[Rifts] -- Rifts workable? Possibly, maybe...

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Andre Canivet:
Hello again...

A while ago I posted (here: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=29542.0) that I had joined a Rifts gaming group for the first time in almost two decades, and was a bit apprehensive about it due to negative experiences associated with that system.  With the assistance of the good folks here at the Forge, I had some profound revelations about those experiences, and how much, as a teenager, I had depended on gaming to fill a kind of void in my life.

Well, it's been two months, but we finally played our first game this past Tuesday and I thought I'd report the experience in light of those revelations.  The reason for the delay is complicated...  we meet every Tuesday night, but only for three or so hours at a time (due to a couple of members having far to travel).  Also, we're alternating each week between Rifts with one GM, and D&D 4e with another DM. 

Also, as was my experience with Rifts as a kid, it took the first two sessions (i.e. somewhere between 6 to 8 hours) just to create characters.  To be fair, only I and the GM had much experience with the system--and one player had almost no gaming experience at all--so it's possible it would go faster next time around.

And, I have to admit, the feelings were mixed going in.  On the one hand, all the little annoyances came back... like reading through rules details and OCC descriptions, etc., that state one thing at first, then contradict themselves in the next paragraph, or the next sentence.  And the massive and unwieldy skill list (seriously, Kevin, WTF?... separate skills for hunting, fishing, tracking & trapping animals, identifying plants & fruit, preserving food, skinning and preparing hides, AND wilderness survival?  isn't it likely that someone with one of those skills would also have the others?)

And yet, it felt good to be thumbing through those books again--which reminded me that my adolescent experiences were far from all bad.  There were a lot of good memories, too, despite the chaos of it all; and I miss regularly gaming with that crowd.

Back in the present, I was concerned with what type of character I would play.  All my munchkiny little habits from back in the day were returning, and I was looking to play an Apok from Wormwood, or an Undead slayer--something really tough that wouldn't have to worry about MDC armour.  But the GM wanted limits, and I realized that was probably quite wise.

In fact, he gave us a short list of allowable OCC's & playable races, and limited our equipment to basic / standard types of weapons (a basic energy rifle and pistol), no vehicles, and no power-armour or robots.  (Sorry!  No Shemarrian railguns for starting characters!)  So, already the tone of the game was likely to be different.

The characters we created were: a Wolfen Mystic, a (human?) Wilderness Scout, a True Atlantean Techno-Wizard, and another True Atlantean Super-Spy (played by me).  I was hoping to play a True Atlantean, but I didn't want to be a Ley Line Walker and couldn't be an Undead Slayer, so I wasn't sure what to go with.  The GM recommended the Super-Spy (out of the Mercenaries book; basically a spy with master psionics, magic, cybernetics, or super-powers), and so I took him up on that, despite being really hobbled in the skill department (only 4 OCC related skills & 4 secondaries)--but hey he's a master psionic!  I'd briefly considered a Cyber-knight, but figured the alignment & behavioural restrictions would be too much of a burden---plus, the Cyber-knight OCC in the main book is pretty weak, really... (or is it?)


And finally we started play: The techno-wizard's player couldn't make it our first actual play session, so it was just my Super-spy, the Scout, and the Mystic.  We had been living in a small village somewhere in Pennsylvania; cautiously avoiding an alliance with either the Coalition or the Federation of Magic, who were in the midst of their war.  There were a handful of Coalition deserters in the village, and a few d-bees living alongside humans. 

We had been off searching the ruins of a city for particular piece of pre-Rifts tech, but had had no luck.  The techno-wizard was off consulting with a local hermit, explaining his absence from play.  On returning, we found a few of those deserters dead, strung up and mutilated in a clearing, with obvious signs of a battle.  We made a lot of perception & skill rolls here, trying to figure out what had happened-- the coalition had found some of the deserters from the village, battle ensued, and the deserters and their travelling companions lost.  The event had taken place probably 36 hours earlier.

