Friday, October 10, 2014

Is Rifts Gonzo?


One thing I keep seeing online is people describing Rifts as "gonzo" and "kitchen sink". I have to admit that this rubs me the wrong way a little. Don't get me wrong: I think both of those terms are applicable to the game to some extent. However, I would hesitate to sum up Rifts with either of them. Why do I say this? Well, I'm glad you asked.

Why not make this feel like a bad college paper and start with a definition? Merriam-Webster defines "gonzo" as "bizarre" and "freewheeling or unconventional especially to the point of outrageousness". I know that the term probably means different things to different people -- what doesn't? -- but I'm surprised to see that the dictionary definition actually lines up with the way I see it used when describing RPGs fairly well. The picture I posted up there (found somewhere on the internet -- sorry, I have no idea what the source is) seems to encapsulate the "gonzo, kitchen sink", outrageously bizarre aesthetic so many associate with the game.

I can see what they're getting at. Even people that have a similar take on the game to mine have pointed out that it can be pretty wacky -- after all, my own Rifts campaign has been (fairly accurately) summarized as "a titan-sized Cyber-Knight, a teenaged Mystic, and a partial cyborg Headhunter working for a secret godling to help smuggle mutant animals out of the breeding pens of Texas Nazis". So, yes, there are lot of crazy things in the game's setting, even right out of the box: believe it or not, most of the elements mentioned in that summary are straight out of the original rulebook. (Those "Nazis" are among the elements I can most easily understand having a hard time taking seriously.)

The more books you include in the setting and make available to players, the wilder the world gets, particularly when you incorporate visitors from Palladium Books' other games. In Rifts, a robot, a catgirl, a wizard, and a ninja could very well team up and fight crime, more or less by the book. (That's got to be the textbook definition of "kitchen sink".) This game is sounding pretty damned "freewheeling and unconventional" at this point, right? So why don't I like it when people call Rifts "gonzo"?

The biggest reason is that I don't think it's tremendously more so than any number of other popular properties, particularly roleplaying games. For example, Dungeons & Dragons crams together practically every possible flavor of the fantasy genre, along with bits of horror and science fiction. It's been described as a game where Conan and Gandalf team up to fight Dracula, and I think that's an accurate summary in many ways. Particularly in the more recent versions of D&D, player character options are so diverse that if a DM is permissive, the robot, catgirl, wizard, and ninja team is every bit as doable in D&D and its derivatives (like Pathfinder) as it is in Rifts. Is D&D a "kitchen sink"? Granted, the setting backdrop of Rifts Earth might be harder for some to swallow than the fantastical milieux of D&D, since it's supposedly "our world" in the far future. But is harder to swallow than, say, superhero comics' version of Earth in the present day? Look at the bizarre combinations of characters and locales the Marvel Universe features. Does anybody describe The Avengers as "gonzo"? And what about the outright tongue-in-cheek, elbow-in-the-ribs, "get it?" nature of ostensibly "post-apocalyptic" games like Gamma World?

One could certainly play Rifts like it's a big "lol so random" joke, and more power to those who want to do that. It could probably be a lot of fun, but I think that the idea that it's the only way to play (or that there is an over-the-top level of wackiness that is baked into the game) is an exaggeration. Like most good imaginative properties, there's a fundamental earnestness (as well as an overarching aesthetic) to Rifts that I think makes taking the game at least a little seriously -- Illinois Nazis, Techno-Wizards, Mexican vampires, and all -- worthwhile.


  1. I'd say D&D is pretty gonzo. A bit too much for my taste, to be honest. I prefer to tone things down when I play

  2. Very well-stated.

    My own spin on it would be to say that what bugs me personally about all this is that somehow Rifts has come to be defined in the received wisdom of the internet gaming community as *exclusively* gonzo. When, as you point out, it's only about as gonzo as D&D or four-color supers. It would be like people going around trying to say that D&D was all about the gonzo and nothing else.

