Rifts Africa: A Review
The year is 1992, and Rifts is a breakout success. It’s the gonzo RPG experience that no one knew they wanted, and people are screaming for more. The books out are selling like crazy, but the world is still wildly under developed. World Books One and Two, The Vampire Kingdoms (Northern Mexico) and Atlantis respectively, were well received. 1993 is supposed to build on the successes of the last few years, with Dimension Book One: Wormwood, and the third and fourth World Books, England and Africa, planned for release. Things didn’t go as planned.
Rifts World Book Four: Africa (RWB4) is largely seen as both one of the weakest entries into the series at its commencement, and one of the weakest books overall for the game. There are a number of reasons for this, and I think a lot of them tie into the fact that it was one man frantically trying to write an entire world with minimal planning and some serious, unexamined biases. The result was a book that offered precious little about Africa, Africans, or why you’d want to be from or go to Africa in the world of Rifts. A lot of this has been blamed on the time the book was being written in, that being 1992 to 1993. I disagree with this assessment though; because even with the conditions at the time, there was a lot going on in Africa that could be used for inspirational material that wasn’t his then wife’s photo safari pics and brochures and a trip to the library to read about traditional African practices.
These include, but are not limited to:
- French, Spanish, and British military involvement in the region; the French Foreign Legion, Spanish Legion, and British Army all had regular and significant military presence in Africa.
- The place was literally famous for mercenaries from the 1960’s to 1970’s.
- China was heavily involved in sub-Saharan Africa, with tens of thousands of engineers there and aid flowing in like crazy; they’d also funded a number of insurgencies, governments, and rebels; much like the Soviet Union and North Korea.
- Cuban military engagement in Angola had just ended in 1991, after a grueling 16 year effort.
- South Africa was a rising star for technology, and owing to embargoes, was doing it without significant outside assistance.
- Namibia had gained independence from South Africa and was busy building a modern state.
- Ethiopia, with Cuban and USSR assistance, had defeated an invasion from Somalia and was recovering from a famine and drought.
So, Africa was a happening place in the news media of the time, and there’s no shortage of things to inspire creativity in the vein of Rifts Earth in it. Even if you wanted to draw on less recent history, there were books available in the 1980’s and early 90’s detailing the Songhay and Malian empires among others, like the Swahili Coast. But that isn’t what happened. Not at all; instead, the book drew from a collection of ethnographies, tourism brochures, and stereotypes. So, to sum up, a “lack of research material” or “the internet wasn’t a thing yet” are absolutely not acceptable excuses for why this book as so bad.
Before starting, let’s establish a few things. For this, I used the revised 2015 pdf release of RWB4. Why? To give Palladium a fair shake. The original was not a great book, so it was possible the revised version would be an improvement. The next thing we need to establish is that I went through this with a much finer toothed comb than in my original assessment way back in 2014.
Art is a fast way to get a feel for how a book is approaching its subject material. It can also do a lot towards establishing the world in which something is happening. Including the cover image, I counted 71 pictures in this book. The breakdown is as follows:
- Images of monsters: 19
- Images of people: 28 (including non-human playable races etc…)
- Images of terrain: 12
- Images of battle: 3
- Images of other things: 9 (including animals, buildings, vehicles etc…)
Of these images, the first to depict something or someone recognizable as “African” is on page 41, and is the 21st illustration in the book. It’s not too flattering either. It’s an African zombie rising from the ground in front of a stereotypically dressed white big game hunter who has two undressed, unarmed African bearers carrying his stuff and hiding behind him. Of all the illustrations, 9/71 depicted people recognizable as being “African”, and only 7/71 are of non-monstrous Africans. So 9.8% of the illustrations are of Africans. All three images of combat are of power-armour equipped combatants fighting monsters, with no African iconography or coding. Every image of Africans has them dressed in painfully, generically “African” garb, or undressed/in loin cloths. The illustrations are also overwhelmingly “unattractive” by conventional standards, and no Africans are depicted taking heroic actions, engaging in battle, or even casting magic.
