Friday, October 24, 2014

Baleful Beasts

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.)

Friday, October 10, 2014

Is Rifts Gonzo?


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.

Friday, September 19, 2014

More Mercenary Teams

We Are Mercenary by madspartan013
Here, have some more (mostly antagonistic) mercenary teams for Rifts. Many of these are a bit tongue-in-cheek, which I suppose might not work for some people. I had a little help from people in my Google+ circles in coming up with several of these. Some were heavily reworked by me, but I've given credit where it's due, regardless.

Wild Hurricane. In many ways a typical Juicer mercenary company, Wild Hurricane are worthy of mention due to their membership (over 130 members at last count) as well as their reputation as completely amoral adrenaline junkies. Wild Hurricane have no qualms about accepting virtually any job from any employer, as long as they are allowed to execute it in their trademarked fashion (which typically involves flying in on jetbikes equipped with colored smoke exhaust, blasting pre-Rifts stadium rock and jock jams at maximum volume). All members use outlandish monikers like "Duke Raiden", "Blacules", "Velocity Maxx", "Slam Atoms", etcetera (exemplified by the current leader of the organization, "Chief Administrator Golgo Superior") and tend to wear brightly patterned workout clothing. Now based in Puerto Rico, the Wild Hurricane organization's membership is constantly shifting, thanks to combat casualties and Last Call, but they have surprisingly consistent success in attracting new recruits. Company legends say that Wild Hurricane's founder was once a member of a rival Juicer outfit called Happy Jo's Funtime Adventure Club, who supposedly "doctored their prescription" to create a more relaxed, "blissed-out" state of awareness -- something that is seen as an abomination by Wild Hurricane. (It has been speculated that Wild Hurricane uses a similarly variant combat drug cocktail or injection rig that produces tenser, more violent Juicers.) It is unclear whether the Funtime Adventure Club ever actually existed, but mercenaries in southern North America sometimes speak of a strange group of Juicers that traveled in a rainbow-colored APC called "the Bus". Wild Hurricane members are known to deride those deemed "not extreme enough", including more well-adjusted Juicers or those that detox before Last Call, as "Happy Jos" or "Funtimers". (Some example Wild Hurricane member names by Cole Long and John Carr. Happy Jo's Funtime Adventure Club concept by Benjamin Baugh.)

The Great Volunteers are a highly professional and competent group of soldiers of fortune that operates primarily in the Magic Zone and its surrounding regions. They were so named by their benefactors because they arrive unexpectedly and volunteer their services to anyone who requires them, particularly if they are having some form of conflict or disagreement with the expansive forces of the Coalition States. The Great Volunteers' commander, Dana Roskos, assures the prospective client that a long-term payment plan can be arranged afterwards. If the clients decline -- which they often will, if they are familiar with the company's reputation -- the mercenaries simply leave. If they accept, the Volunteers engage (and drive off) the enemy, then exact their payment under threat of force. The Great Volunteers are backed by the sorcerers of the Federation of Magic, and their masters expect to be paid in human slaves (who are usually later sacrificed in their black rites). The mercenaries return repeatedly, over a period of many years, to collect their dues. The majority of the rank and file of the Great Volunteers do not necessarily relish this duty, but much like their sworn Coalition enemies, they are hardened soldiers who regard their activities as a necessary evil. (Concept by me.)

Providence Express Protection is a mercenary company led by a clairvoyant psychic known only as "Melgren", who directs his compatriots to pre-emptively eliminate major threats he detects with his precognitive abilities. His predictions are almost never incorrect, but the issue of securing payment for PEP's services is often a sticky one. Fortunately, none of them are above extorting their fee from those they insist that they saved from a terrible fate. (Concept by Cole Long.)

Pascal's Rascals. A wildly unpredictable, but mostly heroic mercenary team that debuted recently, Pascal's Rascals have met with a rate of success disproportionate to their small size (five members), poor equipment and unorthodox fees. Many of their clients suspect that something strange is going on with Pascal and his compatriots, though none have yet realized that they are, in fact, a clutch of hatchling Thunder Lizard dragons that have taken up the mercenary life (and human form) as a lark. (Concept by me.)

The Scabs are a fairly large and well-equipped mercenary team that has a wide operating range covering much of North America. "The Scabs" is, obviously, not the official name of the company -- they have been known to operate under many names, including Axon Syndicated, Elegant Assistance LLC, Kotter's Marauders, and Falcon Standard -- but they are known as such by their peers in the mercenary business. Scab troops move into a known conflict hotspot, find the most vulnerable settlements, and then undercut the prices of whatever companies are currently in operation there, driving them out forcibly if necessary. The Scabs then gradually raise prices to exorbitant rates. When the communities that employ them are unable to afford the Scabs' services any longer, the mercenaries typically ransack them, usually leaving them to the mercy of whatever it was that threatened them in the first place. The natures of the Scabs' operations prevent the formation of a strict chain of command, but a Manistique woman named Camilla Gold is believed to ultimately be in charge, and likely in league with some arm of one or another of the Black Market criminal organizations. (Loosely based on a concept by Benjamin Baugh.)

Zach & Suns are a group of vampire hunters active in the upper parts of the Southwest that are gaining notoriety for the flashy, sun-emblazoned, full-environmental golden body armor they always wear, and for their tireless crusade against the wild vampires that prey upon the rural communities of the region. "Father Zach", the group's leader, is secretly a master vampire named Armand Zacharias, who claims to have walked the Earth since before the coming of the Rifts. The other members are his secondary vampire "children", and the wild vampires they create are the predators they hunt down and "rescue" their clients from (though they rarely actually destroy them). Every community Zach & Suns "aids", regrettably, loses several members to the vampire attacks, and yet the mercenary company's ranks continue to slowly grow... (Based on concepts by Chris F. and Benjamin Baugh.)