We quickly took the bodies down and hurried back to the village, but we followed a secret route.  The wilderness scout led the way with his nature-type skills, and eventually we came upon an area of broken trees and scorchmarks, signs of another battle; and it became clear that this had been between a technologically advanced party and a magically advanced adversary--a battle between coalition and federation of magic forces. 

We continued to the village, and found something similar--the village had been caught in a cross-fire between the two battling platoons of Coalition & Magic folks.  The place was pretty much levelled, but there were signs that someone had been searching for something.  The only obvious survivor we found was a creepy old dude who claimed to have ratted out the deserters for the bounties on their heads, and tricked the two armies into battling here so that he could search for whatever he was looking for.

Only the scout spoke to him (only he noticed the guy), and he didn't restrain the man, or inquire as to what he'd been looking for...  not sure why he let him go.  When the scout returned from talking to the man, my character rolled his spy skills and recognized the name of the man as a notorious spy / agent who liked to indirectly destroy villages like ours for fun & profit.

Curses!  Anyway, as we argued about this, a pebble struck my helmet, and I looked and saw a little girl (who had been living with the two magic users from Lazlo that had helped to run the village), hiding behind the Mystic.  Also, she had a Chameleon spell hiding her; which she theoretically shouldn't be able to do...  and...

It was time to stop.

An interesting and emotional session (those bodies in the clearing were really tortured before dying).  Notably, there was no combat encounter.  I think we made more skill rolls in this one three hour session than I made in my entire Rifts experience to date (but who wasn't bloodthirsty at 16?).

But, it sucks that in such a skill heavy game, I really don't have that many skills.  I took physical skills and robot combat skills...  not realizing there'd be very little armour or robots to speak of.  Alas, my character is geared to my old style of play--heavy on the combat, and not much else.

So, bummed about this, I took a look through the GM's copy of the core rules...  He has the updated "Ultimate Edition" book, which I don't own.   And the thing is: apart from the typical terrible organization, and a conspicuous lack of any statement of system changes in this new edition (or why I should care about it), there are lots of new skills, a few updated rules, and changes to some of the core OCC's.  Most importantly, the Cyber-Knight in the new edition doesn't suck!  Far from it, it's a pretty darn cool class, and had I known, I would have...

Sigh.  My fault for assuming not much had changed.  My cynicism and haste got the better of me, and now I have to wait for an opportunity to sub in a new character.  (You win this round, Kevin!  But wait'll I've read the book more thoroughly!  Your incoherence shall not save you then!)

But otherwise, it was a good time.  It really helps that the GM really knows the system and knows what he's doing.  He's very old-school---he was old-school when I was initially playing Rifts as a teenager.  When I met him, he said he'd played everything, but only named things like Iron Crown, Palladium, BRP, first & second ed. D&D.  He didn't mention any newer ones like Silhouette, Savage Worlds, Cortex, or anything I'm really familiar with since my Rifts days.  So, there's possibly a bit of a generation gap.  But I'm happy to learn how games were played in the early days, even if I'm learning with Rifts.

So, all in all, how do I feel about Rifts?  Well, with the right GM, it seems reasonably playable.  At least, so far.  We'll see if I still feel that way when we do some combat.  I still think system does matter, but hopefully in the case of Rifts, it doesn't matter as much as I thought it did.  It helps that I'm not trying to use this game to gain some sort of control over my personal life, too.

Anyway, if you've made it to the bottom of the post, you have my congratulations, and my thanks for hearing my rambling.



Hans Otterson:
Hey Andre, do you have any questions for us or any insight into Rifts? I recently traded a game I'll never play again for a bunch of the Palladium TMNT games (chalk it up to childhood nostalgia for the Turtles more than anything else), and I'm kind of curious about Rifts, especially since I've never played it and have heard nothing but bad things about it (and I'll have to corroborate those opinions with my reading of the TMNT books).

Still, I'm curious: what kind of feedback are you looking for here?

