The Siege on Tolkeen can generally be characterized as a gateway project for Palladium Books and the Rifts timeline. Basically, every release up to then was in a “pre-Tolkeen state,” while most releases since (including the Savage Rifts line) have been squarely presented as post-Siege publications. This places the current canon timeline at ~109 P.A.; when Rifts first released, the timeline presented in the Rift Main Book was circa 101. P.A.. For the purposes of this post, most of the post-Siege information will be considered in isolation, or outright ignored, unless they present some salient points to the discussion. That said, this blog post presents some genuine critiques of the series as a whole, as well as some pointed criticisms for the heavy dose of plot armour used to justify the story writ-large. But was it all bad, was it irredeemable? Let’s discuss.
General. The Siege on Tolkeen was a seminal event within the Rifts timeline. For the North American context at least, it allowed the plotline to advance in a meaningful way. From the very beginning, one couldn’t help but notice the adventure opportunities with a title “Minnesota, a place under siege!” Once a flourishing region, it descended into carnage and a wasteland. Human settlements closer to the southern Coalition border increasingly mixed with D-Bees as one went further north. Erin Tarn’s account labels it a region ‘mostly dedicated to peace and learning,’ which may be a little Utopian in assessment, but it gives the baseline in comparison to their Coalition opponents.
Campaign Buzz. When first announced, there were definitive camps of players rooting for one side or the other. This generated a real buzz within the online community, which allowed Players and fans of all types to really develop a dynamic of discussions and engagement with the game overall. From that perspective, Siege on Tolkeen was an absolute success! The initial book was released to much anticipation and fanfare, stoking the imaginations of thousands of players and GMs. Our appetites were whet for more. Scheduled right on the heels of World Books 21: Splynn Dimensional Market, World Books 22: Free Quebec, and World Book 23: Xiticix Invasion (links to Scholar's Review for each World Book), each critically and commercially successful, this was the hey-day of massive successes for Palladium Books.
CRACKS IN THE FOUNDATION
Haphazard Contents. One of the principal elements I noticed from the outset was the relatively haphazard nature of the contents of each book. I can’t draw any conclusions on planning cycles or limitations on the production technology. Things were only starting to transition into the digital era of book publishing, and while Palladium Books seemed to have a decent staff at the time, I have zero insight into their strategic publishing process (e.g. dealing with artist submission, timelines for copy edit, contracts, submission to printers). Questions immediately came to mind: Were contents and themes of each book planned out over the series? Were they included once they were ready for print and reached a certain page count? Apart from Book 4: Cyber-Knights, the series presented itself in a circuitous, slow burn of various aspects of the war. Various stakeholders and their war machines were incoherently spread across books (e.g. Iron Juggernauts). I would certainly love the chance to have a video call/interview with Kevin and crew on the development particular project. I’m sure things have dramatically changed from then to now, not the least of which being the addition of Sean Roberson to the team.
Save the Best for Last? I found it near unconscionable that we had to wait until Book 6 before we had any clear, detailed view of the City of Tolkeen and surrounds. The major characters, influences, the layout of the city, this was all critical stuff to establishing a campaign setting. Additionally, most details presented in Book 6 were moot. At the time of publication, the plot points had overtaken the information on the page; what should have been a plot resolution climax came across as an unacceptable denouement. I would have screamed for this in Book 1, more likely best placed immediately in Book 2. This would have allowed the following books to develop the canon plotline, giving GMs/Players the baseline to bounce ideas from for their campaigns. Instead, we only got an indication of what Tolkeen would have looked like right before it got leveled. Ho-hum….
