Dragonmeet Hoard: Rifts

One of the cornerstones of Dragonmeet is the bring-and-buy sale, and on the sale stall this time for the deliciously small price of £5 was a much-battered, clearly extensively used in play copy of 1st edition Rifts.

Rifts is pretty infamous, as is its author Kevin Siembieda and his publishing company Palladium Books, but that infamy seems to me to be a bit patchy. I’ve always had the impression that Palladium fandom was the sort of thing which was very regionally concentrated; you had tight clusters of Palladium fans here and there where their games had taken off, and outside of those bubbles you had numerous gamers who either write them off entirely as juvenile nonsense or haven’t heard of them.

To be fair, in the intervening years since Rifts came out Palladium have done their reputation few favours. Former employees and freelancers have talked of how difficult it can be to work with Siembieda, with this RPG.net post from Bill Coffin being a particularly evocative example. The company’s public-facing communications are usually heavily focused on making a sale to you – which arguably is the case for most PR statements issued by any company, but Palladium’s sales pitch comes across as particularly strident, artless, and nakedly hucksterish; a bit too much like a used car salesperson desperately trying to close a deal, and in a way which can put people’s back up.

This remained true even when Siembieda was promoting a special sale to cover the back hole in the company’s finances left by an ex-employee’s larcenous activities; it’s obviously shitty that someone stole from the company and put all their co-worker’s jobs at risk, but giving the incident a snappy name (the “Crisis of Treachery!”) and hyping the sale in exactly the same way he’d hype any other sale meant that Kevin wasn’t able to gain as much sympathy from the situation as he might otherwise have deserved.

Palladium’s reputation has taken further serious hits recently with the awful clusterfuck which was the Robotech RPG Tactics Kickstarter, which so far as I can tell is not an RPG but is a skirmish wargame. A long saga of delays and screwups, massive delays, and the division of the rewards into a series of waves of which only the first managed to actually get out to people before Palladium lost the licence to produce Robotech material and had to shitcan the project, combined with an insulting refund policy (in effect, people would get their refunds in the form of left over Robotech products which would otherwise have to get destroyed anyway due to the licence ending, valued way above the market rate) resulted in an apocalyptically poisonous level of negativity surrounding it. (Note how the comments page – on a project which has been dead for months – is still buzzing, since it’s become a hub of grinding anti-Palladium sentiment and general grumping on the part of the backers.)

Kevin’s explanation of what happened is here; a somewhat less “it’s everyone else’s fault but me” picture can be built up if you delve into the archives on Tenkar’s Tavern. Either way, along with their reputation being in the doldrums Palladium have also suffered from archaic business practices. Believe it or not, they still maintain permanent warehouse space – at a time when the likes of Chaosium, who I’m pretty sure are of a similar size or greater, have abandoned that – there’s that mention in Bill Coffin’s epic RPG.net post of how Kevin continued doing the layout on books by hand years after desktop publishing had comprehensively rendered such methods redundant, and they’ve been very late when it comes to adopting PDF sales (though they now offer PDFs, and indeed have put some Bundles of Holding up for sale of late).

Before all that controversy, however, Palladium Books was a reasonably successful small press which had enjoyed some small success in the 1980s – with the Robotech and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles licensed RPGs being particular hits – before 1990’s Rifts turned into the company’s major cash cow, with an absolute ton of Rifts supplements coming out (only the Palladium Fantasy RPG has a remotely comparable supplement line, and even it is left in the dust by the sheer mass of Rifts books). Heck, even Palladium’s in-house magazine (lately put on long-term hiatus in the latest of a series of bad signs for the company’s health) is called The Rifter, which is both a sign of how important Rifts is to Palladium’s product line and a sign that nobody at Palladium noticed how much that sounds like The Grifter, which is a bit unfortunate given Palladium’s recurring reputation issues.

That being the case, there’s got to be something here that hooked people, something which got them to dig deeply into the Palladium rabbithole and establish this odd little community of core Palladium fans, yes? After all, as much as people might turn their noses up at Palladium’s offerings, it would be a fallacy to declare that the game is entirely worthless. If it didn’t offer something distinctive to its fans, it wouldn’t have fans in the first place. What is it that the original Rifts brought to the table which got people to latch onto it?

My conclusion, now that I’ve had a chance to actually read the thing, is that Rifts offered that most 1990s of things: sheer cocky attitude.

