Friday, October 4, 2013

Rifts: Initial Research

As I mentioned in an earlier post, on of my goals for this year is to run a Rifts campaign. I intend to play it straight, I am not planning on running a tongue in cheek, campy Rifts campaign. I am planning on running a serious, well thought out Rifts campaign. I already had this goal in mind when I went to GenCon. At that point, based on what I had heard about Rifts over the years (and my own minor personal experience), I was not even sure that was possible. I picked up Rifts Ultimate Edition at GenCon and I have read through it, the Gamemasters Guide, and the Adventure Guide, as these were recommended to me as the core books (along with Rifts Magic). After reading them, I think that this is a sound recommendation and I would repeat it for others interested in getting started in Rifts. Below are my first impressions of the Rules and the Setting:

The Rules

My primary impression of the rules is that they are not completely functional as written and are going to require extensive house-ruling. I know, from my time spent on the very friendly Palladium forums, that this is a controversial statement for many people, but I stand by it. The rules have a serious timing issue. This is not an uncommon problem with pre-d20 game systems, AD&D 1st Edition has more than one initiative system, they are not compatible with each other, and there is no recognition of this fact anywhere in the Players' Handbook or Dungeon Master Guide. So Rifts is not alone in this problem.  The Rifts combat rules are written with only one-on-one fights in mind, and the only real advice given is to divide combats up into separate one-on-one fights. This may not have been awful advice in 1990, but modern players are going to balk at this. The other timing related issue is that Rifts initiative/attacks-per-round/movement system is nonsense. It is set up in such a way that a character with a low number of actions will cover the same amount of ground in a shorter time than a character with a high number of actions. This is because of the way movement is divided by the number of attacks your character gets per a round, instead of having set phases in the round like HERO System. 

Luckily this is not a terminal problem with the system, and is easily fixed with house rules. In fact the way Rifts is set up, there is enough detail to make a highly tactical, miniatures based system, with very little work. There is also enough freedom to make a more narrative, freeform, theater of the mind system. I intend to do both, as this can easily be done with the same set of stats without undermining character powers. I will use narrative system for some fights, and a minis system for other, more tactically complex fights.

There are some other issues with the rules that need to be cleaned up, such as the way that they are written does not actually allow you to play them if you followed them literally like a computer. Much digital ink has been spilled on this issue, so you can Google it if you want more depth.

One of the most often cited issues with Rifts is that the character classes are not balanced. I do not have a problem with this. I don't think that Rifts is intended to be as combat heavy as D&D 3.X, so this does not bother me. Granted Rifts books are full of gun porn, but they are also full of non-combat skills. When you consider that this game is from 1990, the sheer amount of skills indicates that the designer intended for a lot of time to be spent on things like investigation and social activities. The other reason the class balance issue does not bother me is that it is not as bad as it initially seems. Sure the Glitter Boy is ridiculous if you assume that all of the classes will be going toe-to-toe, but put him somewhere where he might have to get to the top of a tight, wooden staircase and he is hosed. The Glitter Boy, and the other combat classes, are clearly superior in combat (although different kinds) but the other classes have the outclassed in almost everything else. I should mention that this only holds true for the core book, the sourcebooks are all over the place and will require some adjustment. I will get into this more in the setting section, but this is not the kind of game where you use everything, you need to focus on the style of game you want and incorporate the elements that make it work. In many ways Rifts is a game making toolkit, not a game itself.

The Setting
Rifts has a lot of setting, it is basically setting vomit. Rifts apparently contains every idea that anyone at Palladium Books has ever had. This is not really a problem, because of the ground rules involving the setting. But, there is no way you can use it all, it is overwhelming. By the time I finished with the core books, I was sure that I did not want to run a Coalition States campaign.

There are several reasons for my reluctance to use the default setting. For one, there is a lot of meta-plot involving the Rifts Mid-West, and it is spread throughout an insane number of books. Sadly, this metaplot seems to not be all that great, and mostly be contrived to sell more books. In other words, in many ways, the Coalition States are Palladium's business model. I know that I could ignore most of this if I wanted to, and that brings me to the second issue. The other, more exotic locales, are much more interesting. The Coalition States are basically Judge Dredd meets Gamma World, the rest of the world is full of all kinds of crazy stuff.

That brings me to the second decision I need to make about my campaign setting, do I confine it to one area of Rifts Earth or allow travel between areas. There are several areas of Rifts Earth that interest me, The Vampire Kingdoms, South America, Japan, China, Russia, and Underseas. I have to face the fact that I am only likely to run one Rifts campaign in my life. Getting the group together for this one might prove hard enough. Because of this I would like to hit several areas, but I don't want to go crazy with it and do a world tour.

Fortunately the areas I am interested in present a possible solution, Rifts Pacific. I could add in Australia and confine my game to just Pacific Rim areas. For now I am focusing on learning more about Rifts Japan, but I don't see any reason that I should not be able to pull this off, perhaps in a New Navy centered game. This has the added benefit that given my geographic location, a Navy based game might be popular.

More to follow...