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  • Writer's pictureFrancois DesRochers

GM Field Guide #15 - Law of Armed Conflict in Rifts


Every once in a while, topics of conversation come from the most unlikely source. I was reading a Discord thread and the principles of the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) came up – more specifically they were discussing war crimes and how this can be applied to a Rifts game. Leveraged for your adventure, this can add a layer of realism, or place some interesting restraints on the Player Characters. In all honesty though, it’s likely this isn’t something of a consideration, as the issue is extremely complicated. It’s a heady topic, something that shouldn’t be entered into lightly.

Friendly Warning: Not often required, this meets the threshold. This is an adult topic, one the average layman understandably isn’t well versed in - most don’t know what they don’t know. You may believe you have a healthy understanding of the application of LOAC; this is *probably* not the case. As a serving infantry major, this is a topic I must constantly brush up on to ensure my possible actions don’t inadvertently cross that unforgiving line, hence why we rely on the LEGAD (legal advisors) to help steer clear of shenanigans. This is a touchy subject; thus some measure of decorum is required.


General. A quick Google search provides a plethora of links, many leading to the UN and/or the ICRC (Red Cross). A short document found at the ICRC website provides some initial insights (link leads to ICRC primer). They are minimum standards of conduct expected of professional soldiers (uniformed, armed personnel, identified as forces in defence of a country or prosecuting expeditionary operations of behalf of the state). Of note, this is about conflict, not limited to war between nations. These rules apply equally to civil conflicts that do not cross outside a country’s borders. Of note, violent demonstrations and riots are handled by domestic criminal codes, which is why police and federal agencies handle internal conflicts of this nature, not the military. We’re trained for warfare, not internal policing. We've already now defined a friction point - when does domestic law transition to LOAC?

Historical Norms of Armed Conflict. Looking back through history, one could be mistakenly think ‘might makes right,’ or ‘victory by any means’ was the norm. No rules were in place, and murder, rape and pillaging were certainly not unheard of, and how prisoners or civilians were treated was random, at times barbaric. It would be a mistake to think modern LOAC is solely or even largely based on euro-centric ethos:

  • Biblical examples demonstrate rules were applied in that era

  • Chinese records from 1700 B.C. consciously demonstrating principles of chivalry

  • The Indian Sanskrit poem Mahābhārata details considerations for warfare

  • Greek and Roman speak to codes of conduct for warfare in numerous reference.

  • Catholic Church and other religions impose their own rules

  • Articles of War by King Richard II (England) from 1385 and others thereafter

  • The Lieber Code during the US Civil War.

Worldview Changes. What was termed as acceptable has also changed over the centuries. Considered most vile today, several euro-centric powers in the 1700s and1800s considered slaves like we would consider livestock today (e.g. sheep, cattle). There are numerous examples where Humanity suffered from ethical blind spots, where designated groups were ineligible for benefits of any rules of warfare/rights. An element of human society that is constantly adapting its standards. A non-exclusive list:

  • Romans dealing with ‘barbarians’

  • Catholic Church Law did not apply to apostates/non-believers (e.g. Crusades)

  • Spanish and Portuguese in South America

  • England in the Caribbean and India

  • The African slave trade by European powers

  • Native American displacement during American western expansion

  • Women's Suffrage

Modern Norms of Armed Conflict. Not until the mid-1800s did internationally accepted rules begin to take form. Maritime law was widely accepted. Largely due to initial efforts of the Red Cross, other documents for land warfare were written and accepted to minimize suffering. These have no singular flag of agency – it applies equally to all. But they also have specific application for modern, professionally trained military forces (e.g. not mercenaries, or spies). The vast majority of countries have committed to these rules and thus all are expected to abide by them. Even countries that have NOT signed onto the various documents are beholden to them due to statehood norms. Ultimately, this compliance model strives to minimize conflict to the armed militaries, keeping civilians and infrastructure free from damage to support post-conflict life and recovery. Compliance comes at three levels:

  • Individuals. Charged by courts martial and/or civilian courts and/or international courts. Use of superior’s orders not an excuse by military officers/NCOs.

  • Commanders. Must ensure training on LOAC, give lawful orders without ambiguity, and report/prosecute infractions.

  • State. Ultimately responsible for conduct of their forces, incurring a need for a professionally trained military, and reciprocal expectations for treatment of POWs and civilians.

