Friday, April 11, 2014

Beyond "Mercs & Mages": Part 1

"What do the player characters do?" It seems like in recent years, this is the first question that designers of a roleplaying game ask themselves. They then go on to design the game system around the answer to that question. This results in laser-focused games like the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which placed that focus squarely on heroic characters kicking a lot of monster ass with cool powers. (Which is fine.)

Rifts dates from an earlier era of game design philosophy that was popular in the 1990s; one that places emphasis on the setting concept. While a typical mode of play revolving around traveling mercenaries fighting villains emerged fairly quickly in Rifts, it initially wasn't entirely clear what player characters were meant to do in this wild, high-concept new world that Kevin Siembieda had dreamed up -- probably because there wasn't intended to be one way to play.

The original Rifts rulebook devotes a considerable chunk of its page count to describing the Coalition and the ways in which it controls information in order to control its citizenry. We're told that at least half of the population of the Coalition States is functionally illiterate, and intentionally kept that way in order to avoid them learning anything that might contradict the official version of reality. We're told that the Coalition elite live in the arcology-city of Chi-Town, with lesser folk dwelling in the dangerous 'Burbs (or worse, in the smaller towns and villages that dot the demon-haunted wilderness that comprises the bulk of Coalition territory). We're given details on occupational character classes like the Rogue Scholar, the Rogue Scientist, the Body Fixer, the Cyber-Doc and the City Rat, the very names of which sound like something from Cyberpunk 2020.

There's an entire alternate take on the Rifts milieu hiding in plain sight, right there in the original book. A Rifts about seeking forbidden information -- either by hacking computer networks or literally unearthing it -- while a fascist regime demonizes you, hunts you, and will certainly kill you if they catch you. A game about paranoia, information, and helping people in need in the face of a military and a bureaucracy that never stopped to question whether its goals were right. (And maybe its goals are right, because sometimes the books you find really can summon terrors from beyond time and space.) A strange intersection between 70s science fiction (with its totalitarian futures, domed cities and focus on social awareness), cyberpunk, and horror. It seems a shame that Palladium has spent so many pages detailing new skull-encrusted Coalition vehicles and so few on playing the sort of campaign that the first rulebook sketched out.

Still, there's nothing stopping anybody from running one.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Rifts: A Staggering Statistic

There are 88 books for Rifts

That's my unofficial count, obviously. (Palladium Books places the count closer to 95.) 88 books! That's not including extraneous stuff like novels, coloring books and art portfolios, and also not including the 65 issues of The Rifter published to date, practically all of which incorporate official and semi-official material for the game. It's worth noting that some of those 88 books, like the Book of Magic, the Vampire Sourcebook or the Game Master Guide -- which might more accurately be called an arms and equipment guide -- collect or reorganize material that was previously published. (That number also doesn't include the out-of-print oddity known as Rifts Manhunter, the only book made for the game that wasn't published by Palladium Books.)

Especially for those of us that tuned out some time in the late 1990s, the fact that Palladium has been (more or less) steadily pumping out Rifts material for almost a quarter-century, all for the same edition of the game, is surprising. However you feel about the game or the company that publishes it, 88 books has got to be a record for sheer number of gaming materials published for a single iteration of a roleplaying game.

Before you ask, no, I don't have all 88; I have closer to 10 these days. Still, there is some small part of me that wishes I could "catch 'em all".

Friday, March 28, 2014


Along with the presence of magic, one of the big things that sets Rifts apart from the rest of the far-future, post-apocalyptic RPG pack is its inclusion of mecha. The game itself never uses the term "mecha", preferring the more unwieldy nomenclature of "robot vehicles" and "power armor". It seems that Palladium has reserved the word "mecha" for the Robotech RPG (and its related games, Robotech II: The Sentinels and Macross II, both long out of print), which is a shame, because it's a lot easier to write than having to say "robot vehicles and power armor" over and over again.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah: giant robots. Rifts has them. Lots of them, in fact. I'd say that at least half of the vast amount of books published for the game have a back cover blurb that proudly announces that yes, this one has new mecha in it. It's fairly unusual for game set in a post-apocalyptic world to emphasize mecha as strongly as Rifts does. Since Rifts is a setting where almost any enemy you encounter is able to deal incredible amounts of damage, armored vehicles (including the robot kind) are a basic necessity for most human characters, if they expect to survive.