Let’s be clear on this: Rifts is not a game which set the world on fire based on its system. The Palladium house system was first used for 1981’s The Mechanoid Invasion and then further developed in Palladium Fantasy and subsequent RPGs, and for 1981 it is not great but not terrible. It’s clearly strongly AD&D-inspired, right down to the primary attributes being rolled on 3D6 and very obviously being relabelled versions of the D&D stats with Charisma divided into stats for “social skills” and “physical attractiveness” and Dexterity divided into speed and agility-based stats. You have your typical D20-plus-modifers combat roll, and a percentile skill system clearly inspired by D&D thief skills but diversified to handle all manner of non-combat purposes. You have a set of character classes, divided into OCCs (Occupational Character Classes, based on your job) and RCCs (Racial Character Classes, representing particular nonhuman races or specific niches within those races). You have an alignment system – accompanied by a little rant about how “neutrality” isn’t really a thing which Siembieda has copy-pasted from core book to core book at least since the Palladium Fantasy days – in which broad categories of good, evil, and self-centred alignments are dividied into three flavours which actually work reasonably well as descriptors of general attitudes.

In short, it’s Kevin’s D&D house rules, but as such things go they aren’t that bad; the house ruling is at least extensive enough that it feels like it enters its own design space, and by and large it succeeds at presenting a riff on this type of system which throws in a few more nuts and bolts than Basic D&D did at the time but was less complex and a bit easier to get to grips with than 1E AD&D. On the whole, I’d say that the pre-Rifts Palladium house system was actually pretty good by the standards of 1980s game designs, particularly if you wanted an alternative to the complexity that the likes of AD&D, Rolemaster and RuneQuest were all gunning for at the time.

On the other hand, what was pretty fresh in 1981 was already looking very stale in 1990, particularly when 2E AD&D already target and efficiently hit the “streamlined and less complex AD&D” design space. Moreover, the implementation of the system in Rifts – which, disastrously, would become the standard implementation for many other lines too – introduced a turd to the punchbowl in the form of Mega-Damage Capacity.

This is infamous, but I may as well outline the problem here. You have two types of damage in Rifts: Standard Damage Capacity and Mega-Damage Capacity. This categorisation is applied both to the damage a weapon does and to the damage an armour type absorbs. 1 point of MDC is equivalent to 100 points of SDC, for the purposes of assessing damage done by MDC weapons to opponents in SDC armour (and amounts to an insta-kill under almost all circumstances unless you rolled utterly miserably on the damage roll), but no number of SDC points can ever cause a point of MDC damage – this avoids the ludicrous situation where a child armed with small sticks could theoretically beat their way through a tank’s armour plating if they stood there and hit it for hundreds of combat rounds.

The idea actually originated in the Robotech RPG, and it actually makes a lot of sense in that context: in a mecha game it is accepted that mecha combat will take place on an entirely different scale from conventional combat, and mecha will smush non-mecha opposition with ease and the only real way to damage a mecha is with another mecha-scale opponent. This fits the genre just fine, and more generally I think most gamers would accept a ruling that personal-scale weapons don’t cause appreciable damage to sufficiently large and durable items. You don’t expect to be able to machine gun your way through a bank vault door in Call of Cthulhu; you don’t expect to be able to shoot down a Naval warship in Traveller with a laser pistol.

You don’t really need to have a system for how the damage track you use for massive-scale things like mecha and starships and architecture convers to the damage track you use for personal combat in the first place – what Kevin doesn’t get is that you can just rule that personal-scale weapons don’t affect massive-scale targets, and in the absence of massive-scale defences massive-scale weapons automatically destroy personal-scale things they hit, and you’d have effectively the same outcome. Still, in the context of Robotech it didn’t really matter, because only mecha and mecha-scale stuff had MDC armour and weapons and nobody seriously expects a human to beat a mecha in hand to hand combat anyway.

Where Rifts goes completely absurd is the way Siembieda just gives MDC to absolutely random stuff, right down to personal firearms and body armour. Numerous player character classes can start the game with MDC weapons and armour which, based on the artwork and descriptions in the book, don’t seem to be much bulkier than present-day kevlar. At the start of any particular Rifts campaign you might have some player characters who are vulnerable to everything and can’t hurt anything in MDC armour, some PCs who are invulnerable to SDC damage, some PCs who are dishing out MDC damage and so can effectively instakill almost all SDC opponents, and some PCs are both invulnerable to SDC damage and are using their personal weapons to dish out damage that could take down a mecha with a good hit. Odds are the early phases of any campaign will involve the PCs attempting to acquire MDC arms and armour for those PCs who do not start with them, and once that’s accomplished then they can pretty much steamroller most stuff they encounter – unless the ref just stops bothering wheeling out SDC opponents and has all their opponents use MDC arms and armour, at which point the distinction is pointless.

