GM Field Guide #10: Convincing Players to Try Rifts
Updated: Mar 27
With the relatively dramatic implosion of the D&D community over the proposed changes to the Open Game License (OGL) at the hands of the Wizards of the Coast (WotC) overlords, it should be no stretch to see a burgeoning interest in other game systems. The most likely beneficiaries of this dynamic are other d20 producers that run the gamut of the fantasy genre: Paizo, Kobold Press, et al. While the vast majority may be searching for other d20-related products to fill the void, others are looking to other producers, or shifting gears entirely and trying out completely different settings. Knowing a few things about the TTRPG market, Palladium Books isn’t one of the ‘big 5’ (D&D, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulu, Vampire, and GURPS) but certainly has something to offer the gaming group looking to try something new.
The following is targeted to DM/GMs looking to explore the wider gaming market. For obvious reasons, Palladium Books’ primary draw to this crowd would likely be the PFRPG. It maintains the high fantasy esthetique, but presents a different set of core rules and a different setting, which may be the palette cleanser they are looking for. If the Players are looking for something more, Rifts is certainly something that offers a more all-encompassing change. Regardless of which Palladium game system you choose to promote or jump to, a few points to help guide the discussion:
Overcoming Buyer’s Remorse. There is a certain sunk cost Players and GMs will have to overcome in order to explore another game system. At the very least, the core rules and perhaps setting books, expansions or adventure modules are all part and parcel for the business model. Most Players likely have a favored character they are loathe to part with. Others have a particular play style and preferences they developed during their hobby time their current gaming system supports/promotes. Moving to a new system is like switching from your favorite restaurant to that new place that opened up just down the street, in some cases without even scanning the menu before you sit down. Some tips to overcome the apprehension:
Don’t Buy the Library. This may seem obvious, but in each game system the core book is really the only thing you need to start. That single book is enough to get started, and supports a one-shot mission fairly well. In each of the PB game settings, the primary book gives the GM the rules to work from, and Players the basics for their characters.
You’re Not (Necessarily) Abandoning the Old System. Regardless of what your Players may think of WotC, there is nothing necessarily restricting you from returning, once the dust has settled and WotC once again releases physical products.
Promote Features That Appeal to Your Players. This first one assumes you are already in a gaming group and have a detailed knowledge of what your friends would enjoy. This has a certain amount of personality management involved, as Players bring their unique expectations on the return they earn for their hobby time. A few of the more common features:
Combat. For some Players, the combat encounters are pretty much their ‘jam’ for role-playing (sometimes under the moniker roll-playing). The PB combat rules present a different feel than most any d20 system; where d20 uses passive defense in calculating the Difficulty Challenge to hit, PB offers a choice to Dodge/Parry and then Roll with damage. This can often slow down the combat, or at least appear to do so. Make sure you are prepared to coach Players in the beginning through a minor encounter to demonstrate these differences. For the most part, once they have tackled a single combat encounter, the following combats flow much quicker.
Skills. For those that prefer a more cerebral character and using skills to solve problems vice brute force, this game has (literally) hundreds of skills that can be used to flesh out your PC. This presents a daunting hurdle during character generation. Be sure to help them in their choices, or better yet, give them a pre-set character to play with Skills already chosen for them.
Technology-Psionics-Magic-and Bears-Oh My! There are literally thousands of variations and combinations of character possible in Rifts/HU/Nightbane, while the other games present dozens, if not hundreds. Between various species to start from, to combat classes, magic users of all sorts, superheroes/Nightbane with different powers and abilities, various alien species available, psionic classes, you name it. There is unlimited scope of choice not limited to the high fantasy setting most d20 systems rely on. For initial trials, I’d suggest starting with pre-generated characters, or truncating the sometimes arduous process of character generation if this is overwhelming. Alternatively, this level of granularity typically develops a strong sense of player agency in their character’s success, which may be something the group enjoys. Play this one by ear, but I’d recommend pre-gen PCs as a fallback option.
Do your Players refuse to leave the high fantasy setting? PFRPG is your answer.
Mutant animals and Superheroes more their thing? Throw together After the Bomb with Heroes Unlimited and go battle alongside/against your favorite comic book characters.
Want a futuristic setting like Star Wars/Star Trek? Hit up the Three Galaxies in Phase World.
