Friday, December 13, 2013

Rifts, the Glittering Apocalypse

I think most people will agree with me when I say that Palladium Books' Rifts RPG is an odd bird. It's a game that was quite popular at one time, but has been abandoned by nearly all but its most diehard fans over the years, for various reasons. It is at once celebrated and lambasted for the way it smashes various science-fiction and fantasy elements together, with little apparent regard for anything approaching verisimilitude. It's also the RPG that I know best, since it's the one I played almost without interruption throughout my high school years. But despite my familiarity with the game, it was only very recently that I came to the conclusion that Rifts is not the post-apocalyptic game many describe it as. Rifts has what would technically be considered a post-apocalyptic setting, but isn't really part of the post-apocalyptic genre at all.

In the olden days of 1990, when the original Rifts rulebook was published, the world of Rifts was what would now be described as a "points of light" setting: tiny dots of civilization trying to scratch out an existence in a vast, monster-infested wasteland. There were a few cities that had managed to restore old technologies, but most of North America (and indeed, the world) was a howling wilderness, depopulated and dangerous. Much of the early artwork for the game -- particularly the work of Larry MacDougall, shown above -- supported this "scorched Earth" interpretation.

However, there was never really much mechanical support for this style of play. There were some character classes, or O.C.C.s (to use Palladium's terminology) that fit in with such an interpretation, including the Wilderness Scout and Vagabond, but others, like the Cyber-Doc and City Rat, supported a more cyberpunk interpretation. Even more plentiful were high-tech warriors like full-conversion 'Borgs, Glitter Boy Pilots, and Juicers. Though not explicitly delineated in the text of the original rulebook, over time, typical Rifts characters were implied to be something like a cross between the heavily armed mercenaries of Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020 and superhero teams. You could certainly play out smaller, more personal conflicts, but the published material set up big villains like quasi-Lovecraftian "supernatural intelligences", the evil Federation of Magic, the oppressive, Nazi-esque Coalition, the alien Mechanoids, and even the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for your characters to take down, either for money or out of a sense of justice.

Over the years, more and more high-tech wonder weapons were introduced into the setting, usually with each one being more powerful than the last. Mecha began to incorporate gee-whiz science fiction gear like force fields and jetpacks. By the time of Rifts' new core rulebook, the Ultimate Edition (released in 2005), the cyberpunk-meets-superheroes nature of the game was fairly evident. The book is filled with artwork of characters of superheroic proportions, drawn in a style reminiscent of mainstream comics of the 1990s. (Some artwork is recycled from early publications, with the game's author, Kevin Siembieda, specifically saying that he wanted the book to incorporate what he considered classic Rifts art along with some new pieces. Tellingly, few of MacDougall's gritty illustrations made the cut.) The first piece of artwork the reader encounters in the Ultimate Edition is a full-color, Blade Runner-style cyberpunk metropolis. More recent Rifts sourcebooks, like Black Market and Northern Gun, have continued the trend toward an ultra-high-tech world:

Rifts is a lot of things, but I wouldn't call it a post-apocalyptic game. The world may have been laid to waste by an apocalyptic event several centuries in the setting's past, but there's no scrounging for food, digging up old technology, or radiation to be found. It might be cyberpunk, or science fantasy, or superheroic, depending on what elements you want to emphasize. At the end of the day, it's just Rifts. You could make it into a post-apocalyptic game, but it'd take a lot of work. You'd probably be better off looking elsewhere.


  1. "Glittering Apocalypse" sounds just about right, and damn it it's going to make me dig out my copy once again... :)

    1. Even if you end up deciding it's crap, it's always worth looking at your old stuff.

  2. Excellent analysis. I can personally attest that, even just using the original main book and the first few supplements, it's a lot of work to push Rifts further towards its post-apocalyptic end. I had to make drastic changes to the timeline and certain factions, just for a start.

    I realized after starting my Rifts:2112 project that Rifts as written is essentially more firmly seated in the Gamma World approach to PA--set so far after the apocalypse that you're effectively dealing with a fantasy world with tech and mutants thrown in.

