Back in the early 2000s we didn’t have “actual play podcasts” or Matt Mercer’s soothing voice or a vibrant indie publishing landscape for tabletop games innovating on ways to add knives to fish. If you wanted to play a pen and paper roleplaying game you were basically stuck with whatever you could pilfer from your friend’s nerdy older brother’s pile of Battletech manuals, copies of Wizard, and softcore porno mags. In my case, that game wasn’t Dungeons & Dragons, but a bizarre mash-up of every conceivable genre called Rifts, put out by Palladium Books in the early ’90s.
Rifts is set in a post-apocalyptic world where humanity nuked itself to hell and then things got really bad. The simultaneous deaths of billions of people re-energized the magical ley lines crisscrossing the planet, which then started opening the titular rifts to other dimensions, turning earth into an interdimensional crossroads where magic and technology collide. It was kind of similar to cyberpunk games like Shadowrun but had its own unique vibe and immediately became successful despite the comical ineptitude of its creator, Kevin Siembieda. Rifts went on to spawn dozens and dozens of sourcebooks and a few different editions of the core rules, but the first version of the main book is the one that’s the nearest and dearest to my heart. And before we get into what’s inside the book, we have to talk about the cover. The fucking cover! Look at this shit:
Kevin Siembieda, in his infinite wisdom, decided that the single best image to represent his new RPG wasn’t one of the titular rifts (though he did that in a later version), nor any of the iconic player characters from it, but a giant, slobbering tentacle monster whose upper body is totally jacked and whose lower body is a giant party boat upon which several semi-nude women with rockin’ tits brandish sci-fi weaponry. This plainly rules. For the record, neither the Splugorth Slaver nor the Blind Warrior Women, as they were later named, are featured in the core rulebook. This is unrelated art from an unknown van.
But that’s part of the magic of Rifts! Yes, as we’ll soon see, the game sucked, but it had mystique. Kevin Siembieda would just allude to shit without really explaining it, which is one of the best things a science fiction writer can do. Mexico is full of vampires! Dinosaurs roam the swamps of Florida! In Europe, giant robots are fighting an empire of gargoyles! Atlantis is back and it’s been taken over by interdimensional monsters from its original inhabitants, tattooed wizard people! Every adventure you have in Rifts starts by “yes, and”ing a third grader’s least refined idea.
The problem is that keeping any kind of mystery in your fictional world takes restraint, a quality Siembieda is not known for. He would later start filling out every inch of the globe with World Books covering Canada and Germany and Atlantis and Japan and — I’m not kidding here — Quebec specifically, and that’s when the magic started to fade. It didn’t help that he took the laziest and most stereotypical approach possible to every locale Palladium covered. Rifts Canada has demon beavers. Rifts Japan has karate dragon cyborgs. Rifts Australia has Mad Max guys who ride giant mutant kangaroos.
But back to the main Rifts book itself. The first thing you get when you open it is a message found in all of Palladium’s games that was presumably a response to the Satanic Panic associated with Dungeons and Dragons. My favorite thing about it is that it says Palladium doesn’t encourage the practice of magic, implying that magic is real. Their defense is not “Magic isn’t real, Silly.” It’s “All of this works, but we need you to be fucking cool about it.” For God’s sake, readers, do not attempt to cast Summon and Control Rodents, Create Mummy, or Magic Pigeon!
Mechanically, Rifts followed in the footsteps of Palladium’s other games. It’s crunchy, math-heavy, and uses every kind of die that exists. You have piles of stats, skills, gear, and other bullshit and combat regularly takes hours to resolve because of how clunky the system is. It’s truly awful, requiring that you mark down dozens of different penalties and bonuses on your character sheet. There are several pages devoted to the rules for missiles alone.
A lot of the material is lifted straight out of their past books, like the insanity system, which is from their Call of Cthulhu-inspired title Beyond the Supernatural. There are also in-depth rules for alcoholism and drug addiction, which are treated with all of the solemnity you would expect from a role-playing game with borderline tentacle porn on the cover.
Rifts’s main “innovation” versus Palladium’s other titles was the infamous “Mega Damage.” See, regular damage is cool, right? Like when you shoot a gun or punch someone and they take 1D6 damage? Wrong. You know what’s cool? When you shoot a laser gun and it does 1D6 MEGA DAMAGE! Hell yeah, brother!
Mega Damage was supposed to represent the high technology and strength of magical energy of the Rifts setting. Basically, one point of Mega Damage equals 100 points of regular damage. So if you’re an average human and get hit by even the weakest Mega Damage weapons, you’re toast. This means that every self-respecting Rifts character either walks around in full environmental body armor at all times or else is a dragon, cyborg, or other kind of being who can naturally withstand Mega Damage. It was trying to fix a problem nerds already knew to ignore since Superman first met Green Arrow.
But instead of fixing anything, it immediately raised a lot of extremely stupid questions. What happens if you shoot a Mega Damage laser at the ground? Could you take a Mega Damage weapon to a parallel dimension that doesn’t have advanced technology and rule the world with it? Can a Mega Damage dragon that has shapeshifted into a human being have sex with another human without a fatal accident? Also, is that morally ok to do if they don’t know you’re secretly a fire-breathing tactical commando wizard?
Why did Kevin Siembieda think this was a good idea in the first place? Possibly because Kevin Siembieda had a powerful psychic connection to Rifts’ target audience of 13 year old boys, all of whom thought that anything MEGA was fucking awesome. Naturally, all of this was explained in the most breathless way possible, which brings me to another issue.