Andre Canivet:
Hi Hans,

I suppose I'm mainly posting a response/update to the previous linked thread, but if I were asking for feedback, I suppose it would be about two questions:

1).  Can a good GM make "system" (at least, system in terms of the game text & explicit rules) less important?  A unifying idea here at the Forge is that system matters.  I know that's been hotly debated at times; with many gamers arguing that the specific rules of the game are largely irrelevant, and my last post asked whether it was system, or players which/who were responsible for generating an enjoyable experience.  I suppose I'm really just trying to wrap my head around the idea that the game and the text are two separate things.  In other words: What is the "game," really?  It's not the text, but it's also not totally independent of the text.

2).  Is the supposed generation gap I mentioned between the 1st generation of gamers (who started at the beginning with basic D&D, etc.), and gamers who started the hobby with later games...  is that anything other people have noticed?  What I mean is, the GM of this game really loves the Palladium rules.  He says they're really innovative and flexible.  Whereas, my own experience with the game is that the rules are rather bizarre and idiosyncratic, at least when compared to a lot of other games that came along even a couple of years later.  I'm just curious about any thoughts that more experienced gamers would have on the matter.

As for insight into Rifts and TMNT, I guess it really depends on what you're used to.  Palladium's writing has never been very good--so it's hard to always know what Kevin Siembieda really means.  This makes the rules a bit ambiguous at times.  I find that a lot of other games (like D6 Star Wars, 2nd ed., or Silhouette, or Cortex) are much more coherent in presentation, if not actual playing experience.

The basic Rifts rules are pretty much the same as TMNT, except that Rifts introduces something called "MDC" or Mega-damage capacity; which is a scale of damage above the SDC rules.  1 MDC point equals 100 SDC, which is supposed to reflect really high powered weapons and devices, such as high tech tanks & power armour, energy weapons, and so on.  But it introduces a lot of problems, too--like, an unarmoured human still only has 50-100 SDC + Hit points, so a single shot from a basic 1D6 MDC laser pistol can easily vapourize the character it took you 6 hours to build. 

The setting, of course, is also quite different to TMNT.  Rifts is an "anything goes" sort of game; so you can play an ordinary human (with extraordinary equipment, MDC armour & weapons, etc.), augmented humans (like cyborgs & drug-enhanced Juicers), high powered magic users, super-heroes, or any of literally dozens of human & non-human visitors from different dimensions.  The main setting / meta-plot involves a war between the semi-Fascist / human supremacist Coalition States, and the power-mad Federation of Magic.

The game has some serious balance issues.  As I found in my first experiences with the game, it's quite easy for the power level to get out of control, and for players to become easily a match for the various Gods and Supernatural intelligences in the setting.  Or, as I'm finding in this new game, a GM who knows the setting and doesn't mind a bit of extra work can tone it down and play a low-powered game

So, Rifts isn't necessarily a terrible game, it's just that it takes a fair bit of work and dedication to properly resolve the rules, and reign in the power level.



Ron Edwards:
Hi Andre,

I'll open by saying that your actual-play account is an excellent read, giving me a fair portrait of both yourself and play, as well as being simply fun.

Your final point in the first post, and then your second post, call for some theoretical detail from me. I'm seeing a deep mis-reading of the point that "system does matter," to the extent that I am going to criticize your conclusions. I'm offering what follows in the hope that you don't mind me taking a strong position about the ideas that I authored 11 years ago. I also hope that what I say is useful and interesting.

Many people apparently read the phrase "system does matter" as license to declare that a given game is bad and sucks, and to decry any play of that game as un-fun play. This reading has nothing to do with anything I've written. You've already identified the key error that this reading makes - to confuse system with textual rules. System is what we do at the table, which most of the time is strongly informed by textual rules which sit at or near the table too, but also most of the time, includes much more than is written there, and contradicts those written rules to some degree.

