256 page softcover, full color cover, color plates, black and white illustrations. The graphical elements are one of Rifts' greatest strengths. The cover is a striking and alien image, part science-fiction, part supernatural horror, part S&M cheesecake. Images of mechanical walkers, battle-blasted mechs, urban punks, and winged demons throughout convey a sense of the Rifts milieu. The book is written in a conversational, often engaging style, but suffers from 8th grade prose and an occasional surfeit of exclamation marks. Not every important sense needs to be punctuated with an exclamation! Sometimes, a period will do just fine!
The book's biggest flaw lies in its haphazard and quirky organization. Sometimes, sub-sections have headers in the same size and font as their section headers. All the O.C.C.'s, including Coalition classes, are located in one section, but Coalition military equipment has a separate section from the rest. Notes on Coalition propoganda pop up in the description of the Coalition Grunt. Much of the material is obviously reprinted, sometimes with amusing incongruities. For instance, the description for "Power Armor Elite Combat Training" notes that a kick does 1d6 M.D., but can be performed "only in battloid mode," while the .45 Model 15 General Officer's automatic is described as, "Formerly the side-arm of the U.S. military, now commonly found throughout the world." To be clear, there are no Robotech-style transforming mechs in Rifts, nor would a conventional side arm be considerable to any military in the Rifts world. The skills for piloting powered robots are located under Skills, but the granted bonuses are under Combat. The robots themselves appear nearly a hundred pages later. Conventional hand to hand skills, and the bonuses they grant, both appear under Skills.
The eight attributes are determined by rolling 3d6 for each of I.Q., Mental Endurance, Mental Affinity, Physical Strength, Physical Prowess, Physical Endurance, Physical Beauty, and Speed. On an exceptional roll, 16, 17, or 18, an additonal 1d6 is rolled and added. Scores of 17 or higher rate special bonuses.
I.Q. represents intelligence. A high I.Q. grants a small percentage bonus to all skills. Rifts somewhat simplistically asserts that multiplying I.Q. by ten results in "exact I.Q."
A high Mental Endurance (M.E.) grants a bonus to save vs. psionics/insanity. There are many psionics in Rifts, but curiously, no saves vs. insanity, although there are extensive insanity tables.
A high Mental Affinity (M.A.) grants a percentage chance to invoke trust or intimidation. Presumably, less gifted characters have no such ability. Many monsters, and some characters, have an unrelated Horror Factor, that inspires fear, and uses a saving throw.
A high Physical Strength (P.S.) grants a bonus to melee damage and reflects the ability to lift and throw large weights. Characters of P.S. of 17 can carry 20 times their P.S. in pounds, twice as much as someone of lesser strength. For supernatural creatures, a high P.S. has a different meaning entirely. Such characters can carry 50 times their P.S. in pounds. Supernatural strength seems to have an arbitrary relationship with normal strength.
A high Physical Prowess (P.P.) grants a bonus to strike, parry, or dodge in hand-to-hand combat. It does not grant the same bonuses to ranged attacks.
A high Physical Endurance (P.E.) grants a bonus to save vs. coma, death, poison, or magic. Unlike the M.E. bonus to save vs. insanity, all of these appear to be actual saves.
A high Physical Beauty (P.B.) grants an ability to "charm/impress." Curiously, M.A. is described as "charm and charisma." It's also worth noting that despite the hundreds of intelligent races on Rifts Earth, P.B. is rated in human terms.
Speed (Spd, for the lazy) is just running speed. There is considerable variation among characters. However, as Rifts is not a map-grid based game, it makes little difference, except to inspire mockery of slow-moving characters.
There are no penalties for low Attributes. One likely reason are the frequency of low Attributes. Since there are eight Attributes, the likelihood that one Attribute will be unusually low is quite high. If penalties were assessed, probably every other character would be generated with one deficient Attribute. The more Attributes you have, the more likely of having at least one especially low or high score. The chance of rolling a 3, for instance, is 1:216. That means that just under one in twenty characters is going to have a 3. That's quite a lot. The only penalties assessed, however, are the inability to enter certain O.C.C.'s (character classes). However, as the requirements are typically rather lax, that's rarely a problem, unless you have a specific character concept in mind.
