Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Savage RIFTS: Do the Rules Make the Game?

We played the shit out of RIFTS. In retrospect, that was the only way to play it. The whole thing was a masterclass in nineties awesomeness where you could happily mash together anything and have it still make sense in context. The premise of the ame was that a world-wide nuclear war creates so much death that the resulting psychic fallout re-opens the dormant, magical ley-lines that crisscrossed the glob. And where those lines crossed, extra-dimensional Rifts opened to allow anything to cross through. That was the whole point. Wanna play a psionic, cybernetic Elf? On RIFTS Earth, that was strictly amateur hour. 
Put this in the pilot seat of a mecha made of alien dragon hide, and you're getting closer. 
It was awesome.

It also had some of the worst rules I have ever played and we played it for years. I ran campaigns that lasted for months, I played in dozens of my buddy's games, we created spin offs (one was a fighting game we simply called Arena) ... and after all that and I could not even begin to tell you how it was played. We usually just rolled what we thought was best. I do remember that mega-hit points were called MDC, player characters were called OCC and RCC (big on acronyms), and that skills were percentile rolls, and that my main character was a four-foot round, teleporting circus acrobat that could summon a blazing psionic sword and I am absolutely not kidding about that. 

Show this to a member of my old gaming group, and they will cut you.
Things came to a head when we realized that even basic combat would take entire game-sessions to resolve, consisting of endless rounds of dice rolled in a race to see whose 6D6x100MDC mega-rockets would deplete the opponent’s 200,000MDC armour the fastest. I think the last straw was a fight were we realized that the entire battle was played out as two mega-alien-cyborgs standing five feet apart and just unloading nuclear missiles at each other.
Like this, only boring. 
The rules were clearly too fecked to play anymore, but by this point we'd spent thousands of dollars on supplements and had racked up some crazy gaming stories to bore our spouses senseless with when we get together for summer BBQs. So what did we do? One (clearly sexless) month, a buddy and I came up with a conversion system that took the glorious hot mess that was RIFTS into the relatively streamlined rules of our other main game; WEG D6 Star Wars.

Then we played the new system and it actually worked. In fact it worked better. WEG system has to take into account Jedi and Star Destroyers and Ewoks, so the system already has rules for scaling up or down, and this had the side effect of making humans and other 'squishy' (RIFTS' actual term for non-superhuman races) characters a playable option, probably for the first time since the game was published.
According to the official rules, this happens exactly six seconds
after you choose to play a regular human character. 
I think we played it for about a term. While it was fun, something about it just wasn't RIFTS. By streamlining the rules, the gonzo quality that had been part of the game was gone. It wasn't conscious decision, we just kinda stopped playing it and eventually none of my RIFTS books survived my cross country move.

Why bring this up?

According to the rumour mill RIFTS is going Savage Worlds. But will it survive? Just how linked are a game's world and it rule-system? Will new players even care that it used to have a completely unworkable rules system? Will it still feel like the same RIFTS to veteran players? This is going to be a very interesting development to watch.

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