Source Documents. LOAC is based on both customary international law and treaty law.

  • Customary International Law. Might not be specifically expressed, but developed over centuries (e.g. don’t poison the well water).

  • Treaty Law

    • Geneva Law. Includes the four Geneva Conventions and 1977 Protocols. Aims to protect those not involved in conflict (e.g. civilians, sick/wounded, POWs).

    • Hague Conventions (1899 and 1907). Rules for conduct of operations to limit destruction to specific military objectives (e.g. what and how you can attack).

Principles of LOAC

  • Distinction. Soldiers must distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, as well as objects ineligible for attack (e.g. buildings, statues/monuments).

  • Proportionality. Incidental/collateral damage must be minimized. Includes restrictions on use of excessive force.

  • Military Necessity. Only reasonable, lawful force, that is operationally justified in making opposing military forces submit is allowed. Often leads to some 'open' interpretation.

  • Humanity. Specific limitations on inflicting needless suffering or superfluous injury.

  • Good Faith/Honour. Parties negotiate in good faith with each other and humanitarian organizations.

  • Humane Treatment/Non-discrimination. Regardless of sex, nationality, race, religion, or political belief, treated humanely.

Application of the Principles. There are a great number of rules, but the Principles just discussed are typically favoured to the following six tenets:

  • No Targeting of Civilians. Persons and structures for civilian life are restricted from targeting (unless co-opted for military use). Collateral damage of civilians supersedes military objectives.

  • Torture/Inhuman Treatment of Detainees. Prohibited – as in no exceptions. Must provide food, water, and protection from harm.

  • Hospitals/Aid Workers. Protected by all warring parties and agents. Red Cross/Crescent or other accepted symbols clearly designate.

  • Safe Passage for Fleeing Civilians. What we term as Displaced Persons and Refugees (DPREs). During operations, must openly communicate (including the enemy) any DPRE routes. No operations allowed in that region.

  • Access to Humanitarian Organizations. Must allow humanitarian aid for civilians and non-combatants (e.g. wounded, POW). Medical care, food, water, shelter. Restriction/confiscation of aid products is prohibited.

  • No Unnecessary/Excessive Loss or Suffering. Military objectives must be clear and proportionate, and targeted (e.g. land mines are limited/monitored because of their indiscriminate nature).

War in Ukraine. The current conflict provides a good test bed for how some of the principles can be large tracts of grey vice black or white.

  • Hospitals/Orphanages. Russian targeting of hospitals and orphanages are well documented. The Mariupol Maternity Hospital #3 and Mariupol Theatre Airstrike two clearly identified war crimes perpetrated by the Russian state.

  • Attacking Electricity Generation. This *can* get into a grey zone. But the intent has been clearly demonstrated the Russians targeted power generation in the hopes of inflicting suffering on civilians during the winter. Additionally, the impact on nuclear power facilities creates a disproportionate risk to the attack. Most, if not all are likely breaches of LOAC. Had the region been mostly evacuated, this could have been made legitimate if Ukrainian Forces relied on the power generation for defensive operations.

  • Destruction of Bridges and Dams. These can and are routinely targeted to shape the battle space. Delay operations often destroy these targets.

  • Ukraine Missing Children. Forbes Article. Assisting in removal of children/orphans from conflict zone is encouraged. Bringing them to Russia for the purposes of “re-education” and adoption is very much a war crime.

  • Wagner Group. Writ-large a group of thugs that operate outside the boundaries of LOAC. Technically not subject to it, except for their full integration into operational control and logistics for Bakhmut. The use of Wagner and tactics they employed, may be used against the Russian State. Prigozhin (straight up thug) should be held liable for any number of breaches of both Geneva and Hague Conventions, as well as Russia for suborning it.


General. The précis above barely scratches the surface; it's not definitive. It’s extremely difficult to boil LOAC down to easily digestible bullet points. So, this begs the question, why would you *possibly* want to bring this dynamic into your Rifts RPG? Well, first off, it’s already baked in – just a glance at the Coalition States takes you there. Because this is a post-apocalyptic setting, with some tie-in to pre-Apocalypse Earth, it can be folded into the game much easier than say, D&D or other d20 games set in 'other worlds.' Otherwise, we’ve hinted at a couple of issues earlier that may be applicable to your game.

