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Quality in Rifts: Remembering Pete Overton

Quality In Rifts: Humans in Rifts

By Pete Overton

18. My gun does 4d6x1000 MD! There's no way this guy is gonna survive.
-- Famous Last Words of Rifts Players

General Ranting

Inevitably, there comes a time in any Rifts GM's life when his players start to whine like little children over the chance to play this or that character. While usually it is a matter of a munchkin class (Crazy, etc.), increasingly with each supplement the demented endless Palladium Books puts out they add more and more races to the library of munchkinism, seemingly determined to outdo themselves on the last book in a perverse game of one-upmanship. Assuming the current trend continues, we could see Rifts World Book 39: New Zealand revealing never-before seen aliens that were responsible for killing no less than four Old Ones before they came to Earth to quietly take over a small kingdom, their primary motivating seemingly to just be around.

Now, those of you who I was talking about this to the other day will be tired of hearing me on this topic, but here it is anyways. It truly distresses me that almost every Rifts group I hear about has a piddley amount of actual human characters. Now, understand that I am as much of a nonhuman lover as anyone -- those of you who have gamed with me will remember my great Elves and my more recent embrace of the Eldar -- but Rifts especially strikes me as a VERY appropriately human-centered game. The game is about Earth, after all, and Earth has been thrust into the Megaversal spotlight with its stupid actions which consequented in Earth being realized as one of the "pillars of the Megaverse" or in more layman terms, a cosmic nexus which touches a million times a million other worlds.

We've all heard the tired old saying that science fiction is really about the human spirit. It's tired because it is so cliché, but it is cliché because it is true. Frankly, I don't understand why you would want to have a party with no humans in it and run a game on Rifts Earth unless you were promoting the idea that humanity is in descendence, which mind you can be an interesting perspective in and of itself. But I firmly believe that after a massive kick in the balls, humanity is starting to reassert itself on Rifts Earth and that within 200 years it will be firmly back in their hands (as a majority rule or possibly even management sort of position, since you can't defuse the bomb after it has gone off).

Of course, I understand that a lot of this blame must lay at the feet of Palladium. They created a decent baseline setting in the Rifts Main Manual, then went psychotic in a game of "let's make every future supplement more powerful than the last" which shows if you read through the Rifts Main Manual and the Coalition War Campaign. The CWC is what the MAIN manual should have been in their Coalition section. Even a Coalition sourcebook on its own would have sufficed, but in typical Palladium fashion they spread what little information they are willing to give over a billion books.

But back to Palladium and their characters. Who in their right mind would WANT to play the majority of the Main Manual characters? Only the most dedicated and die-hard role-player would pick a Rogue Scientist over an Achilles Neo-Human, or a Vagabond over a True Atlantean (BTW, MDC my ass, they are HUMAN, but that is another file). Of course they will rarely get picked, for they are terribly weenie compared to the basic threats of later books. Let's face it, the only human character that gets regular use out of the Main Manual is typically the Cyber-Knight, and even he is now below-average in the face of escalating technology (Axe rants about this).

The ironic part is that playing a human character is what makes the game so interesting. Of course we all have our moods where we want to play a Dragon and flick around piddley SDC beings for amusement. That's just human nature. The reason Rifts is considered to be such an out-of-control hack'n'slash game is because of that fact, the fact that most players never get beyond that "Oh Cool" stage. I think a lot of GMs are unwilling to limit the choices of their players, but that too is another file. But I will freely admit that Palladium Books and Kevin in particular seems to stack the deck against humans really good, as if to say, "Hey, we're no good, look what we did to this world, so let's let someone else try, but not the Splugorth, they're more evil than us." Interpreted like this, you can see why I rant about this.

