BoLS logo Tabletop, RPGs & Pop Culture

RPGs: The Many Worlds Of RIFTS – Prime

5 Minute Read
Feb 25 2021

Back in the 80s, Palladium carved out a niche as one of the biggest producers of RPGs, and that’s thanks in part to the many worlds of RIFTS.

The birth of RPGs is strangely tied to lakes, which has some beautiful symmetry with the fact that early civilizations developed around rivers and lakes–and in deep bodies of water the first living organisms grew. But with RPGs, it’s kind of uncanny. D&D sprang up around Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where a convention every year grew the wargaming community to the point that gamers desiring to play more and more creative scenarios until they evolved into proto-RPGs.

And not far away (relatively speaking) in Detroit, Michigan, the seeds of RPGs and wargames spread and found root, leading to the growth of a new convention called WinterCon–another place where games like D&D took hold. By the 80s, WinterCon helped transform Detroit into a “hotbed” of roleplaying and wargaming, which sets the stage for a company called Palladium.

Two things you need to understand about Palladium–they exploded onto the scene in 1981, and when they hit the scene, they quickly became one of the top three companies–and this is when D&D under TSR was at its peak, which should say something about the product they were delivering. The other thing you should know is that the founder, Keven Siembieda considered himself an artist first, and even after all these years (Palladium is still active), Siembieda doesn’t think of himself as a game designer, so much as an artist-creator.

This is important because it’s out of this mindset that Palladium’s best-known work evolves.

Palladium started with a game called The Mechanoid Invasion, which is a pretty typical human colony attacked by alien cyborg kind of sci-fi affair. But, Mechanoid Invasion is also the beginning of the Palladium RPG engine. And it’s where many of the ideas that would form the core of its future as a company are sown.

For one, there are three books total, Mechanoid Invasion, Journey, and Homeworld, each of which outlines a different segment in a metaplot. The Mechanoids invade in the first book, they take over a mothership in the second, and take the invasion to the planet of the Mechanoids in the third. Fairly simple stuff, but in the halcyon days of 1981-1983 this was largely still seen only in places like Traveller (and even then that was largely in Traveller’s 3rd-party publishers).


But all of that was just to run up money to create the Palladium Role-Playing Game, which is a massive mega-system that at first was focused mostly on traditional fantasy adventure. With systems for magic and psionics and fighting with medieval arms and armor, the Palladium RPG paved the way for a more generic system that could power different genres. The Palladium RPG system quickly gave rise to a followup: Heroes Unlimited.

And then later Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles. And all of this leans on Siembieda’s background as an artist (and someone hoping to create comic books no less). The books that Palladium puts out at this time aren’t big square hardbound books, like their competitors. They experiment with releasing books in the same vein as trade paperbacks–this made it cheaper and easier and appealed to the various licenses they worked with.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles paved the way, but then Palladium struck gold.


Harmony Gold that is. Yes, in a curious twist of fate, Palladium brokers a deal with Harmony Gold to create an RPG based off of Robotech, which would feature later in the various legal battles between Harmony Gold and FASA. But even with these big properties, Palladium is experimenting with genre and concept until they come to the 90s and they launch a game that sort of throws everything together.


RIFTS. This was a smash hit that helped Palladium find the audience that other games like D&D and Traveller couldn’t snag. Palladium understood that the players of their games, and in particular RIFTS, wanted to have the over-the-top action and imaginative, if almost cartoonish, creativity of comic books.

And in many ways, RIFTS is a love letter to the most over-the-top comic books. Here aliens from another world invade ours. The initial game outlines a world ravaged by invasion, carved out in future supplements, that take a look at different sections of the world, as well as different realities–this would allow you to blend things like ninjas and superspies and superheroes and mech pilots all into one single playset.

It’s the same sort of phenomenon that makes something like Super Smash Brothers popular–the fighting game aspect of it is the draw for a core of hard-core players, but really most people want to see Luigi take a giant hammer to Solid Snake.


And that’s what they had with RIFTS.

And for the rest of the 90s, RIFTS made Palladium into an RPG giant.

Happy Adventuring!

Author: J.R. Zambrano
  • Let's Play D&D In Cowboy Bebop