Don't get me wrong: I love mecha, and I love that Rifts includes them even when it doesn't always make a ton of logical sense to have them stomping around all over the place. My problem is with the way the game handles them; more specifically, they generally have a ton of M.D.C. (Mega-Damage Capacity). They slow combat down tremendously, because the only way to take them down is to whittle away that M.D.C., which usually takes many, many attacks, most of which are actively and individually defended against.

In other words, Rifts mecha have too many "hit points". There are optional rules that cause malfunctions once 60% of a particular piece of the mecha's M.D.C. has been lost (did I mention that they have M.D.C. by location?), which is a nice thought, but also means that you have to crunch numbers during play to figure out, say, what 60% of this particular mecha's right arm M.D.C. is. It's fiddly, clunky, and overall quite unlike the fast-paced mechanized action that I think the game needs. The worst part is that I don't have any good ideas on how to fix it, because I don't want the mecha to blow up too easily. Just more easily.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Rifts Misadventures: Session 1

A Queen's Respite by Robaato
Last Sunday, I was finally able to play Rifts again, after a roughly 20-year hiatus and with the original characters my group ran in high school. People seem interested to know how it went, so I thought I'd post a recap. First, some introductions (and explanations on character races and classes) for the uninitiated:

The Roster

Arisis Solstice, female titan Cyber-Knight, played by Felix
Titans are a race of noble giants, originally from the world of the Palladium Fantasy RPG. Cyber-Knights are cybernetically enhanced warriors errant that adhere to a strict code of conduct. They are trained to use psionic abilities and do battle with blades of pure psychic energy called Psi-Swords. Most have cybernetic armor grafted to their bodies, but Arisis did not undergo this process, since her titan heritage lends her incredible resilience and the ability to regenerate damage.

Max Parkinson, male human Mystic, played by me
Unlike other practitioners of magic, Mystics have an intuitive grasp of sorcery, and gain their spells through insight rather than learning them from books. They also have access to powerful psionic powers. Many use their abilities to heal wounds, commune with spirits, sense the presence of the supernatural, and foresee the future to act as shamans or advisors. Humans are apparently native to Earth, though they also exist on numerous other worlds. (In fact, Max's mother was a human from another dimension.)

Valerie Cain, female Praxian Headhunter, played by Kent
Headhunters are high-tech mercenaries and bounty hunters that use every tool of destruction available to them to capture or otherwise bring down their targets. The vast majority, Val included, have undergone partial cybernetic conversion. Although she was born and raised on Rifts Earth by her human father, a fighter pilot from another dimension, Valerie's mother was a Praxian, a genetically engineered alien amazon warrior woman from the same reality. (Apparently, Praxian chromosomes pretty much squash human DNA.)

So, to sum up, you've got a giant Jedi-paladin lady, a teenaged wizard/shaman kid, and an amazon woman bounty hunter.

(Though each of us was running multiple characters by time the original campaign fizzled out in the late 90s, these are the core of our high school campaign. We played Rifts almost every weekend for years. As a result, most of these characters have a bit of a reputation and are of a high level of experience at this point. Max and Valerie, who have been adventuring the longest, are 10th and 11th level respectively, which is nothing to sneeze at in a game where characters top out at 15th level. We've changed some details and thrown out a ton of what were, in retrospect, really stupid events in the characters' lives, but at the end of the day, we're essentially just picking up where we left off over 20 years ago.)

Session Recap

Our heroes, a wandering team of mercenaries and do-gooders, have arrived in the settlement of Serendipity, located at the mouth of the Mississippi, in the hopes of establishing a permanent base of operations.  One of their number, the Psi-Stalker Kat, has left town to meet with the numerous local wild tribes of her kind. The remaining three are staying in a hotel while trying to find an appropriate locale to set up shop.