General Jericho Holmes. Phew-boy…. Okay, so as a serving senior officer in the infantry, let’s address the elephant in the room. We all know the story: General took to Tolkeen’s eastern flank, was driven/chose to move into the southern reaches of the Xiticix Hivelands, the CS presumed some 400,000 soldiers and weapons of war lost, during the CS final push into Tolkeen, Holmes’ force conducts a blitzkrieg and cripples Tolkeen’s defences from the relatively undefended northern flank. The outcome is a ‘no contest knock-out’ by anyone paying attention, including Tolkeen. This one requires a few sub-points:
World Book 23: Xiticix Invasion (A Threat!). This was a hugely impactful World Book, with some great information within. Unfortunately, it also basically got waved aside in SoT. Exceedingly territorial, even amongst themselves and rival hives, Xiticix respond overwhelmingly to any incursion. Tolkeen leveraging such a potent force to dissuade the CS forces from swinging around to the north is solid. The Xiticix pose a threat to any force of consequence, making the northern flank a bit of a “No Man’s Land,” for both Tolkeen and the CS. Depleting the very forces that would theoretically defend Tolkeen against a southern expansion just doesn’t wash.
World Book 23: Xiticix Invasion (Not a Threat?). We somehow have an entire heavily armoured Army Group moving “ever so slowly” through the edge of Xiticix lands – with no response. Oh, and they “only lost 25%” of their forces. I challenge anyone to find a wasp nest, hit it with a nerf gun and slowly walk through their zone of control and see how that works out. Anecdotally it doesn’t measure up, not does it match with WB 23. Additionally, army groups require a MASSIVE sustainment trail (e.g. food, medicine, spare parts, tooling), itself under constant threat. Most logistic trains are not combat self-sufficient and would have suffered significant losses. In such a demoralizing state, under constant threat, and complete disassociation from resupply, Holmes’s Army Group would have been entirely combat ineffective, even with “just 25% losses.” I would have put their losses north of 50%.
General Holmes’ Army Group. If they had made it through, if they were even capable of making a strike on Tolkeen, they should have been in tatters and fractional in size. I would have presented them in a “Do-or-Die” scenario, basically clashing head-on with Tolkeen to escape the Xiticix threat behind them. A much more compelling story would have been a ragged band of survivors, near depletion (exhausted and ragged). While a voluntary rear guard of slow-moving heavy robots and tanks protected the weakened survivors from continued Xiticix attacks, they attack Tolkeen’s northern flank, desperate and reorganized into smaller, rapid strike teams. That there is powerful, impactful, and grounded in realism while maintaining some suspension of disbelief. I would have bought that brand – certainly more than 300,000 walking out of there ready for a full-scale invasion.
Doltish Defensive Plans. The idea that Tolkeen would completely ignore the defences of their northern border is akin to assumptions about the Maginot Line. It was stupid then; it begs the question why it isn’t stupid now. It lacks two key military principles: 1. Obstacles are useless without both observation and ability to apply firepower or effect to shape or kill enemy forces trying to penetrate them; and, 2. None of this negates security concerns from any Xiticix encroachment! The Northern Army had been greatly reduced to support the Southern and Eastern Armies, which makes sense. But even the remaining defenders do not make for a pushover force (a.k.a. “speedbumps”). Unfortunately, that is exactly how it was presented. Holmes’ cleared out Tolkeen scouting and screening forces without setting off any warnings, which itself is a warning sign. Coalition aerial forces swept in without so much as a warning shot. We’re laden down with some super-heavy plot armour to make this work.
Doltish Tolkeen Defenders. Building on the previous point, the multitude of disappearances of Tolkeen scouting parties and screening forces would be a huge signal. To apply that amount of overwhelming force would be visible/audible for miles. Typically, this kind of void in reporting is resolved by a reconnaissance in force by a combat formation that could never be so easily swept off the map. This would then immediately trigger reinforcements to extricate the reconnaissance force and upscaling defenses on the northern flank. Forget Hollywood’s narrative; warfare at that level is never normally so stealthy.
Doltish Tolkeen General. So, Warlord Umbra is the apparent scapegoat for the wet paper bag defences. As indicated in Book 6, this is an unfair assessment, but public opinion often relies purely on speculation and hearsay. Facts often get in the way of an easy, flashy explanation. The fact Palladium Books gave General Holmes a cloak of invincibility is the only reason this storyline works as presented. There is no plausible way to present Holmes’ forces as the “most competent and well organized” CS force in the siege after losing over 100,000 soldiers in their trek. Applying anything from WB 23, they should have been attritted too far to make a cohesive attack, or at least anything close to what was presented. They would have proven a great distraction, perhaps achieved some penetration, causing defenses to waver, or more likely “fixing” Tolkeen forces and likely drawing reserves in from the Eastern Armies, making the remainder of the CS invasion more successful.
