Saturday, January 25, 2014

Playing a Magic-User in RIFTS, Part 1: The Basics

This week, and for the next few weeks, I'm going to talk about the use of magic in RIFTS.

First, get yourself a copy of the core rulebook--either version will do--and read the introduction about why most people aren't magic-users. Review that until it sticks. Second, be ready to modify parts of that introduction's key points in light of the many systems of magic used in the various settings in RIFTS. Third, be ready to modify that further because I'm going to make some corrective changes to some forms of magic in the game due a conflict in how the setting says that a thing works versus how the rules say that it works. Finally, review this previous post on the matter. That said, let's get on with things.

Disclaimer: I'm borrowing "magic-user" from old D&D editions and using it as the same catch-all category that Gary and Dave did back in the day. I am not using this term to refer to any specific character class, be it in RIFTS or any other tabletop role-playing game. When I'm referring to a specific Occupation in the game, I will do so. I'm also appropriating "mana" for Potential Psychic Energy and "mote" for discrete units thereof, as the official nomenclature is both incompetent and clumsy.

The practice of magic revolves around the gathering of supernatural power--"mana", taken from the Hawaiian traditions for this term--and then using it to produce specific effects. The big differences in the many forms of magic-use in RIFTS often fall in the source of said power, how it is gathered, how it is then used, and what effects this system produces. (The Ley-Line Walker is not the Techno-Wizard is not the Tattoo Master.) However, many of these magic-use systems do follow general patterns and therefore can be categorized by those general patterns. Furthermore, there is some level by which the practice of magic is melded with either a mundane pursuit (usually martial arts or infiltration techniques) or is itself a blended magic system that takes up two heretofore unrelated-but-compatible system and synthesizes them into a greater whole.

The first pattern of magic-use systems revolve around the user becoming the client to a supernatural patron, wherein the user receives supernatural power and some idea on how to use it from his patron in return for becoming friendly to or an agent of the patron. This can be in the form of servitude, of a bargain, or an investment by the patron unto the client at the former's discretion. This is most literally the case for the Witch, Priest, Shaman, and the various Magi that serve the Lords of Magic, and is applicable to the Warlock (a name that does not fit this Occupation) as well as (when the option is employed) the Shifter.

The second pattern of magic-use systems revolve around the user learning his Occupation in the form of a craft, wherein even the most adapt users do not have full understanding of what their magic is and how it actually works. The Druid occupations, by and large, fall into this format. Similar to this are those whose magic-use stems from intuitive breakthroughs, such as the Mystic and its variations. For some, this is a transitional stage and will in time conform to the third pattern or revert to the first one. For others (such as the Mystic) the very nature of how they came into their magic usage is not amenable to any such transition; their progression, development, and growth depends on continuing their non-linear mental and spiritual development. Some of the more supernatural martial arts systems fit this pattern, melding the practice of magic with prowess at arms as part of a synthetic whole. (For what it's worth, psychics fit here also.)

The third pattern of magic-use systems revolve around the academic, systematic, and logical inquiry--scientific, for all intents and purposes--into how supernatural phenomena work. This is your Ley-Line Walker, Shifter (when not dealing in links to supernatural powers), Wizard, Summoner, Diabolist, and especially the Techno-Wizard and Alchemist as well as all of their variants. These scholars of the arcane, occult, and supernatural are the ones who do the most (in the aggregate) to be like Prometheus and bring the power of magic from the supernatural world down to the mortal world and that is why they are considered so dangerous by both manaphobes (such as the Coalition States) as well as by supernatural-dominant entities (such as many of the human-hating species that frequent Atlantis) because the use of magic is one of the few ways that mortals and immortals can contend on equal footing.

Future posts will get into specific magic-use systems.

Whatever system your character uses, there are some constants. First, your character must accept the validity of his system's paradigm; this is what anchors his belief in his ability to use magic. For you, as a player, this means that you are well-served in getting familiar with what that paradigm is and what it means to your character; this will constrain your character's conception of what is possible with his magic, even if he witnesses some other use of magic that shows him what others can do. Second, your character must have sufficient mundane capabilities that he is not useless outside of using magic because there are times when magic alone is not sufficient or when using magic is a liability; to operate in such circumstances your character must have knowledge skills, analysis skills, proficiencies with unarmed combat and useful weapons, can handle himself if lost and alone for a time, and so on. Most of these will be acquired as part of your character's training as a magic-user, and many that you may opt to take when you create this character will be readily available and obviously viable. (I suggest picking up at least one additional language.) Third, your character is--by virtue of becoming a magic-user--always straddling two worlds: the ordinary, everyday world of mortal existence and the extraordinary, fantastic realm of the supernatural and immortal. This cannot help but to permanently shape and change his perspective on everything because he can do so much that most people cannot.