Captain Jack's Daisies. Jacinta Hayson -- the "Jack" mentioned in the outfit's name -- is a rough-looking, tobacco-chewing, horse-riding, no-nonsense woman who looks every bit a part of the real Old West. She could not be more different from the dandily dressed, robo-steed-riding group of men that make up the rest of her group. Despite her employees' appearance, Jack's company is well-known for their skill, resilience, and professionalism. Their focus is on bodyguarding and long-range protection, expertly escorting clients across the entirety of the North American continent. "Famous last stands a specialty." (Concept by Matthew Adams.)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Down, Down to 5E Town

Although my last attempt at running Dungeons & Dragons was ultimately unsatisfying, I can't stay away from D&D for long. I've picked up every official edition of the game since the arrival of AD&D 2nd Edition, and the latest iteration is no exception. One of the two local gaming groups I play with, being well-acquainted with my love-hate relationship with D&D, started to bug me about running it as soon as the 5E Starter Set was released, and I quickly caved to their demands. Although the angst of the defunct Demon Verge campaign that I ran via Google Hangouts still weighed heavily on me, I comforted myself knowing that I was only committed to running an introductory scenario, after which a rotating cast of friends would be occupying the Dungeon Master's chair, with the option for me to return if I wished.

I ended up purchasing the Starter Set because it was ridiculously cheap, despite being leery of running a published module. After all, the Demon Verge campaign had taught me that modules and I aren't always the best of friends. Besides, what I had heard about the introductory adventure, which bore the unpromising title of Lost Mine of Phandelver, didn't exactly set me on fire: it sounded like the standard "small town in trouble / goblins in the caves" setup. As much as I like D&D, I've been down, down to goblin town more times than I care to admit. As it turned out, that description does apply to Lost Mine in practically every meaningful way. It also turned out not to matter, because I and my players had a great deal of fun playing our first session of D&D 5E with it last weekend.

The Good:

  • Combat moves fairly quickly again. I found 3E combat very slow, and 4E combat murderously, unbearably slow, so this is a huge improvement.
  • I like the advantage/disadvantage mechanics, supposed mathematical problems be damned. Likewise the proficiency bonus stuff, which I think is really slick, elegant design.
  • I like traits, bonds, and flaws, and handing out inspiration for showing them off in play. My recent experience with games like Fate Core has given me an appreciation for touchy-feely mechanics that reward people for playing in character even when it's not tactically sound.
  • Backgrounds are fun, even when multiple players take the same one. (There are no less than three nobles in the PC party.)
  • Speaking of which, nearly all of the player characters seem to be at least a little shady, if not downright smarmy. This makes a boilerplate scenario like Lost Mine much more interesting. I'm usually very much in favor of shiny heroic characters in fantasy stuff, but I love that many of these heroes also happen to be jerks.

The Stuff I'm Not So Sure About:

  • Characters still felt fairly fragile despite their inflated HP totals, but I'm not sure if this version is lethal enough for me. It seems like it's relatively easy for characters to be knocked out of a fight, but unlikely that they will die. They're probably not as unkillable as 4E ones, in my experience, but I'm used to death coming a bit more easily in D&D.
  • In 5E, if you can cast spells, you've almost definitely got a magic zap attack power that never runs out. I didn't find these "zonks", as one friend called them, to be overly powerful, but the image of magicians tearing into enemies with at-will magic beam attacks all day, every day has never really sat well with me. It's purely a matter of personal taste; I'm well aware that being the zapper is what many people expect out of spellcasters. I'm probably just out of touch on this.

So, when you total it all up, I'm pretty happy with the way things are going with this game. Honestly, any session in which I get an opportunity to act out a speak with animals spell cast on a couple of hungry, semi-tamed wolves is going to be a good time for me. For the first time in a while, I felt like I had as much (or more) fun than the players did, and I am legitimately looking forward to running the next session.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Role & Roll Station: A Tokyo FLGS

Blurry action shot hastily taken while fleeing the store
During my blogging hiatus a couple of months ago, I was traveling in Asia, including Japan. I didn't get a chance to do any gaming while I was there, but I did manage to visit Tokyo's famous Akihabara district. So, here are some brief thoughts on Roll & Role Station, probably one of the best game shops in Tokyo:

There were tons of "replays". These look like manga tankobon (collections or trade paperbacks), complete with glossy covers of cool-looking characters. The interiors are just text recaps of game sessions, more or less similar to the "actual play" session reports I and many others post online. I knew that these replays existed, but had no idea how many were being published. There were dozens and dozens of the things, so obviously somebody is buying them. I found this oddly depressing, in that I wish there was something like these replays available here in the US.

There were D&D Encounters posters (which looked exactly like the US versions, but in Japanese) everywhere, but the most popular games appeared to be Call of Cthulhu, Sword World (an indigenous fantasy RPG) and GURPS. All of the CoC and GURPS stuff seemed to have no stateside equivalent. Most of it looked very impressive.

I didn't notice any Western RPGs for sale other than the ones I just mentioned.

There were many, many Euro boardgames translated into Japanese. Boardgames are not really my thing, but I found it interesting anyway.

There were several tables of people excitedly playing CCGs, boardgames, and RPGs, D&D among them.

About a third (!!) of the customers in the store were female. That's... not how it is here, which I think is a shame.

There were homemade D&D t-shirts that looked really cool and (from what I could understand) seemed to have been made by store regulars. They were monochromatic prints (like white on a blue shirt, etc.) and had anime-style illustrations of each of the four basic classes as well as English explanations of what they were about. I would have loved to have been able to buy them all. They were out of my price range, sadly.

It looks like I will probably visit Japan again in the not-so-distant future. Next time I will do my best to fight off the sensory overload that is Akihabara and get a clearer picture of what was going on there.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Mercenary Team Black Fortress

Mercenary Team Black Fortress, more often simply called "Black Fortress", is a travelling company of soldiers of fortune that have recently made Serendipity their base of operations. Unlike some of the city's other mercenary militias, the group is large -- over 100 members strong -- and well-equipped. Black Fortress is widely assumed to have the unofficial backing of important individuals in the Coalition States, or possibly even the CS government itself.

Black Fortress does little to dissuage this perception. Much of their arsenal consists of decommissioned and repainted Coalition weapons, mecha, and vehicles, equipment to which no other mercenary company seems to have as much access. Many Black Fortress troops wear the infamous old-style "Dead Boy" armor of the Coalition States, but even those that opt for the (nominally standard issue) modified Urban Warrior body armor typically personalize it with CS-esque skulls and similar insignia. Though these motifs are never identical to the standards used by the Coalition, they are close enough to make a connection clear, at least in the eyes of Black Fortress' critics.

