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Sunday 19 April 2020

1990: Rifts

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


It is all but impossible to start a review of Rifts and not acknowledge the problems it suffers from being published by Palladium Books. In terms of physical design, Rifts is a terrible roleplaying game, first because it is organised in such a fashion as to make it difficult to play and second, because it has no index. Now these are standard features of any book from Palladium Books, but in a roleplaying game which is as badly organised as Rifts and therefore needs an index to make it easier to use, the designer’s stupidly stubborn refusal to include one is nonsensical. Similarly, there is no character sheet, but to be fair, no character sheet could encapsulate just how much information a player has to note down when creating and playing a character in Rifts. This is of course, a given with all Palladium Books, but in a roleplaying game with as many separate elements as Rifts, it is an extraordinarily big given. That given aside, Rifts remains physically imposing, a slab of a softback book, neatly, cleanly, and tidily presented throughout, with uniformly, if cartoonishly good black and white artwork and excellent fully painted inserts. The standard of presentation—if not the organisation—was very good for 1990.

So what is Rifts? It is a post-apocalyptic roleplaying game set hundreds of years into the future which combines big robots, magic, psionics, and bruising combat on an incredible scale. It is a roleplaying game in which Glitter Boys piloting big mecha suits, chemically enhanced Juicers, psionic Cyber-Knights, ley-commanding Ley Walkers, Techno-Wizards, Dragons, psionic Mind Melters, and more combat the ‘Dead Boy’ soldiers in their deaths head armour, Spider-Skull Walkers, and Sky Cycles of the evil Coalition States as well as supernatural monsters, D-Bees (Dimensional beings), and the instectoid Xiticix from other dimensions. It is a future in which a golden age was destroyed by nuclear conflagration as billions died, their Potential Psychic Energy—or P.P.E.—was unleashed as surges into the Earth’s many, long forgotten ley lines, coming together at nexus points and causing rifts in time and space to be ripped open. As the planet buckled under the psychic onslaught, millions more died and fed more energy into the now pulsing ley lines, causing a feedback loop which would grow and grow. The oceans were driven from their beds to wash over the lands, Atlantis rose again after millennia, alien beings flooded through the rifts, and magic returned to the planet. 

In North America—the primary setting for Rifts—the land consists of feudal states, though the Coalition States, a hundred-year-old, mutant-hating, magic hating, psionic-hating totalitarian empire is spreading its influence out of Chi-Town near the old ruins of Chicago. Its current target is the city of Tolkeen which stands astride a ley line nexus on the bones of the pre-rifts city, Minneapolis, and is home to many wizards; the Coalition States operates the Lone Star City, a huge pre-rifts military complex with the most advanced manufacturing, animal genetics, cybernetics, bionics, and robot facilities on the planet, whilst the rest of the former state is new frontier across which high-tech desperados range; the remains of Georgia and Florida are marshlands populated by dinosaurs; and the former St. Louis is a demon infested no-go zone dominated by two hundred ley lines and thirteen nexus points. Elsewhere, Mexico is aid to the home to Vampire Kingdoms; England, Scotland, Wales have become a Realm of Magic; and the Germany of the ‘New Republic’ is as advanced as Chi-Town.

So what can you play in Rifts? Here a player is faced by a deluge of choice. Rifts is a Class and Level roleplaying game, and the Classes are either Occupational Character Classes or Racial Character Classes. Occupational Character Classes are further categorised into Men of Arms, Scholars and Adventurers, and Practitioners of Magic, whilst Racial Character Classes are natural psionics—although many characters other than Racial Character Classes can be psionic—and actual separate species like Dragons. The Men of Arms Occupational Character Classes consist of Borgs—bionic superhumans or cyborgs; the Coalition Grunt is the Coalition States’ infantryman, Coalition RPA Elite or ‘Sam’ Coalition its pilots of robots and vehicles, the Coalition Military Specialist its espionage and reconnaissance specialists, and the Coalition Technical Officer its military technicians; Crazies are neurologically enhanced through nano-technology, a process which physically enhances them, but sends them literally crazy; the Cyber-Knight is a psionic paladin, complete with psi-sword and a chivalric code; the Glitter Boy pilots the famous Glitter Boy power armour complete with its ‘boom’ gun; the Headhunter is a bounty hunter and warrior for hire; and the Juicer is super-chemically enhanced at the cost of a much shortened lifespan. The Scholars and Adventurers Occupational Character Classes consist of the Body Fixer—a medical doctor, the City Rat—dwellers of a city’s lower levels and sewers, the Cyber-Doc—a cybernetics specialist, the Operator—freelance engineer or technician, the Rogue Scientist—scientific explorer and researcher, the Rogue Scholar—seekers and teachers of knowledge, the Wilderness Scout—hunter and guide; and the Vagabond Non-Skilled—the equivalent to the ordinary person in Rifts.