End-of-the-World style games your jam? Dead Reign and Chaos Earth, heck Nightbane and Beyond the Supernatural too! They all of them can then dovetail into the most recognizable brand, that of Rifts. This can be overwhelming, so take with a grain of salt. Because you *can* doesn’t mean you *have* to.
Overcoming the Book Overload. As mentioned before, the sheer volume of books available for each game can be daunting. Rifts alone has XX books, PFRPG XX books, Heroes Unlimited XX, among others. There are ways to deal with this, which is more about concentrating your efforts to present the easiest possible transition from d20 over to the Palladium Books’ Megaverse.
Choose a Game. Make it one that your Players demonstrate some willingness to try. If they are hardcore fantasy nuts, Rifts or Dead Reign are not necessarily going to help you. Take a poll or gauge their interest and choose one that best matches their interest. At the end of it, the individual game system presents a baseline for you to manipulate as you see fit.
Choose a Setting. In most of the games, the regions you play in matter. This influences the politics, social settings, types of danger, and in some cases what species and Classes are available. I made a guide for new GM's looking to pick an area in Rifts Earth (Scholar's Review #50: Baseline Publications for new GMs). Just like choosing the game, make this one something the Players will enjoy playing. The easiest answer if playing any of the modern or futuristic settings (Rifts, HU, Dead Reign) is to select your own backyard. Leveraging the articles on Geography and Topography, make a sandbox for them to play in that they can recognize and relate to. You don’t *need* any of the World Books, but they do add some fun.
Limit OCCs. I’m not advocating a serious limit, but choosing from the RMB/RUE as starting characters simplifies things for both GM and Players. First off, all in one tome. Secondly, they are relatively balanced in terms of game impact, updated to more current rules and publications. The jury is out whether they should go outside their comfort zone and play a completely different character (Players always playing the Barbarian not a Ley Line Walker might be a great palate cleanser, or could be a factor used to denounce the game). I’d suggest keeping to what they like in order to demonstrate the differences in the core rules.
Small Adventure. Since you’re trying to glean some fun from them in a new system, keep it simple. Try to limit yourself to a small adventure that could be done in a single or two sessions, maximum. This gives them a chance to discover their characters, as well as the differences in game play.
Pre-Planning. Have as much set-up as possible. From a GM’s perspective, have specific stats and information on NPCs, description on locations, and encounter info sheets handy. Give the Players character sheets that have the same information in the same spots. Make sure that after Session 0, you know their characters as well as/better than your Players. This doesn’t require memorization, but if they are flailing to find their Save versus Psionics, be prepared to point to the sheet and account their Attributes on the fly.
No Rules Lawyering. Most PB games are designed with an OSR feel to them, where quick rules decisions make for better game play. I’m not saying throw out the universal constants of gravity and time, but don’t be an absolute stickler for the rules. Make up rulings on the spot that support Player engagement and advancing the plot. You’re fishing for the big whale (Player engagement and acceptance of the game system), so if you have to lay out a few juicy morsels to reel them in, apply judiciously and sprinkle for taste.
Session Zero (Part of the Pitch). If we’re specifying Rifts, we’re selling the setting and the huge variety of choices Players can leverage. As with any Session Zero, and this is system agnostic, make sure you establish your expectations and the type of adventure you will be running. You likely have a clear indication of what kind of game your friends like, but develop some probing questions for your Players in order to tailor the experience. There’s nothing easier to killing a new game experience than throwing Players into the opposite of what they expected (e.g. a high court with intrigue and social interactions when all they’ve rolled up are combat characters). If this isn’t something readily apparent, there are myriad suggestions to be used as a backdrop to the adventure (examples are Rifts-specific):
Tolkeen War. This is a great way to get them into the thick of things. Based on your Players, you can ramp-up or dial back the interaction with the CS or Tolkeen as needed. This provides great fodder for a whole host of adventures. Things need not be “front line” war encounters. There are hundreds of adventures along the flanks, so to speak.
Minion Wars. Who doesn’t like a good demon-stomping kind of adventure? It also allows a great demonstration of the depth to the world building and differences of PB demons from Hades/Dyvaal to the classics from D&D et al. They are a pretty easy antagonist to allow interaction with any faction across Rifts; well, Rifts China perhaps the exception. The “enemy of my enemy is my friend” concept can allow interactions with a host of NPCs to give them a sampling of the various powers that be.