These critics say that the "Mercenary Team" is little more than a clandestine wing of the CS military, a deniable private army used to carry out black ops missions in which the Coalition cannot be openly involved or implicated. In truth, the situation is slightly more complex: Black Fortress is sponsored by a single powerful Chi-Town family, the Espinozas, who can boast of more than a few Coalition war heroes in their family tree. While not a household name to their nation's general populace, the Espinoza family is well-regarded by the Coalition's upper echelons, who tolerate (and in some cases, even tacitly support) the existence of Black Fortress. This tolerance is dependent on their ignorance of the lengths to which the Espinoza family are willing to go in order to secure what they see as the greater goals of the Coalition, however. Unlike most of the CS elite, Meyer Espinoza, the family's patriarch, is an idealist who believes that the Coalition has lost its way. In his eyes, the Imperial family's drive to take control of a horrendously chaotic situation has slowly ossified into a zeal for totalitarianism. Meyer believes that Emperor Prosek is more concerned with consolidating power for himself and his family than with helping humanity recover from the apocalypse.

Black Fortress never accepts a contract that would work directly against the interests of the Coalition. However, they regularly bend or break rules that would restrict their operations. For example, while they are much more tolerant of psychics and mutoids than any official Coalition organization would ever allow, the company of Black Fortress does not accept non-humans or practitioners of magic into their ranks. However, they have much more nuanced, inclusive policies than the Coalition when it comes to interacting with these groups. In other words, they are willing to work with them when it would advance their objectives (and generally not a second longer). Perhaps most intriguingly -- and dangerously, since the Espinoza family courts treason by condoning it -- among Black Fortress' various subdivisions is a clandestine paranormal research unit dubbed Grey Gate, which works to scientifically study magic and extradimensional phenomena, a practice which was banned by Imperial proclamation decades ago.

Black Fortress' recent relocation to Serendipity has been a cause for unease in the community, and was vociferously opposed by more than one organization (the Quang family among them). Serendipity's D-Bee and mutant animal populations, in particular, are fearful of the company. Thus far, however, Black Fortress' mercs have caused minimal disruptions -- in fact, with a few exceptions, they have behaved with a level of professionalism and restraint that puts the bulk of the city's other militias to shame.

Notable members of Mercenary Team Black Fortress include:

Brigadier Omar Espinoza is the leader of the Black Fortress mercenary company and a former Coalition special forces operative. Once a gifted soldier, Omar was badly injured in an encounter with a Thornhead demon in the ruins of old Chicago, and although ostensibly restored to combat readiness thanks to a full bionic conversion, he seems to have yet to become accustomed to his new body (possibly because of the trauma he experienced). He nevertheless expects the best from those in his command and drives them to excel, tolerating nothing less than excellence and upstanding behavior from those in his employ. Never a strategic genius, Omar takes his marching orders from his his father, Meyer Espinoza, and his trusted advisors in Ivory Tower, Black Fortress' strategic unit. He is curt, guarded and reserved. Omar lacks much of the fiery idealism that drives his father and sister, and while he believes in their objectives, he is secretly uneasy with his role, and increasingly disturbed when asked to order his men to violate the code by which he lived during his military service. He is also displeased that his sister, Quinn, has joined Black Fortress, and firmly believes she does not belong there.

Omar is a heavily modified and customized cyborg whose design is patterned after that of Free Quebec's FX-320C Dervish; a towering, four-armed combat unit. Though he was once regarded as a handsome man, is said that the Brigadier's face is now horribly scarred, and he is never seen in public without his olive drab exterior armor (including a faceplate) in place. He wears oversized military-style formal uniforms or fatigues that fit his cyborg frame.

Specialist Noa Quintanilla Espinoza is a young Rogue Scientist, highly driven but brusque; a transwoman and sister to Omar. Technically the second-in-command of the Grey Gate paranormal research unit, "Quinn", as she prefers to be called, is for all intents and purposes in charge of Grey Gate's research efforts (by dint of her enthusiasm if nothing else). Both fascinated and frightened by the supernatural, Quinn is a major psionic, and possesses the power to sense magic and dimensional disturbances as well as an ability to cloak her own psychic nature from detection -- abilities which she uses to aid her research. Like her father, Meyer, she believes strongly in humanity as the rightful inhabitants of Rifts Earth, and in the core ideals of the Coalition. She is deeply disturbed by the atmosphere of enforced ignorance in which her countrymen live, however, and enamored of the freedom that being away from Chi-Town affords her in her studies. At this point, Quinn would likely be unwilling to return to the CS.

Quinn is tall and thin, a striking young woman with dark skin and hair. She is a child of privilege, with an expensive, if unorthodox, sense of style. Her appearance does not conform to the stereotypical image of the bookish scientist: she has numerous tattoos and is fond of gold jewelry and piercings (though these are generally hidden away when in uniform). Quinn has a cutting sense of humor many find insulting, and her professional obsession with accuracy carries over into her social interactions. She often comes across as confrontational or overly critical as a result. Despite her annoyance with being assigned a subordinate position in Grey Gate by Omar, she is devoted to her brother, and is concerned that he is not adjusting to his new form.

Master Sergeant Jesse John Ross heads Red Rampart, the military operations wing of Black Fortress, and personally manages the company's battlefield actions as well as training and screening new recruits. An ex-Coalition Psi-Stalker from Lone Star with the Stetson and the drawl to prove it, Ross is rarely seen without the company of his two loyal Dog Boys, Barb (a female Labrador Retriever) and Bree (a female Boston Terrier). Though neither are legally Ross' property in Serendipity, both are extremely subservient to him, and always refer to him as "Master" -- a fact which disturbs many (particularly Serendipity's free mutant animal population), and which Ross relishes.

Ross is perhaps overly fond of food and drink -- things which he barely requires to survive, yet indulges in regularly. He is a paunchy, heavy-set man, something that is highly out of the ordinary for a Psi-Stalker, but has the lightning reflexes, chalk-white skin and pointed ears common to all his kind. A deeply unpleasant individual who finds fulfillment only in violence and excess, and disdains those he perceives as weak, Ross somehow manages to keep his brutal drives and vices in check when in Omar's presence, maintaining a disciplined veneer around him.

