In any epic story, you need bad guys - the opposition - the villains. For Rifts, this is the Coalition:
- Not just black hats but black armor - check!
- Skull motiff - check!
- Technologically advanced - check!
- Human supremacists in a world full of alien races - check!
- Hated and feared by many who live outside the organization - check!
- Led by an Emperor who rules the place with the help of secret thought police - check!
So they cover all the basic things one would expect from an evil empire.
In a lot of really good stories though, you need villains who are more than just ... bad. They need to have some motivations that are at least understandable, if not downright sympathetic. Two of the best examples are from the superhero world - Magneto and Mister Freeze:
- Magneto (especially movie Magneto) is a villain but is somewhat sympathetic as having been through a concentration camp once he's not going to let that happen again to his new race. You can argue with his methods, but the motivation is at the very least more nuanced than a quest for money and power.
- Mister Freeze (and I'm mainly using Animated Batman Mister Freeze here) is attempting to save his dying wife. His thefts are all built around this goal. He is not trying to change the world itself and is not just a greedy guy with some advanced technology, but he has a very personal goal and won't let anything stop him from achieving it.
The Coalition is all of the things I mentioned above but it is also the last defense of humanity against an invading tide of hostile beings, from insane mages, to warped psychics, to demons and dragons to mind-bending creatures from other dimensions. No other power in North America is capable of standing up to these things, let alone stopping them, other than the Coalition - the much-hated, black-armored, skull-helmeted coalition. Those soldiers aren't fighting just to be mean to people - they are protecting their families and friends back home from horrors humanity never had to deal with prior to the coming of the rifts! It's quite commonly viewed as a defensive war - everything was fine, then the rifts opened up and these things came through and started killing people and we are doing everything we can to survive and retake our home. If it's us vs. them then the humans of the coalition will happily take "us". The main point here is that they are completely right - from a certain point of view.
So they raise up the dog boys, train up the psi-stalkers, build skull-themed power armor, tanks, aircraft, and giant robots, convert wounded soldiers (and crazy volunteers) into cyborgs to continue the fight and they can see themselves as "in the right" as much as anyone on the planet.
Now sure, you can play the Coalition as Cobra to your PC's GI Joe, clueless, blundering, schmos with leaders too busy scheming for internal power to really accomplish anything and if that works for your game that's fine - I myself don't want a debate every session as to whether it's OK to shoot them or not - but they can also be more.
You can play around with characters and morality if your players want to go there. Uneasy allies, the blackest of blackhearts, noble opposition - they can be all of these things. If enough of the grunts and low-level leaders can be educated that not every non-human is out to destroy humanity, maybe the whole nation can be saved ... or maybe there would have to be a leadership change to make that happen! But ... would weakening humanity's shield to make that change damage its ability to stop Atlantis and the Splugorth or the Vampires of Mexico or a re-formed Federation of Magic? What if the price of enlightenment is the death of millions as the enemies of the Coalition swoop in on their old enemy, weakened by civil war?
There is so much potential there.
That's why I like them and why I like Rifts.