The Bazaar #34 – Rifts Renaissance (Skills Redux)
Updated: Jan 21
The Palladium Books core rules set has remained pretty much unchanged over the decades; only tweaks and minor changes here and there with new releases. Ultimately (no pun intended), this led to Rifts Ultimate Edition, with what I can only assume was an attempt to try and update the core rules, more so with adjusting the core O.C.C.s to more current standard. From my perspective, and very likely not alone in this assessment, the rules are based on a presentation and editing style that worked in the 80s-90s, but leaves Palladium Books trailing behind the current market compared to more contemporary game systems.
Putting on the old "thinking cap", the Rifts Renaissance series posts will present my methodology and the resultant vision I would like to see in a more updated version of Rifts. It’s a game that deserves to be spoken about in the marketplace more often, but the common thread throughout most “why not Rifts?” threads is their issue with the lack of concise, specific rules, and the variant rules throughout the various games. Others simply can’t escape the d20 system (not a thing I am attempting to replicate). Even those that rail against the PB rules system praise the Rifts content and the ‘feel’ of the setting.
Lastly, I think Palladium Books is poised on the precipice of an opportunity. With the upcoming release of One D&D, Wizards of the Coast seems to be making it an ‘Apple-esque’ game space: a single online portal for most transactions, including a multitude of micros-transaction opportunities (a-la Fortnite), possibly ignoring the price sensitivity of the market and inherent possibility of turning into a paywall/higher barrier to entry RPG. I’ve nothing against the d20 system or AD&D; I enjoy playing it. I simply have zero interest in virtual skin customization, prefer the physical books, playing by theatre of the mind, and supporting my FLGS. That, and fantasy settings support the kind of gameplay; ranges are much smaller, skirmishes much more ‘in your face,’ whereas Rifts encounters can be measured in hundreds or thousands of feet (hundreds of meters) and makes virtual game mats much harder to use for combat.
Caveat/Disclaimer: So, I’m very much not tapped into Palladium Books any more than most. I have zero visibility on internal business matters, planned or current projects that may actively counter my suggestion, or their strategy for the way forward (either rules-wise or thematically). This is all a shot in the dark.
What I *can* do is present a more formalized system, with brevity in mind condense it, and ultimately suggest the following:
An updated/formalized Core Rules System that is universally applied across all PB games. Imagine that.
My only suggested changes for the various games are limited to the Occupations and specific Character Generation proclivities (e.g. PFRPG vice Heroes Unlimited vice Rifts). What benefit does this provide?
Common Rules System. First, it allows PB to shape new releases around. New releases and games can select a system medium (fantasy, contemporary/modern, or futuristic) and this has specific impacts on things like available skills (e.g. Modern W.P. dropped from fantasy), impacts on psionics and magic, and other elements, etc.
Supports Inter-Game Transition. It also presents a single source mechanism supporting character powers as they rift from one system to another. One problem of course is how do you transition a character from a Mega-Damage world into an S.D.C. environment, particularly their weapons?
Game Book Page Count. This is an opportunity for PB: new releases can now ignore page-count devoted to ranged weapon combat or a Skills list, giving GMs and Players more content they can use.
FIRST PRINCIPLES REVIEW
First Principles Review. As has been done before, I decided to take a crack at re-writing the Core Rules for Rifts/Palladium. As such, I sat down with my copies of the rule books for each of Palladium Books’ settings, and started the process of doing a first principles review on the intent of the rules and then how they were presented. The aim of this exercise was to normalize the rules into a common, holistic source, with the following Lines of Effort:
Cross-System System. The idea is to propose an update to the rules to something that could be universally applied across all of the Palladium Book games. As such, the Core Rules must be equally applicable to Palladium Fantasy as they would be for Rifts or Heroes Unlimited.
Backward Compatible. With the exception of O.C.C.s, any rules update I would suggest must to be seamless or a simple 1-step process for the GM or Player to look back at any World Book, Sourcebook or other publication and still use the weapons, magic, robots or other entry. Unlike the business model of other RPG companies, I applaud PB for keeping the ‘version’ of their games relatively unchanged.
