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Level One Wonk: Savage Rifts

Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. This week, we take a look at an old school classic with a new school twist: Savage Rifts!

While TSR was the RPG publisher which owned the 70s, the 80s represented an explosion of RPG popularity and variety that extended far beyond D&D (and for that matter any of TSR’s other properties, like Gamma World and Metamorphosis Alpha). Palladium Books carved themselves a healthy niche in the 80s with their own in-house game system, which was used to power games in many genres from superheroes (Heroes Unlimited) to fantasy (Palladium Fantasy) to horror (Beyond the Supernatural). Through their own popularity Palladium was also able to secure a number of licenses for other properties, most notably Robotech and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Nine years after their inception, though, Palladium developed the setting that would be the jewel in their crown: Rifts.

Rifts is a post-apocalyptic setting, though leaving it at that would be a great injustice. The core conceit of the setting is that dimensional rifts have opened all across Earth, letting through amazing and horrifying creatures from any possible plane of existence. The game included high technology, magic, psionics, mutants, and virtually anything else you could imagine. It was specifically stated that anything you could stat up in any other Palladium game could show up on Rifts Earth, given the right circumstances.

Unfortunately, the “anything goes” nature of the Rifts setting laid bare many of the design quirks that were present in the Palladium system in its other iterations. The system was intended to be more granular and more universal than D&D was, which made it somewhat unwieldy. That unwieldiness was compounded in a setting where a baby dragon, skill-centric rogue scholar, and hundred-foot tall chromed power armor trooper (a “glitter boy”) were all valid starting characters. Add to that a two-tiered damage system which made the non-combat characters little more than ground beef, and there were clearly some issues. Despite the mechanical problems, players still flocked to the Rifts setting due to the incredible amount of potential it presented as well as the continuous stream of splatbooks which were both filled with even more ideas and very fun to read.

While Palladium continued revisions and new publications of the Rifts core book through 2005, the system did not age well. To make matters more difficult for players, the company took a very aggressive stance on fan-made conversions of Rifts materials, at least in part due to issues the company had previously had with licensing as well as an embezzlement case that wracked the company in the mid-2000s. Despite these challenges, Pinnacle Entertainment Group and Palladium were able to arrange for a conversion of the Rifts setting into the Savage Worlds game system last year. There was a Kickstarter in April of 2016, and books made it into the hands of backers in December. That was when I got my hands on the GM’s set of books, which included the three core books, a starter adventure, and a GM’s screen. I won’t bury the lede much further: if you were a fan of the original Rifts, you are going to be thrilled by this new version.

I am fairly experienced with the Savage Worlds system, having run a game in the Interface Zero setting as well as a few one-shots just using the Savage Worlds Deluxe Edition core rules. My issues with Savage Worlds in each game always ended up being somewhat similar: while the system is both quite flexible and quite modular, it requires more work than it appears to really differentiate a play experience. The Savage Rifts writers put in a lot of work to push past this and make the game feel like Rifts, and on a first read it looks like they’ve succeeded. The biggest way that they’ve pushed Savage Worlds into a Rifts mold is by pushing the power level as far as it will go.

If you’ve played Savage Worlds, you’ll know that the stat and skill system is based on a system of incrementing dice, where the value for a stat or skill is represented by the die you roll. A low stat or rudimentary skill level is a d4, an average stat or skill is a d6, and then so on up through a d8, a d10, and finally a d12. If you’ve played a character for a long time and earned some advances, you can get to the point where you can elevate stats or skills above a d12, to a d12+1 or even d12+2. In Savage Rifts there are starting character packages with d12+1 stats. This is meant to be a high-power game, and instead of re-balancing the game around a new start point the designers gave certain character packages the ability to be nuts right out of the gate. Your cyborg is in there. So is your Glitter Boy, and your baby dragon. So is your juicer, a drugged-up super soldier that can shorten their lifespan for more power and go out in a “Blaze of Glory” whenever they deem it most appropriate. And in reading these classes, they evoke the same “wow” factor they did when first reading them in Rifts 25 years ago.