General Holmes – Combat Ineffective. This one always gets a bit of a facepalm from me. The idea that any General, even a CS one, would push forward and sacrifice a quarter of his soldiers doesn’t fly. Looking just at the logistics, a force of over 400,000 requires a significant portion of that to provide operational support services (e.g. medical, engineers, maintainers, logisticians). Assuming everything is nuclear powered, we still need to feed/arm/repair this mammoth collective. Presumed dead for weeks, it is impossible for that number to survive simply through foraging. It’s not like they have anyone that can snap their fingers and magically create a meal; well, Tolkeen could, but I digress. It’s not like the CS ignored the threat of the Xiticix either. They would have reconnaissance flights and patrols that would have caught wind of this massive formation, or the impact they would have had on the hives (e.g. massive increase in activity).
HOW I WOULD HAVE FRAMED IT
Book 1: Shadow’s of Evil. Framework of the overall scenario, presenting the atrocities the CS are conducting. The CS pushes into Tolkeen territory and meets startlingly effective resistance; death camps and General Drogue’s malicious and incompetent leadership leads to Book 2. We get NPCs and hints of the Tolkeen degeneration into the very thing they despise; they are becoming the mirror image of CS cruelty.
Book 2: Sorceror’s Revenge. Present the City of Tolkeen and key figures. Include all the Iron Juggernauts. Dragons are playing a key role, only mentioning their new, risky magic. Touch on the secret meetings with Free Quebec; POW camps are detailed and spend some time on the non-conventional warfare Tolkeen leverages, staggering the CS advance. Introduce the Cyber-Knights as the one light still shining bright in Tolkeen, despite the fractures. Continue to demonstrate Tolkeen’s increasing reliance on mercenary allies.
Book 3: Shadows of Evil. The double-cross by Free Quebec sets up the grand finale. The dragon essences are revealed as one of several last-ditch efforts to stay in the war, along with some of the other questionable alliances and deals the Tolkeenites have done to survive; present key allied monsters (e.g. Daemonix and Brodkil) and NPC groups. The CS grinds forward, taking horrific attrition. Holmes fights through and loses way more than originally presented, but commandos liaise with CS generals and a coordinated attack finally breaks Tolkeen. The battle leaves multiple pockets of mages and D-Bees/monsters for the CS to deal with, making the victory better earned than before.
Sourcebook X: Cyber-Knights. This book seemed rush to me, compared to the other books that were an homage to the original O.C.C.s (e.g. Headhunters part of World Book 20: Canada, City Rats in Bionics). I felt there was so much more that could have been done to expand on this iconic O.C.C., and the information did little to develop one of the more iconic classes. This could have gone into greater depth in the history, organization, and current geo-political impacts they have across North America, as well as their internal struggles with how Tolkeen has conducted itself at the end.
Not Changing the Outcome. I’m not a proponent of changing the outcome of the Siege on Tolkeen, nor give credence that Tolkeen should have rumble-stomped the CS. Given what was presented, combined with my knowledge of modern military warfare at the operational level, I just don’t agree with it. I’ll admit the CS benefited from some truly epic plot-armour; it’s not a tech-vs-magic thing, I like magic and D-Bees just fine. Tolkeen was a “clear and present danger” to the CS, a discrete target they expended massive resources to grind away. The ruins will likely fester for decades to come and the impact to the CS as a whole should have been more severe. I would suggest that the finale of the series should have allowed a certain flexibility to GMs to give Tolkeen that sliver of a chance to stay relevant, albeit greatly reduced in influence. How cool could it have been as a target for the Minion Wars as a site for a Hell Pit, making for an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” scenario? So, no, Tolkeen pretty much had to go.
