Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Elements of a Classy RPG: Rifts

This post is part of a series concerning Class within the context of Role-Playing Games.  For an introduction to the series, see The Elements of a Classy RPG: Introduction.

Although it is not any sort of proper order at all, I want to start with the class system used in the Palladium system.  Palladium Books published a number of different role-playing games, including Heroes Unlimited, Rifts, Ninjas & Superspies, Beyond the Supernatural, After the Bomb, and Palladium Fantasy.  They also had licensed titles such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Robotech.  All of them used the same (or similar) game mechanics.  Most of the games used a class system, referring to a character’s class as O.C.C., or Occupational Character Class.  In addition, some games utilized classes based on race instead of occupation, known as R.C.C., or Racial Character Class.  [A few games also utilized P.C.C., or Psychic Character Class, but that designation did not survive to Rifts.]  Eventually, all of this would come together within the Rifts setting, bringing the Palladium Megaverse together in a grim future.  Thus, I want to look at the system as it appeared in Rifts (and its many supplements) in order to get a sense of what the O.C.C. system entailed.

The Juicer, the result of
Nancy Reagan's failure.
The Rifts core rulebook had a wide variety of classes for players to choose from:  Rogue Scholar.  Wilderness Scout.  Cyber Knight.  Crazy.  You chose your class at character creation and that defined the character in mechanics, concept, and story.  It defined what kind of skills your character had, what kind of special features she might have, what kind of money and equipment she would start with, and how she advanced through play.  It also said a lot about where your character came from, how she got her start, and something about her place in the universe.  In a way, the Palladium O.C.C. or R.C.C. defined almost everything about your character (outside of race).  There were not a lot of details to change within any O.C.C. and once you chose it, your character was generally stuck with it.  Occasionally, a character class would allow for a type of major change or “out” from the confines of the class, but such a thing was mechanically rare (i.e., the Juicer O.C.C., a warrior hooked up to a sophisticated drug injection system, could try to break her addiction to the drug treatment, which would result in a longer life span but substantially fewer abilities, leading to a less functional character class).  However, with few exceptions, this type of transition was never explicitly presented within the ruleset.  A player who wanted his or her character to undergo a fundamental life change would likely have to discuss it with the Game Master.

Perhaps "Adventurer" or "Wanderer" would have
sounded more heroic than "Vagabond."
The interesting thing about the Palladium system was that there were a huge number of O.C.C. and R.C.C. choices available.  I even remember seeing Rifts sourcebooks advertising the number and variety of new O.C.C. selections available.  Consider a look at this purported class master list.  On it, you can find Bandit Highwayman, Bandit (Peasant Thug), Reaver Bandit/Raider, Bandit/Pecos Raider, and Vanguard Brawler Thug (a R.C.C.).  Although covering all sorts of Bandits and Thugs, I failed to mention thieves, represented by Gypsy Thief, Gypsy Wizard Thief, and Professional Thief.  In the Palladium universe, there was something different enough about these different types of characters to warrant different classes individual advancement tables and rules.  Sometimes, you would even find an O.C.C. that felt like it was there simply as a joke.  The Vagabond O.C.C., from the Rifts core rulebook, fits an important niche within the greater Rifts universe (that is, everybody who is not something fancy and special) but feels mechanically like half of a class, with less skills, equipment, and abilities than any other class in the book.

The Coalition: Better than you
simply because of the name.
Just by looking over the class system of the Palladium role-playing system, it seems obvious that class is less about mechanical features and more about filling a specified character concept within the greater universe.  It was less the game mechanics that mattered but the place within the overall world that mattered.  In Rifts, it was not enough to have a soldier of the sinister Coalition as a class in the game; the game had some six or seven in the base rulebook alone.  How a Borg differed from a Coalition Borg, or a Psi-Stalker differed from a Coalition Psi-Stalker, was obviously sufficient to warrant individual classes: one was a member of the Coalition military while the other was not.  Granted, there may be particular mechanical differences between the classes, but the fundamental difference rested in its origin.

No, as it ends up, Glitter Boys do
not have special parades every year.
The distinctions between classes sometimes feel almost cheap.  A Glitter Boy O.C.C. has but one identifying feature: it starts with a giant “pre-war” suit of power armor (called a Glitter Boy).  The power armor is its primary class feature.  A Coalition Grunt is not especially different than any other type of bounty hunter, grunt, or mercenary, but the Coalition Grunt is a unique O.C.C. because it represents a character who is (or once was) a member of the Coalition and retains his or her specialized body armor.  Since the classes were so specific in theme and representation, hundreds were available to fill each unique background, story, or character concept.

