Thursday, April 22, 2010

Rethinking Rifts

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.
Nice, huh?

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.

Looking deeper

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.

Unwelcome guest

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.

Further reading

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Lord Zaboem said...

Insightful as always, J-bomb! I have to agree with you in your conclussion that the transhuman theme in Rifts has always been a minor theme and probably accidental. From the orinignal main rules book, I believe that only three of many character classes even used on this theme: Juicers, Crazies, and Borgs. It could be argued that the Cyberdoc touched on the theme also. Most other classes (various mutants and aliens and skilled adventurers) never make that choice unless they get a leg shot off in game. In subsequent books, alternative routes to transhumanism like Holy Terrors, Anti-Monsters, and Mystic Knights were still a clear minority of character concept options. Only Juicer Uprisings had transhumans as a focus.

Jason Richards said...

Good point on Juicer Uprisings. I think that book is responsible for most of the depth of the Juicer class, and that probably leaked into other classes. You know, Crazies even get less of a tradeoff as more books are published. The Crazy gunslinger guy in New West mysteriously is a "more advanced" type that gets fewer insanities. What the what? Lame.

-Mark said...

The treatment of Crazies, especially in the Ultimate Edition, annoyed me. They're usually played as zany... Bugs Bunny in a ninja suit. But even hyper, their cumulative insanities should be causing massive stress and personality irregularities.

What drove me nuts in the Ultimate Edition was the treatment of Crazies was the nano-MOM technology... that you could have Crazies who don't have soda can's sticking out of their heads. Why do they have them anyway, though? Because they're CRAZY and want to look like it. It seems a poorly thought out rationale, since they wouldn't be crazy when they got the modification, and if the smaller version had any advantages (such as "Being able to wear a helmet"), they're not going to be outweighed by "I'm an unstable nutjob who might kill everyone or might wash my hands until my healing factor kicks in."

seaofstarsrpg said...

Juicers were one of the few character concepts from Rifts that I actually thought was interesting. But I very much like the dark sell-your-soul (or at least your body) to survive theme you and Jason Marker are playing with here.

Jason Richards said...

@Mark, the RUE Crazy bothers me as well. It's a classic case of Palladium trying to reconcile art to flavor text. To be fair to RUE, it never matched up in the original version, either, but the text was just silent on it until recently.

@seaofstarsrpg, Juicers are definitely a strong concept. If there is ever going to be a Rifts video game or movie or TV show or whatever, I'd expect Juicers to play a central role.

Jason Marker said...

"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."

Correct, it was never there as more than a passing reference, if at all. It was always something that fascinated me, though. Honestly, I'm pretty much an expert at reading more into something than is really there. You pretty much summed up in a paragraph what I took three pages to write. Well said.

Jason Marker said...

Oh, and also, regarding your distaste for the RUE crazies, that's something else I agree with. It's a larger problem with mental illness in gaming on the whole, though. It's not just Crazies (which is truly a shit name for a character class), but also Malkavians (which I'm guilty of playing), and lots of other "crazy" character classes in RPGs. They're all portrayed as funny, clowny super-ninjas who spout non-sequiturs and act hyper. Not, you know, actual tragically affected people with a real disease. Don't even get me started on the knobs on the head, either.

Jason Richards said...

@Marker, You need to post your character intro on the "Crazy" that you wrote a while back. She had a doll, I believe.

-Mark said...

Actually, I wrote a piece for the Rifts anthology that got lost (I drek you not; both the original manuscript for Mysteries of Magic and my short story got lost) about a Crazy who is, well, crazy. He's paranoid. He's a bit delusional. He's convinced his hand is trying to kill him.

Since Palladium misplaced it, I posted it to MY blog... which I'll hopefully be migrating soon.

mithril said...

one of the big problems with the juicers and crazies (and to a lesser extent, the Borgs) is that there really isn't a penalty involved in their augmentation. i mean, sure. borgs have reduced senses, and can't reproduce. juicers have a reduced lifespan, and crazies eventually go nuts.

but in a game by game perspective, these aren't really drawbacks. so a juicer only lives 5 years..unless your GM is a OCD timekeeper, this little fact is pointless. crazies go nuts..eventually. they start with no insanities (beyond being daffy duck, apparently), and don't start accumulating enough mental problems t really offset their abilities until they've hit high levels. but unless you have a mountyhaul GM or play the same character for a decade straight, your not likely to rech that break-even point. and despite having less than half the sensory acuity of a person in regards to touch, borgs have basically zero penalties to skills and activities that really need sensitive hands.

if we were doing a "rifts 2.0", you'd really need to add some mechanics to give game by game drawbacks ot playing such augmented characters. for example, perhaps every time a Crazy uses his augmented abilities, he runs a greater risk of "freaking out" in a mental breakdown, where he manifests (temporarily) the traits of a random insanity. and stays there until those "tension points" or whatever reduce back down to zero. so a crazy has super-human abilities..but actually using them has them riding the edge of sanity.

likewise a juicer might take a small amount of SDC damage every melee if they use their superhuman abilities for too long, as the juice literally keeps their bodies going full tilt beyond their natural limits.

and Borgs could have penalties to skills requiring fine motor control and senses of touch. so medical skills, a number of physical skills, even using a computer without a datajack would all occur at a penalty.

they'd still have their superhuman traits, and still have the long term problems as current, but you'd have to play them "smarter" on a game by game level, since you now have temporary drawbacks that pop up in every game.