There is no elegant way to put this, so here goes: Kevin Siembieda is an absolute fucking slut for exclamation points. If this guy could Scrooge McDuck into a giant vault of exclamation marks that would be his greatest fantasy come true. He sucks and fucks for exclamation marks. Remember that Seinfeld episode where Elaine is dating that guy who doesn’t use exclamation marks? He’s the opposite of that guy. He uses them constantly and to the point that your eyes just start to gloss over them. There are 183 exclamation marks in Rifts. I counted.
What kind of characters can you play in Rifts? Basically fucking anything. You want to be a cyborg? Sure. You want to be a psychic who starts Mega-Damage Capacity fires with their mind? You got it. You want to be a drug-fuelled Batman wearing football pads? Be our guest.
They’re called Juicers, by the way, and they fucking rule. The only problem is that the GM can kill you off with a timeskip whenever he wants because your heart explodes after a few years on da juice.
There were a few characters that almost nobody seemed to play in Rifts. For some of them, it was because of the way they were depicted. Like, there’s a class called the Crazy that’s basically a psychic Joker who gets their powers from implants that also gradually melt their brain. It sounds cool, but this is the only piece of art the book gives us.
Actually this guy rules. But what if I told you that there was a class called a Cyber-Knight that has cybernetic armor and can summon a psychic energy sword at any time? That’s gotta be great, right? Well, no. It’s fucking stupid.
There are also characters nobody wanted to play because Rifts is a game about kicking as much ass as possible and who the hell wants to be a “Rogue Scholar” or “Wilderness Scout” when you can be a Techno-Wizard or a Mind Melter? There’s also a class called “Vagabond” that’s just a normal guy, and their claim to fame is that they start with a toothbrush and “several pieces of candy,” which nobody else in the game gets.
On the flip side, there are some characters that are so powerful that most GMs banned outright. The most common was the Glitter Boy, a name that is used without any trace of irony. It’s a guy who drives around a giant robot that has the single most powerful weapon in the game, and it’s called the Glitter Boy because it has mirrored armor that reflects lasers. It’s absolute 8-year-old boy playfighting logic, and I love it.
The rest of the book is dedicated to lists of equipment, some details filling out the world, and a few full-color pages, some of which are clearly reproduced from Palladium’s earlier books. Oh, this is a Cyber-Knight and companion? Fuck you, that’s a couple of fantasy orcs.
There’s also a lot of space dedicated to detailing the Coalition, the Nazi-esque human supremacist government that rules a big chunk of North America. In a misguided attempt at subtlety, Siembieda repeatedly states that not ALL Coalition soldiers are monsters. But come on, look at these guys. They look like a mean-spirited boardwalk caricature of Nazis, if such a thing were possible.
It gets better, though. Behold the Coalition Death’s Head Transport!
And if you really want to get wild, check out the Coalition Spider-Skull Walker. My favorite thing about it is the Editor’s Note in the first sentence of its description that says “Yes, we know spiders have eight legs.)”
You might be thinking, hey, Rifts has magic, aliens, robots, cyborgs, steroid-enhanced maniacs — this would make a great video game! Well, as it turns out there actually was a Rifts video game. On the Nokia N-Gage. Yes, the platform that made sidetalking a reality also played host to a Rifts RPG. God, do people remember sidetalking? Does anyone even remember the N-Gage? I can’t believe that 2005 was nearly 20 years ago. Fuck, I’m going to age and die just like everyone else!
Anyway, Rifts on the N-Gage is apparently not bad, but nobody actually played it because it was on the N-Gage.
Sadly, Kevin Siembieda’s troubles did not end with betting on the wrong horse for his video game. By all accounts, the man is something of a control freak and bad manager. This all culminated in what he called the “Crisis of Treachery,” which was Siembieda-speak for Palladium being in dire financial straits due to a series of poor decisions on top of alleged theft and embezzlement which he claimed totaled around a million dollars. A former sales manager eventually took a plea bargain for theft from the company and was ordered to pay about fifty grand in restitution. What’s weird, though, is that the theft apparently wasn’t detected until years after the fact, because what was stolen wasn’t regular inventory but random geek memorabilia that Siembieda had left around the office.
To recoup his losses, Siembieda sold signed prints and urged fans to buy books directly through their online store. If it weren’t done by a self-aggrandizing maniac who was essentially emotionally blackmailing his audience over the theft of his Kenner Star Wars figures, this would almost be touching.
Today, Palladium Books is inexplicably still around. They were last in the news when they launched a Kickstarter for a game based on the Robotech anime license, which raised nearly $1.5 million but failed to deliver rewards to a number of backers. Palladium eventually lost the Robotech license in 2018. When even a company like Harmony Gold doesn’t want to work with you, you have incontrovertibly fucked up.
The legacy of Rifts is mainly one of mockery and derision, and maybe I’ve only contributed to that with this piece. It was nearly impossible to play, had the world-building of a kid smashing action figures together, and was badly written. In the modern RPG landscape there are hundreds of better-designed games to choose from. Still, while Rifts was an absolute mess and Kevin Siembieda is at best a bad businessman and at worst an egotistical maniac who alienated nearly all of his collaborators and fans, he did give us this drawing of wildman Michael McDonald running through the post-apocalyptic wilderness with a laser pistol.
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