Ahoy, internet. Hi, Waypoint. Good morning, Tabletop. (Still working on introductions)
Let’s talk Old, Bad, and Broken RPGs.
Its been 40+ years since the progenitor of the hobby got published, and there have been dozens and dozens of roleplaying systems produced since then. While some have managed to stick around and maintain a place in the public eye (or at least the eye of the niche audience they appeal to), the majority have fallen by the wayside and simply faded from view. In some cases, it was just a case of bad timing or poor marketing, but for most of them, they just couldn’t hang.
Maybe they had bad writing, bad design, or just bad ideas in general. Many certainly had bad production values by current standards - to call early RPG art “a bit crude” is perhaps being generous. They could also have just been products of their era, daring and interesting when they came out, but creaky dinosaurs by the reckoning of the modern audience. Speaking of creaky dinosaurs, I bought some of those games, played a few of them, and there’s a few I hold onto solely for nostalgia or irony’s sake.
But I don’t come here to bury Caesar, I want to praise him.
There are plenty of forum threads and blogs out there that rip apart these antiquated and baffling game systems, but I want to take a positive tack in this thread. I want to discuss what is good and worth looking at from games that are considered past their prime or relevance, what can be mined or learned from games that never got an audience, how we can use or even play roleplaying games that have a notoriety for their screwed-up mechanics. I honestly believe that you can get something worthwhile from all but the most toxic of games, and as an older guy it does sadden me a bit when I see old faves dismissed out of hand due to a lack of Hotness.
And, hey - I like Hotness. New and innovative systems are coming out at a rate now that’s hard to contemplate, and I do not begrudge people wanting to keep up to date with current trends in the hobby. There are so many better ways to get into roleplaying games than there were even as recent as a decade ago, and if anything I’d like to see more people discover what makes this whole make-believe-with-rules thing so magical.
Sometimes, though, cold takes are worth examining, and figuring out the roots of what works now from what used to work then is a good way to build your understanding of the games you’re playing currently.
So, to kick things off, let’s talk Rifts. Yes. That one.
Rifts is a roleplaying game from the Palladium line, first published in 1990, created by Kevin Siembieda, and despite a reputation for being batshit crazy nonsense its still getting made today. I remember being excited by the promise of the game when it first came out, despite having had bad experiences with other games which shared the Palladium system, perhaps due to sheer gusto with which Siembieda went for it. Check out this cover art:
Its tacky, surreal, and very 90’s, but it really jumped out at you when you saw that thing on a store’s shelf. Its one of several paintings by Keith Parkinson, who contributed some more full-color pieces visualizing Siembieda’s cuckoo dreamscape.
And a cuckoo dreamscape it definitely is, seeing as it attempts to create a setting where not just a few realities collide but all of them do. The setting is a post-post-apocalyptic Earth, overrun by invaders from other dimensions and ruled over by a bunch of off-brand Nazis in power armor. Given that it uses the same system as most of the other Palladium RPGs, its theoretically possible for your Ninjas and/or Superspies, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, superheroes, and so on to end up on RiftsEarth. A masochist could even attempt to convert their character from an entirely different game’s campaign and bring them over. Anything and everything you could imagine might show up due to the titular Rifts between dimensions.
And that appealed to me, back in the day, despite knowing full well that I didn’t like the Palladium system. And that system has serious issues that I won’t get into here. As do the setting, and the character options, and the editing. And - look - its a bit of a mess. But what an ambitious, sprawling, inclusive mess it is.
This kitchen sink approach to a setting isn’t unique in the annals of roleplaying games or genre media in general. When you’ve already accepted fantastic stories about aliens, mutants, and magic, its not much of a leap to imagine a variety of characters from different places meeting up in some common setting. Would they get along? What contrasts and parallels would there be? Can these worldviews and themes resonate when brought together? Can Superman beat Mighty Mouse? Its the stuff fanfiction, crossover events, and a lot of video games are made of.
And despite a game system that seems to lack any semblance of balance, organization, or consistency, Rifts could and did sell a lot of books simply because of that promise.
Also, you could play a guy in power armor that shoots a big old gauss cannon. I was partial to going against the tide of popular opinion and preferred the relatively squishy and lame Vagabond, which was just a guy with some old junk and some survival skills - but, look, I get it.