Technical Sergeant Kanuka Kladivo is the Operator in charge of The Keep, as Black Fortress' garage and supply division is known. A native of Ishpeming who relocated to Serendipity several years ago and was only recently hired by Black Fortress, Kladivo prefers Northern Gun technology, regularly (and loudly) reminding her superiors that the Coalition surplus that comprises over half of their armaments is "shabby Chi-Town shit". She does her best to keep everything in working order, but isn't above declaring something "unfixable" and procuring a non-CS-manufactured substitute. Kladivo is uncomfortable with Quinn -- especially her research into the supernatural -- but for once hasn't openly voiced her opinion thus far.

Boisterous and brash, the Technical Sergeant of Black Fortress is not an unattractive woman, although she seems built for power rather than grace. She has shoulder-length, reddish-brown hair which is generally kept pulled back under a baseball cap, and stunning, piercing blue eyes (not natural, but bionic implants). Kladivo is a mutoid with several redundant internal organs and an anomalous brain structure, a fact of which she is thus far unaware. She is also an alcoholic, yet insists that she "can control it".

Friday, July 18, 2014

City-States of the North Cascades Combine, Part 5: Other Settlements and Hazards

17.06.2014 by Beaver-Skin
Being a Series Outlining the Members of the Post-Apocalyptic Pacific Northwest's Preeminent Political Power, Part the Fifth:

(The following is a sampling of known settlements and hazardous locales in the greater Cascadian region.)

Ape Canyon and the surrounding volcanic slopes of Mount St. Helens are home to tribes of Sasquatch. Those that have chosen to remain in the canyons and caves, rather than joining the Sealth Chieftaincy, are a reclusive and dour people. They typically avoid contact with visitors, but will drive out those that outstay their welcome.

Devil's Lake, located on what was once the coast of Oregon, is infested with particularly troublesome -- some would say uncharacteristically hostile -- faerie folk that torment anyone foolish enough to dare enter their realm. Rumors persist that they are guarding some sort of invaluable treasure.

The Ochoco Conjunction is an unusual ley line nexus located roughly 20 miles to the northeast of the Barony of New Bizantium. It is unusual in that it is often inactive -- practically nonexistent -- but sputters to life at apparently random intervals. When inactive, the nexus is virtually bereft of psychic energy, undetectable to any but the most sensitive. When active, the nexus always opens a rift, and always to the same dimension: the fantastical world of Palladium. (However, the rift seems to connect to different points on the Palladium world each time it opens.)

The Olympic Rainforests have been colonized by an unknown, technologically advanced race of D-Bees that appear to be using the region as a sort of greenhouse for bizarre, off-world plant species, which apparently can be grown only in a temperate rainforest ecosystem. Very few individuals have interacted with these D-Bees and lived to tell the tale. They are said to be heavily armed and uniformly aggressive, and are thought by some to have some sort of connection to the Splugorth. It has been suggested that their entire operation may be part of an interdimensional, Megaversal drug trade.

The Red Shoulders Horde, a large Simvan tribe, herd dinosaurs and other creatures throughout the Cascades region. Their herds are comprised primarily of grazing animals, such as small ornithopods, which are sold to various Cascades settlements for slaughter or as beasts of burden. The Red Shoulders are considered to be relatively peaceful (for Simvan), but they occasionally raid travelers when they come across them, making sure not to leave any survivors lest they inform potential customers.

Smithville. (Former population: 7,000.) Located in the far northern reaches of the Cascades, in what once was British Columbia, the reclusive settlement of Smithville magically contacted the NCC member state of Weirminster almost immediately after the Combine's formation, practically begging to be accepted into the organization. When King Oswald sent his envoys to Smithville via TW biplane, they found it obliterated -- every single structure completely reduced to ash, with no survivors anywhere in sight. Smithville had a reputation as an out-of-the-way but politically stable and well-protected town. Its ruling Smith family were viewed as somewhat backward and xenophobic, but fair to their citizens. What happened to Smithville is a mystery, and the town's destruction has been kept a secret from most of the NCC's general populace thus far.

Triune Junction. (Population: 1,000.)  A rough-and-tumble place located in what was once southeastern Idaho. Triune Junction serves as a crossroads between the Pacific Northwest proper and neighboring territories, including the Pecos Empire and tribal lands of the Rockies, and is generally regarded as more of a checkpoint or trading post than a full-blown settlement. Under the watchful eye of Boss Hewitt Greene, Triune Junction caters to the tastes of its often rambunctious clientele, with a surprising array of services readily available despite the town's small size. Notable among its businesses (in addition to the expected saloon and gambling house) are a fully operational Body Fixer/Cyber-Doc medical clinic and Operator workshop. Triune Junction is reputed to be the only place for miles around that is capable of Crazy and Juicer conversions.

Ulterior City. Recently, wild stories of "living robots" that have claimed a ruined city somewhere in the Canadian Cascades have begun to circulate. The story says that a group of adventuring mercenaries stumbled across this so-called "Ulterior City" while exploring some ruins, when they were accosted by machines that "talked and acted like people". The mercs' leader, a Glitter Boy pilot, was supposedly challenged to a duel by a robot "General", who told the pilot that he and his "army" would pledge their service to the young human if bested. The story goes on to say that this mechanical General was impervious to harm, and destroyed the pilot and his mecha in seconds, but let the rest of the mercenaries go in peace. Whether there is a nugget of truth to this tall tale, which grows wilder with each retelling, is unknown, but the Mount Hood Banate seems interested in finding out.

Friday, July 11, 2014

City-States of the North Cascades Combine, Part 4: The Sealth Chieftaincy and the Cougar Mountain Holdfast

Being a Series Outlining the Members of the Post-Apocalyptic Pacific Northwest's Preeminent Political Power, Part the Fourth:

The Sealth Chieftaincy. (Population: 20,000.) A collection of small settlements rather than a single city, the Sealth Chieftaincy was itself a multi-member polity when it became the latest state to join the North Cascades Combine. Located in the Puget Sound region, most of the villages and towns that make up the Chieftaincy operate at a subsistence level, maintaining small farms and fishing the Salish Sea that they surround. The Sealth Chieftaincy emphasizes an "anti-invasive" policy, meaning that they work to preserve native (non-extradimensional) species and expel or eradicate all others. As a result, the population is almost exclusively human, though not necessarily of Native American descent. Exceptions are made for the small groups of Sasquatch that live in the area, who are seen as a returned "lost tribe" and native species. This emphasis on nature should not be interpreted as an indication that the Seatlh people are low-tech -- their towns are small, but fairly modern, if not especially heavily protected. Though the Sealth communities are nominally each overseen by a chief, each of whom votes on important issues in a Chieftains' Council, the real power rests with the operators of the Vancouver Island fisheries.

