Rifts: Hard Repo

"Well that certainly was a bust..."

Normally I wouldn’t bother writing a post-mortem for a “campaign” that only lasted one session, but as I put a fair amount of work into setting this thing up, and as we as a group put a fair amount of thought into the decision to shut things down so quickly, I thought I should say a few words. Plus, I want this here as a reminder to myself should I ever think of running a Palladium game again…

We came into this off a wildly successful AD&D 2e campaign that lasted a good six months or so before we ended it. Indeed, we may yet return to it one day, so I marked that campaign as “On Hiatus” rather than call it finished for good. But we had started that campaign somewhat skeptical that we’d be able to make 2e work for us again—we played the hell out of it as teenagers, but had a lot of issues with the system and weren’t sorry to see it go when 3e came along.

So our success in revisiting an old problematic favorite like 2e gave us hope that we could do the same for Rifts (and the Palladium system in general). Two-thirds of our little group nurture exceedingly fond memories of many hours spent playing Palladium games, and although I recognized the many mechanical and organizational faults contained therein, I thought I could mitigate those faults enough for us to once again make a triumphant return to an old system.

I drafted up a set of house rules and began the process of indexing and organizing the material I wanted to use. All in all, it took me probably 20-30 hours of work just to get to the point of being ready for character creation.

Then it turned out that chargen, even with my house rules simplifying certain elements of the game, turned out to be, as always, an exercise in frustration due to the dispersal of critical information across pages and pages of information; my indices helped, but did not completely streamline the process.

At last, I set about doing some adventure design. Lo and behold, even after all that work, I found I still had a ton more to do. There were virtually no existing stat blocks; everything had to be generated from scratch. Information was patchy where it needed to be explicit, and over-written where just a few words would’ve done. I quickly lost any trace of momentum I’d built up during the run-up to the campaign.

Consulting even my limited number of Rifts sourcebooks left me feeling like a rabbi or other Biblical scholar, poring over a multitude of esoteric texts and extracting new meaning and import even from familiar passages. Granted, there’s a certain thrill in that process of uncovering new interpretations or insights, but it’s not what I’m looking for as a GM nowadays. I want at least a certain level of plug-and-play. Honestly, with the amount of work I was putting in to getting this campaign off the ground, I may as well have been designing my own system.

Palladium games remain rich as sources of inspiration; they have a certain ineffible something that transcends the dreck of the creaky mechanics and piss-poor information architecture. I will continue to mine them for ideas. But I can’t see myself running a Palladium game ever again. There are too many other equally awesome games out there that don’t make me work like a dog just to play them.

(How we ever managed back in the day, I don’t even know. I think it was probably a combination of lower expectations—most games were organized for shit 20 years ago, and creaky mechanics much more common—as well as youthful enthusiasm and a certain tendency to just instictively ignore huge swaths of the game that didn’t work for us.)

I’ll leave things off with this observation: I’ve read in a few places over the years that Kevin Siembieda doesn’t use the rules as written when he runs his games, that his style is largely improvisational and seat-of-the-pants. I now believe these stories whole-heartedly, because if he did actually ever crack open one of his own games and try to design adventures and run it as written, he would’ve overhauled every single Palladium rulebook years ago.

And so, regretfully, we ride off into the sunset…

Session One
Down Old El Paso Way

We spent most of this, our inaugural session, tying up a few loose character generation ends, talking about D&D 5e, and having a laugh about how ridiculous Palladium games and Kevin Siembieda are. And then we started playing…

Like with our previous campaign, I wanted to start with a small scope for the first session, the better to allow the players to ease into their characters a bit and get a feel for the setting.

We kicked things off with Alex’s character, a D-Bee Juicer named Lucas K., out in the desert about 10 miles outside El Paso. Why was he there? Well, it seems that our friend Lucas was maintaining a stash of valuables and trade goods, secreted away in a dugout dug out beneath a half-buried car, accessed through the car’s trunk.

After depositing most of his worldly wealth, Lucas began the trek back to town. About halfway there, he was intercepted by a hovercycle patrol of the El Paso Police – a borg (Police Unit 4531) and his “K-9” companion, an Dog Boy named Karl. Lucas stopped walking and watched as one of the hovercycles peeled off and approached, then landed about 10 yards away, sending dust clouds roiling in the hot afternoon sun.

The hydraulics of the bike sighed as the massive borg swung off. “Howdy, stranger. What you doing so far out in the desert?” it asked in a robotic voice.