The other big problem with playing a human is represented in the Attribute system. This too will be a file on its own when I figure out how to better represent it, but Palladium's attribute system is way, way out of control and needs a serious reigning in before it explodes. I legitimately rolled up a character with an MA of 29, and I swear to you he could have changed your mind about any of your most fundamental core beliefs. In racing to be different from "that other system" (AD&D) they removed all controls that actually let AD&D remain a workable system. By placing firm limits on their attributes, TSR made definite benchmarks on character traits and allowed extraordinary and godlike statistics to be separate and therefore noticeably separate. In Rifts, you can have a character with a higher intelligence than a GOD, a being that has been around longer than human civilization and more power than we'll probably ever see. Kevin seemed to be determined to make Rifts heroes "larger than life" and boy did he succeed at that. As a GM, I get submissions that would blow your mind. One Special Forces character came in that, I swear on my life, had no attribute below 19 except PB which was like 13. "I rolled him up honestly," he says. Whether or not this was the case, it is symptomatic of the fact that humans are NOT the baseline in Rifts and therefore at an inherent disadvantage.

The Attribute system needs to be scaled, and accurately. Think about this for a moment if you need convincing: where do Godlike statistics start? What is the upper human limit for strength? Exactly. You could in theory have a PS of 30 and be stronger than most giant races as a mere human. Of course there should be racial limits! Let's not be silly here, Kevin! Even a quick fix is out of the question -- Kevin declared a 3-18 baseline with a progression through to about 27-30, and then subsequently broke that. Those of us migrated off of AD&D were stunned to find characters with PS's of 27. Physical Attributes should DEFINITELY have a cap, while Mental ones I can understand should have a high-end cap, if at all. Our meat bodies are crude and inefficient but our potential for enlightenment and wisdom is infinite.

In any event, none of this bodes well for humans in Rifts. In my games, I usually limit the D-Bees to a certain few that I can tolerably integrate with little problems. If I want to run a D-Bee sort of campaign, I can do that also but it is usually set away from Rifts Earth; for instance, I have a set of stories about a Cosmo-Knight, ex-Invincible Guardian, Battle Angel cyborg, and Ice Dragon in Phase World, penultimate munchkin setting but they are good because I have them dealing with their dehumanization and the fact that two of them were created as living weapons while a third was imbued to be essentially the same, and they all have great motivations. But I would *NEVER* bring them to Rifts Earth for obvious reasons! Not for a standard campaign, anyways. Why?

Because as I stated far above, I believe that Rifts is essentially about the human spirit. Strip away the perpetually-escalating technology, the wild new world and the return of magic with terrible monsters and you get normal people with the same issues we deal with today. Do you think that just because a Xiticix compound is two days to the east that people still don't get jealous? Kevin did it heavy-handedly, admittedly, making his world *VERY* black and white, but that's why I am here, to grey it up on him. Take the Coalition, the penultimate bad guy in Kevin's view becomes the ironic necessary evil in my world. I hate to break this to some of you, but Rifts is not about who has the bigger gun or the latest Glitter Boy, but who has the will to stand up against all the odds and manage to live, to not give in to despair and hopelessness. That's the true power the Coalition has, it gives *HOPE* to humanity.

I, on the other hand, have little hope when hearing about other Rifts games where so-and-so used his MegaSmashAllThings weapon to take out Chi-Town in two shots and establish a theocracy in his name or whatnot. Just because the diversity of Rifts Earth exists does *NOT* mean it must all be used and/or incorporated! Really! You do not HAVE to have any Rifts to Phase World (or even have it exist at all!). To steal more lines from other games, the golden rule is that there are no real rules. Perhaps you WANT to see Earth under D-Bee control -- then do it! By all means! This is my rant so I am telling you about how I see it! :)

My Rifts Earth is the legacy of humans and the destiny of humans at the same time. My postulation is that society never really changes, only changes faces. When you peel back everything from any given era of history, you get essentially the same motivations and the same people doing the same things. New problems are created, old ones solved, but the people remain the same, which is why I am really pissed off at Palladium's handling of human characters in the game. People are not perfect! Flawed characters aren't a drain on the party, they spice up the game with their flaws! Does that Cyber-Knight have a drinking problem? Great! Maybe he hides it well and only falls back on it when he fails, a truly common situation on Rifts Earth. Work through it, see how the character handles it.