The Practitioners of Magic consist of the Line Walker who draws energy from and can ride ley lines, the Mystic—a sensitive and healer who combines magic and psionics, the Shifter who open up dimensional portals and summon creatures from the other side, and the Techno-Wizard who combines magic and technology to create and power wondrous devices. The Racial Character Classes start with the Dragon—the creatures of myth, but from an unknown dimension and merely weeks old at game start and is followed by the Psychic Character Classes. These consist of the Burster or pyrokinetic, the Psi-Stalker who hunts and feeds on other psionic-users, Dog Pack—genespliced canines used by the Coalition States to hunt wizards and psychics, and the Mind Melter—a superpowered psychic!

That is a total of twenty-seven characters Classes!

Every Class comes with its own abilities and skills, plus a choice of other occupational skills and secondary skills. Suggested equipment is given as well as starting funds and cybernetics—if any. Many also come with supplementary mechanics. So for example, the Crazy Occupational Character Class includes for how the Crazy’s madness expresses itself—covered in five pages compared to the two devoted to the actual Crazy Occupational Character Class, and six pages of Techno-Wizard gear in comparison to the two pages devoted to the Techno-Wizard Occupational Character Class.

A character in Rifts is defined by eight attributes—Intelligence Quotient (I.Q.), Mental Endurance (M.E.), Mental Affinity (M.A.), Physical Strength (P.S.), Physical Prowess (P.P.), Physical Endurance (P.E.), Physical Beauty (P.B.), and Speed (Spd.). The base attributes range from three to eighteen, with results of seventeen or more granting bonuses, though low rolls do not impose any penalties. A character will also have Hit Points and Structural Damage Capacity or S.D.C., essentially stun points. To create a character in Rifts, a player rolls three six-sided dice for his character’s attributes, rolls for his Hit Points and S.D.C., rolls to see if he has psionics, selects an Occupational Character Class or a Racial Character Class, chooses equipment and rolls for money, and lastly looks at rounding out the character. 

Cyber-Knight (Level 1)
Alignment: Scrupulous (Good)

I.Q. 13
M.E. 13
M.A. 08
P.S. 22
P.P. 18
P.E. 17
P.B. 11
Spd. 20

Hit Points: 12 S.D.C. 107

Save versus Coma/Death +5%
Save versus Poison & Magic +1 

Psi-sword Damage: 1d6 Mega-Damage (M.D.)
Automatic Kick Attack: 2d4
Body Block: 1d4 (Opponent must dodge or parry to avoid being knocked down; lose one melee attack if knocked down.)
Pin/incapacitate on a roll of 18, 19, or 20. 
Crush/Squeeze: 1d4

Attacks per Melee +4
+7 damage in hand-to-hand combat
Initiative +1, Parry +5, Dodge +5, Strike +2, +8 to roll with punch or fall
W.P. Blunt +1 Strike, +1 Parry
W.P. Knife +1 to throw
W.P. Sword +1 Strike, +1 Parry

Base P.P.E. 23
Saving Throw versus psionic attack: 12 or higher.
I.S.P. 24
Psionic Powers: Object Read, Sense Evil, Sixth Sense