In recent months, a new, invasive predatory species of aquatic invertebrate has begun to appear in the fisheries, gorging themselves on salmon and other important stock. These "serpent eels", as they are nicknamed, are relatively easy to kill but are a persistent problem. Soon after the fisheries began concentrated efforts to exterminate the serpent eels, huge flying creatures, dubbed "ramjets" after their habit of crashing into Sealth defenses at high speed, began to attack the fisheries. The ramjets were largely immune to conventional weaponry, and the Chieftaincy lacked the firepower to deal with their attacks. It is this new threat that has forced the Sealth Chieftaincy to apply for NCC membership, which was ratified only after the chiefs agreed to allow Pilots from the Mount Hood Banate to begin excavating and exploring the ruins of Seattle, Tacoma, Vancouver, and other previously off-limits ruins in search of lost technologies -- a move which the chiefs' Shamans and Mystic advisors have warned will have grave consequences.

The Cougar Mountain Holdfast. (Population: 2,000.) A primarily subterranean community built in what was evidently some sort of underground military installation during the Age of Man, located in the Issaquah Alps. Cougar Mountain is contested territory -- the Sealth Chieftaincy argues that the highlands region is part of the Puget Sound area and thus within their lands, but Kaaltong Sluntch, a gigantes who proclaimed herself "Warrior Queen of Cougar Mountain" over a decade ago, refutes that claim, insisting that "the spineless fish-eaters and their stinking man-animal friends" have yet to defeat her, and that she and her subjects will remain in their "Holdfast" until driven out. Sealth counters that Queen Sluntch and her followers, most of whom are D-Bees and mutoids, have survived by raiding their towns, poaching their hunting grounds, and pillaging their lands. The Warrior Queen has verbally requested membership in the North Cascade Combine for reasons that are not entirely clear. She has offered the NCC access to a supposed "vast arsenal" of pre-Rifts technology if they will accept Cougar Mountain and expel the Sealth Chieftaincy, whom Queen Sluntch insists somehow summoned the so-called "ramjet" monsters to destroy her and her people. Thus far, this request has not been formally considered, but Ban Hathli of Mount Hood has pushed for Queen Sluntch's bid to be taken seriously, which has her counterparts from the other member states wondering if there is some truth to the giant's wild claims about the contents of the Cougar Mountain base. But if the mountain is full of relic weapons, why haven't the Holdfast's raiders used them in their attacks?

Friday, July 4, 2014

City-States of the North Cascades Combine, Part 3: The Mount Hood Banate

Being a Series Outlining the Members of the Post-Apocalyptic Pacific Northwest's Preeminent Political Power, Part the Third:

The Mount Hood Banate. (Population: 25,000.) Atop this active volcano rests an enormous, geothermal-powered military base and weapons factory constructed from a rift-disrupted spaceship. Over the last decade, the now stranded crew have retrofitted their craft into a combination of fortress and factory which they call Tharna Ulthesse in their native language. Their neighbors, however, simply refer to the base as "Mount Hood" or "Pilot Mountain".

The exact nature of these former soldiers is unclear. They are fully human in appearance, but with some interesting deviations from the norm. They are typically left-handed, and careful examination reveals that their internal organs are in situs inversus; that is, they are located on the opposite side of the body than they would be in a typical human being (with the heart on the right, liver on the left, etc.). Additionally, though there seem to be multiple ethnicities among them, many have combinations of hair, skin, eye color, and other characteristics not seen on Rifts Earth prior to their arrival. Magic and psionics were apparently previously unknown to them, though a majority of them have a least a few cybernetic implants or bionics, which are often intricately crafted, even beautiful. (Indeed, some are known to have implants that are entirely cosmetic.) Their language has thus far proven completely unrecognizable to any inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest, as has their culture and religion. They are familiar with the planet's geography, though their detailed maps show several major differences -- Atlantis, for example, is absent from their charts.

That these people originated on a highly divergent parallel Earth seems likely. As is often the case, their arrival on Rifts Earth was an accident. Apparently, in their reality, much of the Earth had been conquered by an invading alien race, and their ship, the Ulthes, was part of an effort to reclaim the planet. Their enemy used an unknown weapon against the expeditionary fleet, which evidently snatched the Ulthes, a mobile base intended to be to planted on the Earth's surface as a sort of staging ground, from orbit (and from their universe entirely). The rift from which their spaceship-base emerged was many miles away from Mount Hood. Disoriented and confused, the Pilots attempted to leave Rifts Earth entirely, but the Ulthes was badly damaged by the orbital satellites and debris field enveloping the planet (something of which they were unaware). They managed to steer their massive craft back to the surface, selecting Mount Hood as the best location for them to regroup, since they would be able to tap into its magma chamber for their energy needs.

The crew found themselves stranded in a familiar world that was nevertheless beyond their understanding: a world where their language was unknown, aliens lived alongside humans, regular attacks by nightmarish creatures were commonplace, and magic, an impossibility, was real. Perhaps understandably, the Pilots reacted to the inhabitants of the region with belligerence for several years after their semi-controlled crash landing. Early offensives led against the often-lawless local settlements in an overzealous attempt to "secure the area" and obtain food and basic supplies quickly degenerated into pointless aggression perpetrated by frustrated (and, ultimately, frightened) soldiers who had lost their purpose. Those that lived in the area surrounding Mount Hood were likewise terrified of the sudden appearance of strange-looking mecha, piloted by hostile people that looked human, yet unfamiliar, and shouted at them in an incomprehensible language.