Compliance Model. Unlike the modern dynamic, there is no regulatory framework to enforce LOAC in Rifts. This is a key distinction, because there is no real secondary market of influence on a nation to abide by any particular set of rules. In the context of Rifts Earth, things are very much back to ‘might makes right,’ which makes a heroic PC group’s work that much more impactful, more compelling.

  • Small Unit Operations. Unless formally hired into the military forces of a particular city-state or major (human) power, the PCs are likely considered as mercenary agents for hire. This technically means it doesn’t afford them the rights and protections under LOAC.

  • Human Policy. The very concept of LOAC as we know them are purely Human dynamic. Most other D-Bees would not know much if anything about them, certainly not that they are breaking any rules, and demons/mindless monsters wouldn’t even care. Sure, they may have certain human-esque qualities and reactions, but unlike Star Trek, they operate by completely different values and alien sensibilities.

  • Pre-Rifts Libraries. It has been established that numerous pre-Rifts libraries and data banks were plundered. The GM can easily bring forward LOAC concepts in its totality. How this is applied depends entirely on the worldview applied to their game. By way of example:

    • Lazlo. Generally regarded as the closest thing to a modern 21st century worldview, they will abide by and reinforce LOAC, Principles, and application.

    • Coalition States. Knows of them, but would only apply them to peer nations run by humans (e.g. Free Quebec and NGR). All others are blatantly placed in that ethical blind spot where the rules do not apply.

    • Federation of Magic (Dunscon). Anything and everything to take down the CS. The ends justify the means.

    • Federation of Magic (Dwoemer). At least proclaims to follow *some* set of rules internally, but nothing explicit for military operations.

    • Atlantis. Profit through slave trade, Bio-Wizardry and domination. Don't care about LOAC.

    • Yama Kings. So, yeah. Demons. ‘Nuff said….

Playing With Alignments. Since the compliance model is pretty much non-existent, the principle of ‘might makes right’ seems to hold, right? This is technically true, and alternatively resoundingly not. The Rifts Alignment system implies a lot of the tenets and principles. The seven choices and ten sub-points are a result of decades of cultural evolution to a modern set of behavioural standards. Remember though, these are from a **human** perspective but can be leveraged to work from any alien worldview you might employ – they just might have a different idea of what those concepts mean. Typically, you are playing a heroic PC, out to do good and defeat the ‘bad guy,’ whatever form that happens to be (e.g. CS, Atlantis, Minion Wars), so the Alignments line up really well with our modern sensibilities. Certain filters (moral and ethical blind spots) could allow a PC to ‘do the bad thing’ while maintaining their alignment, but it’s a very slippery slope.

  • Historical Example: Surely there were Good aligned plantation owners in the Confederate States, but they still justified owning slaves.

  • Historical Example: The United States had a very single-minded approach to western expansion, relying on 'manifest destiny' principles to justify interactions with the Indians.

  • Modern Example: Any critical examination of modern political rhetoric. 'Nuff said....

  • Rifts Example: The CS utilizes both moral and ethical blind spots to justify their actions. I did a series looking at the CS worldview.

  • D-Bee Worldview: Perhaps they have no concept of POWs, or cheating. Perhaps the alien race represents authority through a ‘might is right’ dynamic? They may be Principled, but only respects a leader that defends their Alpha Position. We never question when animals maintain this dynamic (e.g. wolves, lions, bears), despite how violent the physicality gets.

Using LOAC in Rifts. Just like statistics, you can manipulate data to add nuance to information, that then informs the PC on what is acceptable.

  • Character Disposition. On what basis does LOAC play into the PC's disposition? How much do they know of or care about LOAC, even if just in a peripheral manner? What happens if they witness, participate, or perpetrate a breach? If a Scrupulous PC is about to launch a missile strike on a village of D-Bees, are they in fact unarmed if they are magic users? Based on the adventure thus far, are they innocent? Does this count as a legal order?

