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.

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