Don't weep uncontrollably if you have an actual human character. Maybe you don't have a single 18 on him. Well, welcome to reality, I don't have any 18s either. :) But regardless of what race you throw at him, humans have that unbreakable spirit and will that allows them to collectively continue on when other races would have written things off. But it is simply ridiculous to exclude humans from your campaign just because they don't have lists of neat abilities. Sometimes humans have perspectives on things that no one else does; a transcript for you:

GM: Following the hallway down, you find a door.
Dragon: Oh! A door! I'll smash it down with one punch!
Human Vagabond: Or, we could try turning the knob.. (opens door)

While I will be writing psychology material on certain D-bees, it is imperative to remember that very few science fiction shows are about the aliens. And if they are, it is primarily to advance humanity. Yes, admittedly, some people tire of the hokey "humans are the chosen race and bind us together like glue" sort of approach and call it just as bad as having all aliens and no humans. I do not advocate the dumping of one or the other, but the moderation of both. I like a human-emphasis because as I said I feel that the game is essentially about humans and humanity. I would like to see more human characters, in more ways than one.

Am I the only one who is really tired of the empathically-dead Rifts character? You know the one I am talking about, EVERYONE has encountered him. "Oh, I cover the building and shoot anyone that comes out." "Well, I'll fire a shot in the air to make the crowd duck and then shoot him in the back and if a civilian gets in the way, well he should have ducked." At one point I had used a combination Empathy/Humanity rating system scammed from Cyberpunk 2020/Shadowrun respectively. It was very, very telling to say the least and that was the only attribute I ever saw from my players that was below 10. Of course the world of Rifts is a harsh one and there are few bleeding-heart liberals around (except in Lazlo safely :) but nor is every single person an amoral killing machine either. Admittedly, this has a lot to do with how Rifts is typicall presented, as a hack'n'slash game and little thought goes into motivations or personalities for these characters, so naturally they remain two dimensional. It disgusts me.

Very few people I have ever talked to about Rifts have asked me truly interesting questions that I ask myself all the time. "How do you think a mage would relate to his powers?" "Would a psychic really feel like part of humanity?" "I'm not really sure that my character approves of the idea of forced servitude in Dog Boys..." No one ever plays up the very dehumanizing aspects of Rifts Earth, which is an important part of it and should not be de-emphasized! In fact, it should be emphasized a lot! Cyberpunk novels are very adept at pointing out the fact that technology is often more organic than the people that use it. Cybernetics and so forth are typically invasive and I have yet to see a Borg played properly, with the sense reduction and so forth (which, BTW, I am told the Republic of Japan has reduced to nearly nothing). Very few games I have seen address the so-called "war weariness" factor from people who do nothing but kill and sleep (and some of these games I mention were nothing but that) because it DOES start to take a toll. A cold, passionless killer is great if you mean it to be in his character, but all characters change eventually for better or for worse and so you better have a reason why he is like that and how it will evolve in the future (go over the edge or regain some humanity).

I don't really understand what it is about Rifts that seems to bleed lazy characters. Maybe it is the length of time it takes to make one character that by the time the skills are done, no one wants to sit for another hour working out a background and personality. Maybe it is the lack of background information that doesn't allow for a good frame of reference to create detailed character backgrounds from. It's not quite as cool as picking equipment, admittedly enough, but is far more important. The root of character is CHARACTER, not equipment, powers, or attributes. Who cares if your character can shoot energy beams out of his knees, how does he deal with his powers? How do others react to his powers? How does he react to others' reactions to his powers? Opinions, quirks, details, customization especially is important in such a generic game as Rifts!

THAT is why humans get such a short deal in most Rifts games. D-bees stand out, are unique and special, while humans are sort of a lumpy mass and seem boring. That's because the way they are presented IS boring. But it's your job to spice them up! Let's face it, we all saw the movie Aliens for the cool creatures, but we all fell in love with Hudson ("Come on baby, you want some of this?"), Hicks, Vasquez, and all the rest, and they were merely humans too. The diversity in Rifts plays against it as much as for it because the humans get lost in the shuffle in the try to be original (and don't get me going on THAT, Palladium's D-Bee motivation rating overall is pathetic). So make your human unique and give him some personality and you'll find out very quickly that a three-dimensional human is perhaps the ultimate character to play.

