Friday, July 15, 2011

Through the RIFTS

My first experiences with roleplaying games were at a buddy's house where he would DM completely on the fly, making up NPCs as needed on the spot and flipping through the Monster Manual at random. Sometimes he would combine these, leading to one memorable encounter with a Titan sheriff.

There was never a plot or a dungeon per say, but it kept the dice rolling and the kids entertained for a few hours. Then someone scored a copy of the RIFTS rulebook and things took a turn for the awesomely weird.

This was nothing we'd ever seen before: a weird blend of science, magic and post apocalyptic mayhem. At some point, we'd played a few rounds of Gamma World, but the enthusiastic GM had moved away taking all the books with him. But what set RIFTS apart for us, was the sense of Scale. It was a game where the rule of thumb quite literally was, Anything Goes.

Believe it or not, one of these guys became one of our most feared characters.

Plus, new books appeared were constantly popping up with new critters, new equipment and new lands to explore.

Over the years, we played through an army of characters, explored not only the earth, but other planets and other planes of existence. We stole eagerly and shamelessly from movies, TV and books, even our own campaigns from different games. There was rarely any extended plot arc, but it was glorious while it lasted.

We even devised a spin off game we simpley called "Arena", where we took on the roles of gladiator owners. We each selected a creature or OCC (Occupational Character Class, ie a race or profession, sometimes both) and had a set amount of cash to spend on anything we found in the books. Then we pitted them against each other using a HEX sheet and counters to determine distance.

What killed the campaign in the end was, and this seems to be a common refrain for RIFTS and Palladium, were the rules. I can even remember the specific encounter where we all had a sort of collective WTF moment. One PC, a full-conversion cyborg, was standing six feet from a particularly large mecha and they were simply firing full-bore at each other. There was no finesse, no tactics, simply he who had the better armour and biggest damage roles, would win. Now under other circumstances this might not have been so bad, even made for an interesting gamer story, except that what we all realized was that almost ALL our battles had come to this. All the PCs had the best weapons and armour, and the GMs kept having to put them up against tougher and tougher enemies. Even rebooting the campaign with low level characters did not work as the players already knew all the tricks. It was like replaying a videogame with the cheat codes on.

After a few earnest attempts to revive the enthusiasm we'd had for the game in our earlier days, including a massive, but ultimately abandoned project to convert the whole mess into WEG's d6 system, we let it slip away and the massive library of RIFTS books I'd accumulated were soon collecting dust under my bed. When I moved cross-country, they did not even make the cut and were sold en-masse to a second hand book shop.

Having since gone on to read dozens, if not hundreds of other games, I have to concede that the Palladium rules system is truly dismal. I think when we were younger the rules did not matter so much, we were much more interested in the world and its possibilities. Once we'd played that out to the length of its considerably long tether, the crunch of the system began to intrude and eventually we would be eagerly looking over new books, not for story ideas, but for the biggest gun and most MDC armour.

Next to Star Wars, RIFTS has probably has been the game I've played the most and I still have a great deal of affection for it, but I doubt I'll ever get the urge to play it again.

Which is kind of a shame, really, because some of this stuff was hella cool.

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