Eventually, the Pilots, as they came to be known, started encountering determined resistance to their assaults, particularly from Weirminster and the Barony of New Bizantium, and even began to lose men and mecha in these military engagements. Soon afterwards, an officer named Hathli managed to convince many of her comrades that their leader, Sevna, had been rendered mentally unstable and unfit for command, and relieved him of duty after a brief and bloody coup. Hathli informed her troops that they were not going to be returning home without aid, and that they would concentrate on building alliances with their neighbors in the hope of doing so in the future. She declared herself Ban (military governor) of Mount Hood and the region around it, and arranged for a meeting with the representatives of the adjacent city-states. With the aid of a Tongues spell cast by a Weirminsterian Techno-Wizard, her overtures of peace were accepted, and the Northern Cascades Combine, an organization that had originally been proposed to defend the city-states of the Pacific Northwest against the Pilots, was officially formed.

In joining the NCC, the Mount Hood Banate (as it is now officially known) agreed to supply its neighbors with aid and weaponry, an obligation which it has begun to fill in recent months. Under the direction of Ban Hathli, the factory portion of the base has been named "Ulthesse Mechatronics" and has started to provide jobs and training to a select few non-Pilots, most of whom are humans that have chosen to live and work among their extradimensional cousins and communicate with them via Weirminster-manufactured TW translation devices. These men and women live in a swiftly expanding shantytown set up outside of Tharna Ulthesse proper, and are derisively known as "Hood Rats" by those who still hold a grudge against the Pilots. (It is widely believed by their neighbors that Mount Hood was allowed into the NCC as a member state only because the others were either afraid of further conflict, or wanted access to their advanced armaments. Many Pilots, likewise, have not warmed to the idea of "settling down" on Rifts Earth.)

Ulthesse Mechatronics vehicles are large and somewhat ungainly in appearance, but their use of lightweight ceramic armor, supplemented by high-powered force fields, means that they are as agile as any war machines on Rifts Earth. In fact, most UM mecha, even the largest, are capable of short-term powered flight. The "reporting names" the feudalistic Barony of New Bizantium gave these war machines during their conflict with the Pilots have stuck, meaning that most of them have unusual nicknames like "Mantyger", "Yale", "Basilisk", or "Zilant", all derived from fantastical or heraldic beasts. Though they are not mandated to do so by the terms of their NCC membership, Ulthesse Mechatronics is also considering mass-producing and distributing their unique cybernetic implants and bionics.

Friday, June 27, 2014

City-States of the North Cascades Combine, Part 2: The Barony of New Bizantium

Being a Series Outlining the Members of the Post-Apocalyptic Pacific Northwest's Preeminent Political Power, Part the Second:

The Barony of New Bizantium. (Population: 80,000.) A large walled city built from the ruins of both the pre-Rifts city of Bend and another settlement called Fulcrum (a border town originally located on the edge of the Palladium Fantasy RPG world's Old Kingdom and the Western Empire), which was dimensionally shifted on top of / into Bend during the apocalypse. A sporadically active rift is located roughly 20 miles east of the city, which when open seems "fixed" to the Palladium world. As a result, over half of the Barony's populace is descended from extradimensional refugees from the Palladium world, many of whom are non-humans. A large percentage of those citizens that do not trace their origins back to Palladium are human mutoids, psychics, practitioners of magic, or other D-Bees. 

Though a far cry from the oppressive, segregated arcologies and "Burbs" of the Coalition States, old prejudices die hard, and some social stratification exists. The Barony's large so-called "subhuman" community, comprised primarily of goblins and orcs, inhabits the Undercity, a cramped, dangerous, yet lively collection of subterranean hovels constructed in the labyrinthine lava tube network that runs beneath what once was Bend. The upper rungs of the Barony's societal ladder, on the other hand, are largely occupied by human families of extradimensional (specifically, Western Empire) descent, who live in the city's pristine Imperial Quarter, better known as Hightown. The most prominent of Hightown's families, the Serris clan, claim a kinship to the Imperial throne and invariably possess psionic abilities; perhaps because of their prestige, psychics have traditionally been held in higher regard than other citizens. 

The early history of the Barony, like much of what happened in the dark ages immediately following the apocalypse, is vague. It was apparently founded by a human of noble origins -- a Palladin or Cyber-Knight, according to some stories -- who hailed from the isles of Bizantium on Palladium; hence the Barony's name. This human's identity is lost to the ages, erased by the legacy of the Baron Chulgrem Shran, a ruthless and paranoid kobold who deposed the city's founder, instituted the worship of a Palladium death goddess named Tolmet as the state religion, and, with the aid of a police force that included evil Priests and pact-bound Witches in its ranks, ruled with an iron fist for more than a century. 

Shran died slightly over one year ago with no heir. His former right-hand man and bodyguard, a Mind Melter named Park Dae-sung, has ascended to the position of Baron. (Unbeknownst to the general citizenry of the Barony, Shran was in fact assassinated by Park.) Park, formerly one of the Coalition State of Iron Heart's most wanted criminals, escaped his native land, made his way to the Barony, and married a Serris clan woman roughly twenty-five years ago. Since assuming his title, the new Baron has joined his city-state to the North Cascades Combine, outlawed the Church Tolmeti, and created a specially equipped task force called ADWAT (Anti-Demon Weapons And Tactics), ostensibly to round up and combat remaining Tolmetian elements. (In reality, the ADWAT operatives seek out and destroy anyone and anything the new Baron sees as a potential threat -- especially practitioners of magic, who are usually "exposed" as Tolmet-worshippers before being executed.)

Baron Parkinson is seen as a harsh but comparatively reasonable and fair ruler by his counterparts in the NCC, though many Bizantines, the Imperial Quarter's families among them, resent his purge of the Church Tolmeti. The Serris clan, in particular, have little love for the new Baron, finding the sudden "disappearance" of Parkinson's wife, Artha Serris, shortly before his ascent to power deeply troubling.

The Barony of New Bizantium's small but relatively powerful military force doubles as law enforcement, and includes well-trained infantry and pilots. The Barony maintains an assortment of weapons, vehicles and power armor acquired from various North American manufacturers -- Northern Gun and Bandito Arms foremost among them, with shipments of Mount Hood armaments beginning to arrive. Citizens with psionic powers are encouraged to join the military police. Baron Park regards most spellcasters with mistrust, seeing little distinction between them and the Priests and Witches his operatives hunt down, but is willing to allow the use of magic weapons as long as their wielders are loyal to him. Leaders of elite units, especially ADWAT operatives, are therefore often equipped with magical items crafted by alchemists in the Palladium tradition (rather than products of Techno-Wizardry). 