    Rifts, on the other hand, might have earned its undeserved reputation because people came into it expecting a hardcore grimdark post-apoc/cyberpunk/fantasy mashup and ended up with groups consisting of dragons and Glitter Boys and transdimensional teenage mutant ninja turtles. Everybody expects D&D to be a bit silly, but perhaps it was that clash of expectations that heightened the gonzo perception to undeserved levels?

    Now, Gamma World strikes me as a game that's much closer to 100% gonzo, but I've never played it (and only ever owned the much-maligned 3rd edition rules), so I'd happily be proven wrong on that assumption.

    1. Right. It's not that it couldn't be run as a tongue-in-cheek crazy-fest if one wanted to. I just dislike that it has become accepted wisdom that that is the only way to play, when it is no more so than it would be for any number of other games.

      The clash of expectations that a particularly permissive (or uptight) GM might run into with Rifts is probably part of this perception. There also widely variant ideas of what "gonzo" means, including some that are so vague as to be useless.

      I think Rifts is much more of a kitchen sink than it is "gonzo".

  3. I've always thought RIFTS was gonzo, and kitchen sink, to the point where I just can't 'see' the world/universe of RIFTS enough to play or run it. I've tried. It simply seems senseless and random to me.

    Granted, I'm sure it would make sense if I was willing to read the dozen or so books that describe the setting and backstory, but I'm not. It's just too much for me.

    After reading this, "a titan-sized Cyber-Knight, a teenaged Mystic, and a partial cyborg Headhunter working for a secret godling to help smuggle mutant animals out of the breeding pens of Texas Nazis", and the rest of the post, I'm thinking, ah, yeah. Even more so.

    This game makes less cohesive sense to my the late Golden Age DC Comics. ('In This Issue - What is the Secret of Jungle Batman? The Adventures of Superbaby in Space! Who can stop the menace of The Ape from Orbit X?).

    How do you take all this stuff and create a cohesive whole? What ties it all together? I'm a big fan of genre, and the tropes of genre, and I have to ask, what exactly is RIFTS' genre? What are its tropes?

    1. I can understand how Rifts would seem "senseless and random" to somebody who didn't play it for years and years during a formative period in their life, like I did. I am also a big fan of genre, and games that emulate genres. Rifts doesn't really do that -- it takes concepts and character archetypes from a variety of popular fantasy, science fiction, superhero, and other genres that were part of the nerd izeitgeist when it was made. Putting together all of those elements into a framework that resembles the default mode of D&D -- a dangerous world with numerous factions that don't have the ability to take care of all of their problems themselves, necessitating hiring "your heroes" -- is too far a bridge to cross for many people, because (I'm coming to realize) it essentially is a kitchen sink. So I'll back away from my objection to that term.

      "Gonzo" implies to me a fundamental inability (or at least a disinclination) to engage with the setting's elements with a straight face. The reason I dislike the idea that Rifts is innately gonzo, and can only be gonzo, annoys me. To me, the presence of ridiculous characters like Impossible Man or the X-Babies in the Marvel Universe does not ruin my enjoyment of dramatic stories told with characters who, when you think about them, are just as convoluted and silly as the "joke" ones. (The love story between the Vision and the Scarlet Witch is completely bonkers if you take the time to explain all the characters' backstories.)

      Rifts (in the core book alone -- no need to read the dozens of books that have been published) includes questions of and commentaries on what it means to be human, the nature of totalitarianism, freedom of information, slavery, animal rights, and a number of other issues if one wishes to explore them. Marvel examines many of the same conflicts with characters and setting elements that are ostensibly ridiculous. You "take all this stuff and create a cohesive whole" the same way you would with a superhero universe, in my opinion. It just so happens that this superhero universe is set in the far future.

      I understand that Rifts isn't to your taste, and I can completely understand why that might be so, in your case and in many others'. I won't try to convince you that it's worth your time, because it might not be. I just find the insistence that it cannot be played straight a little tiresome. But at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter. I know that my friends and I enjoy ourselves with it, and that's all I really ask.