There’s no kind way to put it, but Rifts, and in particular, its main author, Kevin Siembieda (KS), has some serious issues around racism. Specifically, it calls on a specific set of racist tropes every time the subject matter is about non-whites, or non-Asians; and the latter is with a caveat because he has a different set of problematic habits with Asians. RWB4 is the first time we see it in full effect the series, but it repeats most notably in works like RWB15: Spirit West and RWB19: Australia, where non-whites are a significant part of or focus of the work. The message is clear: Non-white people are just naturally happier and content when living their “traditional” lifeways, and will default back to them immediately in a heartbeat and eschew all technology and ignore any changes that may have developed in the interim since contact with Europeans. This point gets driven home constantly through the book, to the point where it’s painful.
Now, on the surface, this might sound appealing to some. Until you realize that associated with this is that apparently “metal” is entirely foreign to indigenous lifeways. RWB4 puts “metal knives” on par with owning an energy weapon, flashlight, or “baseball hat” in Africa for rarity (30% of the population might own one of these things). Because apparently metallurgy isn’t a thing in Africa, despite iron smelting and crucible steel making being independently developed there. Then, if you look at the “amazing” magic that these back to the old ways cultures have embraced as their sole protection against the unending horrors of Rifts Earth, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s extremely underwhelming, because it is. It’s so underwhelming in fact that it doesn’t offer any significant ability for them to survive in comparison with mega-damage capacity monsters and enemies. Example: a basic set of M.D.C. body armour negates the magical damage upgrade to melee and ranged weapons (arrows, spears) that African traditional magic can impart.
Past the racism by omission by not having a significant imagery of Africans pushes further into the treatment of Africans in Africa as well. They are, for all intents and purposes, non-entities. The main power on the continent is the monster and demon dominated Phoenix Empire, in which humans are third class citizens at best. Of the two cities outside of that area described, one is a Splugorth colony that trades in slaves in West Africa (very creative), and the other was founded by d-bees who fled the Phoenix Empire and want to be left alone. So, that’s three non-human civilizations to zero human ones. Uganda comes close to breaking the mould, by being described as not only having several 10k to 60k sized cities, but also as having a number of natural resources; but apparently that’s all that was worth mentioning though. There’s also precious little description of African life, but a lot of effort is expended in telling readers to hit the library, and into the legal system of the Phoenix Empire.
Also, the less said about the “Pygmy” racial character class, the better. The same with the Palladium Fantasy style division of the Egyptian gods into pantheons of “light” and “darkness”.
Africa Is Not The Focus
That may sound odd, but it’s absolutely true. In this poorly executed blob of a book, Africa and Africans are not the focus of it. At all. They are, at best, an afterthought tagged into the setting. Things are mentioned that never go anywhere; like the African “kingdoms” in North Africa on the Mediterranean that never materialize in a usable format. The war developing in Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe is never expanded on. Apparently “Euro” is the language of North Africa, and Swahili the go to in “Lower Africa”; so there wasn’t even a fraction of effort expended on wondering how Africans might be dealing or developing that was expended on England or even, at this early point in the game, North America.
The actual focus of the book, as I read it, was the New German Republic, England, Wormwood, and Atlantis. All of whom had more attention paid to them and their ideas, policies, and so on than Africa got. The Mind Bleeder R.C.C. for example, has no information about how Africans feel about it, but a whole bit on how the NGR does. Now, within a specific POV, this makes sense. RWB2: Atlantis, was a huge success and its contents are a significant jumping off point for the world of Rifts Earth, affecting four continents directly. England and Wormwood were being released in the same year as Africa, and tying into them is, credit where credit is due, a good idea. RWB5: Triax and the NGR, was scheduled for 1994 and was a tome that would set the standard for future books, and so it was key to tie into it and wet peoples appetites for the material. The problem being that literally all of this happened at the expense of making Africa a fully, or even significantly, realized setting.
The main “adventure” in the book, the Gathering of Heroes, is a flop. Rifts is known for its in game campaigns, with the Juicer Uprising book and Coalition Wars series pushing the meta-plot forwards to the general delight of fans everywhere. There have been some damp squibs though, and the Gathering of Heroes is probably the worst of them. The premise is sound as far as Rifts goes. Insane magical dragon summons the four horsemen of the apocalypse to Earth to finish the job, but messes up, meaning they can be fought and killed before succeeding. Will you join these heroes? The problem is that it’s only about 1/3 of a campaign material wise. You have the backstory, some NPCs, the monsters, and… that’s it. The only African based hero in the mix has no stats or details, and is described as having disappeared after venturing out. There are no other Africans involved in a named or described basis. Not only that, but the classes for them (Witch Doctor, Rain Maker, and Priest), weak-sauce magic, and lack of technology, organization, or anything else means that they’re just there to be in the background.