Lucas demurred, but Unit 4531 could clearly see he was a Juicer, armed and armored. What was more, he was of a species Unit 4531 hadn’t seen since he was a little boy, during his one-year interregnum as the captive of a band of Pecos Bandits. “Lucas?” he asked. His face mask flipped up, showing his human face beneath. “It’s me, Mathias Evert!”


“Oh yeah,” said Lucas. “Good to see you. Well. Can I be on my way, then?”

“Yeah…sure,” said Mathias, and he watched as Lucas hefted his pack and started walking again. Flipping his face mask back down, he swung back up on his cycle.

“Everything okay, boss?” Karl’s gruff voice came crackling over the comm-link.

“You know it, bud,” said Unit 4531. “Let’s head back to town.”

Lucas squinted up as the two hovercycles roared past overhead, into the sunset.

Back in town, Lucas headed along the wide, clean boulevards of El Paso until they took him into an industrialized part of the city. There, sitting on about a half-acre of junkyard, protected by 20-foot chain-link-and-razorwire fences, was the Helping Hand Acceptance Agency, a two-story 1200-square-foot tin and cinderblock shack that served as the Juicer’s headquarters and home.

It was after hours by the time he got there, but Lucas found a curling sheet of thermal paper dangling from the fax machine perched atop the filing cabinet. Tearing it off, he read the following:

From: The Central Office; To: All Interested Parties. Recoverable one (1) Bandito Arms 5000 BigBore Rail Gun. Delinquent payments owed by a Mr. Simba, known member of Wild Cats gang. Arrested while in possession of item. Item now presumably in police custody, possibly tagged for scrap or resale. Due to extraordinary circumstances of gun’s location, extra remuneration will be offered for repossession. Contact is Chaxan Sirrl, driver with El Chuco Cab Service.

Lucas had undergone Juicer modification at a body chop-shop run by El Oculta, and now he was paying off his debt by working for one of their repo operations. He knew that this fax would have gone out not just to him, but to a rival company, Los Hermanos Rodriguez, as well as a couple freelancers. It was the Central Office’s way of encouraging healthy competition, and it worked.

As his rig pumped in some extra adrenaline and amphetamines to help fuel him for the long night to come, Lucas gathered his things and headed out. He had a sudden and renewed interest in meeting with his old buddy after all.

At the EPPD headquarters, all was quiet. Sergeant Ruger, a formidable lady of dark complexion and even darker moods, was working the desk. She regarded Lucas dispassionately as he approached the thick glass separating her work area from the lobby.

“I need to see Unit 4531,” he said.

“Just a minute, I’ll fetch him,” she said guardedly.

Mathias was out in the lobby five minutes later, though to Lucas’s altered perception of time it felt like a half-hour. “What took you so long?”

“Good to see you again, old friend,” came Mathias’s robotic reply.

“We need to talk,” said Lucas.

“Certainly. My shift actually ended an hour ago, but I’ve been uploading files and filling out paperwork. Give me a few minutes and I’ll meet you for drinks down the street at the Exploding Duck.”

The strangely-named bar with the comically-animated neon sign proved to be one step above a dive, the smell of urine and motor oil mixing in the air. Lucas took a seat in a darkened booth and signaled when Mathias finally appeared.

Lucas had no time for perfunctory small talk, instead launching into a barrage of questions about what happens to evidence once it’s seized. The Central Office had been right to worry—there was very little chance they’d ever see that gun again. The best bet, in fact, would be for Lucas to come forth and claim ownership himself. Mathias explained that if it was proven to be stolen property, they would release it to the proper owner.

It transpired that Mathias, once the scion of a minor cadet branch of Coalition nobility (ergo his kidnapping when he was still a youth) had gotten himself involved with the wrong crowd, running weapons to the Black Market and making a tidy profit. When he was eventually found out, his family was ruined, his father forced to give up his post at the Coalition consulate in El Paso and return to Lone Star in shame. Mathias, for his part, submitted to full borg conversion and a minimum five-year stint with the EPPD in lieu of execution. But old habits died hard, seemingly…

Within the hour, Lucas had filled out forged documents provided to him by Mathias in order to get the gun out of the evidence locker and into his hands. In return, they had agreed that Mathias would take 50 percent of the repo award. Heading back into the police station, Lucas slipped the papers through a slot at the base of the bulletproof glass, smiling at Sgt. Ruger, as Unit 4531 keyed in his access code at the staff door.

And that’s when the entire building shook with the force of a mighty explosion…


Coming up next week: our heroes’ baptism of fire?


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