It's half-way through the year and I haven't submitted anything to rpg.net, despite an ever growing pile of books that I've put aside with the thought "Well, I've played this now, I'd better review it, even if it is so (a) I get that
feeling off my chest or (b) I can contribute to the common pool of knowledge so consumers can make a more informed choice. More to the point I do have a moral obligation to at least review those products which certain game companies have been so kind to provide me product, gratis
, despite an annoyingly dead-set average review rating from a hundred or so products.
So Rifts, a sort of "let's bring all the Palladium books together" into one product. There are numerous editions; the one I have is softback, 256p, two-column justified with a serif font, very nicely bound thank you very much with a good table of contents but no index. The black and white art is of a good standard and often in context and there is some full-colour plates which have a couple of very nice examples by Kevin Parkinson. Parkinson also did the cover art which, whilst quite competent in technique, fits the masturbatory fantasies of an early adolescent male with a conflicted mind (i.e., women in bodysuits with guns, under the harem controller of an ugly lizard-humanoid). The organisation of the book is a quite haphazard; it starts off sensibly enough with character generation, but then moves into skills and combat before character classes. Psionic and magical abilities are described after setting information.
A central "theme" in Rifts is human augmentation (I do wish game writers - and desktop programmers for that matter - would look up the meaning of 'theme'), added to "tears in the fabric of space and time" where lines of magic energy provide opportunities to bring in all sorts of bug-eyed aliens - and I mean bug-eyed, one of the most prominent is the insectoid Xiticix. Oh, and throw in a massive nuclear war for good measure which increased the potency of the rifts. So you get the idea; isolated pockets of augmented humans fighting each other and other-dimensional beings.
Enough for backstory, let's get stuck into chargen (on the second page of rules no less). It's standard Palladium fare, which annoyed me almost thirty years ago when I first encountered the rules and still does so today. Roll 3d6 for 8 attributes; if you roll a 16, 17, or 18, roll another 1d6. Except for a handful of abilities that are directly derived from the attribute score (e.g., Speed), bonuses don't kick in until a score of 17, and there are no penalties. Let me give some examples on how awful this is; one character has a physical strength of 3, another has a score of 16 (which is actually impossible to roll), and another has a scorfe of 17. How far can they throw a 1/2 pound object? The answer is, 50ft for the first two and 100 for the second. How about a character with an IQ score of 3, another with an IQ of 16, and another with 17? The first two receive no bonus to their skills, the latter receives a bonus of 3%. How about Physical Beauty scores of the same ratings? For the bonus to charm and impress the first two receive no bonus or penalty, the latter receives a bonus of +35%. Witness examples of just awful design, and please never do it yourself.
One exception is hit points which are directly derived from Physical Endurance, plus 1d6 per level. In addition to hit points there is Structural Damage Capacity, which ranges from 3d6 to 1d4*10 depending on character class. Damage is applied to SDC before hit points; physical objects have SDC as well, although not that will help them for in Rifts, most weapons do what is called mega-damage, which is 100 SDC per point. Of course mega is a prefix for million, not 100, but I guess hecto-damage doesn't sound as cool. Weapons that don't do mega-damage cannot damage MDC rated structures unless they do over 100 points in a single blow. Amazingly, MDC structures also include certain lightweight body armour, the tyres of vehicles, etc, and it is not unusual for a group of infantry, properly armed and armoured, to be more than a match for a high-powered mecha. So effectively any character skilled in the SDC scale of things, forget it, you're toast. MDC is the only level that a character has any chance of survival and with a constant level of escalation of firepower, the explosive power of the game becomes more outrageous as a campaign progresses.
As mentioned, this is a class-based system, specifically "Racial Character Classes" and "Occupational Character Classes", one per character. This includes a range of cyborgs, chemically-induced "juicers", hatchling-aged dragons, various magic-using professions, and perhaps the most interesting class, the "Coalition Dog Pack", being genetically uplifted dogs. There is also a chance across classes (9% major, 16% minor) of having psionic powers. There are about thirty character classes to choose from, with a very strong "let's blow stuff up" orientation . Character classes are not exactly what you would call balanced, either. Whilst it is an extreme example, consider the Glitter Boy, who receives a nice set of power armour and almost forty skills at various levels. The Vagabond on the other hand receives less skills, almost no equipment and less everything really. They don't even receive much of a bonus at level progression; the game provides different experience tables for different classes with a maximum cap at 15. Progression can be slow; as the author explains in their play-test of weekly nine-hour sessions over two years, nobody reached 10th level. In another hat-tip to a certain old game, Rifts has an alignment system for ethical and moral standards, differentiated into the good (principled and scrupulous), the selfish (unprincipled and anarchist) and the evil (miscreant, aberrant, and diabolic).
