In case it wasn't already obvious, I have been having a very hard time thinking of things to blog about recently. I find that I have increasingly less to say about RPGs these days. (Well, less substantive things to say, anyway.)
I think it might be because I'm having such a great time with them at the moment. The Rifts/Fate campaign I'm playing in is sincerely a dream come true. My other game (D&D 5E, which I currently run) has been a blast, a few hiccups here and there notwithstanding. Honestly, the games that I'm participating in at the moment are a personal all-time high in terms of sheer enjoyment, and there's nothing more boring than somebody who's just plain happy about everything, right?
So, I think I'll take a break from enforcing my "must post every Friday" rule for a while. It's mostly worked out well for me, and I'm proud to have managed to keep it up for over a year. I will still make posts when the mood strikes, and will certainly continue to post session recaps for the Rifts campaign whenever we play (though whether anybody still reads those or not is up for discussion, I suppose).
This isn't a break, a hiatus, or a shutting down. I'm just not going to force myself to post when I've got nothing interesting to say.
Rod Ruth, illustrator of children's books like Album of Dinosaurs and Baleful Beasts and Eerie Creatures -- which I compulsively checked and re-checked out of any number of childhood libraries and public school media centers as a child -- is an unsung master. Everything he painted was filled with mad, vibrant energy and color (and often, terror).
If I could commission RPG artwork from anyone who has passed beyond the veil, this man would be near the top of the list.
(Yes, this post is laughably low on content. It's been an extremely busy week for me.)
Our latest session of Rifts (still powered by Fate Core) featured the triumphant return of the missing member of our original player character team: the Psi-Stalker known as Kat, played by my brother Chris, who joined us via a (somewhat buggy) Google Hangouts feed. The band is now well and truly back together and it's hard to describe how good that feels. The previous session's recap is here if you'd like to catch up. The Roster (with Fate "high concept" aspects, followed by traditional Rifts O.C.C.s)
Arisis Solstice, Radiant Daughter of Atlas (female titan Cyber-Knight), played by Felix Katrina Mansfield, Mutant Psi-Stalker P.I. (female mutoid Psi-Stalker), played by Chris Max Parkinson, Runaway Teenage Mystic (male human Mystic), played by me Valerie Cain, Amazon Cyborg Wildchild (female Praxian Headhunter), played by Kent
Valerie, Max, and Arisis successfully make their way to Isla de la Juventud, also known as "Isla de Encanta" and "Treasure Island". Shortly after they reach the island, the erstwhile fourth member of their group, the Psi-Stalker called Kat, arrives at the docks, having earlier been summoned by Max via astral projection. Kat is warmly greeted by Valerie, who is openly thrilled to see the Psi-Stalker. Max, still haunted by the senseless deaths of the villagers back on Cuba proper, is somewhat more reserved, but glad to have Kat's particular set of skills on hand for what he anticipates will be a great struggle. Kat has arrived armed for bear, with much of her arsenal of mechanical combat drones, as well as Arisis' carnosaur-like robotic mount, in tow. (The Cyber-Knight is too excited about being reunited with her steed to properly greet her long-missing comrade.)
The group gets Kat up to speed on the nature of their predicament. They've learned that the island is home to a massive prison complex known as Bastille Impenetrable, which is operated by an extradimensional race called the Tisch. Grey-skinned and three-eyed, the Tisch (or at least, the ones running Bastille Impenetrable) are vehemently opposed to the death penalty, and will hold any criminal in one of their pan-Megaversal prisons (for a nominal fee, of course). Thus, they operate this prison out of both philosophical and profit-based concerns. The city surrounding the prison is under strict rule of law, and any infractions are punished with immediate arrest (and, presumably, imprisonment). The group believes that one of the twins they seek to rescue must be imprisoned in Bastille Impenetrable. Max wonders aloud whether it's Asha or Annejah, and under what sort of pretenses they could be held. The mere mention of their names apparently sets off some sort of psychic alert, which the team's psionics -- Arisis, Kat, and Max -- all detect.