    As much as I love MacDougall's pieces, I think they actually did a disservice, as did other artists' work that depicted crumbling skyscrapers and rusting cars. Realistically, after the ca. 300 years that separate the apocalypse from the current timeline, there'd be no visible traces of the old world left. Which is totally fine, BTW. I just think Siembieda et al wanted to jump on the then-hot cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic vibes and still have their science-fantasy/Gamma World cake.

    (Incidentally, and I realize this is pedantic, but it always cracks me up that the apocalypse is supposed to have taken place 100-200 years in our own future, yet all the "pre-apocalypse" artifacts anyone ever seems to find seem to coincidentally date from the late 20th century...)

    1. I'm no longer particularly interested in making sweeping changes to Rifts. I'd rather make a new game that is inspired by it (among other things). But I do like a lot of the changes you've suggested.

      I disagree with the Gamma World comparison. Gamma World is much more post-apocalyptic. There's a much stronger emphasis placed upon finding artifacts, exploring the ruins of the old world, and dealing with radiation and mutation. Rifts has virtually none of that -- there's nary a mention of the "Earth mutants" and "mutoids" alluded to in the early rules these days.

      I don't blame MacDougall; he was probably instructed to produce post-apocalyptic artwork and did so admirably. But you're right, his pieces are some of the hardest to fit into the Rifts setting specifically because they're so grotty.

      Finding ancient artifacts never seemed like a major part of the game to me, though my GM took it upon himself to start including that stuff recently. Interestingly, the 20th century weapons and such that appeared in the original Rifts rulebook are now gone. You can still have an SDC submachine gun; it's just not specifically called out as an "Uzi" anymore.

    2. I'm somewhat of the same mind, but I've come too far to turn back now.

      What I meant with the GW comparison was more in the way the world is depicted, not so much gameplay. You know, like how you look at a map of GW America and it seems kind of familiar but totally different, with it's "Merga" and "Spring's Field" and such? It is a real shame that the "mutoids" got dropped.

      Oh, and as for the artifcacts: I was thinking of stuff that you see sprinkled throughout the books, incidentally. Like how a traveling show might have a museum of pre-Rifts artifacts and it's stuff like vinyl records and Pepsi cans and such. Or like how Mercenaries had rules for upgrading pre-Rifts tanks to MDC, and proceeded to give Patton tanks as an example--tanks that were already obsolete when the book came out, and would've been, like, two centuries obsolescent by the time of the Rifts.

    3. Supposedly the disappearance of mutoids from the Ultimate Edition was an error. I don't buy it; they've barely been mentioned since the first book. They showed up regularly in our game and will likely continue to do so if we get back to it.

      I was unaware of the tank stuff in Mercenaries. That's pretty silly. I mean, it's kind of fun to imagine a Patton tank in Rifts Earth, but still.

    4. Mutoids forever!

      There were Patton tanks, M113s...yeah, it was basically just someone consulting a Vietnam-era guide to military equipment and putting Rifts stats on them.

    5. Someone = Siembedia
      Vietnam-era guide to military equipment = Recon RPG.

    6. Heh, too true. I had thought Mercenaries was solely Carella, but going back and looking at the author credits I see that Siembieda got co-authorship. KS strikes again!

  3. Yeah, the proliferation of powers and tech as the game went on marched stridently away from post apoc. Every nook and cranny of North America soon housed some powerful creatures or communities, in essence turning points of light into a spotlight.

    The last time I ran RIFTS, I felt I had to do two things to make the setting credible: 1) I made chargen random, you got what you rolled and made the best of it. A bit of whinging at first, but players soon saw the merits when sneaky vagabonds would live longer than GBs or dragons 2) I added riftstorms and random phasing so that Riftsearth was constantly shifting, and a community might disppear and be replaced overnight by wilderness, atomic ruins, or zombie infested wastelands. Sounds a bit like Psychon...

    1. There are still a few bits of North America that haven't been de-mystified, but not many. I think this happens in any long-running setting.

      I like both of your changes to the game.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.