Considering all of this, Palladium represents a sort of extreme within the RPG system.  Hundreds of classes, each representing a specified niche within the universe.  To make a Coalition Grunt and then insist he was something other than a grunt of the all-mighty Coalition seemed to be missing the point.  You picked Coalition Grunt because your character was a basic soldier within the Coalition military (or, was recently such a soldier).  Although Rifts, like any RPG, promoted the use of your imagination, your character would generally fit within one of the pre-made character molds presented by the creators.  This somewhat unique class system presented a peculiar economic possibility because it allowed the creators to continue to publish new sourcebooks with new classes.  However, as the number of classes continued to soar, the distinctions between classes seemed to decline.  The proliferation of classes ended with very few being especially unique or interesting outside of the role it played within the greater Rifts narrative.

Rogue Scholar: Clearly these books
are full of old beer recipes.
All that being said, the Rifts system was interesting in that it gave you, as a player, a character to play.  It had a sort of “pick-up-and-play” aspect to it.  Pick a Rogue Scientist?  Well, you had a pretty good idea that you were a trained scientist, potentially on the run from the Coalition.  You likely had discovered or created something that the Coalition wanted or you were attempting to devise some technology that would work against the Coalition’s interests.  Rather than ask yourself how your character came to be in the world, Kevin Siembieda provided it in your character’s class description.  This is great for a first time player, but I feel that most players want a little bit more in the production of a character than merely slotting into a pre-existing archetype like Rifts provided.

I suspect very few people are interested in playing a game with a class system as presented in Rifts.  What it accomplishes in providing a character fixed into the greater story has been easily accomplished by other games, both more simply and more effectively.  Instead, the Rifts system ends up becoming nothing more than a horrifying example of bloat within the role-playing world, where the basic ideas of role-playing are pushed aside to get more books on the shelf.  Its few strengths are readily outmatched by the absurdity of its weakness, making a framework few should attempt to emulate.


  1. I like Rifts' class system because the classes were all very different.

    I don't like that the classes were very far from play-balanced.

    I think I favor the point-buy based systems (like Deadlands/Savage Worlds) but I like that Rifts provided a LOT of examples to pick from (though I wish they were better balanced).


  2. They were all thematically different, although I don't think they were necessarily mechanically different. I think one of the problems with the system as it was done was that it created classes so specialized that doing something slightly different required a different class. I mean, take a look at the master list and search for the term "knight." Thirteen different classes come up.

    One thing to learn from that system is the idea of dividing up the contents of a class and sharing it amongst multiple categories. Maybe Rifts could have used an "affiliation" category that granted you specific abilities, skills, or traits based on who you worked for. That way, you can have "Scientist" as a class and "Rogue" versus "Coalition" as affiliation traits. Of course, as you add fluff, you can add new affiliations. Add a new world power in Russia built upon old Tsarist principles? Make a Tsarist affiliation to your Scientist to differentiate him from the Coalition or Rogue Scientist. Of course, if you just want to be a normal Scientist, don't pick an affiliation.

    I see it as akin to what the new Dungeons & Dragons is trying with background and theme (which, in turn, is similar to what 4E did with theme and, to a lesser extent, background). A fighter is just a guy who fights. But, throw on a Woodsman background and he becomes a warrior of the woods. Maybe add a "tracker" or "scout" theme and he becomes... well, a ranger.

    Of course, that actual situation is what got me started on this little adventure in the first place.

  3. Just stumbled across this board and I'm sorry if I'm reviving a dead topic but I wanted to put my 2 cents in as a long time Rifts gamer and Story teller. Now, I realize I might be biased because this was the system I learned how to game on, but I have played many other settings from D&D to White wolf. While your points are valid, I do think that the niche classes in Rifts provides a challenge for the GM as well as the players. If you don't have a City Doc, how do you get medical attention? What happens if your SAMAS gets damaged and you don't have an Operator? Simply enough, you alter your game for the group. Throw an operator or cyber doc NPC at the group. Have the party stumble across a small camp with the services needed.

    The thing I love the most about Rifts is that even Kevin Siembieda stated that the books are more suggestions than iron clad rules. in my 25+ years of gaming, I have found it sad to watch DM after DM fall in to the trap of relying on boxed text to run a game.

    So, I leave you with this simple question. Do you have a bad taste for Palladium's system because of the actual game or the Game Master who ran it?

    1. Having played (or tried to play) Rifts, TMNT, Heroes Unlimited, and Robotech, I am not sure if I can blame any Game Master without having to give some credit to the system. My best experiences with the Palladium systems come from times when the rules were ignored. The rules, as I remember them, were cumbersome and clunky, inviting the player to disregard them. But, that's just what I remember of them.

      I remember really enjoying character creation in every Palladium game. There were lots of choices and little fidgety bits to tinker with. I just felt that when it came time to actually play, all that fidgety stuff either got in the way or was nearly irrelevant to play.

      As I see it, Rifts is like AD&D 2nd Edition. A group can play it and have a good time, but the ruleset isn't what's bringing that fun to the table. It's the players.