Psionics are also determined randomly. Psionics are fairly common in Rifts, especially among adventurers. If, however, you choose a psionic O.C.C., this part of the character creation is ignored. Besides humans, you also have the choice of playing nonhuman characters. In the core book, two options are Dog Boys (genetically engineered psionic peacekeepers) and hatchling Dragons. It's a curious aspect of character creation that you can choose between being a powerful Dragon or a normal human, but you cannot choose between playing a smart human and a dumb one, or a psychically talented City Rat and a non-psionic Headhunter, unless you plead with the Game Master.
Interestingly enough, you are supposed to roll for Psionics before deciding whether to play a Master Psionic R.C.C., to determine S.D.C. before determining O.C.C., and Hit Points before knowing your final P.E. S.D.C. are like superficial hit points. Hit Points are vital damage. Curiously, your Hit Points grow as you level, while your S.D.C. remain the same, apart from acquiring new physical skills. For some reason, the difference between S.D.C. and M.D.C. is sandwiched in the middle of character creation as, "Step 3: Mega-Damage and M.D.C." Characters also have alignments. There are no neutral alignments. Characters are described as basically good, basically selfish, or basically evil. Although each comes with a laundry list of do's and don't, alignment in Rifts is more flexible than in D&D.
The next step is to choose your Occupational Character Class (O.C.C.) or Racial Character Class (R.C.C.). Occupational character classes are learned skill packages, whereas R.C.C.'s are based on your natural gifts, such as a mutant facility for psionics or your natural dragon abilities. Men of Arms O.C.C.'s include the Borgs (bionic superhumans, more machine than human), various Coalition military specialists, Crazies (insane warriors created through mind over matter cybernetics), Cyber-Knights (a cross between Jedi Knights and paladins, with cybernetic implants), Glitter Boys (freelancers in massive robot armor), Headhunters (high-tech mercenaries), and Juicers (drug-enhanced super-soldiers with a short lease on life). Scholars and Adventurers include Body Fixers (medical doctors), City Rats (urban rebels), Cyber-Docs (cybernetic specialists), Operators (gifted technologists), Rogue Scientists (rugged seekers of the unknown), Rogue Scholars (voices of reason and resistance in the Dark Ages of Rifts Earth), and Wilderness Scouts (outdoorsy types). Practitioners of Magic include Line Walkers (wizards with an expertise in magical energies), Mystics (intuitive psychic/magic characters), Shifters (experts of dimensional rifts and the creatures from them), and Techno-Wizards (who use their powers to infuse technology with elements of magic). The Psychic R.C.C.s include Dog Boy (canine thrall of the Coaltion), Mind Melter (psychic superpower), Burster (super pyrokinetic), or Psi-Stalker (psychic vampire who must feed on the supernatural). Finally, there are young Dragons in their first few centuries of life, brimming with curiosity, magic, and a touch of psychic powers. The book promises many more character types in future supplements, a promise born out in two dozen worldbooks, several dimension books, various sourcebooks, and the magazine The Rifter.
Each O.C.C. comes with a selection of skills, a choice of other occupational skills, and a number of secondary skills. Each also has a suggested starting equipment package. Physical skills often raise physical Attributes. It is not difficult, through careful selection, for even the most book-bound character to have an impressive P.S. by the end of this process, depending on the skills chosen. Boxing, uniquely, offers an additional hand ot hand attack in addition to those granted by your Hand to Hand skill. Since hand to hand attacks are also the basis of ranged combat and even robot combat, it is very attractive for any character who can learn Boxing to take it, especially sharpshooters and robot pilots.
Rifts uses a number of resolution systems. Skills use a simple percentile system. There are tables for insanity and serious injury. Combat uses a d20.
There are two kinds of structures in Rifts. First, there are regular S.D.C. structures like brick buildings, trees, and steel girders. Then there are M.D.C. (Mega Damage Capacity) structures like high-tech armor. Ordinary humans are equivalent to S.D.C. and have hit points as well, while powerful creatures of magic have M.D.C. S.D.C. weapons, like knifes, rifles, grenades, or punches, cannot damage M.D.C. structures. Conversely, M.D.C. weapons like lasers, vibro-weapons, and powerful magical claws do 100x damage to S.D.C. structures. In other words, there is a vast disparity between the weapons and powers available to ordinary people, versus the awesome powers wielded by men of magic, robot pilots, and soldiers. Any M.D.C. weapon is nearly certain death to anything without exotic defenses.