For the one running a campaign with magic-users as player-characters, not only do you need to keep all of this in mind when putting together your specific environment, but you need to think beforehand how the magical societies that produce these magic-users interact with your environment--with the mundane world, with the supernatural world, with each other, etc.--just as much as you would for political powerhouses like the Coalition States. (I will go into this in some depth later on, using Tolkeen as an example.) It can be a daunting task when you sit down and really think through the matter, but it's not as difficult as it seems; perfectly ordinary people can handle this just fine with some care and a good habit for taking and using notes. However, mastering the basics behind all use of magic ensures that you can focus your mind and energy on the higher-order issues and not on the load-bearing pillars holding all of this up. Do that, and then worry about how the Brony Warrior Society gets along with the Magical Girl Club.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Playing a Coalition Campaign: What You're Getting Into (Part 2)

Last week I wrote about playing from the perspective of common Coalition subjects. This week, I write about playing from the perspective of the oligarchy that rules the Coalition States.

The Coalition States' leadership consists of an oligarchy derived from the American end of the Anglo-American Establishment that dominated pre-Rifts world political and economic influence world-wide. This group consisted of a handful of core families (extensively intermarried, within the North American end of the axis as well as across the Atlantic with their British and Continental European counterparts) and a ring of affiliated families engaged in patron-client relationships. After the Coming of the Rifts, protocols introduced when nuclear warfare emerged in the wake of the Second World War ensured that a critical mass of this oligarchy not only survived this cataclysmic event, but possessed the means to immediate reestablish themselves upon emergence from their bunkers. This they accomplished, and the result is the Coalition States is the result.

If you choose to play one of this social class, then your man has a very different perspective on Mankind and its role in the world- something that won't be on your character sheet. First, from as soon as your man could comprehend his elders (and that could be in utero if he's of the Inner Elite, all of whom are telepaths), your elders showed you that you are part of a superior subspecies of Mankind--an emerging breakaway homo superior--and because of your innate superiority of breeding and genetic fitness you deserve to rule over the rest. They are as children or dogs to you, so act like the father/master that they crave and enjoy the benefits of your paternalistic leadership. The more benevolent are the Father To His Men sort, while the cynical or degenerate sorts tends being like Animal House's villain Neidermeyer or the worthless shitheels of the Imperial High Nobility as seen in the first season of Legend of the Galactic Heroes.

You are an aristocrat in all but name. It is unlikely that either of your parents were not oligarchs, paired up not for love but for the betterment of the oligarchy as a whole (as well as that of your parents' families); if either of your parents were not, it is likely your mother and you are not in any line of inheritance (for the oligarchy most certainly emulates the policies of the SS with regard to procreation). Your career path is planned out even more meticulously than your common man counterpart: you are an officer in the military, and you stay in the military for the whole of your life (and, through the combination of superior medicine, cybernetics, and genetic therapy that can be well over a century). If you're lucky, your elder relatives ensure that your career keeps you away from dead-end jobs or forward positions where your chances of coming home are slim or none, aiming to position you into command posts that end up with your ascension to the High Command. If you somehow earn their ire, you're going to get assigned to all sorts of dead-end posts or suicide positions.

If you want your high-class intrigue, your Game of Thrones with laser and robots, this is your option. You have external enemies, internal rivals, and a population that needs to be kept busy doing the work. If it weren't for the unique power of the Inner Elite, the Coalition's oligarchy would have long ago splintered into warring factions and descended into civil war. Speaking of which...

As I noted above, the Coalition States oligarchy has an Inner and an Outer Elite. If the Outer Elite (comprising the majority of the oligarchy) does the majority of the actual work of reigning and ruling, as aristocrats often do, then the Inner Elite are the royality and other high nobles who actually benefit from all of this and administer it to ensure continued wealth and power. The marker is telepathy; the Inner Elite have it, and the Outer Elite does not. Furthermore, the Inner Elite are continuously linked into a telepathic network--they are, so to speak, online 24/7 and have since conception--and it is this telepathic network that allows this small cadre to utterly dominate so vast a population.

