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World Building Examination: Rifts

I’ll start with full disclosure, when I was growing up, and in the nerd circles I hung around with (pre-internet nerds were more social I think), if you weren’t playing 2e Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, odds are, you were playing a game by Palladium Books. Most likely, you were playing that crazy roller coaster of instability, Rifts. As a kid, I loved this game, and it still pulls on the old nostalgia strings. As an adult, looking at it, I shake my head in wonder at just about everything, then flip to the cool power armour suits and equipment section. It deserves a more attentive look now though, as the first part of the Review and Revise post category.


So, what is Rifts? For lack of a better description, it is *the* flagship setting and title for Palladium Books, a company owned and run by Kevin Siembieda (Kevin S.). Kevin S. released the first edition of Rifts on the unsuspecting world back in August, 1990, and it has been running steadily since then. While other games have come and gone or fallen by the wayside for his company, Rifts has remained the only steady, regularly written for product. Rifts Earth is a place where magic and technology collide, and if this sounds familiar, it’s because Shadowrun came out a year earlier. Rifts currently has over 30 “world books” that detail other parts of the planet Earth for you adventures, and over a dozen assorted source books. It is also has a longstanding set of issues about race.


The best way I can describe Rifts is “The World as America sees it.” Specifically white, middle class America that can’t be bothered to research anything or even be arsed to try to break away from the gross stereotypes they have of the rest of the world. This extends past just affecting POC as well. I’ve talked already about the travesty that was Rifts: Africa, here’s that bit again, where I was discussing racism via omission and stereotypes:

“Rifts Africa, by Palladium Books, is a perfect example of both; with a decided lack of POC in the art, and the entire continent serves as a place for non-Africans to adventure in. There are 67 interior pictures in Rifts Africa, of which 54 depict non-Africans or landscape, and 13 depict Africans. The first picture with Africans in it has them acting as porters for a white game hunter. Four of the pictures (just under 25% of the pictures depicting Africans) depict Africans as monsters. None of the pictures show Africans using modern or futuristic technology or weapons, none of them are of Africans fighting monsters or “looking cool”. In a single book, ostensibly about Africa, only 19% of the pictures show Africans (omission), and the few depictions of them make it clear they are there as set dressing and nothing more (stereotypes and limited roles).”

This is a prime example of world as “America” sees it: Africa is a massive wilderness with a bunch of primitive tribes in it. To make things better, not only do the natives have NO advanced technology, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have been summoned, and are destroying the continent as they move towards each other to form a super-monster to kill the planet. Don’t worry though, a bunch of heroes from around the world, armed with technology and magic unheard of in Africa are on route to the “Gathering of Heroes” to save everyone in what can best be described as the White Saviour trope on steroids. Also ancient Egypt is (kind of) back, and ruled by a crazy pharaoh dragon. I’m not even making that up. For my full and more statistically accurate review of Rifts World Book 4: Africa, read it here.

This bizarre and cavalier attitude towards non-western/non-european peoples is pervasive through the whole series, with groups being painted in broad strokes. The best way I can think of explaining it further is that Kevin S. (a noted micromanager who allows very little variation from his visions of things) appears to believe that almost every non-white culture is within a few minutes of instantly returning to their pre-contact lifeways. The repugnant “Spirit West” and wild west-ish “New West” books spell it out best, with Native Americans reverting completely or near completely back to their traditional ways and everyone else getting to enjoy the full benefits of technology. Plus “Spirit West” is loaded with over generalizations, romanticism, and the myth of the noble savage. If you know any First Nations or Native American history that isn’t associated with those narratives, this book will put your blood pressure through the roof.

Switching to Asia, you see a confused image of Japan, where the myths of the samurai and ninja laden imperial courts butts heads with technological modern Japan. So both are shoehorned into the setting. China got the worst of it in that area, being conquered by the Yama Kings and turned into a demonic playground, except for the communist underground city of humans that fights them with their Chinese mythology themed robots and bizarrely designed small arms that don’t seem to be made to be easily held. They get a double slap to the face though, because many of the best powers that Chinese characters from China have won’t work outside of China!