To hit in combat, roll a d20. If the result is 4 or higher, you hit. The defender generally has the chance to dodge or parry. This process continues until everyone has used up all their attacks. Some things also have an Armor Rating (A.R.). If you hit, but roll less than the A.R., you damage the armor. If you roll higher, you hit a vulnerable location and hurt your target. A.R. is more or less an artifact from earlier Palladium games. In Rifts, conventional armor is fairly useless, since even if it protects you, one or two points of mega-damage will blow it away and you with it. M.D.C. armor, on the other hand, does not usually have an A.R., except in the case of cyber-armor (a cybernetic feature common to cyber-knights), which has an A.R. of 18. The rule was obviously designed with giant robots and extremely powerful supernatural creatures in mind. However, personal armor in Rifts is also M.D.C. Even suits that aren't environmentally sealed provide complete protection until destroyed. This is true even of armor that does not cover the face! Exclamation point! In fact, in Rifts England, this reaches the ridiculous level of ponchos made of giant leaves that provide M.D.C. armor, despite covering less than half the wearer. Since S.D.C. weapons are nearly useless in Rifts except for hunting or for oppressing peasants, nearly everything does M.D.C. Vibro-weapons, dragon claws, and hand-held laser pistols will all instantly vaporize any person they hit. As written, I'm not sure a vibro-weapon could be used to sever a hand, since even one point of mega-damage is supposed to turn an S.D.C. target into a smear.
The natural result of this, of course, is that someone with a laser pistol cannot take out someone wearing a leaf poncho without blasting through its armor or taking some kind of called shot. It also means that Glitter Boys spend a lot of their time in the repair shop.
Magic is based on P.P.E., psionics on I.S.P. Both work basically the same: a reserve of energy used to power special abilities. P.P.E. can be siphoned from others, giving Rifts a different feel than your typical fantasy RPG. The selection of spells was largely cribbed from Palladium Fantasy, with some modifications. Although most spells are roughly the same, perhaps with a slightly longer range, spells that cause or absorb damage either have an additional, higher P.P.E. level they can be cast it, for about four times the normal damage, or do mega-damage.
Rifts is the supreme pizza with extra anchovies of RPGs. The premise is that a near-future Earth suffered a massive nuclear war. The huge cost in life released untold levels of P.P.E. and rose Atlantis from the deep, turning Earth into a multi-dimensional nexus. Everything from every Palladium book ever published has made its way through those nexi into a post-apocalyptic wilderness. It's sort of like the Thundarr the Barbarian cartoon, plus Gamma World, Shadowrun, and BattleTech. Also, Heroes Unlimited crossovers appear with disturbing frequency. The most prominent elements, though, are creatures and concepts from Palladium Fantasy and Beyond the Supernatural.
This does mean there is literally something for everyone. If you want to play a ninja, and can deal with mega-damage personal armor, a vibro-sword, and a mega-damage motorcycle (and who doesn't want that?), you're set. Cyborg elves? Check. Hotshot flying robot pilots? Loads of 'em. There's definitely a level of appeal to the "more ninjas and super-intelligent apes" approach. I haven't been able to spot a Rifts zeppelin, although there are Techno-wizards in aviator goggles on flying surfboards.
Rifts has a strong emphasis on heroism. I quote, from the introduction: "Even the cosmic fury of a world gone mad could not completely eradicate all human life. However, it would take mankind hundreds of year to crawl out of the abyss that swallowed him. It is at this moment, as humankind fially crawls back into the light of a new dawn that our story unfolds." That's a good way to conceive a game, and I like the spirit in which that was written. Rifts is about adventurers, those set apart from the major part of humanity just trying to survive. Some aspire to the ideals of chivalry and humanism, while others are courageous outlaws like Mad Max, Conan, or Yojimbo. The people they meet along the way are terrified, common people. Even a simple trip into the woods is unthinkable since the time of the Rifts. Adventurers are the bridges between one isolated fortress and the next, and between the past and the future. The world of Rifts is extremely dangerous. Even great heroes can fall prey to magic, tyranny, or treachery. Day to day survival is a moral statement in a world over-run with fascism, warfare, and supernatural demons. It's a world conceived with a great deal of drama and humanity.