Max links hands with the other two and attempts to trace the source of the distress call, expecting to find one of the twins requesting aid. Instead, the three sense another being entirely: one that is guarded by an ogre shaman. Their concentrated will easily thwarts the shaman's attempted mental interference, and they are surprised to find themselves speaking with a presence that identifies itself as the Sunstar Aegis -- the ship belonging to their benefactor, Nysa, which they were told had been seized by ogre pirates. Max, bewildered, admits that he's never telepathically contacted a ship before. He and his companions soon learn that the ship has a magically sapient control CPU, and it is with this artifact that they are communicating. The "rune-puter" (as Kat describes it) informs them that the Neuron Beast Zaal double-crossed the ogre pirates that captured the twins (and the Sunstar Aegis) upon arriving at Treasure Island, and that he has one of them in captivity now. Their conversation is cut short, however, when the ogre shaman that was guarding the Sunstar Aegis resumes control and severs communications. Max attempts to contact the ship again, but proves unable to. (In an interesting feature of the Fate Core system, I accepted a Fate Point in exchange for agreeing that Max would be unable to reach the ship again.)
Taking an alternate approach, Kat uses her inborn Psi-Stalker tracking abilities to home in on the residual psychic trail leading to the ship's location, but upon arrival, she and her compatriots are detained by an alarmed Tisch dock inspector. Max, often the voice of the team, attempts to appeal to the inspector's sense of justice by calmly explaining the nature of their situation, but the bureaucrat's insistence that the group lacks the proper permits and must leave the dock immediately quickly wears down Max's resolve, and his teenage distrust of authority asserts itself. While the Tisch continues indignantly babbling in legalese and prodding Max and associates with a clipboard, they notice that a group of unsavory-looking ogres are staring them down from where the Sunstar Aegis is docked. Max grows increasingly frustrated, and before long the young Mystic goes into meltdown, shouting that "somebody's in trouble and you want us to do paperwork -- this is why nobody bothers with the cops!" (I accepted another Fate Point here, for letting the GM compel Max's Raging Hormones aspect to his detriment.) The inspector angrily responds that he is "not a cop" but suggests that perhaps he should call for backup. The titan Arisis literally carries an infuriated Max away before the situation can get worse, and Valerie flatly informs her young friend that he is "blowing it." Kat steps in and tries to provoke the dock inspector into giving away something useful, with limited results, and it seems that things are about to escalate even further when Val finally takes control. She flirtatiously smoothes over the disagreement, but has little choice but to agree to an evening date with the inspector in order to stop him from calling in armed reinforcements. Max (somewhat sullenly) muses that at least something productive may have come from the group's efforts.
Our heroes, stymied, head into the city that has sprung up around Bastille Impenetrable. Kat and Valerie search for more leads, while Max and Arisis find themselves more distracted by the sights (and tastes) of the city rather than turning up anything useful. Over a strange delicacy known as a "corn dog", Max apologizes to Arisis for his disastrous outburst during the group's encounter with the dock inspector, but asks that she not pick him up like a doll in public again. As he is wrapping up his heart-to-heart with the titan, Max is surprised to see Gia -- the young, unusually attractive goblin he had met in Havana some days prior -- also enjoying a corn dog. (I spent one of my Fate Points to set a scene detail here, since the GM had already expressed an interest in having Gia show up again someday.) Evidently, she is a travelling folk healer who roams throughout the region, plying her trade. Max seizes the opportunity to ask Gia out on a date, which she accepts. Max, naturally, picks the same restaurant that the dock inspector chose for his date with Valerie, since (after all) it's the only nice place in town that he knows of.
That evening, Max spends a little bit too much of his date craning his neck to get an idea of how Valerie's is going, but Gia is apparently only slightly annoyed. Valerie's rendezvous, which the Headhunter is apparently unable to extricate herself from despite her best efforts, is still underway when Max and Gia leave the restaurant to meet up with Kat and Arisis. As they continue to explore the city in search of clues, a gruff-voiced, masked Tisch who introduces himself as "Objection" suddenly makes his presence known to the group. Objection knows that our heroes are in search of Neuron Beast Zaal and informs them that the creature is currently holed up in the embassy that it, as the ostensible ruler of an "empire" in Cuba, maintains in the city. Watched constantly by members of the band of ogre pirates that it double-crossed, the neuron beast is unable to leave his domicile. Zaal, we're told, has one of the twins in a "stasis box" and intends to sell her to a banker named Phket, who clandestinely launders money for human(oid) traffickers. (At this point, Max advises Gia that things are likely to get a bit crazy, and that he wouldn't object if she decided to bail, but she elects to stick around.)
