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  • Writer's pictureFrancois DesRochers

GM Field Guide #6: Literacy in Rifts Earth

Updated: Mar 27, 2023


There a great number of misconceptions to the Literacy skill and how to employ it, both during the character creation process and during in-game play. The concept of this article comes on the release from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which leveraged data from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), to determine current literacy levels in the United States, but more so from the follow-on Forbes Magazine article on the low literacy levels’ projected impact to the US economy. What I wanted to do was take a closer look at the Literacy skill within the setting of a post-apocalyptic, high tech environment. This is particularly pertinent for humanity in Rifts, as it relies on the high-tech advantage to thrive for survival, or at least maintain the status quo and keep from being completely overrun. Part of the analysis also takes into account a different way of looking at the skill, which tries to tie the more manipulative aspect that governments may be pushing, with the real-world application of literacy and numeracy in the shaping and maintaining of a high-tech society, and then extrapolate how this may be used by GMs as a more relevant aspect to their campaigns.

Note: For the most part, we’re excluding the rural/rustic settings, where there are is no access to an education system or to any formalized training institution. In these cases, the likelihood is that people are solely concerned with their own survival; basic, menial tasks of subsistence living with a reliance on verbal communications to conduct barter and trade economies. The crux of this discussion is more so to understand the application of the Literacy skill within the high-tech dynamic (e.g. CS, Free Quebec, Norther Gun, NGR).


Interpretations on Literacy Skill. I’ve seen various interpretations of how Literacy, or the lack thereof, could be represented in Rifts by the more technologically reliant countries and city-states. In some cases, there may be some elements of truth, while others don’t quite go far enough to support how an institution like the Coalition States could achieve its current success:

  • CS Military. Soldiers are likely inducted and trained through as more hands-on regimen, providing them with the basic of basic training to allow them to fill the ranks of the juggernaut war machine. This essentially gives them the tradecraft basics in field craft for deployments and how to fire their rifle when told to do so. This overly simplifies the role of the basic Infantier, making them nothing more than to a glorified trigger puller. Despite the portrayal of the CS as mono-maniacal killers of non-humans, there is a certain baseline of literacy required to do the job, even more so for senior non-commissioned members and officers. This is further reinforced by the multiple OCCs that require more advanced training that start with literacy. I could understand why the CS Grunt may start without Literacy, but the Elite RPA Pilot requires extensive literacy and numeracy to properly employ their platforms (think contemporary pilot flying a fighter jet).

  • Civilian Populace. The promulgation of tailored information through video communications is certainly something I can see happening. I did a post on the method of centralized power could manipulate the populace by tweaking what is said, and how it is said. One could assume there is a state-sponsored video channel available to all citizens, with 24/7 programming. This doesn’t address the day-to-day requirements for the populace, such as banking, purchasing goods, and dealing with something as simple as understanding instructions for prescription medicine. It also does not explain away the requirements these folks would have for their day jobs.

  • Civilian Employment. Understanding the CS military may be the largest employer within the CS, it doesn’t account for the jobs that do the major lifting in supporting a society. Use of symbols and advanced electronics to verbally or visually pass information or do the heavy lifting only gets you so far. A blue collar trade person may be able to execute basic tradecraft tasks through hands-on training, but would require extensive oversight during training and close supervision during the execution of their work. Several trades in the contemporary environment require extensive formal education; the job requires at least a fairly literate employee.

Real World (Contemporary) Literacy: The definition of Literacy in the contemporary sense takes into account much more than simple reading and writing. It includes: Useful Literacy (formal education that allows understanding of written text to navigate everyday life, your job, societal expectations; Informational Literacy (ability to connect new data with previously digested information; and, Pleasurable Literacy (ability to read and engage with texts they enjoy). At its core though, the concept of literacy includes two segments:

  • Literacy. Percent of adults who can effectively read and write with an ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts to participate in society, achieve personal goals, and develop knowledge/potential. This is measured in three classes:

    • Prose Literacy: Skills needed to perform tasks like searching through, comprehension, and use on non-continuous texts in various formats such as editorials, news stories, brochures, instruction materials.

    • Document Literacy: Skills needed to perform tasks like fill out/understand job applications, payroll forms, transport schedules, tables, drug and food labels

    • Quantitative Literacy: Skills needed to perform tasks like balancing a check book, figuring out a tip, complete an order form or determining amounts.