If the game has the same “wow” factor caused by the power level, it would be fair to assume it carries some of the same balance issues. My answer there is maybe. Since I haven’t yet run or played the game, it’s hard to say if the power range in the classes will cause the same headaches that I had trying to deal with the original Rifts way back when. That said, the Pinnacle team put a significant amount of effort in trying to balance all the different character possibilities. There are two significant elements to this, and first is the class categorizations. A lot of the more mundane classes like the Rogue Scholar and the City Rat have been folded into one framework option called MARS, or Mercenaries, Adventurers, Rogues, and Scholars. The MARS framework allows for a lot of flexibility, but the one unique element is that a MARS character starts play with four advances, or as a “seasoned” character in Savage Worlds parlance. In D&D terms, if you chose a MARS package you’d start at level four while the rest of the group starts at level one. Considering how many abilities require “seasoned” status to acquire, that can be a solid jump to ensure that these more conventional characters can hold their own with the psychics, drugged-up super-soldiers, and cyborgs.

The second element is the Hero’s Journey. Each class gets a certain number of rolls on specific tables under the Hero’s Journey heading; generally the weaker classes get more while the stronger ones get fewer. Each roll gives a measurable boost, be it additional skill points, free weapons, or other buffs. It’s a great way to balance out the different classes, though I think here the authors missed an opportunity to integrate this section with their “narrative hooks” section and give players an opportunity to explain where these cool additional abilities came from. Ultimately that’s a minor gripe, and in reading these sections I’m confident that balance and spotlight sharing were given strong consideration by the design team.

As far as gameplay mechanics go, I feel Savage Worlds is a great match for the Rifts setting. Savage Worlds has a fast and scalable combat system which works well for varying power levels on the field. One of the best examples of how Savage Worlds was thought out for this conversion involves the rewriting of one of Rifts’ most infamous mechanics: mega-damage. In the original Rifts, mega-damage scaled to standard damage at such a high level that being hit with a mega-damage weapon without the appropriate mega-damage armor would spell certain death for any character. Now, mega-damage has been retooled into the Savage Worlds heavy armor rule. The heavy armor rule is fairly simple: only weapons with the “heavy” tag can damage vehicles and armor with the “heavy” tag. It accomplishes the same goal as mega-damage, without the survivability problems for less combat-focused characters. That said mega-damage weapons in Savage Rifts still do a lot of damage, so the threat is still there without the lopsided guarantee of obliteration.

The last thing necessary to touch on is the additions to the setting. While most of the setting elements from Rifts are maintained (on a broad level, the core books don’t cover much outside of North America which is understandable given the volume of source material), there is one major addition in the form of the Tomorrow Legion. The Tomorrow Legion are a group that has formed in what was the southeastern United States, headquartered in a home base called Castle Refuge. The character creation rules, specifically the Narrative Hooks, reference the Tomorrow Legion and the implied starting conditions are that the characters are members of or under the employ of the Tomorrow Legion. While this isn’t a bad addition into and of itself, I’m not as much of a fan of how much the Tomorrow Legion is hooked into the character creation rules. The Tomorrow Legion is a good launchpad for a GM unfamiliar with the Rifts setting, but the entire point of the setting is to be full of different possibilities, and locking a group into this storyline by heavily linking it into the Narrative Hooks tables was not the greatest decision in my opinion. It’s a relatively minor part of the rules, but since that minor part is in character creation it will immediately color new players’ reactions.

Niggles aside, I’m a fan of this adaptation. I had very much the same reaction reading the juicer, crazy, and techno-wizard rules in this version that I did when reading the original Rifts: a sudden, burning desire to roll up a character. The Savage Worlds version maintains enough of the weird and wild to keep it exciting, while balancing characters by giving humbler characters more, as opposed to giving the powerful archetypes less. The power level of Savage Rifts is, in true Rifts fashion, very high, so it’s hard to comment on how successful the balance mechanics are until I actually run the game. That all said, this is one of the best love letters to the original Rifts I could have imagined, and I can’t wait to run it.

Savage Rifts materials, from books to adventures to maps to free downloads, can be found on the Pinnacle Entertainment Group site as well as DriveThru RPG.

Savage Worlds, all associated characters, logos, and artwork are copyrights of Pinnacle Entertainment Group. Rifts® and Megaverse® are Registered Trademarks of Palladium Books, Inc. All character names and likenesses are copyright and trademarks owned by Palladium Books, Inc. and used under license.

One thought on “Level One Wonk: Savage Rifts”

  1. Nice write up and pretty much mirrors my own take. RIFTS was my very first RPG and I loved it but grew out of the mechanics in favour of other systems. Reading through the pre-release stuff blew me away in how, firstly Savage Worlds works and then how faithful and meaningful the conversion is. Juicers WILL die. Mind. Blown.

    Liked by 1 person

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