Tolkeen Becoming the Bad Guy. There are several Players and GMs out there that took umbrage with the way Tolkeen was presented. Granted, in the initial overview of Minnesota presented by Erin Tarn in the Rifts Main Book, the region was “mostly dedicated to peace and learning.” I’d remind readers that this was not specifically talking about Tolkeen, but it paints a picture. The idea that a city-state on the verge of collapse would not have made deals with shady sorts strikes me as a little naïve, but this is an RPG, not real life. Given multiple historical contexts, I’m not at all in favour of painting Tolkeen as this paragon of virtue and goodness. This may be true as a philosophy and strategic communications. At the tactical level, and in terms of the multiple deals made with D-Bees and monsters (e.g. Daemonix, dragons), warfare has a way of making people do the worst in order to survive. Ethical dilemmas abound in combat. Given a mature enough Player Group, this is entirely something a GM can exploit as a plot point and makes for some compelling gaming.
CONTRASTING WITH MINON WARS
It may be a result of the lessons learned from Siege on Tolkeen, perhaps the influence of new writers, maybe the ideas were just better presented. The result is a more tightly bound and cohesive series of books that provide the GM and Players a series of adventure ideas, plot hooks and immersive opportunities. These can be folded into current adventures, or the gateways to a new campaign against truly (and literally) demonic foes.
Discrete Sourcebooks/Dimension Books. The first thing to sing praise for is the two Dimension Books that bound the antagonist parties to each other. Dimension Book 10: Hades and Dimension Book 11: Dyvaal provide the reader a spectacular overview of both parties, their home dimension, and the demons and monsters that are spawned from each. They provide unique and compelling entries for the forces of each side, which a GM can leverage to great effect. I’ve reviewed both, and they both get very high marks.
Framework for GM Discretion. One of the greatest things the Minion Wars does is provide an open framework that a GM can use or ignore to their desires. If the Minion Wars are not something the GM or Players really care to encounter, the GM can scale back or completely ignore the details of either Dimension Book and the Sourcebooks for Rifts (Heroes of Humanity and Megaverse in Flames). There is a great series of entries to be exploited, but the GM is not beholden to them. They are also presented in a manner that don’t really railroad the GM into a set narrative. Unlike SoT, which did not provide details on the eponymous city state until pretty much after the fact and had set the results up as canon, Mw provides the resources to exploit if you wish to. This principle of selective engagement provides a key element to the success of the design of MW over SoT. For good or bad, SoT was a pre-determined setting change, whereas MW has provided an open-ended option space for Player Groups.
Defined Bad Guys. One of the more significant issues that came out of SoT was the way Tolkeen “turned bad.” They became the mirror of the CS, and many fans took offence to this. I found it a great narrative dynamic, and a perfectly plausible one, given the allies presented (e.g. Daemonix, dragons) and their completely different ethical conclusions and worldviews. The Sot presented a very often “real world” component to the combatants that can sometimes lead to very difficult conversations, not exactly conducive to an immersive playing experience. In the MW, you’re dealing with demons; clearly these are “bad guys.” Of course, this leads to the obvious comparison of demons to CS in terms of evil.
CREDIT WHERE ITS DUE
One could confuse this post as a scathing review of the Siege on Tolkeen and Palladium Books, neither is true. The following reviews of each of the six books presents what I found to be some solid high points, as well as the low ones. The Siege on Tolkeen setting provided a spectacular opportunity that most game developers are too wary to attempt. Fans of popular TTRPGs are loathe to see their favourite faction or characters killed off, regardless of the logic or justification behind it. For Rifts, this was a culminating point that was advertised from the very beginning; Erin Tarn said as much in the Rifts Main Book! Until then, things were largely up to the GM in how they interpreted things.
This series was a huge gamble for Palladium Books. I’ll go on the record and support it as a massive success in terms of moving the narrative. They swung for the fences, and that’s in an industry where most TTRPG producers do nothing more than put on the jersey, let alone get on the field. I don’t think they struck out, but I won’t award them the home run they might have searched for – and I’ve stretched the baseball analogy as far as I am willing to go. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, but without the whole picture, is admittedly an unfair lens to examine with. Still, for the victories and the good parts of the series, there were certain points to improve that I hope Palladium Books takes into consideration moving forward.