After another fruitless day of real estate hunting, Val suggests hitting the town. The road-weary headhunter has become increasingly enamored of the fancy drinks and loud music offered at Serendipity's downtown clubs. She's heard of an exclusive one called the Serendipity Social Club, suggests that Arisis and Max check it out with her, and won't take no for an answer.

At the door of the Social, the three are asked to "check their weapons". Arisis swears on her honor as a Cyber-Knight not to cause any harm. Valerie's bionic weaponry is restrained in various ways, including binding her extendable vibro-blades. Max is asked to "dump" his magical energy into a P.P.E. battery and is assured it will be returned, plus interest, when he leaves the establishment -- a request with which he complies, after some token objections.

The Social turns out to be surprisingly accommodating to the party. The building itself has unusually high ceilings, giving Arisis (who is twice the size of a human) free rein. Shortly after Max orders a round of drinks, the group is escorted through a VIP area and into a private room by a trio of attractive "handlers" to meet the Social Club's owner, Nysa. Val's restraints are removed, and Max's energy restored.

Nysa, an eight-foot-tall, statuesque beauty (who Max senses is of supernatural lineage) introduces herself as a local entrepreneur, but deftly avoids questions regarding her origins. She is, however, quite familiar with Arisis, Max, and Valerie, and says she invited them to meet with her in order to personally thank them for their role in the African conflict against the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, referring to them as "champions of light". Interestingly, other adventurers are present in this private room, including Reez and Mian Feng, a pair of young women who fought alongside our heroes in Africa. A happy reunion ensues, followed by drinking, dancing, and further attempts from Max to ascertain Nysa's motives and nature.

Nysa invites Val, Max, and Arisis to stay in the penthouse suite of her hotel, which they accept. The three settle into their new and opulent (albeit temporary) digs, then decide to take a look around downtown. They visit an electronics workshop, where Max looks into buying a custom sensor rig that would allow Arisis to interact with the others when they're in small spaces.

On the following day, the group explores the outskirts of the city for real estate -- Max on his Wastelander motorcycle, Valerie on the Saber Cyclone mecha-motorcycle she inherited from her Praxian mother, and Arisis on her custom robotic mount. Their search is interrupted by a radio distress call from some truckers who are being attacked by strange predatory monsters. It turns out that our heroes are closer to the action than any of the local militias, and Nysa soon radios the group to tell them the truck is one of hers, and asks for their aid.

The trio springs into action, chasing down the truck with the intent of picking off the pack of bizarre beasts with their blades, guns, and spells. Max casts a Wind Rush spell, literally blowing away two of the monsters and immobilizing most of the rest. Before his companions can finish the creatures off (Valerie with the CADS-1 blades of her mecha, and Arisis with her Psi-Sword in one hand and the magical Sword of Baragor in the other), more of them burst forth from the underbrush. Nysa again radios the group, to tell them that the cargo must be protected at all costs, placing it at priority even above the truckers' lives. Our heroes make fairly short work of the remaining monsters (with the help of one of the truckers, who happens to be a full-conversion cyborg), but not before one of them tears open the back of the truck, revealing its cargo: several terrified mutant animals in poor shape. Max's suspicions are again aroused.

Arisis, Valerie, and Max follow the now-damaged truck to a palatial plantation estate, where they again meet Nysa. The enigmatic woman informs the group that she runs an "underground railroad" to rescue uplifted animals from the Coalition territory of Lone Star and find them new homes in Serendipity. In the process, she had uncovered a secret (and illegal) operation in Lone Star, where mutant animals were being sold as livestock to D-Bees ("dimensional beings", a blanket term for humanoids native to other dimensions) that savor the flesh of sapient creatures. Furthermore, it appears that Nysa's twin sisters, who were involved in the railroad operation, have disappeared, and may be in the clutches of ogre pirates that engage in this repugnant trafficking. Nysa asks our heroes to help. Arisis is the first to accept, followed by the others.

