Let's turn Rifts on its head
My good friend and colleague, Jason Marker of Motor City Gamewerks, raised an issue in his Tuesday blog that got my wheels turning a little bit. He was discussing the use of body-altering, dehumanizing technology in RPGs, and had some very eloquent thoughts on the matter. Rather than try to steal his thoughts and put them forth as my own, let me just quote them here:
I think one of the best examples of [the Faustian bargain] is found in Palladium Books' Rifts. Back in the day, before it became the bloated train wreck it is today, Rifts was a great game with a very, very ugly premise. That premise was that, essentially, you needed to become a monster to fight one. That the best way to protect your family, friends and neighbors was to become something other, to completely trade away your humanity for super-human powers that would eventually melt your bones or burst your heart or drive you mad. Tough call, eh? How much do you care? How deep is your love? How much do you desire fame or infamy or revenge? Enough to trade away the ability to feel the touch of the wife or child you're defending? Enough to sign your own death sentence? Compelling stuff, and it's still there in Rifts buried under all the magic using dinosaurs and giant robots with crotch cannons.
This got me thinking about Rifts in general. I think that, while the themes that Mr. Marker discusses exist in this game, their presence was more or less an accident. Having written a great deal of official material for the Rifts line, I come to the conclusion that this level of depth can't really exist in a deliberate way in a book whose poster child is called the "Glitter Boy," whose principal villains are known as "Dead Boys," and whose dominant non-human face are the "Dog Boys."
No, I think that the tragic upshot of human augmentation as presented in Rifts was, at its inception, more a shallow footnote for the fluff text than an attempt to actually portray the difficult soul-selling choices made by the player characters.
But, what if Rifts were to be re-imagined in the light presented by Mr. Marker? What would that game look like? Don't worry, we're going to have this discussion without actually converting anything, as I don't have enough money or patience to hire a lawyer.
Rifts RPG 2.0: Deal with the devil
Let's imagine for a moment that we were going to rewrite Rifts from the ground up, even if that means doing away with the completely amazing, life-altering body of work of World Book 28 and World Book 30, amongst others. We have only the most basic of concepts, that the setting is one in which humanity is just creeping back to the brink of civilization following centuries of Dark Age. Magic and monsters are the powers to be reckoned with on Earth, and massive rivers of mystical energies flow over the surface of the planet, running together to create tears in the dimensional fabric wherever they cross.
Our player characters in this revised game all must face a basic fact: as God made them, they will not survive. The world is far too harsh, too unforgiving. Anyone surviving into adulthood has enjoyed an incredible amount of luck. Being eaten alive by a demon that materializes from nowhere is a very real day-to-day possibility. Faced with this world, the character must choose how best to deal with this reality. Whatever path he or she chooses, there will be a piper that must be paid. But, which path to choose? Let's examine some elements of the current setting that will stay more or less the same, even if more weight will be placed on the nature of the deal the character must strike.
This remains more or less the same as presented in the core RPG. By strapping on a harness for the rest of your life that feeds a constant flow of body-enhancing chemicals through your system, you can be made fast and strong enough to be able to compete in this world of high stakes. It's expensive, but the local crime boss or merc squad will juice you up in exchange for a few years of service. "The rest of your life" is a relative term, as these chemicals will ultimately result in a rapid and horrific death within five years or so.
The Crazy's solution to the survival problem is to inject his or her brain with microscopic machines that change the way the brain functions. Overnight you gain mad ninja skills, superhuman strength and endurance, and psychic powers. Over time, however, the mind can't handle the strain and it begins to turn on you. What good is survival when, after a while, you only have the voices to keep you company?
Trading in your God-given parts for the cold metal and gears of a cybernetic frame robs you of your humanity. You become a mind inside a walking suit of armor, virtually invincible, and capable of dealing out more damage than an entire 21st century armor company. The tradeoff? There's no bionic limb that can give you back your sense of touch, smell, or taste. Fortunately, you'll have potentially hundreds of years to get used to it.
We have to look a bit deeper into the other character classes in Rifts to find these tradeoffs. There's no downside to being a power armor pilot, after all. What about your friendly neighborhood Ley Line Walker? I think that the bargain exists there, as well. We just have to examine the characters.
Emperor Prosek wants YOU!
There is one surest way to be able to provide for your family, earn a comfortable wage, and be given the means to survive the terrors of the Rifts. Unfortunately, one might have to become a monster in order to survive them. Maybe you won't have fangs or be able to hurl fireballs, but by donning the black Death's Head of the Coalition States, make no mistake: you are trading in your humanity for security. An ideology of human supremacy and the systematic extermination of intelligent, but alien, beings weighs on the soul. It can be rationalized, just as any choices for survival may be, but it is no less a trade off in the end.
On your own
In an effort to survive, those who are unwilling to undergo human augmentation of some sort can train in the use of high-tech weaponry, power armor, and giant robots. These can make a man the equal of almost any demon on the planet. Unfortunately, if not gearing up at the behest of the Emperor and his war machine, one must shun the only real society of humans that exists, instead taking to the wilderness, seeking work as a soldier of fortune to support your needs for maintenance and rearming. As such, you'll never be trusted or honestly welcomed by civilized people. They've known too many gun-toting savages that fancied themselves tough enough to take what they want, from whoever they want. Plus, you're always at odds with the "legitimate" authorities, who view you as a criminal and have little regard for your right to remain breathing. You say that you can make enough to one day retire in security, but deep down, you know that will never happen.
If you can't beat them...
The study of magic is another way to level the playing field in this mad age. But, ultimately, you're playing with the fire that burned the world. You have little choice in your company, as you are shunned from the society that has the walls to keep out the monsters, and you're as likely to be shot dead as are the demons from the Rifts.
Power of the mind
The presence of magical energy on the planet has changed some people, somewhere deep down within their very makeup, awakening psychic powers. While not shunned to the degree of those taking up with monsters, psychics are made second class citizens, going so far as to be tagged and tracked. They are not really human, after all, but are some sort of mutation, too closely related to the Rifts to be entirely trusted. Ultimately, to stand any real chance of a life, psychics must either embrace the great Coalition civilization and play by those rules, or else shun that society and take chances in the wilderness with the misfits.
Of course, it's possible that any player character isn't looking to fit in with a human society, because he or she isn't human. This is the character that really must make sacrifices. The world isn't pretty for inhumans, who most people believe are to blame for the state of things to begin with. Even those that aren't outright human supremacists aren't likely to fully trust you, and if they do, they likely fit into one of the various categories above, which means they have their own issues to deal with.
Discard the rest
There are other classes, but in the end I think that these are the ones that really matter. Rifts could be a heck of a game if viewed through this lens, really adding some depth and theme. You wouldn't have to come out and say it on the front page. Many gamers don't really care about such things in any case, but just want to have fun. Still, that fun is often optimized when built on a platform of a setting that encourages making tough choices, even if it doesn't dwell on it.
Let me know what you think.
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