Arisis, Kat, and Max agree to Objection's plan to draw the ogres away from Zaal's embassy. Arisis, no friend to ogres, is particularly keen on this gambit, suggesting that she and her comrades go the extra mile and lead the hulking humanoids all the way back to the docks where the Sunstar Aegis is held. Objection plans to break into the embassy during the chaos that ensues -- "I work alone" -- and insists that "no murders are going to happen in my city", an edict to which Max and Kat scoffingly agree. The group rushes back to the restaurant and rescues a grateful Valerie from her interminable outing with the dock inspector, and after filling her in on the details, she agrees to their plan: Val will head to Zaal's location while the others distract the ogres and withdraw with them in pursuit.
One thing I keep seeing online is people describing Rifts as "gonzo" and "kitchen sink". I have to admit that this rubs me the wrong way a little. Don't get me wrong: I think both of those terms are applicable to the game to some extent. However, I would hesitate to sum up Rifts with either of them. Why do I say this? Well, I'm glad you asked.
Why not make this feel like a bad college paper and start with a definition? Merriam-Webster defines "gonzo" as "bizarre" and "freewheeling or unconventional especially to the point of outrageousness". I know that the term probably means different things to different people -- what doesn't? -- but I'm surprised to see that the dictionary definition actually lines up with the way I see it used when describing RPGs fairly well. The picture I posted up there (found somewhere on the internet -- sorry, I have no idea what the source is) seems to encapsulate the "gonzo, kitchen sink", outrageously bizarre aesthetic so many associate with the game.
I can see what they're getting at. Even people that have a similar take on the game to mine have pointed out that it can be pretty wacky -- after all, my own Rifts campaign has been (fairly accurately) summarized as "a titan-sized Cyber-Knight, a teenaged Mystic, and a partial cyborg Headhunter working for a secret godling to help smuggle mutant animals out of the breeding pens of Texas Nazis". So, yes, there are lot of crazy things in the game's setting, even right out of the box: believe it or not, most of the elements mentioned in that summary are straight out of the original rulebook. (Those "Nazis" are among the elements I can most easily understand having a hard time taking seriously.)
The more books you include in the setting and make available to players, the wilder the world gets, particularly when you incorporate visitors from Palladium Books' other games. In Rifts, a robot, a catgirl, a wizard, and a ninja could very well team up and fight crime, more or less by the book. (That's got to be the textbook definition of "kitchen sink".) This game is sounding pretty damned "freewheeling and unconventional" at this point, right? So why don't I like it when people call Rifts "gonzo"?
The biggest reason is that I don't think it's tremendously more so than any number of other popular properties, particularly roleplaying games. For example, Dungeons & Dragons crams together practically every possible flavor of the fantasy genre, along with bits of horror and science fiction. It's been described as a game where Conan and Gandalf team up to fight Dracula, and I think that's an accurate summary in many ways. Particularly in the more recent versions of D&D, player character options are so diverse that if a DM is permissive, the robot, catgirl, wizard, and ninja team is every bit as doable in D&D and its derivatives (like Pathfinder) as it is in Rifts. Is D&D a "kitchen sink"? Granted, the setting backdrop of Rifts Earth might be harder for some to swallow than the fantastical milieux of D&D, since it's supposedly "our world" in the far future. But is harder to swallow than, say, superhero comics' version of Earth in the present day? Look at the bizarre combinations of characters and locales the Marvel Universe features. Does anybody describe The Avengers as "gonzo"? And what about the outright tongue-in-cheek, elbow-in-the-ribs, "get it?" nature of ostensibly "post-apocalyptic" games like Gamma World?
One could certainly play Rifts like it's a big "lol so random" joke, and more power to those who want to do that. It could probably be a lot of fun, but I think that the idea that it's the only way to play (or that there is an over-the-top level of wackiness that is baked into the game) is an exaggeration. Like most good imaginative properties, there's a fundamental earnestness (as well as an overarching aesthetic) to Rifts that I think makes taking the game at least a little seriously -- Illinois Nazis, Techno-Wizards, Mexican vampires, and all -- worthwhile.