The campaign itself is most lacking in what some refer to as a “conclusion”. It’s a ball of dangling plotlines and ideas that have no resolution. You can assume, since Erin Tarn and company show up in works with later chronological dates that the Gathering of Heroes was successful, but its outcomes are completely unknown. This is particularly galling given the amount of effort put into the book about how Pharaoh Rama-set and his Phoenix Empire are such an out of proportion power in the region, and how he’d turned his attention to the NGR and assisting the Gargoyle Empire with the assistance of Set. There was a lot of focus on that, but nothing came of it. So does the empire fall? Dig in? What? Who knows?
No Agency for Africans
I brought this up in the Tomb of Annihilation series, about how the Chultans had little agency in the setting. Africans in RWB4 have less. Yeah, you read that right. Less. Africans in RWB4 are the least active, least engaged, least likely to survive group of humans on the planet. They pretty much just wait around in fear to be victimized by some roving horror or technologically superior foe, then run away. Nigeria has a population of 14 million humans in RWB4, but not one city, description of their society, or anything else. They’re there to be enslaved by the Splugorth Atlanteans and that’s it. No inland cities, with deep, complex roots like Timbuktu survived. Nor did places like Nairobi. There’s nothing.
In my opinion, this is the worst World Book for Rifts. It lacks focus, is incomplete in every way, and has the feel of something that was tacked together from other ideas that didn’t fit in other books and then written while listening to a non-stop loop of “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, Toto’s “Africa”, and Paul Simon’s “Rhythm of the Saints” while stopping once a while to look at photos of scenery and books that comfort you by only depicting “traditional” Africans while ignoring literally millennia of history and potential. There was a lot of potential in the idea of Rifts Africa. Unfortunately, while the rest of the world had ~100 years of speculative science fiction themed thought applied to its development, followed by legit contemplation of how humanity would adapt to the post-apocalyptic world, Africa was left behind in the creative process. It was then reproduced for game use as a bizarre, detached from reality fantasy of “what” Africa and Africans “were” based on National Geographic write ups and vacation snaps. When compared to the next in the series of books, in particular RWB6: South America (by C.J. Carella), and RWB9: South America 2 (also by Carella), it really shows the level of biases and lack of understanding or care about Africa that really went into this book.
Even cutting it a modicum of slack for its release time so early in the Rifts developmental cycle, it’s still a piss poor entry. It’s unapologetically racist, boring, and lacks even the most limited details like those found in its contemporaries, Vampire Kingdoms, Source Book One, Mutants in Orbit, Atlantis, Wormwood, or even England; and RWB3 England was a pretty weak entry as well. Adding insult to injury is that Rifts Africa was never revisited. There’s been no effort to rectify, or even address the issues in it, and the place remains a dumpster fire. Of the books in Rifts that I can think of that deserve a true do-over, this one ranks first by a wide margin. For all the notes and words from the author that are scattered through this book, I do not believe for a second that any serious effort or consideration was put into it.
In Rifts Coalition Wars: Aftermath, Africa is revisited. It opens with a cut’n’pasted comment straight from the book, and then lays out that apparently, Africa has been in limbo since the original book came out, which in the game timeline is ~6 years. This section is, by my estimate, approximately 85% replicated directly from RWB4: Africa, with no changes.
It adds one throwaway paragraph, which promises that a “Gorilla god, and perhaps other ancient gods…” have claimed a mountain in Zaire (modern Democratic Republic of the Congo) and are smiting people. There is also “…the resurgence of the Zulu Kingdom, the Kingdom of Kyshatilis, Xhosadanis, and trouble with the Kingdom of Death and other realms and people, many of whom have existed for generations but have been ignored by the rest of the world.” Followed by a promise of Rifts Africa 2.
So, I’m just going to throw this out there immediately. This is bullshit. Aside form the sheer laziness of this section of the book, this is all red flags that more of the same ham-handed, racism laden trash is on some distant back-burner in the Rifts publishing scheme. I can only hope that, in some moment of lucidity, KS backs away hard form all of this, and hires someone else to write Africa 2 after rewriting the first one.
M.D.C, R.C.C., etc… are all property of Palladium Books, as is the cover image of Rifts Africa, all of which were used here for review purposes.