Rifts comes with about one hundred skills, split into the groups of Communications, Domestic, Electrical, Espionage, Mechanical, Medical, Military, Pilot, Rogue, Science, Technical, Weapon Profeciencies, and Wilderness. With a roll-under percentage system for resolution, skills have a base level plus 5% per level (the latter is mentioned on every skill). Some skills are given variable difficulty levels (e.g., gymnastics), whilst others are described in a single line (e.g., singing). The actual skill choices are appropriate for the contemporary to near-future setting, although some of the distinctions become decidedly odd; for example the mathematics skills is separated into basic (addition, subtraction etc) and advanced options (algebra, calculus etc) and chemistry and analytical chemistry. Note in the former case it is quite possible to have a character who is an expert at calculus, but is poor at basic addition.
The combat system in Rifts is based on rounds, with a d20 roll for initiative, and a to-hit roll versus the armour rating (AR) of the opponent, with a 1-4 representing a clean miss. The defender may respond with a parry, dodge, or entangle. Assuming that these actions are not successful, the attacker rolls damage, with critical strikes (natural 20) doing double damage. Against blunt weapons, the defender may Roll With the Punch, based on a roll greater than the attacker's resulting in half damage. Armour ratings do not apply to SDC damage; weapons that do MDC damage, or armour rated as MDC, do not receive this check. Volley attacks (e.g., power armour with missiles) are resolved as an all-or-nothing; either the entire volley strikes, or none do. Power armour also typically provides a bonus of multiple attacks, as the pilot receives their normal attack abilities and the Robot Combat skill.
There are some seventy psionic powers which cost ISP (Inner Strength Points) to activate. ISPs are recovered by sleep and meditation and are derived from the Mental Energy characteristic, plus 2d6, plus 1d6 per level. Saving throws against psionic attacks are determined on a d20 roll, with psionic-using characters having a lower threshold. These are largely passive abilities (e.g., resist pain, resist poison, astral travel), although there are some exceptions (e.g., Mentally Possess Others, Mind Bolt, Psi Sword). At a high expenditure of ISPs (40) a Mind Bolt can even do mega-damage (1d4). In addition to psionics there is some 150 spells, differentiated by class level (one to fifteen). Spells are powered by Potential Psychic Energy, which can be derived from ley lines, living creatures, seasons, lunar eclipses, and so forth. Like psionics, magic comes with a saving throw, with higher targets according to the level of the caster. Like the psionics system, offensive magic that is even remotely in the same damage categories at the flying men-at-arms in power armour is few and far between. A tenth level magic-user might be able to summon three hundred mice and protect their base with wards, but if some bozo in a Sky King blows the entire base to dust with a volley of plasma missiles, you might be giving second thoughts to the advantages of magic.
Now the Rifts setting is explicitly designed to be compatible with the the entire Palladium "Megaverse" (yeah, there's that prefix again), which does mean it has something for everyone. Teenaged mutant ninja turtles can rub shoulders with ninjas in Veritech fighters. Or something like that. As mentioned most of the world is declining and fragmented human states holding out against extra-dimensional demons, mutants, each other, and the effects of nuclear war. One of the major human factions in Rifts are the Coalition States, complete with smooth black uniforms with death heads. Pretty subtle compared to the flying transport characters which are in the shape of giant black skulls. This anti-alien, anti-mutant, ant-magic, monarchy is where the PCs are likely to harken from. Many pages are dedicated to what was the United States of America, because that is really the centre of the universe. Unsurpisingly, Atlantis has come back, the British Isles are one enormous magical zone, China is described in three sentences, and Sub-Saharan Afica has one. There is nothing in the sense of depth of setting, even down to trivial issues such as how sufficient food is produced.
Overall, there isn't much to recommend in Rifts. The system is a largely derivative hodge-podge from 1st edition AD&D, lacking in design consistency, scope, or creativity, but can be fun at times in the same way that being very drunk on cheap wine can be fun. Despite the - at first glance - wild, all-encompassing setting with everything turned up to eleven, there is very little dramatic opportunity in the game for a decent storyline. It has its moments, but plenty of other games have played around with the similar ideas with more interesting results and better implementation.
Style: 1 + .3 (layout) + .6 (art) + .2 (coolness) + .4 (readability) + .6 (product) = 3.1
Substance: 1 + .3 (content) + .3 (text) + .4 (fun) + .2 (workmanship) + .2 (system) = 2.5