The Players have more options of what characters they want to play in Rifts than any Role Playing Game I have encountered to date. This is the nature of the setting, and it rises from the history of the game. So much so that many Game Masters might limit what is allowed in game a great deal, or a more adventurous GM might just go for it all. I suggest if you are starting out to keep is simple.
I love that with Old School Essentials or Swords and Wizardry you can have a character rolled up in minutes instead of hours. I love that I can create characters for Free League Year Zero games in literally ten minutes of less. Palladium characters take time and one of the biggest barriers to the game is just getting a character completed and ready to play. I will put it out there, rolling up a Rifts character takes a long time. On the other hand, most of the modern editions of D&D from third edition on up and Pathfinder also are overly complex in character creation. They are so complex I am hearing often how folks just do not roll up characters anymore in the manner they once did but are relying on software to do it. If we are taking character creation into consideration, I would say there is a big difference from simple systems like OD&D clones or the Year Zero Engine, but not modern crunchy popular editions. One of the things I have noticed people find frustrating is writing up the skills. Palladium is very skill heavy and each skill must be looked up, read, written down and some calculations will likely go with each one. This I think has been the biggest barrier for the system. But, I do strongly believe it can be worth it if you are looking for a good long lasting campaign.
The Classes are often referred to as Occupational Character Classes or O.C.C.’s. And Rifts has a ton to start with across a wide spectrum. Many of these O.C.C.’s or Racial Character Classes (R.C.C.’s) are quite unique to the settings and the system. While there are classic classes you will recognize from other fantasy or sci-fi games there are many more that are not found elsewhere. There are also very specific unique variants of many classes. The Rifts Ultimate Edition breaks up the O.C.C.’s in 6 different categories. The PC’s of the main book come in 6 categories. The first and most overlooked but my favorite is the Adventurers & Scholars. I want to highlight this category of character classes first. The Adventurers & Scholars have skilled characters everything from actual scholars to your more common city rats and vagabonds. In my mind these are the most interesting characters in the game. The list of available classes in this category in the Rifts Ultimate edition are the Body Fixer, City Rat, Cyber-Doc, Operator, Rogue Scholar, Rogue Scientist, Vagabond and Wilderness Scout. These are characters that are easy to create with purpose and make relatable in a world that is over the top like Rifts. They tend to be not as over the top on the power spectrum, but with their vast skill set they can do a great deal more in interacting with the world around them. These are the characters I see as more of the main protagonists. If you are not into what we used to call Power Gaming, this is for you. This is a character that one can role play and that can interact with all the amazing tech and elements floating around in the world to do amazing stuff and overcome through more than just combat.
Now, the six categories in Rifts Ultimate Edition are Adventurers & Scholars, Coalition, Men at Arms, Practitioners of Magic, Psychic Characters and Racial Character Classes (RCC). The only RCC in the Rifts Ultimate Edition is the Dragon Hatchling. That is right, Rifts is the game where you can play a dragon for a player character right from the main core book. Other RCC’s fill the other books and consist of various aliens, supernatural creatures and just about any form of fantasy and make-believe creature you can think of. You can even roll up a god.
The game allows players to play a Coalition soldier but in general in my games this one is off limits most of the time to players. I simply see the coalition as a fascist state in the game for us to fight against and as the bigoted xenophobic human supremacist military I reserve this mostly for the baddies for my players to go up against. That might not be in everyone’s game, but I strongly encourage not allowing players to pretend to be a fascist at your table. As a side note to any of my players who might read this. No Coalition, No Fascists in game those are the NPC’s you should be killing.
Next up is the Men at Arms, these classes range widely and get very unique everything from your mercenary to the character who pilots power armor to characters who have undergone human augmentation to become more powerful fall in this category. The Cyber-Knight is pretty much your Jedi, super goodie with what pretty much is a lightsaber running around doing heroic good deeds. The Juicer is a class of human augmentation. The Juicer has a harness of drugs essentially amphetamines and steroids pumping into them 24/7 making them overall faster, stronger and more brutal than your common person. The Juicer also has a very short lifespan so live fast die young and, in a world as brutal as Rifts can become maybe that is for the better for some. You will find cyborgs and headhunters mercenary types in this category as well. The MOM (Mind over matter) conversion in slang referred to as a momma’s boys or crazies are people who get implants in their heads to make them stronger, faster smarter, or even awaken certain psionic potentials within a person. Because of the damage to the brain from attaching what looks like metal cylinders that stick out of the head, these characters suffer from all sorts of psychosis and insanity. I saved the power armor for last. You get not only the Robot Pilot in this category who can pilot all sorts of various giant robots, but you get the Rifts iconic Glitter Boy.
The Glitter Boy is possibly one of the most iconic and definitive OCCs in Rifts. Not only because it was so defined in the original book, but because it was one of the largest points of inspiration for the whole game and setting. Glitter Boy armor is a large piece of power armor or a robot suit that is very distinct in appearance. It is polished shinny to glisten in the sun and can reflect laser weapons because of this bright finish. The armor is passed down from generation to generation. Its origins are somewhat a mystery. It might be best to think of the Glitter Boy as the knight in shining armor of Rifts only the Knight in Shining Power Armor.
Psionics and Magic are different in many ways in Rifts and Palladium from a lot of other games. Many various schools with their own unique magic and psionics exist. No two magic user or psionic class is the same. Often the classes come with their own distinct unique powers and with their own types of spells that other magic users would not use or have knowledge of or access to. Magic can be brutal as sacrifices for magic power is not too uncommon of a mechanic found in some of these classes. In Rifts the Coalition and many others have outlawed things like magic and psionics so often these classes will be hunted down and targeted in many populated areas. With all the magic and psionics people with magic or psionic abilities can also be a snack for some creature who lives off either magic or psionic powers.
I am going to skip going into depth in all the psionic or magic classes for now because if you want to know all those, grab the book and read about them. I will just say there are a lot, and they all seem to have unique properties and powers, and many do very different things. Most of the books that come out offer new forms of magic and new magic classes as well. There is even a large companion core book that just collects the first decade or so of spells and various sorts of magic in it called the Rifts Book of Magic. With each book they put out it seems like more classes are coming out making the options for playable characters a bit overwhelming. I suggest limiting classes available to the players to the main book to start with so it does not overwhelm you as a GM and allowing the unending options as you feel you can handle this.
Rifts also has Conversion books that help you convert characters from all their other Role-Playing Games to the Rifts world. This makes it possible to play just about anything. So, what characters are available to play in Rifts? Ask your GM. Because in the end if you want options, I do not know if you will find more player character options than Rifts. But I think that often can be distracting. As I said before some of the Adventurers & Scholars tend to be the greatest characters to play, so I strongly suggest going for those before trying to jump all over the most outrageous thing you can find.