Friday, June 20, 2014

City-States of the North Cascades Combine, Part 1: The Kingdom of Weirminster

Being a Series Outlining the Members of the Post-Apocalyptic Pacific Northwest's Preeminent Political Power, Part the First:

The Kingdom of Weirminster. (Population: 65,000.) A vast wooden dam-city built on the north Willamette River, with associated settlements covering the ruins of Portland, Lake Oswego, and (appropriately enough) Beaverton. A significant percentage of Weirminster's populace -- including the Gomperses, its ruling family -- consists of mutant beavers of uncertain origin and with varying levels of humanoid characteristics. (There is also a sizable, somewhat disadvantaged community of mutant otters of similarly unclear pedigree.) The beavers seem to have a knack for Techno-Wizardry, particularly when working with the timber of the wychwood, a type of giant magical tree that grows in the Willamette Valley.

The dam-city of Weirminster proper is a truly immense work of dizzying ingenuity, made almost entirely of wychwood lumber. Weirminster's small military fields similarly innovative war machines, including a variety of mecha, tanks, fan-powered patrol boats, and propellor-driven flying craft, many of which are handcrafted from (or fueled by) this magically-strengthened and enhanced timber. The inner workings of Weirminster-designed vehicles are incredibly complex, and historically most of them required multiple pilots, at least one of which had to be a Techno-Wizard. Recently, Weirminster has begun receiving a small amount of more conventional, nuclear-powered battle vehicles from Mount Hood in the hopes of increasing the city-state's military potential.

Weirminster, perhaps predictably, has an overall reputation as an industrious and harmonious community, though its ruler, King Oswald of Gompers, is a notoriously prickly and cantankerous individual. Weirminster was nevertheless the first city-state to join the North Cascades Combine (NCC) after its formation, as King Oswald's air force has shot down more than one Coalition long-range reconnaissance aircraft in the past several years. Like his neighbors to the Southeast, the Barony of New Bizantium, Oswald fears an eventual full-scale conflict with Chi-Town. Even though Oswald harbors distrust for many of his neighbors -- both Mount Hood and the Barony included -- he is willing to set those concerns aside for the moment.

The King's only child, Princess June, is young, pretty (if one is willing to overlook some castoroid features) and available. She is widely considered one of the region's most eligible bachelorettes, though she has declined the suitors her father has championed. Rumor has it that the Princess is a romantic, and is holding out for a hero.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Blowuppability II: The Explodening

I'm back! Let's return to the subject of blowing up giant robots and speeding up combat in Rifts (and other Palladium games), shall we?

Earlier, I complained that in Rifts, power armor, robots, and other big armored things take too long to kill. I was thinking the other day that Dungeons & Dragons 4E had a similar problem, in that combat simply took forever, especially when fighting a big "boss" monster with tons of hit points. I didn't come here today to trash D&D 4E -- in fact, if you look back at some of the earliest posts on this very blog, you'll find some 4E content. But I will say that once we wrapped up our 4E campaign, it was the prospect of more lengthy combats that put the game on permanent hiatus for my group.

The "D&D in all but name" roleplaying game 13th Age isn't always my cup of tea, but it does some interesting things with its 4E-esque system. One of the best (and most easily stolen) ideas is the Escalation Die. The idea is basically that you put a big D6 on the table after the first combat round, with the "1" facing up, and turn it to the next highest number each round after that. The number that is facing up is added to attack rolls (and maybe damage, I can't remember). Oh, and there are some special abilities that are only triggered when the Escalation Die reaches a certain number, too.

I like this idea. It's simple and fun. Just taking it and plopping it into the Palladium system would be easy enough, but I feel like that wouldn't make a big enough difference. For one thing, most characters already have a pretty easy time hitting their opponents -- it's just that the opponents have a good chance of blocking or avoiding the attack with a parry or dodge. The problem isn't hitting stuff as much as making it fall down.

So, I propose making the Palladium Escalation Die a D10, and having it add strictly to damage. Also, the value on the die should be multiplied by 10, so you do +10 damage on the second round, +20 on the third, etc. (This means that those "tens place" percentile dice would work well.) I'm not sure what to do if your fight takes more than 10 combat rounds (where you're shelling out 100 extra damage on a successful attack). I'd advocate either keeping it at +100 until the fight ends or continuing to escalate (time to break out the D30?) because let's face it, by that point, with the number of attacks Rifts characters have, you will probably want that fight to be over ASAP.

Still pretty simple, right? I feel like this might speed combat up in a straightforward, easy-to-handle way, and might even bring out more of the sense of mayhem and "death, destruction, or worse" that I want from Rifts. I hope I will get a chance to try it out sometime.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Brain Scraper Death Dive

So, real life has been intruding on my (and my friends') ability to play Rifts lately. This is a familiar story, I suspect, to most people that are into RPGs these days, so I won't dwell on it. Suffice it to say that with any luck, we'll get to play a second session soon.

However, I did hang out with a good friend who happens to be the GM of that Rifts campaign last weekend. Among the topics discussed:

Organic Circuitry. One of the things that has recently bugged me about Rifts is the juxtaposition of ultra-high-tech with a "points of light" infrastructure (or lack thereof). If you assume that there's something like advanced 3-D printing in use, those fiefdoms' ability to manufacture precision technology is a little bit easier to swallow. Still, you'd need access to rare earth minerals for some technology, which I previously said was difficult to imagine in a world without intercontinental shipping. But my buddy suggested something that is probably completely pseudoscientific, but still sounds reasonable enough for me to suspend my disbelief: organic circuitry. Even before the apocalypse happened, scientists had apparently mastered cybernetics, bionics, genetic manipulation, and cloning. They had even learned to artificially induce psionic abilities with the use of implanted technology. So maybe rather than using the rare earth-dependent processors (shut up, I don't know what this stuff is really called) we use today, Rifts Earth's engineers rely on ones made of organic materials. I'm not suggesting that all of the high-tech stuff in Rifts is "bio-tech" in the sense that the term is often used in popular science fiction -- it's not really "alive" -- just that it's organic in nature. (Though if you wanted to posit that this bio-circuitry creates a subtle man-machine interface effect like the alien plant-derived "protoculture" fuel source in Robotech, explaining why your character can use her physical skills and hand-to-hand training when piloting mecha, I wouldn't object.)