EvilTwinBrian said...

I like the knobs on the head for the Crazies. Only because they're fun to draw and look wild. The problem is (as was mentioned) helmets are a bit of a problem, and in a world with MDC (I'm not really a big fan of MDC), no helmet = quick death.

Shifters always seemed to have more of a "flavor" drawback than an actual contract of servitude with an evil being as well. At least IMO anyway.

Jason Richards said...

@mithril: Good points, to be sure. However, not everything needs a bonus/penalty tradeoff in real-time game terms. This, in my opinion, is a large problem in a number of role-playing games. There doesn't have to be a downside. It's okay for some characters to be far more powerful than others. I mean, does an athlete using steroids to become substantially more competitive than his peers suffer any real trade-offs in his performance? Not really. Down the road, maybe, but for the most part the only effects are positive.

By necessity, if powers and abilities all live by tradeoffs of buffs and penalties, then those pluses and minuses may be optimized. Next thing you know, you're not role-playing at all, but min-maxing for combat efficiency.

Obviously I made a leap there, but you see it in system after system. Talking about mechanics is for another post, but I think that Marker had it right in his blog that inspired this topic. Games that have a "humanity" measure of some sort have a better grip on what it means to do one of these deals with the devil in strict game terms.

That's why I approached the topic as I did, focusing on theme. As I said, you don't even have to ever say it explicitly, but if the designer approaches the setting with that theme in mind, it will show through in the material.

Helmsman said...

I don't think the trade-offs between normalcy and power were accidental. That was one of the more advanced things Palladium was doing in the good old days. They'd eschew "point balance" for social trade-offs. The Glitter Boy was power incarnate, but you couldn't wear it into a tavern. The juicer was a badass, but his achievements were less meaningful because he probably wouldn't live long enough to enjoy them. Add in Xenophobia on one side and cloistered fraternity on the other and you had a lot of social restrictions and caveats to manage.

The problem was that all those great social precedents kind-of lacked teeth when there was less than no mechanical representation for it. I get the argument against social mechanics but in a game where you can manipulate people's thoughts there really should be a bit more then what they had.

My solution has been (and is) to create a system where there are social mechanics that help back up the themes in the game. Integrated closely with sanity, it becomes a far closer to the original game as I think everyone envisioned it. A game about survival and trade-offs and wondering if it really is best to choose the lesser of two evils.

Brian said...

Sounds like that new Eclipse Phase game - which isn't a bad thing from what I hear of it.

I've pushed the reset button for Rifts if I were to ever GM it again, with a focus on mankinds adaptability and perseverance.

Jason Richards said...

Rifts is still a hell of a kitchen sink game if you pick and choose your source material, in my opinion.

Thanks, everyone, for the responses. We'll do more Rifts revision talk next week, for sure. In the meantime, keep it coming.

Steve Dubya said...

I too think that both the Juicer and Crazy classes need to have some sort of better structured mechanical hindrances applied to them; for Juicers in particular, it struck me that they also should have some sort of table to roll on (like the Crazy) every level where something starts to go wrong with their body - the sort of stuff like would happen during the "Last Call" described in 'JU.' It could really drive home the choice that has to be made to stay a Juicer, where you MIGHT be able to get by and keep kicking ass, but you also might start to suffer serious side effects as the drugs destroy your system.

On a slightly different tack, I stumbled across a somewhat different approach to post-apoc fantasy called 'Apocalypse World'( - check out the "player's refbook" to get an idea of the system) by the guy who did 'Dogs in the Vineyard.' It seems to focus heavily on relationships one needs to make in order to get by in a ruined world.

Jason Richards said...

I'll check it out, Steve. Might make a good subject of discussion along this vein for a future post.

One thing this thread has inspired me to do is to write some characters based on re-imagined Juicer/Crazy/Borg concepts as Complete Characters in future weeks. They'll definitely need to be illustrated, though, so I guess I need to look for some more artists.

FenrathJurath said...

I have been working on a system style rifts conversion for a long while now. I love the setting, I cant stand the system, as most people. I have put together a few well known systems to try and make the game playable, but yet still true to the danger of walking around rifts earth.

Feel free to take a look, I have no claim to the material, just using it for my personal table. Comments are welcome.

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