I don't know how many people get a chance to return to their favorite characters and their favorite setting with the GM and some of the players from their childhood gaming group, but I don't expect that many do. I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity, and I can't express how happy it made me. Though we've made some welcome changes to the rules and to our characters, we nevertheless were all able to pick right up where we left off, figuratively speaking. This session had all of the best qualities of our high school campaign and none of the weaknesses. Everybody was completely engaged, and it felt great.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Rifts Magic In Practice

Today, I want to talk about magic in Rifts. Don't worry, I'm not going to drone on about what magic is like in the Rifts setting, or complain about how it doesn't "feel magical" (a criticism aimed at any number of RPGs' handling of the concept). The Stabilizing Rifts blog has already done an excellent series of posts on the various types of magician characters in the game, as well as exploring the greater implications of magic upon the Rifts Earth milieu. (If you're somebody that wants to see the idea of magic in a post-apocalyptic science fiction setting taken seriously, I can't recommend these posts strongly enough.) Instead, I want to talk about the role magic is supposed to play in the game.

Magic is an integral part of the Rifts role-playing game, or at least, it's intended to be. It's essential to the game's backstory, in which what is initially a nuclear apocalypse accidentally triggers a magical, reality-rending devastation. Its presence in the setting is a large part of what sets Rifts apart from other science fiction or post-apocalyptic games. It's equally important to the North American setting the game originally presented, in which the (comparatively) technologically advanced Coalition States struggle to survive against malevolent practitioners of magic and supernatural beings. Or, if you prefer, it's a setting in which practitioners of magic and supernatural beings struggle to survive against the xenophobic and totalitarian Coalition. Or maybe it's the evil Coalition vs. the evil Federation of Magic...

The point is, the first major conflict laid out in the setting is fundamentally one of technology vs. magic, and it's not the only one -- Triax & the NGR would introduce a similar struggle (mecha vs. demons) in Europe. While the typical group of player characters is likely to include high-tech men of arms, practitioners of magic, psychics, and supernatural creatures, the backdrop is one of super-science vs. sorcery.

The funny thing is, magic isn't very powerful in Rifts. It's meant to be very powerful indeed, since it apparently poses a threat to a nation that fields thousands of skull-faced killer war machines on the battlefield. There are plenty of supernatural creatures that can put a hurting on an armored vehicle. But in play, it's hard to imagine even a group of magicians throwing down with mecha in a direct fight. Even after the introduction of nastier combat spells in Federation of Magic, the fact remains that high-tech weaponry does more damage, isn't limited by spell points (or P.P.E., in official Palladium parlance), and perhaps most importantly, can be used to attack many more times in a combat round than a magic spell can.

Kevin Siembieda has acknowledged this discrepancy several times. He argues that the true "power" of magic is in its unpredictable nature -- not that it's difficult for a practitioner to control, but the threat that somebody with the power to hurl energy bolts (without carrying a weapon) or to control people's minds would pose to a society obsessed with control like the Coalition. In terms of the setting, that's a strong case for magic as a scary thing. In practice, at the game table? Well, not so much. So you have to play smarter, says Siembieda. Magic spells in Rifts are often vaguely defined, so you have some leeway. Think outside the box, old school style!

Siembieda's argument for intelligent play makes sense, to a point. I have played a Mystic in Rifts for years, and quickly learned that a mage trying to go toe-to-toe with a mechanized foe in the firepower department isn't long for the world. The raw damage just isn't there, and in the rules as written, you're only going to be able to cast two Fire Ball spells per round, tops. Meanwhile, the man in the robot suit gets to fire at you four to six times, and if he hits you, you have to start over. (It's no mistake that one of the most popular house rules in Rifts, the "channeling" spellcasting system originally presented in an issue of The Rifter, dramatically speeds up magician characters' number of spells per round.) The key, for me as a player, was to pick spells that penalize, terrify, control, or otherwise "nerf" your enemies (and then either shoot them in the face with a laser rifle, or have your buddies do it) rather than to try to slug it out them.

The idea of magicians taking down these mechanized shock troops with low cunning and sneaky tactics has a certain "Empire vs. Ewoks" appeal, I suppose. However, at some fundamental level, it's kind of annoying that it's so hard to have a wizard striking down power armor-clad foes with fireballs and lightning in Rifts. I'm mostly okay with Rifts mages not being "the artillery" like they often are in D&D, but it still feels a little bit like a bait-and-switch.