With the missing player from our original gaming group -- my brother, Chris -- now scheduled to rejoin the campaign via Google Hangouts, the last few sessions of Rifts have involved almost as much planning as actual play, as we figure out how to get his character, the psi-stalker Katrina Mansfield (pictured here), back in the mix. We still managed to get into character and play a little bit. Check out the recap of last session if you need to. The Roster (with Fate "high concept" aspects, followed by traditional Rifts O.C.C.s) Arisis Solstice, Radiant Daughter of Atlas (female titan Cyber-Knight), played by Felix Max Parkinson, Runaway Teenage Mystic (male human Mystic), played by me Valerie Cain, Amazon Cyborg Wildchild (female Praxian Headhunter), played by Kent Session Recap Arisis, Max, and Valerie have successfully defended the people of Red Moon Water Village from several waves of vicious attacks, finally driving them off with the assistance of troops from the city of Havana. Osorio, the villagers' shaman (and now leader) advises our heroes to visit three other settlements on the island of Cuba as they continue their search for the elusive neuron beast, both to rest and to ensure that they have not suffered the fate intended for Red Moon Water Village. Unfortunately, while they manage to complete the journey to the next village without significant incident, the group find it completely annihilated: burnt to the ground, with no survivors. Max surveys the carnage and wishes aloud that he was able to use his magic to restore the victims of the massacre to life. (This is something his teammates have witnessed firsthand in the past, but of which he is currently incapable, having "burned out" his ability to do so for the time being). Instead, Max supernaturally melds into his charnel surroundings in order to commune with the slain. The young Mystic fades into the ashes, asking the spirits of the villagers to explain what happened to them: "Tell me how you died." He effortlessly overcomes an astral servitor of the neuron beast that tries to interpose itself, and learns that the beast's armed forces destroyed the village and its people in retaliation for their defeat at Red Moon Water Village, then marched to another settlement that Osorio had mentioned, two days' travel away. The neuron beast's spirit minion takes physical shape and is instantly reduced to dust as Max returns to corporeal form. Our heroes resolve not to allow another such slaughter to occur, and set out for the second village with haste: the Mystic uses the adaptive systems of his techno-wizard-constructed armor to maneuver through the canopy jungle, with the Cyber-Knight hurling the armored Max ahead ("fastball special" style) and cutting a path through the underbrush for the Headhunter to follow on her mecha-motorcycle. Along the way, Max and Arisis realize that their psychic sensitivity allows them to "pick up" communications between multiple beings that are apparently sharing information on the groups' activities. It does not take long to realize that they are inadvertently eavesdropping on the psychic network of several neuron beasts, considering that they refer to each other as "Neuron Beast Zaal", "Neuron Beast Tobril", etc. (apparently through a quirk of their mental "language"). The trio arrive at the settlement in one day rather than two, catching the neuron beasts' forces completely by surprise. The enemy, who were preoccupied with rounding up villagers and putting them in chains rather than preparing for an assault, are never able to organize an effective defense. Max disperses a unit of gunmen with a Fear spell and sets a "neuron thrall" (another of the human-neuron beast hybrids they've faced in the past) ablaze with a well-placed Fire Bolt. Valerie rips into a group of lizard men armed with melee weapons with a barrage of mini-missiles, and their leader, a lizard woman psychic, literally turns tail and runs. Arisis squares off with a cybernetically enhanced troll after her attempt to invoke her supernatural aura of awe is ineffective ("Trollborg does not understand human emotions", her opponent helpfully explains), but struggles to cause any lasting physical harm to the cyborg. Max opts to trade foes with Arisis, shutting down the troll's central nervous system via psionic Bio-Manipulation before things get out of hand, and Arisis overpowers the Gigantes (mutant giant) that had threatened Max. Valerie removes the threat posed by a walker mecha by nonchalantly decapitating the gunner perched atop it, sending his head tumbling into the cockpit below and terrifying the war machine's pilot. The mecha pilot and Gigantes quickly surrender as the few remaining allies that have survived the trio's surprise attack disperse into the jungle. The team radios the Havanan forces they left behind at Red Moon Water Village and asks them to send a contingent to take care of the enemy captives. As Valerie severs the oversized bionic arms of the immobilized Trollborg with the CADS-1 blades of her mecha, Arisis and Max question the captured walker pilot. "Neuron Beast Zaal", they learn, is in charge, and has taken at least one of Nysa's twin sisters to Isla de la Juventud, to the south, where there is apparently some sort of prison facility in which she is incarcerated. The pilot also tells them that the third village Osorio asked them to visit is the domain of a bruja ("witch") and that Zaal's men take care to avoid it. The pilot's tale turns out to be true -- when the group reach the third village, they find themselves unwelcome, and have little choice but to strike down the bruja and her harpy pets (a task which they complete without much difficulty). With the last village out of the way, the group head toward a pirate-run coastal town they have heard lies to the south, in the hopes of securing passage to Isla de la Juventud. (If you're wondering, yes, that is another piece of commissioned artwork up there. This one is courtesy the illustrious Azu-Chan. I love it, and I imagine it's about as far from how the creator of Rifts imagines a typical character should be depicted as possible.)