What is NOT Changing. Supporting the previous point, any details, descriptions and statistics for weapons, vehicles, equipment, power armour and robots, psionic powers and magic powers (with one specific exception). NPC entries remain unchanged, regardless of suggested changes to Skills or other Occupations. World information and background remains unchanged.
Layout / Editing. One of the easiest things to address is the rules bloat, and the contradictions between games over the same rule interaction (e.g. dodging at point blank ranges). After normalizing the rules, a series of bullet points and tables succinctly present information otherwise done over several pages of text. The intent is to make it a little more organic for the Player and GM alike.
Rules are Rules. Sprinkling in lore throughout rules, inserting multiple anecdotes or other forms of extraneous text are stripped away. The Core Rules speak to the specific interactions a GM and Player require to mechanically support the narrative. That’s it. The Core Rules is common across all systems, with only has one segment that is plug-and-play and game-specific, the Occupations part of Character Generation – that’s all.
Systems for Skills & Combat. The Skills system remains a d100 system, while the Combat system still uses d20.
The Results. By cutting unnecessary text and use of tables to summarize information in a succinct and coherent manner, it presented with a dramatically reduced number of pages. I’ll be throwing up a series of posts the will cover the various pieces of the Core Rules redux, specifically (not in this order):
Clarification of the Character Generation process
Leveraging Key Words
Rationalizing the O.C.C.s
Making Magic more potent
S.D.C. and M.D.C. Mechanics
Combat Rules Redux
First topic up, the Skills Redux…. The following is an overview of what I would like the Skills section to look like, overall. It is followed by two examples (Electrical Category and the Intelligence skill) in order to demonstrate how this would work.
One of the more frustrating elements of the game (for me at least) has been the updating and tweaking of the Skills list. From the ROBOTECH and TMNT era, through to Rifts and more recently the Dead Reign, extra skills and categories have been added, making management of a universal system… problematic. The most egregious of this is the Cowboy Category. Hint: I would completely remove it and validate those skills elsewhere – something I found incredibly easy to justify.
Number of Skills. RUE presents 263 skills; realistically there are another 20 or 30 if you starts incorporating the various Martial Hand-to-Hand styles and Space-related skills from Phase World. That’s over 300 skills. After scouring all the Skills and tweaking the way they work, skills that were fundamentally the same were made into a single entry. Lastly, a large number of skills are actually sub-sets of a ‘Parent’ skill, and more time than not required the ‘Parent’ skill before choosing; ergo, these became Skill Specializations (which I get into below).
I was able to get this down to 144 proper Skills (with specializations) for futuristic/sci-fi settings, about 20 less for modern, over 50 fewer for fantasy settings. Oh yeah, and I got them all to fit on one page too.
Skill Formatting. One of the first things I propose is reformatting the way skills are presented. Specifically, presenting how each skill operates when you fail a Skill Roll (first glance at Keywords). My version of each skill would also follow this format (some described later):
Skill Description: A basic overview of the skill and its application.
Base Percentage: Percentage the skill starts at.
Prerequisites. Even if this is ‘Nil’ or ‘Not applicable,’ it still gets mentioned.
Synergies. Certain skills can provide a boost to this skill.
Attribute Modifier. Certain Attributes other than I.Q. provide a bonus to the skill; a high M.E., M.A., P.P. and P.B. can apply to certain skills.
Specialization. Certain ways to get a boost to the skill through time spent on them or further specialized study.
Skill Challenge. What skill could be used to try to counter this one (if applicable).
Standardized Percentages. Skills have the same Base percentage across the same Category. The only exception are Secondary Skills, with a Base percentage of 40%. All skills advance at +5% per level - I mean ALL skills.
Selection of Occupational Skills. Remains the same, with some caveats. The Cowboy category disappears, with reasons provided below.
Restrictions. Certain skills are listed with a “Restriction: [Key Word]” in their skill description that limits if a character may select it.