There are grey areas, however. Psi-Stalkers (they need a race name) are great opportunities, especially when paired with a Dog Boy or two. Psi-Stalkers have to deal with the need to feed on other people's life energy, which of course opens up all of the vampiric clichés but to a more unique end since they don't tend to kill them in the process, although they certainly CAN. They are close enough to human that their motivations and personalities are around the same and yet different enough in some areas to stand out. Dog Boys are even better, especially since the Lone Star supplement FINALLY gave us a detailed report on their psychology. Dog Boys have tons of issues at any given time including the lack of a true culture and being bred for purposes decided by their breeders. Luckily for the Coalition, they implant pretty good psychological inhibitors, but the issues remain, especially for so-called "feral" Dog Boys. Eventually every slave race rebels successfully.

True Atlanteans, once you remove their idiotic MDC, are wonderful characters and I can understand why they get so overused. A whole section of the human race who carry a collective guilt and the wisdom to realize what they have done, it's great! And an internal plot to take out the more mainstream of them on top of that, fabulous! They are human and despite their great wisdom are still human and subject to our frailties and limitations as much as anyone, and that makes them good characters although certainly not for first-time Rifts players who will not grasp their complexities.

The World Book for Japan filled me with sudden hope. A lot of humans, balanced against both mystical and technological sides! Fighting demonic hordes from the north together! It was beautiful! The chances for rich role-playing were great! Detailed setting (there's a change), lush characters (if somewhat stereotypical) and potentially great motivations made it a really good book and I wished that they had done the Coalition so well.

So I guess if I have a point to this long rant, it is that you not forget the humans. They are and probably should be the center of a Rifts Earth campaign and in forgetting them you are sealing off an important and rich resource. There are enough toys coupled with magic and psychic powers to make humans able to viably stand up with most D-Bees and the chance for role-playing is priceless. This assumes that you care a lot about the role-playing aspect of the game, but I suspect you would not have read this far if you did not care for it. Flaws in humans are even better, and a limit (gasp, yes, a limit, how non-PC) on attributes would be best on ALL races everywhere, and sticking to that limit come hell or high-water or the next Palladium book. Be creative with your OCC as well, and GMs, be prepared to allow for some leeway in characters for balance purposes; if your player wants to play a Cyber-Knight with a drinking problem and doesn't want to die immediately, make his psi-sword do a little more damage or a known personality in the area so that people will forgive him easier. It is a give-and-take process but like any RPG experience, can be very rewarding if the net result if a lush, three-dimensional character.

Atlanteans Are People Too

Enough people have mentioned this that I felt a need to add this. :) Yes, I am aware of True Atlanteans being (by default) SDC. However, the issue I take with them is that they become MDC beings with the application of six or more Tattoos. My contention is that the application of those Tattoos should NOT be the stressor for the MDCing of them -- which is to say, they should remain SDC beings. The point of having magic (tattoos in this case) is using magical power to protect your frail little body, and the same goes for True Atlanteans. Now, you must understand that almost every True Atlantean Tattoo Warrior is taught the MDC Shield tattoo immediately (for obvious reasons) and the total MDC is equal to what the book lists at their total natural MDC, but it is an activated power rather than natural characteristic. With more tattoos to draw upon, the power of the shield tattoo is stronger, you see, so the total number of tattoos affects the ultimate MDC total of the shield. It is in truth more like invulnerability but it is literally a skintight shield of magical energy rather than an inherent ability. When I refer to Atlanteans being MDC in this file, it is those who transform into MDC beings due to application of tattos that I refer to.

Now, understand that there *are* magical processes that allow the transformation of SDC to MDC in my world. They are not easy and they are very rare and they are EXTREMELY painful like you would not believe (it has been described as feeling like "being turned inside out without actually doing so"). However, Atlanteans, for all their immense knowledge, wisdom, and longevity are still human. H-u-m-a-n. :) They just have extraordinary magics as befits their legacy.

You Tell 'Em, Johnny...

Those of you who read this page on a semi-regular basis will know the name John Stevens, who runs the CS Navy game accessible to you from the main menu. It's a fabulous game and he's a very fabulous fellow who knows what he is talking about so I present to you one of his little rants while searching for characters for his game. :)

The original rule book had nearly thirty character classes. Of those I can recall only two that were not human and had superior racial attributes and bonuses, the Dragon Hatching and the Dog Boy. Even back then when that was the only Rifts book on the shelf, there was a tendency for players to be dragons more often than the other OCCs, but it wasn't too bad. The book was post apocalyptic, with the main emphasis being on human augmentation following two pursuits technological and mystical. The whole point of these augmentations; to survive and reconquer.

