Friday, April 11, 2014

Beyond "Mercs & Mages": Part 1

"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.


  1. I remember in the Palladium chat rooms we used to joke about the Vagabond Uprisings.

    1. I genuinely would like to play a Vagabond one of these days. I think it'd be fun.