I could go on, but there’s no real point. The UK is Camelot and druids, and Germany is a techno-fascist democracy. The stereotypes and frequent “America Leads The Way!” attitudes run hard and fast through the entire series. I will give credit though, in that there are a few POC and other minorities in the art and as NPCs in the a few of the books set in North America, not many, but a few. Everywhere else you’d think you’d see them (outside of non-western contexts), they are absent though. I can only assume that minorities and POC in Europe had a 100% fatality rate in the apocalypse.

World Building Issues

What I’m going to look at next is the bad world building that I never questioned when I was a kid. My favourite, and in my opinion, best thought out, campaign settings and games for functional setting design are Heavy Gear and Traveller. The amount of thought that went into how these science fiction settings operate is phenomenal and should be emulated by anyone designing a game. Kevin S. was not one of those people.

The world of Rifts Earth is a post-apocalyptic one, with roughly 300 or so years having passed since a massive conflict on the wrong day flooded the planet with magic and touched off a series of nightmarish natural disasters and plunging it into a dark age for about 200 years. In the last 100 years, huge fortress cities and super technology have become so common that magic, a ubiquitous, relatively easily accessed source of near limitless energy remains a distant second to what are apparently equally ubiquitous miniature nuclear reactors and high powered energy weapons.

So where are the problems?

The world has almost ZERO infrastructure. Most travel is by road or by flying, and there is no significant railway transport or sea trade. The planet has essentially reverted to a monster and bandit infested wilderness, where any sort of non-magical travel is extremely dangerous. This point is reiterated constantly through the books. What does this mean? Little to no global trade, and severe shortages of materials are the results of this. Getting the materials together to build the computers, reactors, and armour for a robot combat unit would be next to impossible, never mind building a massive techno-fortress city (which dot the landscape in the selected bits of the western world).

The loss of global trade networks would also lead to a return to the famine cycle on a global scale, as food relief is no longer and option. Speaking of famine, the world has been exposed to a number of alien (literally) plant and animal species. Some are good, others bad. No real effort has gone into thinking out the ramifications of this, or the unchecked regrowth of the worlds wilderness areas. In the modern world, a vast network of trade keeps food on our plates, on Rifts Earth, that no longer exists. The populations supported by the remaining civilizations aren’t possible.

On the technology front, pretty much everything worth owning or that you’ll fight in this setting is “Mega Damage”. Meaning that modern day conventional weapons won’t do. You can either use magical attacks or any of the number of energy weapons and armour available to everyone. To paraphrase the game, a Rifts mercenary or soldier in full body armour and armed with a laser rifle has the same protection and firepower as a modern tank. Where is it all being manufactured? Where are the raw materials coming from? Why do the arms manufacturers not simply become political powers (there aren’t enough nations states left to stop them!) and take over their areas? Where does a mercenary make the millions of credits it takes to buy a suit of power armour and keep the missile pods loaded?

The last thing I’ll cover is combat. Modern battlefields are fairly devastating, but those in the future of Rifts Earth should be mind blowing in their scope of collateral damage and devastation. Most buildings aren’t “Mega Damage”, meaning even the weakest laser pistol in game will burn holes through them without much loss of power to their maximum effective range. Any sort of prolonged firefight in the summer should result in forest fires. The dozens of robots and power armour suits powered by nuclear reactors would leave patches of high radiation across the landscape, rendering areas uninhabitable for generations as they are destroyed or the reactors breached by weapons fire. The massive battles often described in the game books would have such massive repercussions that it’s staggering, but everything is treated as though the fights were still occurring with modern day conventional weapons.

Final Thoughts

Rifts had, and still has, a great deal of potential as a game, despite the clunky game mechanics and ham handed treatment on every level by its creator, Kevin S., with regards to, well, everything. Apparently by 2098 (when the apocalypse happened), the world was still in the early post-cold war set up internationally, with no imagination put into the possible changes the world may have undergone in the 108 years between the games release and the beginning of the future timeline it works with. Next up will be the revised segment, where I’ll lay out how I would build the world of Rifts Earth to make it not only more interesting, but also more functional and POC friendly!

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