With the introduction of the first Conversion Book my players became increasingly non human, but they were tolerable because of their interest in trying to role-play and basically comparable to human stats. However, this started a move away from humans and their struggle, what I fell is the primary focus of the whole Rifts scenario. Each new world book and it's optional player races moved further and further away from humanity, there were some notable exceptions, such as Juicer Uprisings which focused on the what the human being would subject himself to in order to survive. Coalition War Campaign, basically just made humans a little more competitive with the already rampant running D-bees. While Rifts Lone Star, can be argued as an excuse for introducing non human player characters into CS campaigns. Basically each book's subsequent attempt to be better than the last, increased the power of the game so that the human became unattractive as a player character.

This is where perceptions have been construed. Amongst the plethora of super powerful d-bees and genetic mishaps the human is still there, alive and in charge. It seems players miss this, they think by numbers not by the feel of the game, they are almost afraid or unwilling to play a human character because it just seems unable to compete. Now this may partly fall on the GM who loves to throw the all new powerful villains in each subsequent book at his players in a proverbial phallic symbol contest. Mainly, however, players have an aversion to humans. Take the PBeM game that sparked this soliloquy, in a pretty straight forward situation I have created a good role-playing environment made solely of humans and mutant Dog Boys in a Coalition setting. Of the four character submissions I have received thus far, two have been crazy abnormalities. One could possibly have been explained away as a Lone Star creation as a mutant Amphib from Underseas, but the states were so unbalancing I will probably exclude this character. The other was a Coalition Special Force or Commando with a "Guyver" symbiote. I didn't even know what a "Guyver" was until someone explained it to me, granted, this guy had a good story and it might have been fun if it fit the parameters I asked for, but the character couldn't even swim. In a squad full of Naval Infantrymen this could prove to be a problem.

My point is not to bash any particular people or say the Palladium's Books are guilty of power playing. My point is one that is emphasized by Dr. Desmond Bradford in Rifts: Lone Star. That is humans are the ultimate survivors, not by opposable thumbs, or big brains. Rather, the nature in which these physiological gifts are used, the human's ability to emulate, to augment, and to strike out before something is immediately threatened. In virtually all role playing games the human exists and is often a dominant force in it's world even though are beings are stronger, smarter, or can procreate more quickly. Ever wonder why? This "why" is what makes the human such an integral part of Rifts, and makes the human not under powered but under-played. With the human character there are no states to hide behind, or mega damage to absorb foul ups, a human character is only as good as the player behind it.

Wow, I tell you, that guy is so on the ball. :) I stand quite lucky to have him around for the page. A fellow named DaugWok sent along mail recently disagreeing with me (yeah, I know, it does happen on occasion :) about the primary focus of the game being on humans. I'll let him speak for himself:

The only thing I see a little differently is the whole "human spirit" debate. Personally, I don't see "human spirit" as an exclusively human thing at all. "Human Spirit" is really just one wording of an ideal that should be evident in all higher organisms. From this standpoint, ANY race is prone to inherit the Earth, so to speak, and thus increases variety as well as the realism of games.

Well, I certainly see his point. As far as having a game goes, you have to project the idea of an alien race taking up residence on Earth indeed. If you're both good and lucky, you can come up with a "grey" sort of enemy (such as dimensional barbarians who violently take up space in North America only to be discovered that they are fleeing an even more oppressive and violent force). When I say the game is about human spirit, I mean that it should be about how humans react to their world being invaded and their reaction to it will decide the eventual fate of the planet. It could be that Earth will eventually become a VERY multicultural crossroads of the Megaverse and humans will simply be the "managers" of it, not unlike Prometheans and Phase World. Or it could come out very differently, with adventurers discovering how to "shut off" the magical flow into Earth and it would again become a dead planet magically speaking. I don't know, it's your game, kids. :) My point is however that the game is best served when it is from a human standpoint because humans have such an innate connection to the Earth and it is their home and to have a lot of crummy aliens come into it and almost wipe out Humanity, well, that's a gold mine of roleplaying waiting to happen. If you want to turn Rifts into a Greek Tragedy of epic proportions (and I do that to all my games ;) you tell the tale from the point of view of the characters who have the most to lose, in this case the humans. One of my best remembered set of stories was a Macross II dealie where I had Earth fall to aliens only to be retaken in a terribly bloody and awful conflict. I saw a bumper sticker not too long ago, and it read, "For those who fought for it, freedom has a special flavour." This is what I refer to when I talk about human spirit, the innate qualities, both good and bad, that make us who we are and what we are capable of when we are pushed to a wall (read the JMS quote below :). That is, I think, the best sort of Rifts game you could get and just about as far from Kevin's vision of his own game as you can get, but you know, I use it anyways because of that. :)