Small Town USA (or Germany/Russia/Australia/Argentina). Pick your locale. The group starts in a small town, dealing with small town problems. Ravaging D-Bees/monsters, rogue NPC brigands, Atlantean slavers, who knows? But I’ll bet the Players are ready to be heroes. This is by far my preferred method to start.
Have Ship/ Shifter, Will Travel. Give your Players a taste of the adventure in dimension hopping without the whole 9 Circles of Hell. A space ship captain or Shifter NPC hiring out the Players for security gets things started. Where they go and what plot twists you toss at them is theirs to discover.
Invite New Players/GM
Your Gaming Group. Perhaps a little rebellious for some, they may not wish to challenge the group loyalty dynamic, which is perfectly fine. But if there are several groups running at your FLGS or at a convention, this certainly isn’t an issue. A new GM or Player can instantly change the dynamic of the group, so some caution is prescribed. This can be that ever-elusive opportunity for the ‘Forever GM’ to tackle the roll as a Player.
FLGS/Convention. For convention run games, this is pretty much a given, so some of the initial time will be spent teasing out the Players’ personalities. For this adventure, keep things simple in order to facilitate gauging their role-playing experience level (no pun intended), but also their familiarity with Rifts or PB games in general.
Focus on What Rifts/[Insert PB Game] Does Well or Different
There are several key differences to play up for neophytes into Rifts or any other Palladium Books game. Dependent on the Player or group, a few things I’d start emphasizing:
Active Defence. This is something I’ve typically seen well received. The options to do alternate actions in active defense makes the combat grittier and “feel real.” Just be prepared to keep the pace going smooth and steady.
Skills Dice Versus Action Dice. Skills are all d100 rolls, while pretty much all other Actions are d20 based. This separation somehow finds some odd friction points with new Players. One *could* divide the percentages by 5 to reach a d20 DC target, but we lose the ‘feel’ of the game once we start converting everything to a d20 roll.
Magic and Psionics. There are some clear differences in how the magic and psionic classes work in Rifts. Magic is higher investment for greater reward (generally), but the psionic character certainly can have a huge impact! Both have a wide range of powers to choose from that easily satisfies a one-shot adventure. Additional Core and World Books add flavour thereafter.
Setting Does Anything You Want it To! Technology wars, magic and psionics, PC’s versus the CS, the CS versus Tolkeen, Xiticix invasion, Minion Wars, the list goes on! Find what your Players enjoy and go to town! Are they dungeon crawlers in look of loot? Madhaven or the ruins found in the Dino Swamp could really blow their minds.
Based on Reality. One of the key tenets of Rifts is that is allows GMs to introduce the post-apocalyptic setting of their current locale. Give the Players an idea of what happened to the region and the give them a chance to solve a problem and save the village or defeat a 'big bad guy.' Leverage your town's real geography and have the Players explore. This is a sure-fire way to get some, if not all, Players engaged.
Single Edition. For the most part, all of the PB game lines have seen continuous production under a single core rules system. The ‘updates’ and ‘2nd editiions’ are more updates that clarify the rules. This is a far cry from most d20 systems that have seen several system updates that invalidate the previous books. Not so with Palladium Books; okay, okay, some exceptions may apply. Largely though, things remain relatively unchanged for decades. When we’re discussing sunk costs, I am hard pressed to find a TTRPG company that provides a better Return on Investment for longevity and interaction of their game lines.
So, there you have it. Certainly not an exhaustive list, but a place to start. The idea of switching from one system to another, be it Rifts or another game system, operates with a certain leap of faith into the unknown. Players may have heard of Rifts or Palladium Books, while other have absolutely no idea what to expect; in both cases this is fine, or at least something that can be mitigated. The Palladium Books core rules system allows a massive scalability for Player Characters and endless scope for adventures. Rifts offers the most likely recognized game system as a point of entry, but is not exclusively so. Have that chat with the gaming group and steer the discussion into a choice of game system that provides the best opportunity for repeat gaming experiences.
If you know of a GM or Player Group looking to take the plunge into Rifts (or any Palladium Books game line), please feel free to leverage this post, perhaps shape the discussion from consideration to execution and giving the game a fair shot. This isn’t about conversion into acolytes of Palladium Books, but we certainly want to see PB get as much exposure as they deserve. All you’re trying to do is get them into the door – walk through the Rift, if you will.
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