This is simultaneously completely absurd and is also, by this stage, a Rifts trope to an extent where I’m not sure the fanbase would accept it if you tried to roll it back, despite it being easy to do so (just limit MDC to tanks and mecha, for crying out loud). On the one hand, “completely absurd” does seem to fit the exuberant everything-and-the-kitchen-sink style of Rifts‘ setting, but the presence of MDC also throws a spanner into the core premise of Rifts, which is supposed to be a means for characters from a range of different dimensions to show up in one place and have a big fight.

You see, the basic idea of the Rifts setting is that after an apocalyptic nuclear war, the titular rifts in reality were tore open due to Earth’s ley line network being overloaded by the energy released by billions of sudden deaths. This has allowed numerous “D-Bees” – dimensional beings – to creep their way into the world from other realities, and has also caused major disruption to Earthly civilisation. (The major power in North America is the desperately corrupt and evil Coalition – who, yes, are kind of Nazi-ish in their aesthetic and overall approach, though fair play to Palladium – it’s pretty clear from the book that the Coalition are intended to be antagonists.) The end result is a setting where mecha, power armoured Space Marine types, “juicers” who gain superhuman capabilities as a result of hideous drug injections, genetically engineered dog people, psychics, wizards, and more or less anything you can imagine show up on Earth. (If this sounds a lot like Torg, it’s because Torg more or less lifted the concept from Rifts wholesale.)

Now, for a publisher like Palladium who had a wide repertoire of games in a variety of different genres, all of which had a somewhat action-oriented approach to their subject matter and used a broadly compatible system, this concept is a really good idea – Rifts then becomes the setting you can have your ninja turtle team up with a wizard, a cleric and a cyborg to go fight Nazis. The problem is that by adding MDC to the mix and making it available on personal-scale equipment, it breaks all those other games. Even the toughest beasts in old school Palladium Fantasy didn’t have MDC because it didn’t exist in the first edition of that game, so your Rifts party will just steamroller them.

Eventually, a clunky solution was reached: the idea of SDC environments. In short, if your party uses rifts to travel into a gameworld where MDC doesn’t exist, their MDC arms and armour work like SDC ones in that world. (A similar effect means that entities whose existence requires a high level of ambient magic in a world, like dragons, can’t survive going to low-magic or nonmagical worlds – instantly shutting down a bunch of fun crossover ideas pointlessly.) It gets fiddlier when stuff from an SDC environment goes to a world with MDC – then some of them just keep their SDC arms and armour, whilst others get their arms and armour upgraded to MDC.

Unfortunately, none of these clarifications are in the Rifts core book, so unless you happened to have the supplement which told you how to drag-and-drop Palladium Fantasy entities (for example) into Rifts you have to just guess. Then again, given that in the official rules absurd stuff like fairies end up getting MDC armour and in general Siembieda’s decisions as to where the line lies are deeply inconsistent and arbitrary, your guesses will probably make more sense than the “official” answers anyway.

The upshot of this is that, by its very presence, MDC undermines the cross-genre approach which Rifts was supposed to be good at delivering in the first place. It’s hardly the only part of the system that has issues – Siembieda seems to think it’s a good idea to toss random mental illnesses at PCs on a whim, using a massive table which I can only assume was inspired by the mental illness table in the 1E AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. (Earlier versions of the Palladium mental illness table, like the one implemented in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, listed homosexuality as a mental illness, but the Rifts one doesn’t – boo to Palladium for going there in the first place, but good on them for realising their error and reversing it – a bit of a rarity in their history.) Nonetheless, it’s MDC which simultaneously sabotages the cross-genre fun which Rifts seems to be going for and makes it drastically more difficult to deliver than it really should be, and also seems to have shaped a lot of the subsequent flavour of the setting to a point where it can’t really be excised any more without stopping it feeling like Rifts.

What convinced people that this worth worth trying anyway? Like I said, I think it pretty much comes down to attitude. In a further imitation of AD&D, Siembieda has no qualms about dumping a lot of editorialising into the middle of the text, but unlike Gygax his rambles on his personal views consist less of long, dry digressions and more about giving really snappy explanations of ideas and generating enthusiasm for the game. In some points this is a bit clumsy – the explanations of MDC and SDC are a bit clunkier than they really need to be – but at other parts Siembieda actually does a good job on selling you on this turned-up-to-11 power fantasy of zooming around in power armour blowing up Coalition fascists and shooting down dragons with missiles. He might do the same rant about alignment every book, but it’s a pretty evocative discussion of the subject.

That’s probably why this second-hand copy is so dog-eared; Rifts is a fun book to flip through even if the system has these fatal flaws, and it’s difficult to read it and not at least be tempted to play some of it. I probably won’t hold onto the book for long – I think a charity shop might be the best place for it – but I’m glad for the opportunity to glance over it and see what the fuss is about.


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