Playing one of these as your man means that you are one of the emerging homo superior, and the odds of you NOT being part of one of these bloodlines is slim to none; you could be an adopted foundling, detected while in utero, and brought into the fold at birth (and otherwise are just like your peers). If the Outer Elite are the majority of the officers and officials, then the Inner Elite moves amongst them as the shadow government (with the exception of the Imperial Family) that keeps them--and, by extension, the rest of Coalition society--in line. (They're based out of the Intelligence sector of the military, which uses the same Inner/Outer structure to shield itself from prying eyes; the Intelligence liason may or may not be one of them and none but other psychics and some magic-users can even tell at all.) Because your man has demonstrable power over his fellow man, your man is very likely to think of the common folk as one would favored pets or livestock and the Outer Elite as children; paternalism, again, is the social norm. However, there are very few of you and you can't be everywhere at once; because you know what you can do, your anxiety over what any enemy could do is far more palpable than it is for any of your subordinates.

The Vanguard: The members of this disavowed Intelligence operation, by and large, are Inner Elite scions who lost the internal argument over the sanctioned use of magic against the inhuman enemy. The families' tell is that they are redheads with green eyes, compared to the Imperial Family and its allies who prefer blond hair and blue eyes; as both otherwise agree on the genocide of all aliens and supernaturals, and so on, and the Vanguard is quite comfortable with being the very deniable asset for Coalition Intelligence and military operations that it currently is, one should not assume any serious animosity between the magic-friendly Inner Elites and those that are not. They co-exist, and cooperate just fine. Yes, they too are all telepaths, and they also recruit other magic-users who are also xenophobic and otherwise support the objective of Earth again being just for Man as a way to keep up numbers and initiate new members to their end of the emerging homo superior breakaway subspecies.

To run any of these subsets means committing to a campaign where you create and sustain an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion, for you are running a political campaign first and foremost. While your players may experience warfare on the frontlines, or counter-terrorism in the rear, or jockeying in the halls of Coalition High Command, you are still overlaying those other environments and their specific demands and circumstances over that of a man born into privilege and accustomed to the benefits and responsibilities--the power and vulnerability--that come with it; he has expectations placed on him, like it or not, and therefore duties both social and formal to handle in addition to any ambitions of his own and those expectations are to take precedence over his own aims and desires lest the punishment fall far beyond his own individual existence. The common men need only worry about themselves; the officers are expected to think bigger, and act accordingly, or at least make a good show of it (until an Inner Elite scion decided to do something about it; good luck lying to a telepath) before others. Some of these oligarchs are cynical gloryhounds, and some of you truly care about Mankind and its future as a free species; most fit somewhere between.

Take some time before you commit to doing this sort of campaign; read around, do a little research, and you will ensure that the players who sign on for this do so ready and able to experience this sort of thing. It's not the sort of play experience that everyone is up for; if it's not for you, that's okay- RIFTS has something for everyone, so look elsewhere to find what you're looking to experience instead.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Playing a Coalition Campaign: What You're Getting Into (Part 1)

The big thing to remember is this: The Coalition States does not have a war machine; the Coalition States is a war machine. Everything about what the Coalition States is, and how it works, revolves around the ability to wage war. Given its stated objective to liberate Earth for Mankind by way of exterminating all things supernatural and alien, complete with an obsessive (and hypocritical) emphasis on genetic purity (because you can't take up the Nazis as a model without becoming eugenicists), this nigh-omnicidal regime has to be a state engaged in permanent total war in order to accomplish those objectives. This has grave consequences for both the population as well as for the oligarchy ruling that population. I'll save the oligarchy's issues for a future post, and focus instead on the population here.

For players, choosing to play a Coalition soldier means that you choose to play a young man (by default, age 15) who grew up in this environment and believes that this life is normal. Your man cannot read at all, is functionally innumerate (counting fingers and toes is not out of line), learned what he knows solely through the hands-on/on-the-job training he received at the hands of his father/trainer (complimented with cybernetic downloading to the brain), completely believes in the authority of the Emperor and therefore of the States' power over him and his, and he does not question the dogma relentlessly hammered into him by the (state-owned and controlled) media. Your man is a True Believer, and he will think and act as the propaganda programmed him to do, even after suffering the trauma that comes with exposure to combat against those same supernatural and alien entities. (The Army Medical Corps ensures this with psychological maintenance, augmented by cybernetic technologies.) Therefore, to play a Coalition soldier is to play a militant adherent to a cult of personality that masquerades as the government of a free--but beleaguered--Mankind (a.k.a. a personality cult operating as a secular religion, like what happened in France from the Revolution through the fall of Napoleon); the lives experienced that one finds in such conditions will be no different from those of common soldiers in other historical totalitarian, authoritarian states.

