There I said it, I need a Rifts (by Palladium) and Spelljammer Anonymous group. Why? Because despite these two settings and systems being hated and joked about by almost all the RPG community – I like them both. They’re not perfect, but any experienced RPG player can knock holes in almost any highly system-centric RPG.
(aside – somebody needs to be taken to task for how cliche the RIFTS Australia World book is. Seriously, it’s almost a crime. Even in 1990 we knew far better than this tripe)
Like many I’ve bashed Rifts and Spelljammer for the sake of a laugh, and sometimes more seriously as examples of what didn’t seem to work well in game. However the more I think about these games the more I think that the settings had huge potential. It appears that it was the mechanics and the players ourselves who didn’t realise what me might have had.
Over on Star Gazers’ World is a post about RIFTS which I think is worth a read. Sunglar’s talking about character he loved and experienced in the setting, and it is an entertaining read for a long-in-the-tooth gamer like me. I commented:
I loved RIFTS. The setting has a huge potential to tell very deep and evocative stories, and while the mechanics in the RAW are questionable, I don’t think they are any worse than may other systems. It is a product of the thinking at the time about game systems. If it was written now I think the political setting wouldn’t change too much, but the mechanics would be far more graceful.
So there it is. The basics of a brief writing challenge, or at the very least the thoughts in this blog post. Firstly the game still needs a compelling story beyond “this is cool”, as the cool of both SJ and Rifts gets tarnished very quickly when the players get into the world and events start going sideways. Using pre-written games is a great idea for starting players.
What needs to be altered in RIFTS to make it more playable?
What was it about Spelljammer which didn’t work?
Starting with Rifts – as I said it did most things well in my opinion.
What did RIFTS do right?
- the alignment system written (wiki) at the core of the game is pretty reasonable. Moral and ethical guides, but no actual affect on elements within the game. Nothing wrong with something that helps a player keep “on character” but does not penalise them.
- ..and that lack of restrictive alignment suited a game set in an apocalypse. Right and wrong are different when you are starving and trying to survive, vs being gods amongst men.
- the system was similar enough to dnd for a new player to pick it up exceedingly quickly. I think that really helped the game’s early adoption.
- the artwork was wonderful. I miss art this good in most rpg books these days. I don’t need a fancy “vellum” based sidebar and parchment backdrop on each page, but I do like art that helps evoke the setting. That Glitterboy armor looked darn glittery.
- while we might think the setting is a bit twee these days, at the time it was different from anything else in the mainstream and interesting. It still is interesting.
- I like a system which openly presents different character options and does not try to balance them. In the setting there is a huge variety of people, so the character selection reflects this. The only problem is that nobody really wants to be a street rat when powered armor suits are flying past. No surprise to me.
What did RIFTS do wrong?
- the class systems (OCC/RCC/PCC) made no sense to me ever. For one shot games it didn’t matter, but for long games it was painful. I don’t like character classes at all anymore, but have not solved the problem by writing the Career system I have in mind. I wouldn’t “fix” this for a short game, but instead accept it as flavour and more on. For a longer game I’d look at altering the rules around using untrained skills to be more forgiving, make class changes more flexible, and potentially allow character to have a primary class and a secondary class on the go at the same time.
- Mega-Damage created too much of a divide between the MDC and SDC encounters and characters. There has to be a better way. That said, it is too integral to the setting to remove, but perhaps work around might be to reduce the 1-100 ratio a bit, or allow the more puny classes some gear to make them survivable out of the box.
- the Magic and Psy abilities felt like add-ons to the system that never really meshed properly. The game focused far more on technological advancement and better weapons and gear, than magical and psy advancement. Not sure here, perhaps the source books “fix” this more than I can suggest. I’ve never read them.
- munchkin stye play was kind of implied in the setting, and readily adopted by most players from what I have read over the years. That is a fault of the group more so than the game. Accept it and enjoy it if your group plays that way, or roleplay more verbal rather than combat encounters.
- groups should consider having all characters around the same power level.
Spelljammer was burdened with being DnD, and as such some of the concepts of DnD-in-Space felt janky. I’m OK with janky though, as Spelljammer being silly and a bit of a cornball game was by design. Anyone who takes Elves and Dwarves in space too seriously needs to get out a bit more.
What it did right:
- based upon fun, not science. Hand-waving the physics of space travel did a great deal of good for that game, and stopped it being caught up in various nerd arguments of micro-detail.
- Like RIFTS it was a strange and new idea. Kudos for that.
What it did wrong:
- I think it should not have been released as a pure DnD game. If released as a hybrid system, or allowed to break more of the cannon/system rules it might have been better.
- in no way enough primers or story threads in the core for how to integrate the setting into a “normal” game, or tips for how to get players to come around to the setting. That means the DM is the source of the cross-over point, which in turn can make it janky if the DM is not a great communicator or very inventive.
- something about the way SJ changes an existing game world would be great too. i.e. what happens when Elminster or Bigby discover they can travel between worlds?
- the economic and social impacts of traveling between the canonical settings of the time were always going to be a problem. The source books could have addressed that in a campaign context too. i.e. flying to Krynn to Toril with a ship full of rare gear will let the characters retire rich.
- spell casters really were hit hard by being the power source for flying ships. I think an early rule about the drain removing their spells was a bad design choice. That might have been altered later, no sure.