Another guy by the rather inauspicious name of Happy Squirrel sent me the following.

I think Rifts is about the human spirit as well, but more about human nature... the coalition is not evil, but is a zealot nation... so soon humankind forgets the nuclear holocaust that sparked it all and begins creating machines of war and hatred... triax, the coalition, northern gun, mindwerks... all are forces of destruction bent on reclaiming the earth, as well as personal glory...

That's a good point actually. There are two fundamental sci-fi schools of thought on the topic of human nature in the future, exemplified by Star Trek (Roddenberry's original vision anyways) and B5. The former declares that human nature will be changed by the technology that it uses to enhance its life, while the latter believes that human nature will always be the same. It is human nature that drives the Coalition, and while many of us can sit here all totally free and in a model society and point at the CS and say "evil" (much like Kevin does full time), the fact is that it perhaps is uneasy for us to admit that we might go along with them if we were in their shoes. Their actions are not necessarily approved of, but nor opposed as a rule, and if you're not part of the solution... It's rather unsettling to realize that the people of the CS are not so removed from us today...

Ordinary Man vs. Wonder Dude

A perpetual debate among all players of any RPG anywhere is whether or not the characters are somehow 'larger than life' or simply 'ordinary people in extraordinary situations.' How you answer this question will shape your character a very great deal, setting the limits for him and so forth.

Canon Rifts goes out of its way to state emphatically that players are larger than life, very extraordinary people in a wild world. This stands to reason because of the Darwinistic world in which the characters live in, it breeds very very hardy characters indeed. This is what would provoke the proverbial admiring glances of normal people and would also very much explain why the common people appreciate the CS, as they are an extraordinary force in their lives. To break that fear and horror of the mere existence of the world, it takes an amazing mind and strength of will to take control of their environment. This makes great stories of characters who have broken the mold and taken their lives into their own hands.

On the other hand, some amazing stories come forth out of characters who are forced by circumstances or by initiative to take up the call to arms. This side of the argument usually includes those who enter adventuring for revenge or as a direct result of a stressor such as an attack by deebs. They were not groomed for their adventuring positions and are more or less trying to just get by and take their 'profession' as more of a temporary thing although they often end up staying in it until they die. Stories of ordinary people rising to their extraordinary circumstances are popular indeed. They make strong characters indeed although few can play them properly.

Either way you believe, it will impact on your characters. The character who has the will to train hard for his life and go out into the world is equally as interesting as the father who takes up adventuring to avenge the death of his family. But it will impact on the game and hopefully it will make you think about your character's origins before you come up with the whole package. It sets the foundation that you need to build your character.

In The Immortal Words Of JMS...

Finally, let me close with words that I use as bible for all games, borrowed from _In The Beginning_, the Babylon 5 TV movie, which had a great monologue about humanity, if a little melodramatic. Give this to your players and if they don't get it, kick them out. :)

The Humans, I think, knew they were doomed.  But where another
race would surrender to despair, the Humans fought back with
even greater strength.  They made the Minbari fight for every
inch of space.  In my life I have never seen anything like it.

They would weep.  They would pray.  They would say goodbye to
their loved ones, and then throw themselves without fear or
hesitation at the very face of death itself, never surrendering.

No one who saw them fight against the inevitable could help but
be moved to tears by their courage... their stubborn nobility.

When they ran out of ships, they used guns.  When they ran
out of guns they used knives and sticks and bare hands.  They
were magnificent.  I only hope that when it is my time, I die
with half as much dignity as I saw in their eyes in the end.

They did this for two years.  But in the end, they didn't run
out of courage, they ran out of time.

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