Ethnicity and Race. To his credit, Siembieda rarely mentions these things in Rifts publications. There's an offhand reference to some parts of the Chi-Town 'Burbs being less ethnically diverse than others, but that's about it, to my knowledge. But would the concepts of race and ethnicity even really hold much meaning to people in this setting? It's roughly 400 years in the future, and there's been an apocalypse that has destroyed virtually every nation-state in existence. North America has been (more or less) cut off from the rest of the planet for centuries. I like to think that survival probably trumped prejudice in the wake of the Coming of the Rifts (at least, until anti-psychic, anti-magic, and anti-mutoid prejudice emerged). Even the fascist Coalition would probably encourage all humans to recognize each other as kin when faced with literal inhuman monsters from other worlds running around. In North America, at least, racial distinctions would probably have largely broken down by the time in which the original core rulebook is set. There might even be a distinctive North American appearance that is effectively -- though I strongly dislike this term -- a "mixed-race" look. To me it seems likely that the "American" language described in the rules isn't strictly the American English we speak today, but a version that incorporates other tongues.

Old Time Religion. This actually isn't a topic we covered during our weekend rambling, but it's been on my mind lately nonetheless. Real-world religions, as far as I know, are practically never mentioned in Rifts products (likely an extension of the company's aversion to any potential controversy). Still, I've always wondered what religions might be practiced in the future post-apocalyptic world of Rifts Earth. Christianity, presumably, would still be around, but would likely have taken on a somewhat medieval character, considering the quasi-feudal state of affairs in much of North America and the fact that most people are illiterate. Would Islam have spread or shrank? (The Hajj would be a literal impossibility for the faithful.) Judaism, I'm sure, would survive and recover, as always. Religions that had their origins in Asia, like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism would possibly be more widespread. Certainly new religions, including fantastical ones based on the worship of demons, dragons, and the like, would have sprung up, and old, near-forgotten ones would begin to be reinstated with the return of ancient gods. Would new faiths that emerged in the time between our present and the Coming of the Rifts have managed to survive the apocalypse? And what of the Coalition States, who actively enforce illiteracy and obedience to the Imperial family? Would there be a North Korea-esque state of affairs, with an official "state philosophy" based around a pro-Prosek hagiography? I could easily see them encouraging a quasi-deified personality cult of "Prosekism", and closely monitoring other faiths, even censuring them for skirting too closely to "encouraging the spread of occultism".

Heavy stuff? Pointless blather? Offensive drivel? You decide.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Beyond "Mercs & Mages": Part 2

Last week, I discussed a style of campaign that was suggested in the original Rifts rulebook, but has been largely ignored since: one based around seeking knowledge forbidden by the Coalition. There are plenty of other opportunities that don't involve giant robots duking it out with dragons, though. Here are a few more that are implied by the material presented in that book:

Exploration and Survival. Most of North America -- heck, the entirety of Rifts Earth -- is supposed to be trackless wilderness, filled with dangerous entities from other worlds. O.C.C.s like the Wilderness Scout, Vagabond, and even Warlock are tailor-made for a campaign in which the players are trying to help civilization regain a foothold... or stop it from re-despoiling nature.

Coalition Military. I've never really seen the appeal of roleplaying a futuristic Illinois Nazi, but there's certainly plenty of Coalition material (and O.C.C.s) to work with, especially if you've got players that are willing to question orders. You could do much worse than to read Stabilizing Rifts' thoughts on how one might run a cerebral Coalition-based campaign.

Fighting Crime In a Future Time. Alternately, a campaign focused on the law enforcement wing of the Coalition military could be interesting. Again, Coalition O.C.C.s (including sanctioned Psi-Stalkers and Dog Boys) would be the ones to go with. A police procedural set in Chi-Town -- or, even more tantalizingly, the 'Burbs, where things are bit wilder -- sounds like it has potential to me.

Smash the System. The Coalition are easy to hate. Playing anti-Coalition ideologues and agitators could be either be straightforward violent fun (blow up the Nazis!), or (if one was so inclined) a rumination on themes of surveillance, resistance, patriotism, and terrorism. (Wait, can you do that with Rifts?) You could also do a "we're the badguys" campaign and play the evil psychics, sorcerers and demons the Coalition insist are hiding in every corner. Either way.

Repo Man Is Always Intense. These are by no means the only possibilities for non-"blow badguys up for money" campaigns. On Google+, Benjamin Baugh recently pitched me an idea he called Hard Repo, which puts all of my half-baked ideas to shame:

Dig it. There's room in Rifts to run all kinds of lowlife crime shit. Heists, scams, con-games, etc. You can't put three exclamation marks after shit like that, so it doesn't get much attention in the rules. But there's room for all kinds of shenanigans. 

One of my great abortive games which never lived was Hard Repo. Repossessing robot vehicles, runeswords, mortgaged souls, cybernetics etc. It's the worst job in the whole world. 

I have a feeling Benjamin intended Hard Repo to be somewhat parodic, but I love the concept.  The big question would be "if we're repo men, who is hiring us to repossess this stuff?" You could have the player characters be unaffiliated specialists in re-acquiring goods that hire themselves out to anybody that can pay, but that skirts a little too closely to the standard "Mercs & Mages" setup. It would probably be more interesting to put them in the employ of the Black Market (a concept that was originally quite sketchy, but has recently been fleshed out). Or, if you were interested in a more exotic angle, the player characters could be working for one of the various Phase World-based factions (the arms-dealing Naruni, perhaps?) or even the most notorious merchants in the Megaverse: the Splugorth. An campaign idea like this almost writes itself, and it provides opportunities for interaction with practically every corner of the Megaverse, not just the starting playground of North America.

The point is that the Rifts setting provides the raw materials for adventures that are potentially much more interesting than the typical "wandering do-gooders/soldiers of fortune" template that is the default mode of play for so many roleplaying games. I hope somebody out there is using them.

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 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.