Restriction: (Outer Space). Only settings with space travel or that take place in outer space may select this skill.
Restriction: (Australia). Only characters with an origin of Australia may select this skill.
Restricted (Class). Only Classes with this skill listed in their Class Benefits may select this skill. (e.g. Horsemanship: Combat Rider has Restricted: Class).
Skill Specialization: Two options to demonstrate extra study or devotion to a skill. Each time selected provides a one-time +10% bonus to the Base Skill, in addition to the knowledge of that Specialization.
Tradecraft Professional. Selecting a skill twice makes them a semi-professional; taken a third time, becomes a professional.
Example: Cook selected twice (semi-professional), three times (professional chef)
Specialization. Provides a character with a selective sub-set of skills that ultimately boost the ‘Parent Skill.’ More on this below.
Secondary Skills. These are hobbies/skills picked up outside of formal Occupation ‘tradecraft education.’ Selection of Secondary Skills allows a character to gain better mastery of the skill as they advance. Additionally, any skill marked as a Secondary Skill may be challenged by a character without the skill.
Example: A character without the Cook skill in a friend’s kitchen can always perform a Skill Roll, but likely faces Skill Modifiers based on for unfamiliar tools (-10%), perhaps even some time penalty or nervousness in order to impress (-10%). So his Skill Roll in order to succeed would be 01-20%. Anything higher than that and they botched something (burnt the food, failed to detect a rancid egg, started a kitchen fire, etc.).
Skill Modifiers. A table of clear and easy to apply Modifiers (positive and negative) to apply to any Skill Roll. A sinple chart without the need for unnecessary words to support.
Skill Challenges. A mechanism to determine when two skills are being applied to counter one another. Essentially both characters roll a Skill Roll, and the higher percentage that still passes the Skill Roll wins. Tied rolls goes to the character with the higher Skill Level.
EXAMPLE – ELECTRICAL CATEGORY
I chose the Electrical Category to start:
Basic Electronics starts at 40% and may be selected as a Secondary Skill.
Computer Repair and Electrical Engineer are the only two other skills, both set at Base of 30%.
All skills advance at +5% per level.
If the character selects Electrical Engineer, they may then select Robot Electronics with one of their Occupational Skills; it gives the knowledge described in the Specialization, as well as +10% to Electrical Engineer. Selection of Electricity Generation would provide yet another +10% to Electrical Engineer.
Example: If the character selected Electrical Engineer at first level, they start at 30% proficiency. If they select the Robot Electronics Specializations, Electrical Engineer gets boosted to 40% proficiency. Any Skill Roll for a task listed under Electrical Engineer or Robot Electronics would be made against the Electrical Engineer skill of 40%.
The Electrical Engineer Skill would look something like this:
EXAMPLE – INTELLIGENCE SKILL
The Intelligence skill can be used to perform a Skill Challenge against an NPC or PC that is trying to roll better on their Ambush or Concealment rolls. A character with the Intelligence skill, Ambush/Detect Ambush, Streetwise, and Surveillance Systems, would have a Base Skill proficiency of 40%. If the Intelligence roll is used as a Skill Challenge against Concealment and wins, the character may spot the hidden stash of supplies, or be able to turn the tables on the ambush and steal the initiative!
So there we have it. The first piece of the puzzle in a suggested revamping the Core Rules, with a slight lean into the Rifts setting. Not quite finalized, this post presents the scheme, look and feel for Skills to make them a little more relevant, coherently tie them together with Synergies and Skill Challenges, as well as giving a little more depth to the mechanics.
With 300+ skills currently available, do you wonder why there may be a barrier to entry for new players as they try to navigate the overwhelming lot of choices? Particularly when some are near identical. Cutting down on the overall number, broadening their description slightly, and then more precisely defining what they do and mean for characters trying to roll against them, hopefully gives new Players and GMs a little more clarity on expectations for their skills.
With that in mind, I would love to hear your thoughts on revamping Rifts in general, as well as specifically what you think about the Skills Redux presented here.
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