O.C.C. Skills
Anthropology 40%, Athletics (General), Automotive Mechanics 25%, Basic Electronics 35% Bodybuilding, Boxing, Climbing 67%, Cook 40%, Detect Ambush 40%, Gymnastics (Sense of Balance 60%, Work Parallel Bars & Rings 68%, Climb Rope 77%, Back Flip 80%, Prowl 40%), Hand-to-Hand: Martial Arts, Horsemanship 59%, Intelligence 36%, Land Navigation 52%, Language (American) 96%, Language (Dragonese/Elf) 96%, %, Language (Euro) 75%, Language (Spanish) 75%, Literacy 55%, Lore: Demon 45%, Lore: Fairie 30%, Paramedic 55%, Pick Lock 35%, Pilot (Automobile) 54%, Pilot (Motorcycle) 64%, Sewing 45%, Streetwise 24%, Swimming 65%, Tracking 30%, Wilderness Survival 35%, , W.P. Automatic Pistol, W.P. Blunt, W.P. Knife, W.P. Energy Pistol, W.P. Energy Rifle, W.P. Sword, Wrestling, Writing 30%

Suit of personalised, heavy, M.D.C body armour, suit of light M.D.C body armour (Crusader Full Fibre Environmental Body Armor, M.D.C. 55), set of dress clothing, set of black clothing. Gas mask and air filter, tinted goggles, hatchet for cutting wood, knife (or two), sword, modern handgun (NG-S7 Northern Gun Heavy-Duty Ion Blaster 2d4/3d6 M.D.) and rifle (L-20 Pulse Rifle 2d6 M.D. single shot/6d6 burst) and three extra ammo clips, first-aid kit with extra bandages and antiseptic, suture thread and painkiller, tent, knapsack, back pack, saddlebags, two canteens, emergency food rations (two week supply), Geiger counter, and some personal items.
Money: 300 credits, black market item worth 4000 credits
Cybernetics: Cyber-armour (A.R. 16, 50 M.D.C.).

This process is not an easy one, nor is it quick. Some of the shorter Occupational Character Classes and Racial Character Classes may take half an hour to create, others an hour or more, all depending upon the particular elements of the Class and what extra elements the player needs to choose. Further, a lot of cross referencing is required as both Class abilities, hand-to-hand combat styles, and skills can sometimes enhance a character’s attributes. Then there are options too, for example the finishing touches to creating a character is a player choosing his character’s Alignment. The tables for birth order, disposition, and more are all optional…

Mechanically, Rifts is quite simple. Combat is handled by rolls of a twenty-sided die, a player having to roll high to hit, usually four or more. Mechanically, Rifts is also quite complex. If a target is hit and does not avoid the attack, the player whose character is attacking rolls to beat the target’s Armour Rating. If he does, the target take damage, if not, the armour takes damage. However, not all armour has an Armour Rating. This is because where Rifts gets even more complex is because characters will find themselves fighting on two scales—Structural Damage Capacity and Mega Damage Capacity. Both measure the amount of damage that an object or a person can take. So for Structural Damage Capacity, this is the amount of damage that a car or a house or the character can take before being destroyed. Mega Damage Capacity—previously introduced in Palladium Books’ Robotech roleplaying game—represents high-tech armour like Glitter Suits and vehicles such as Coalition Spider-Skull Walkers and dinosaurs and supernatural creatures. Only weapons which do Mega-Damage can inflict damage on anything with a Mega Damage Capacity.

Roughly, one hundred points of Structural Damage Capacity is equal to one point of Mega Damage Capacity. So a single point of Mega-Damage actually inflicts the equivalent of one hundred points of Structural Damage. However, anything which possesses Mega Damage Capacity cannot be harmed by weapons or attacks which just do Structural Damage. Conversely, anything or anyone hit by a Mega-Damage attack which does not have Mega Damage Capacity is essentially obliterated. Fortunately, whether through weapons, beweaponed suits of armour, magic, or psionics, most characters have the capacity to inflict Mega-Damage. Yet this means that Rifts is really fought on two levels and unless everyone does have access to Mega-Damage attacks and Mega Damage Capacity armour, then they cannot really play at that level. This divide is really present between those Occupational Character Classes which have this feature, for example, between the Men of Arms and the Adventurers and Scholars. That said, it does lend itself to interesting situations where the player characters might have to solve a problem or engage in a fight where Mega-Damage attacks and Mega Damage Capacity armour is inappropriate and that is all they have…