Friday, March 7, 2014

In Defense of Mega-Damage

Rifts is a game with a lot of strange rules. Some are just old. Some are poorly explained. Some really don't make sense. One part of the rules that is probably mocked more than any other is the concept of Mega-Damage.

Mega-Damage first appeared (to my knowledge) in Palladium's licensed Robotech line of RPGs. The idea was that regular damage couldn't do justice to the scale of destruction that the giant mecha of the animated series were capable of dealing out. Enter Mega-Damage, one point of which was equal to one hundred points of regular damage (or "Structural Damage" in Kevin Siembieda's parlance), but with the caveat that attacks that dealt regular damage would never have any measurable effect on a Mega-Damage structure.

Siembieda's argument was that nothing that wasn't heavily armored could survive a direct hit from a tank cannon. Furthermore, you would never be able to inflict any serious damage to that heavily armored tank with something that wasn't specifically designed to do so. No matter how much of a badass you were, you could beat on that tank with a baseball bat all day, but you'd never do much more than scuff the paintjob. You could spray the tank with an Uzi and get similar results. But break out an anti-tank weapon, and you might be getting somewhere.

Mega-Damage, as I've mentioned before, is a much-lampooned concept, but I don't really understand why. (I think it must be the name, which is admittedly a bit goofy.) I think it makes a lot of sense. I certainly think that it makes a lot more sense than the extremely abstract concepts of "hits" (which aren't always hits), "damage" (which isn't always damage), or "healing" (which isn't always healing) in Dungeons & Dragons, a game which hundreds of thousands of people still play and enjoy without apparent confusion. At any rate, objections to Mega-Damage were apparently common enough that Siembieda provided guidelines on using removing Mega-Damage from the game in the Rifts Conversion Book, fairly early in the line's long life. We never used them.

Still, there are areas where the concept of Mega-Damage breaks down, or has what I think were probably unintended consequences. For one thing, the widespread availability of Mega-Damage weaponry in Rifts means that characters tend to walk around in full environmental body armor at all times. Even tools like laser torches used for welding can inflict Mega-Damage, which means that a street thug with a dinky laser pistol has the ability to level a city block or wipe out your lovingly crafted character with a single hit. For another, by the rules as written, even a glancing hit from a Mega-Damage weapon will almost certainly kill your character instantly -- you're either armored and okay, or you're dead and turned to a fine mist. A good GM can work around these issues, but they remain nevertheless. (There was an attempt to address the "either you're okay or you're bloody mist" problem in Rifts Ultimate Edition, but its so-called "GI Joe Rule", where you always survive the hit that depletes your armor, but are now unprotected and presumably running for your life, actually is the cartoonish joke Mega-Damage has been made out to be, and has just made matters worse.)

For the upcoming Rifts campaign in which I'm participating, my GM is experimenting with reviving an older Palladium system, Armor Rating, which by the book works similar to D&D's Armor Class: if you roll over the Armor Rating, you've bypassed the armor and damaged the person inside. That seems potentially promising, but I'm not sure how it will work for something like a fully enclosed vehicle (like the vast majority of the mecha in Rifts) or for living creatures that are Mega-Damage structures, which are plentiful in the game. I know that he's using AR in a different way, however, and I'm interested to see what he does with it.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Fistful of Creds

I've written at some length about the complex nature of Rifts Earth as a setting. Rifts has elements of the cyberpunk, fantasy and superhero genres, but doesn't fall neatly into any of those categories. It has a "points of light" setup and takes place after an apocalyptic event, but it's not a post-apocalyptic game in the traditional sense -- especially because the setting has a number of assumptions that don't fit into the standard post-apocalyptic framework.

No doubt, many people will shake their heads when I say that I take Rifts relatively seriously as a setting. This is a world where a mutant ninja flamingo in a suit of power armor can stab the Greek god Zeus with a soul-drinking magic sword. An extreme case, to be sure, but given that my example is completely possible in the game (though probably a bad idea), "making sense out of Rifts" sounds like an exercise in futility. When I say that I take it seriously, I mean that I like to think about how the setting works. Obviously, Rifts Earth contains a vast number of concepts that are impossible or outlandish, especially when combined without restraint, like in my earlier example. Still, I find it fun to try and figure out the hows and whys of all of these disparate elements within the fictional confines of that setting.