  • Numeracy. Percent of adults who can effectively use, interpret and communicate mathematical information to solve real world problems (e.g. understand basic math (add, subtract, multiply, divide, order of operations), as well as use/interpret graphical, spatial, statistical and algebraic concepts, and ability to use/interpret data for critical thinking and problem solving of real-world situations. A classic example is use of maths to understand how to double of half a recipe.

Contemporary Literacy/Numeracy Rates

  • Literacy Rates. In most countries, there are significant proportions of adults who score at lower levels of proficiency on the literacy and numeracy scales; dependent on the country, recent data demonstrates between 4.9% and 27.7% of adults are proficient at only the lowest levels of literacy (L1 or below).

  • Numeracy Rates. Many countries have large portions of their population that have no experience with, or lack the basic skills needed to use Information and Communications Technology (ICTs) for many everyday tasks; includes use of telephones, radio, television and the internet. At a minimum, this ranges from less than 7% of 16‑65 year‑olds in countries like the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, to around 23% or higher in countries like Italy, Korea, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Spain. Even among adults with computer skills, most score at the lowest level of problem solving in technology‑rich environments.

  • The United States Studies. In 2013, the National Centre for Education Statistics (NCES) conducted a National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). Through a variety of questions and statistical measures, they sought to determine and track adult literacy levels over time. This was followed by the NCES comparative study in 2017.

    • 2013 Results. Roughly 4% of Americans (~8 million) were determined as non-literate due to language or physical/mental barriers. An additional 4% (~8 million) fell below Basic Literacy levels (below L1). This cohort, more than half of which never completed high school, could do little more than the most simple and concrete literacy tasks. An additional 13% (~26 million) achieved L1, considered a bare minimum for active literacy levels in modern society. This equates to ~42 million as barely literate/functionally illiterate. Compare this to the cohort with at least a bachelor’s degree, 95% of which scored L2 to L5.

    • 2017 Results. This study provided more fidelity to the literacy and numeracy results, the numbers reflecting overall results. Roughly 5% of Americans (~11 million) were determined as non-literate. An additional 4% (8 million) fell below L1, while 14% (~29 million) achieved L1. This equates to ~48 million as barely literate/functionally illiterate.

    • 2019 Results. At this data point, roughly 4% (~8 million) were determined as non-literate. An additional 4% (~8 million) fell below L1, while 13% (~27 million) achieved L1. This equates to ~43 million as barely literate/functionally illiterate.

    • Conclusion. The population in the USA with a “bare minimum to no functional literacy” was measured at 21% (~42 million) in 2013, 23% (~45 million) in 2017, and 21% in 2019; figures were worse for numeracy. I don’t highlight results to pick on the USA. The data was readily available and is illustrative that even a developed country will have swaths of its population with literacy issues, despite standardized education up to grade 12. In the CS context, we can assume a certain level of education for its citizens, even if it is capped at middle school for those that even have access to it.

Baseline: For most D-Bees, speaking the language of the land is a foreign concept, let alone the concept of literacy; quite frankly this also applies to many humans on Rifts Earth flung into another corner of the Earth. In this case, the idea on non-literate people makes sense, whether by lack of formal education (e.g. those living in the boonies) or language differences (e.g. D-Bee rifted in from planet ‘Zigmort’ trying to read English or German). Despite this, even if they can’t pronounce it or associate the letters to the sound of the word, most people can learn to associate meaning to words as images. This would only allow the most rudimentary capability to survive, not something the high-tech culture of the CS would be able to support. A *certain* level of literacy and numeracy is required.

Literacy in Rifts Earth. Once we understand how literacy is measured, we can get a better understanding on his this skill can be utilized by characters or leveraged by GMs. Put simply, it isn’t necessarily as simple as a pass-fail attempt.