Rifts is a game about augmentation as much as it is big stonking battles against robots and strange monsters, and what it offers in terms of augmentations is bionics and cybernetics, magic, and psionics. In terms of magic it provides some one-hundred-and-fifty spells across fifteen Levels and powered by a spellcaster’s Potential Psychic Energy—or P.P.E. Psionics only offers some sixty or so abilities, divided into the Healer, Physical, Sensitive, and Super Psionics categories, some of which are particular to certain Classes, but all are powered by a character’s Inner Strength Points—or I.S.P. In terms of bionics and cybernetics, Rifts lists some hundred or so implants, some available to purchase freely, some only available on the black market. Many of these upgrades and implants will be familiar from the Cyberpunk genre with the protection that various items provide capable of withstanding damage by Mega-Damage attacks and inflicting Mega-Damage. In the case of magic and psionics, many of the powers and spells can be powered up to provide from and inflict Mega-Damage.

In terms of background, Rifts actually includes quite a lot, some twenty pages providing a potted, sometimes detailed overview of the former states of the United States, Canada, and Mexico along with thumbnail descriptions of places around the world. It focuses mainly on Chi-Town and the Coalition States as the primary enemies in Rifts. This is accompanied by full colour maps of North and South America. In general, there is a lot of room for the Game Master add her own content, but there are some details which she will have go digging for because they are in other sections. In terms of advice for the Game Master, Rifts is sorely lacking, the half page of advice just telling Game Master and players alike not to be put off by the magnitude of the game. Now there is a set of tables for creating monsters quickly and stats for the Xiticix and various generic NPCs, but there is no advice on running a campaign, on what sort of games could be run, no campaign ideas, or anything else. For a roleplaying game with such big ideas and concepts, it is so frustrating not to have such small details. So for example, the Shifter Occupational Character Class is all about opening up portals and summoning things through them and doing to other dimensions, but there is not a single discussion of what these dimensions are like anywhere in the book. Essentially, a Class has been designed with a cool feature and then that feature has been ignored.

Of course, the lack of advice for the Game Master might have been less of a problem for anyone attempting to run Rifts for the first time, had the roleplaying game included a starting scenario. Which of course, it does not. So the Game Master is left wondering what to do with a disparate bunch of character types, working out why they are together, and then write a scenario which will satisfy one or more of them. However, the designer does acknowledge that, “This is not a beginner’s role-playing game, nor one conducive to hack and slash gaming. Like many of our games, Rifts is a thinking man’s game. Perhaps the hostile environment makes it all the more important that one uses his head.” The fact that Rifts is not a beginner’s is undeniable, but whether it is ‘a thinking man’s game’ is debatable, given the emphasis in the roleplaying game upon combat and the amount of playing called for by combat, with Player Characters having multiple attacks and options and very many different combat abilities.

The other reason why Rifts is not a beginner’s game is because of the way it is organised. So the rules for psionics follow the Psychic Racial Character Classes, but the rules for magic do not follow the Practitioners of Magic Occupational Character Classes, but some eighty pages later after the Psychic Racial Character Classes, the rules for psionics, and some background. Likewise, the rules for bionics and cybernetics are placed over a hundred pages after all of the Character Classes at the back of the book. Then the relatively few pages of background are squirrelled away in the middle of the book. It simply makes no sense. 

In terms of design, there is a certain identikit feel to Rifts in that so many of its elements are pulled from other Palladium Books roleplaying games. So the Mega Damage Capacity rules are from Robotech, the bionics and cybernetic rules from Ninjas and Superspies and Heroes Unlimited, the magic rules from Palladium Fantasy Role-Playing Game, and so on. Although that said, the magic rules have been tweaked up for Rifts. Notably, the stats for the various mundane weapons—melee weapons and guns (the latter all dating from pre-apocalypse of Rifts)—seem to have been reprinted from just about every Palladium Books roleplaying game and have an oddly seventies feel to them. Part of this is intentional, to make Rifts part of the whole Palladium Books family of roleplaying settings and genres, part of its Megaverse.