Each region in the Rifts world has a unique role. The North American Coalition States, the setting outlined in the core rulebook, is ruled by a fascist, racist empire, opposed by loose alliances of rogue scholars, knight-errants, and urban free-thinkers. In the surrounding wilderness, demons lurk, as well as hidden realms of magic or aliens. Dragons and evil Supernatural Intelligences spin plots that span generations, just outside the Coalition's sight and grasp. Mexico swarms with vampires. Germany, on the other hand, is a technology-based world power. You can almost change games just by traveling a thousand miles or so in any direction. While it would be possible to describe Rifts as diffuse, the depth of detail makes it impossible to describe as sketchy or vague. While Rifts is a multi-genre game, much like Torg, Shadowrun, or Mage, in some ways it has more in common with vast, alien milieus such as Talislanta, Glorantha, or the Forgotten Realms.
Some elements train plausibility. For instance, if it takes a million credits to create a Juicer or a Crazy, and the Coalition states do not tolerate and will not create them, how did so many end up North America? Why would someone spend a million credits to create a Juicer, who is going to die in five years anyway? How is farming possible, when horrible demons might attack at any time? Why do so many D-bees look like humans, and why are there so many evil horrors with tentacles? However, as a fantasy setting, such flaws are not too hard to forgive.
Rifts is a problemetic game. However, most of its flaws are logical flaws, not playability issues. If it doesn't bother you that a laser pistol does a hundred times the damage of a revolver, but the game differentiates between a Sewing skill of 25% and 28%, then you are ready to play Rifts. It does have the interesting back story and the workable mechanics to actually play. While it excels in resolution, it frequently falters in simulation. The philosophy followed by the authors seems to be that it is the GMs job to improvise, as they cannot define a rule for every situation. However, it is difficult to appreciate that sentiment while recording the skill percentages of a couple of dozen skills, or tracking the effects of serious hit point damage, or attempting to cure compulsive lying (a frequent complaint of Rifts characters suffering trauma).
The setting is huge, and sometimes illogical, but easily condenses down to what is required for the story. If you don't like an element, it is easy enough to discard. Likewise, just about anything can be added, if you care to dive under the hood and whip up an O.C.C. or gadget or two.
The question is, Rifts, yes or no? This is definitely a game that is designed for fun. Big guns, big numbers, big bad guys. However, I think the tedium of character creation and NPC statting, along with certain logical problems, hamper this design goal. I can think of two reasons to play Rifts. First, nostalgia. If you have played it in the past, it might be worth revisiting, just for the wacky Rifts-ness of it all. Second, it may be you have a special affinity for the Rifts world and dinosaur-like mechanics. If so, it should be relatively easy to acquire a used copy and a few sourcebooks for $$ cheap $$. For the average gamer, though, with a limited interest in learning new systems, with a taste for at least somewhat thoughtful settings, Rifts is likely not your cup o' tea.
The task of converting Rifts wholesale into another system is formidable, but not impossible, especially if you restrict your conversion to those things you actually intend to use. GURPS is an obvious choice; a lot of Rifts-like technology already exists in the various books. You would then need to devise a magic system, and figure out point costs. HERO System might be more forgiving; since everything, from lasers to lightning spells, is already defined within the same system, you'd simply have to scale your game appropriately. BESM, to me, seems like the best choice, since it is already designed to handle both mecha and wild sorcery and psychics. A better approach than a wholesale conversion, though, might be a Rifts adaptation. Many of the concepts, like the Coalition states, vampire intelligences, or super-technology, can provide a great deal of inspiration to other games. Or the Rifts world, as a whole, might serve as your model, with problematic story or game elements removed. While a Rifts without Temporal Raiders might not be Rifts, it could still be enjoyable. GURPS Mecha, Psionics, Technomancer, and Y2K could be used as the basis of a Rifts-like game. You could use the Coalition states, demons, rifts, and such, but use GURPS magic and high technology. You wouldn't have mages melting mechs with lightning bolts, of course. That may or may not be preferable to your style. Maybe you'd like to run a high-powered HERO game, but without Psi-Stalkers.
Overall, Rifts is many fascinating and fun ideas, hampered by weak design. If you see a copy used, and have never explored the Rifts universe before, I suggest it might be worth your time. However, this is neither a serious game for the mature hobbyist, nor a light introduction for the beginner. It has plenty of quirk and charm, besides being an important landmark of commercially successful RPGs. And it is, of course, "compatible with the entire Palladium Books Megaverse!"