  • Literacy: Native Language (from RUE). The first real point of reference, the following is taken from the RUE entry: “The character can read and write the language of his culture. […] Reading and writing means the character can read and comprehend the written word, read written instructions, printed books, etc.” This is followed up by the Note that reads: “The ability to read and write is a rare and valuable commodity in Rifts Earth. The majority of the world’s population cannot read. Illiteracy is encouraged by the Coalition States (and other kingdoms) as a means of keeping the secrets of the past for themselves, and their people ignorant and under their control. Within the CS, only scientists, engineers, military leaders and the elite aristocracy are literate (typically in American only).”\

  • Literacy: Other (from RUE). The description for this skill provides a bit more context in how to interpret this skill within the context of the Rifts RPG. Specifically, we want to look at the Note that reads: “If a character fails his attempts to read a book (such as character with Literacy: Dragonese/Elven at 50%), it means the book is currently too difficult for his skill level.” It further suggests that only at the next level could a character attempt to successfully read the book again. I find this to be an overly restrictive method, particularly comparing an 8th level character to a 2nd level character – the former has a significant period of time to wait before making another attempt compared to the second. It also limits the skill to a binary pass/fail dynamic.


Literacy/Numeracy Skills in the CS. As demonstrated in the US studies, even a modern country can still struggle with significant literacy issues; in the case of the CS, they secretly reinforce this situation. The problem is the feasibility of a technological society supporting such a complete ignorance of basic literacy and numeracy, yet still be functional. What I could support is the suppression of greater than functional literacy and numeracy, so that most CS citizens can read/write/apply numeracy at the most basic functional level (essentially no higher than L1). In game terms (using the CS as an example) I would shape this by making Literacy: American and Math: Basic (akin to a Secondary Skill, both at a firm 40%) available across the board, representing only a grade school education level.

Non-Literate Characters and NPCs. The concept of a non-literate character should be relegated to one who simply has *zero* functional capacity, due to language barrier (e.g. a CS officer without Literacy: Euro trying to read/write in than language; a Zigmortian D-Bee trying to understand a CS pamphlet in the ‘Burbs), someone with a physical incapacity (e.g. blind, or an I.Q. roll of 6 or less), an individual who simply has not benefited from any formal education (e.g. poor farming/trapping community in the deep wilderness, or a culture that relies or oral histories and traditions in a similar manner to the Native Americans centuries ago.

Literacy/Numeracy Applied. For those that have these skills, whether at the most basic level or not, use of either for anything more than the most mundane of tasks should require a skill check, with something like a -10% modifier for cross-referencing 2 or more documents, perhaps a -20% modifier for complex manuals (e.g. reading about nuclear fusion technology with only Basic Electronics). As you can see, the skill check could become extremely difficult to succeed. This can give the GM some interesting ways to role-play the information with the PCs and/or NPCs, as opposed to simply telling the player to “try again at the PCs next level.” The result of a failed roll can be expressed in a number of ways:

  • Confusion/Frustration. The character just can’t understand the text.

  • Confounded Information. The character can’t derive useful information (e.g. you read it, but missed specific or vital info).

  • Lost Information. Critical information is read but not retained (e.g. what bureau did I need to get to again?).

  • Misinterpretation. The information is a mishmash from several sources, you just can’t recall which is which (e.g. text says person X went to location Y, but you recall that person A went to location B).


This doesn’t mean to suggest that all citizens in larger human states (e.g. CS, NGR) should be fully fluently literate, but I feel we should have a better understanding of what literacy means, and provide the GM with some insight on how to best employ the skill, or lack thereof. It also gives a little more credence to the ability of the government to craft and control the manner in which information is processed and presented through the various forms of Information and Communication Technologies. In the case of the CS they may deliberately craft the message, or more importantly conceal any contradictory evidence, to support their strategic communications goal. That same approach may work to some extent in the NGR or Northern Gun, but with a more educated populace they may have a harder time concealing any contradictions. When taken to the wilderness community that has no schoolhouse, or a community such as the magic kingdom that eschews technology, we find yet another dynamic.

It takes a bit of a leap for a player to disassociate themselves from the contemporary society we live in, and the apparent disconnect with how literacy and numeracy is employed in Rifts. This is particularly true in a dynamic that actively distrusts outsiders that can read or write. I have a hard time accepting that a post-apocalyptic society could have ever survived, let alone thrived without leveraging at least some basic forms of literacy/numeracy. Sure, there are the favoured few that are fully literate and hold key engineering, science, technology, medicine, government and military positions. Manufacturing and supporting industries may rely on robotics to do most of the work, but a worker still needs to be trained to know which buttons mean what, how to use the controls, and make minor corrections – this implies an ability to read and retain at least *some* level of knowledge. That same person needs to be able to have a basic understanding of math and conceptualize how they spend their money.

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