  • Coalition States. In many ways the easiest example. With blind spots aplenty, most of the population and military are ignorant of the facts of LOAC, if it is even a concept they apply (hence why they are blind to it). Does this make a Scrupulous Sgt or Captain in the CS military any less reprehensible to our modern sensibilities? Absolutely not. But you should account for their worldview. This isn’t me making an excuse, as historically humans have committed reprehensible things to each other for similar reasons. How much realism are you willing to adopt in your gaming sessions and how will impact the group’s enjoyment of the game? It’s much easier to opt-out of this in most D&D/d20 game states. Example: When battling Kobolds blocking your access to a dungeon, the PCs never ask why they are there, or the dynamic that brought them to that particular location. In Rifts, this ethical scenario is literally baked in. Intelligent D-Bees aplenty have come to Rifts Earth by accident or escaped some other horror and found relative refuge. Real World Example: Without putting too fine a point on it, compare countries dealing with massive refugee crises and how domestic populace has reacted (e.g. USA for South / Central American migrants, Eastern Europe for Syrian refugees, Western Europe for North Africans). Now consider this dynamic to most D-Bees found in Rifts Earth. If you fail to see the resemblance, I humbly suggest you aren’t looking hard enough.

  • Siege on Tolkeen. Both sides are dominated by the human perspective. The series demonstrates the demise of principles: Tolkeen turns to monstrous allies with different views on combat, while the CS demonstrates selective application or complete ignorance of the rules. So what are the PCs going to do when faced with breaches of what they find acceptable? Is all fair in war? Do they risk their lives for principle?

  • Bounty Hunting Villains. The PCs could be sent after villains for myriad causes: targeted civilians, killed/tortured POWs, sold people into slavery, or the heinous and diabolical conduct of their operations. Reading through the Geneva and Hague Conventions can give a GM some motivations for a PC adventure as they right the wrongs committed.

  • Prosecution of PCs. Alternatively, the PCs could be the ones being accused of breaching the rules and must clear their names/escape. This can be really impactful. Caution advised because even the accusation can trigger some folks.


General. More often than not the PCs are a collection of adventuring soldiers, scholars, practitioners of magic and psionics, be they human or not. For all intents and purposes, they are most likely mercenaries. As detailed above, mercenaries do NOT benefit from LOAC, unless their actions are such that they effectively work in parallel to forces of a city-state and might as well fly their flag. Does that excuse them from LOAC and the founding Principles? I would argue any Player or GM using this as a loophole is looking for trouble.

Personal World Views. Depending on their conduct, alignments, the context of the adventure, the GM can certainly look to apply the Principles and tenets of LOAC both for and against the PCs. They are, indeed, likely playing the heroes of the adventure, and heroes imply a certain code of conduct. We are each bringing relatively similar world views into this game, which means the LOAC is likely a silently accepted baseline for acceptable behaviour within the adventure. Given the modern structure supporting the enforcement and even the definition of LOAC is not necessarily presented in Rifts does not mean it won't inherently be a baseline for your adventures.


Really, the amount that you apply LOAC is based on the GM’s ability to manage this complex issue and the personalities of the Player Group. It also differs in the manner you structure your adventures. A one-shot adventure against demonic foes might not ever touch on them. Players and GMs likely leverage any understanding of LOAC from a position of relative peace: we live in an era of integrated economy and logistics, with instantaneous global communications. This is not the case in Rifts Earth. In most cases, Players and GMs will collectively work out what is “good,” “bad,” and “unacceptable.” That said, this is not a cop-out to allow PCs to endorse vile play and hatred. Alternatively, some campaigns and player groups are simply more risk averse than others, and that’s fine.

Monsters and demons abound in Rifts, yet some of the more nefarious villains may be fellow humans. With all these perspectives, the fight for survival is a key element to the game. Application of LOAC might not be applied the same (or be a concept at all), but it provides a possible reference point for adventures. We are pitting heroic PCs against heinous actions of human antagonists or the inhuman tactics and predations of the monstrous and demonic. By making these antagonists more than a two-dimensional movie villain, you can add some real depth to their motivations, leveraging the 'why' they did to the 'what' that must now be avenged.

This scratches a bit of the surface of a very (**very**) complex issue. If you feel you may be in over your head implementing this into your Rifts game, I would suggest you are probably right. This is complex stuff, often critically examined after the heat of battle is over. You don't have to shy away from it, just understand the concepts behind it have several elements not present in the Rifts RPG setting (e.g. the compliance dynamic). That aside, Players and GM bring their world views into the "sand box" of their game. How far you allow this to develop is up to the maturity of the players and the GM. Some can handle this, others less so. Regardless, it requires Players/GM apply an adult approach.

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