My essay System Does Matter identifies this difference and calls for writing textual rules which actually help the group carry out a system (for play), rather than impede it. I wrote the essay in defiance of an extremely well-entrenched claim to the contrary, that system does not matter, which as I saw it, endorsed poor rules-design and overlooked the fact that a group which "ignores the rules" is effectively creating its own system and cares deeply about that system's qualities. To summarize, I suggest that well-written rules make a functional system more possible, or at the very least, less aggravating to implement. I also suggest that well-written rules can expand people's notions of functional systems rather than continually entrench them into comfort zones, which is definitely what badly-written and constantly-derivative rules texts do.

I think this distinction alters your conclusions to an extent. None of your conclusions contradict anything that I wrote in my essay or have discussed since. First, one can play Rifts and many other role-playing games, and although various textual rules may not stand up well for what you want, you can "kick the tires" as a group and end up with a functional system at your table. In fact, I suggest that this is absolutely necessary for many published games. I've written about it extensively regarding Champions, for instance.

Second, to my knowledge, no one here at the Forge has ever been permitted to get away with the fallacious claim that a given set of textual rules is immune to such tire-kicking, such that the game is utterly devoid of playability, i.e., irretrievably sucks. That would again be committing the same text/system error, in the bizarre belief that somehow the book exerts such pull and power that the group haplessly must apply textual rules that they do not like or want. In some groups, people use such logic in order to wield social and creative power over others (the negative form of "rules lawyer"), but in most, the group simply changes the way they play, often without realizing it.

I think this point also alters your conclusions, or re-colors them. When you say, "So, Rifts isn't a terrible game," you're not refuting any standing point from our discussions here. No one said "Rifts is a bad game" in any sort of definitive or argumentatively-solid way. Furthermore, the very fact that that you identified the specific group-based qualifications that were necessary to make the Rifts rules usable by your group, you're validating the concept that system does matter. I also want to stress that when you say "properly apply the rules," that is a very group-specific, very personal claim to the word "properly." Another group may find maximum fun in competing regarding who can generate the most power-effective character, and call that "properly," and regard your specifications with horror and disdain.

Let me know if anything I'm writing here makes sense - or even more importantly, whether this is where you want to go in this thread. I do not want to impose my response in such a way that it defines the discussion, and if you prefer, I will consider this post to be "logging my point" and sufficient in that.

Best, Ron

Andre Canivet:
Hi Ron,

It certainly makes sense and I don't disagree with any of it.  I think the issue is really that I haven't really mastered the discipline of precise speech used here at the Forge (although I am eager to learn!).

Let me clarify that I didn't mean to say: "I had fun playing this unplayable game, so system must not really matter after all," or to draw (or challenge) any theoretical conclusions.  What I meant was that system with this new GM & group is very different to system with my group in high school, even though the textual rules haven't changed at all.  The social contract, approach to gaming, attitudes of the players, and so forth are all entirely different.  So, in the end, I suppose it's not much of a revelation that the "system" as distinct from text, and the play experience, should be quite different as well.  It's just odd to play a game that caused so much frustration all those years ago, and suddenly find it enjoyable again.

Theoretically speaking, that's the part that's so surprising--not that system is different from text, but how very different it can be, and how unspoken so much of it often is, and how the game flows from that.  It's like... I've read the theory, and now I'm seeing it in action, and I've only scratched the surface.  It's taking some time to get my head around.

When I said Rifts isn't so terrible, I was mainly expressing surprise at my enjoyment of it and refuting my own earlier feelings about it out loud--which is perhaps a bad habit.  In the 2nd post, I was mainly responding to Hans where he said he'd heard nothing but bad things about it.  By "properly" and "playable" I didn't mean to suggest that my criteria for playability were the only possible or correct ones; only that the game required more work than others to interpret in any direction, due to the writing style---(i.e. Rifts seems to need more tire-kicking, no matter what you intend to use it for)---but that's only my own opinion.

Anyway, thanks for your kind response, Ron.  I hadn't realized I was coming across the way I did, and it's a good reminder to be more precise in my writing and thinking. 

Warm regards,



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