It's usually enjoyable for me, but there are some questions that I find maddening. I can suspend my disbelief enough to accept the basic premise of Rifts: a far-future world trying to rebuild itself in the wake of an apocalypse that tore the fabric of reality. I get frustrated, though, when I come across things that still don't make sense even after accepting that wild idea. Here are a few of those things:

Universal Credits. Like a lot of other far-future RPGs, Rifts has "credits" as a standard currency that is accepted pretty much anywhere you go. In most of those games, that's not a completely crazy idea, because there's some sort of organized infrastructure in place, whether that's an interstellar empire or a global banking system. In Rifts, there's no such thing. Sure, there are the Coalition States (which is really more like a network of city-states) and a few other small "nations", but most of the continent is still a wilderness crisscrossed by magical ley lines and infested with monsters, dinosaurs, dragons, and worse. Palladium Books' official line is that credits are a debit card-based banking system based in the Coalition States, with competing credit systems offered by the Manistique Imperium and the Black Market, but it's tough for me to believe that such a system would be possible in demon-infested North America. There can't be a continent-wide computer network with monsters stomping any place that isn't a city or fortified town to dust, and satellite-based communications are impossible (see Mutants in Orbit). Even if there was a way to set up a banking network, why would your Coalition or Manistique credits be of any worth to the interdimensional alien slave traders in Atlantis? Why would they be usable in another dimension (like Phase World), for that matter? I understand the need to suspend disbelief sometimes, but the explanation Palladium has belatedly advanced is pretty weak.

Intercontinental Trade. Triax, an arms manufacturer based in the New German Republic, is somehow able to transport its goods to North America. Keep in mind that the oceans and skies are (presumably) as full of monsters as the land, that the NGR is fighting a prolonged, full-scale war against an empire of gargoyles, and that there is now an entire continent full of evil alien slave traders in between Europe and North America. I have a hard enough time understanding how one could get items from one part of North America to another, let alone across the planet (though they did introduce armed hovertrains in the recent Northern Gun supplement). Rifts is a game where a lot of crazy things are possible, and there's probably a way that this kind of cross-Atlantic arms trading could conceivably happen, but if it's ever been explained, I haven't heard about it.

Precision Manufacturing. There are multiple corporations churning out ultra-high-technology items. Things like giant mecha, artificially intelligent robots, laser rifles, cybernetic implants, and portable computers would (presumably) require large-scale manufacturing facilities, not to mention precious limited resources like rare earth minerals. Are there assembly lines where these things are being put together? Where are they getting the raw materials, considering that intercontinental shipping is now incredibly difficult? Is it all scavenged and recycled from salvaged pre-apocalyptic wreckage? What if your Samson power armor needs repairs and you're hundreds of miles away from the lone city-state where it was manufactured (which is exceedingly likely)? Remember, this is a "points of light" setting. Maybe small-town Operators have something like a 3-D printer that can make a new servomotor for your busted mecha or bionic arm? There are interesting possibilities here, but there has been no attempt to explore them, to my knowledge.

Other Infrastructure Stuff. Most of my headaches stem from the basic lack of any plausible sort of infrastructure on Rifts Earth. For example, you can get classic "headjack" cybernetic implants that allow man-machine interface with computer networks, but I can't see how those networks would exist, except for maybe within a single well-developed city or settlement. In North America, there are "Black Market" criminal organizations that have spread their influence across the continent, but given that travel is incredibly perilous -- monsters and ghosts and evil wizards all over the place, remember? -- I can't for the life of me imagine how. (To be fair, there's a Black Market sourcebook I've never read that might answer these questions.)

There's more, much more, but I can't remember it all right now. Have I allowed any of this stuff to bother me to the point where I don't enjoy the game? Hell, no. But these are the little things that bug me when I'm otherwise having a nice time daydreaming about one of my favorite imaginary places. I'd like to figure out solutions, so if you have ideas, comment below.