Rifts was reviewed in Challenge 48 (January/February 1991) by Eric W. Haddock who said, “A preponderance of organizational problems and simple editorial errors (like incomplete sentences and spelling) all detract from the overall quality of Rifts.”, followed by “Without a doubt, Rifts is one of the most abysmally organized books I’ve seen. It is extremely difficult to find rules within a section easily and quickly when one needs to. A GM should not expect to start running a game and assume that whatever rules he isn't clear on can be looked up during play. In the games I played and ran, it took more time to find a rule than it took to read it, despite the Quick Find Table.” Despite this, he ended on a positive note, “I highly recommend Riffs because of its setting and potential for great scenarios, which can have as much connection with other Palladium games as the GM wants. However, until the Rifts Conversion Book comes out, not everything in Palladium’s previous games can be put directly into a Rifts campaign. There is enough here, though, to keep any GM busy thinking up new scenarios and creating new archvillains for players for quite a while.”

Rifts was subject to a Feature Review by Joshua Gabriel Timbrook in White Wolf Magazine Issue 26 (April/May, 1991). He said that, “The only real problem with Rifts is that inexperienced game masters are left almost completely in the dark. Although the book is over two hundred-fifty pages long, the most the game master gets is a couple of creature charts and the setting. As it is so aptly stated, “...that initial set-up is likely to take a bit of effort...” In short, it is a lot of work to run the game. However, the atmosphere is so rich with ideas for adventure that intriguing plots and stories shouldn't be difficult to develop. In fact, some may discover that it is very worthwhile and rewarding to create a campaign working from such a blank slate.” He concluded by saying that, “Overall, Rifts is an incredible roleplaying experience, and its setting seems to be as original and fun to play as the recent multi-genre games, Shadowrun and Torg. Those who are into bleak worlds, hi-tech magic, twisted rituals, fascist empires, brutal weaponry, min-boggling power armor, and fantastic stories should really give it a try.”

Rifts would appear in the twenty-second slot of ‘Arcane Presents the Top 50 Roleplaying Games 1996’ in Arcane #14 (December, 1996). The article described it as “It’s the ultimate in old-style high-energy RPGs. It uses a class-and-level system, and its supplements are full of new character classes, as well as weapons, robots and power armour. Fantasy-style creatures are a bit less common, and tend to be rather conventional elves and orcs - although it’s perfectly possible to play a baby dragon. One of the key concepts is ‘mega-damage’, which is important when you're playing with giant robots and such. This is the game for people who want to have everything possible in their campaigns - and then to blow a lot of it up with cool super-weapons.”

Rifts is not a subtle game. It is a roleplaying game for those who want to play a game in which everything goes ffizzacckk!, bada-bada-bada-bada-bada, boom!, and really, really BOOM! It presents a fantastic array of character options which should make players champing at the bit to get their gaming—if not their roleplaying—teeth into. In terms of the rules, Rifts is workable, but there are a lot of numbers and stats to keep track of—by the players as well as the Game Master. The background works as a decent enough backdrop whilst still leaving room for the Game Master to add her own content. But then, Rifts does everything it can to undermine its potential. Not just with the illogical, nonsensical organisation and idiotic lack of an index, but with the lack of advice for the Game Master and the failure to explore or discuss what to do with everything it gives the Game Master and her players, to get them to work together. Plus there are elements of the setting left undeveloped which relate directly to the Occupational Character Classes, and so on. 

Rifts is essentially the kitchen sink of roleplaying games, but without any advice as to how to turn the taps, which of course, have been put on backwards. And of course, people have played and loved and bought the eighty odd books published for it. Just think how much better it would have been if…?


With thanks to Doctor Andrew Cowie and Matt Ryan for providing access to a copy of White Wolf Magazine Issue 26


  1. If you want to see Rifts with a game engine that is Fast! Furious! and Fun! check out the Savage Worlds version. This version has Kevin's full support and just provides a more balanced experience while not losing any of the gonzo options available. You can find more info at https://www.peginc.com/product-category/rifts/

  2. Thanks. I have a copy and plan to look at it when I get the chance.

    1. Please do so. It works much better to the 1990 version.

  3. Shouldn't there be an index for this review?

  4. Palladium and Rifts have gone through a bit of an evolution recently. Sean Roberson, the Rifts Brand Manager for Savage Wotlds was hired by Kevin to be his partner and Creative Director at Palladium. This means there is one person steering both ships and things are really looking up for Rifts.