely clear what player characters were meant to do in this wild, high-concept new world that Kevin Siembieda had dreamed up -- probably because there wasn't intended to be one way to play.
The original Rifts rulebook devotes a considerable chunk of its page count to describing the Coalition and the ways in which it controls information in order to control its citizenry. We're told that at least half of the population of the Coalition States is functionally illiterate, and intentionally kept that way in order to avoid them learning anything that might contradict the official version of reality. We're told that the Coalition elite live in the arcology-city of Chi-Town, with lesser folk dwelling in the dangerous 'Burbs (or worse, in the smaller towns and villages that dot the demon-haunted wilderness that comprises the bulk of Coalition territory). We're given details on occupational character classes like the Rogue Scholar, the Rogue Scientist, the Body Fixer, the Cyber-Doc and the City Rat, the very names of which sound like something from Cyberpunk 2020.
There's an entire alternate take on the Rifts milieu hiding in plain sight, right there in the original book. A Rifts about seeking forbidden information -- either by hacking computer networks or literally unearthing it -- while a fascist regime demonizes you, hunts you, and will certainly kill you if they catch you. A game about paranoia, information, and helping people in need in the face of a military and a bureaucracy that never stopped to question whether its goals were right. (And maybe its goals are right, because sometimes the books you find really can summon terrors from beyond time and space.) A strange intersection between 70s science fiction (with its totalitarian futures, domed cities and focus on social awareness), cyberpunk, and horror. It seems a shame that Palladium has spent so many pages detailing new skull-encrusted Coalition vehicles and so few on playing the sort of campaign that the first rulebook sketched out.
Still, there's nothing stopping anybody from running one.
That's my unofficial count, obviously. (Palladium Books places the count closer to 95.) 88 books! That's not including extraneous stuff like novels, coloring books and art portfolios, and also not including the 65 issues of The Rifter published to date, practically all of which incorporate official and semi-official material for the game. It's worth noting that some of those 88 books, like the Book of Magic, the Vampire Sourcebook or the Game Master Guide -- which might more accurately be called an arms and equipment guide -- collect or reorganize material that was previously published. (That number also doesn't include the out-of-print oddity known as Rifts Manhunter, the only book made for the game that wasn't published by Palladium Books.)
Especially for those of us that tuned out some time in the late 1990s, the fact that Palladium has been (more or less) steadily pumping out Rifts material for almost a quarter-century, all for the same edition of the game, is surprising. However you feel about the game or the company that publishes it, 88 books has got to be a record for sheer number of gaming materials published for a single iteration of a roleplaying game.
Before you ask, no, I don't have all 88; I have closer to 10 these days. Still, there is some small part of me that wishes I could "catch 'em all".