Your play experience, whether your man is deployed to the front line or enjoys some time in the rear areas, will also be complicated by an atmosphere of anxiety and paranoia. Your man has heard stories for the whole of his life about the deceptive nature of the enemy and the ruinous powers they employ to destroy Mankind, and they are trained to see any intellectual behaviors outside of approved authorities to be signs of witchcraft or other malign presence and must be exterminated immediately. It's a horror experience in the field, a blend of Call of Cthulhu and All Quiet on the Western Front/Platoon, when done right. (When you fuck it up, you get the movie version of Starship Troopers or one of those low-budget movies like Dog Soldiers.)

At home, this shifts to a blend of Orwell's 1984 with Heller's Catch 22; you can't be honest with those who are close to you, or claim to be there to help you, due to their overriding loyalty to the Emperor and official dogma. (Facts and truth are for the oligarchy; everyone else just does what they're told, how they're told, when they're told like the obedient children that the oligarchy wants them to be- or else.) People who slip up disappear, never to be seen again; this is the hint to stay in line at all costs. The only relief that such severe stress as this imposes comes from an environment that does a hell of a lot to give validity to the official propaganda; there really are a lot of hostile entities out there that want to conquer or destroy/devour Mankind and take Earth for themselves, so killing those that get found out is not necessarily the result of self-serving skull-duggery by the oligarchy, and that produces cathartic release that keeps things in check well enough for the oligarchs.

For Game Masters, choosing to run a Coalition-focused campaign means creating and giving substance to that environment. One would be wise to take time to study the historical examples--not just Nazi Germany, and not just popular or easily-gotten materials; read the academic works--starting with Napoleonic France (what some call the ur-Fascist or proto-Fascist state) and going through the history of the European nation-state's emergence. The environment and paradigm that the Coalition States embodies and exploits far more resembles the examples of 19th and 20th Century European authoritarianism, including the totalitarian states, than anything prior to that historical epoch. It also would be wise to read up on the psychology of authoritarianism, of how cults work, and the practical application of mass psychology--the psychology of real-world socio-political power--because a show of that reality gives a great deal of substance to the fictional environment and greatly aides in the players' ability to fully immerse into their man's world (and, therefore, to think and act as they would).

Emphasize the oppressive mental and social environment that is Coalition culture. Conformity, hierarchy, deference to authority and respect for authority, and just enough examples of hostile entities to make Coalition propaganda seem utterly believable to the uncritical and uneducated Coalition population are the key elements to making a Coalition campaign work as intended. For veterans in particular, actual combat can often be seen as a very comforting release from the otherwise everyday stress of their lives; this dysfunction should be commonplace, compelling intervention by the enforcers (Coalition Army officers, usually Medical Corps or Intelligence operatives, who are not only trained in body language and such but also telepaths.) who are a secret counter-intelligence force. Your campaign alternates between terror and horror as dominant moods and themes, coloring everything else that occurs, so prepare yourself accordingly. (Make good, and at times frequent, use of the Horror Factor rules.)

This is not the sort of gameplay experience that everyone wants out of RIFTS, as it emphasizes the fact that the common Coalition soldier is not in control of his life and does not determine his fate. What powerful technologies he possesses and employs does not translate into actual autonomy or freedom; he is a thrall, as he is enthralled, to a dominant malevolent power that has such a powerful and invisible form of mind control on him that he is unable to even conceive that such power exists- let alone that he is under its control. (And no, I don't mean telepathic domination.) This is the experience of a victim in a horror story, or a fool in a tragedy, but certainly not that of a heroic adventurer seeking fame and fortune or that of the hero taking down the Dark Lord. He is one of millions, completely disposable and therefore expendable, and if he endures long enough he'll be forced to confront the reality of his circumstances- and, most likely, accept both it and agree that this is as good as it gets (and therefore continue to go along with it). A merciful Game Master may conclude such a character's life by transforming him into one of the Emperor's Immortals.

There are other sub-settings that those players should be made aware of, and encouraged towards, instead if this does not appeal to them- Game Masters included. As I said above, I will go into how the oligarchy plays next week.