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.