Saturday, February 22, 2014

Playing a Magic-User in RIFTS, Part 5: Those Who Discover Facts

When one thinks of a magic-user in fantasy literature, or its sources, one often thinks of the figure that itself stems from various strands of Western systems of high ceremonial magic and the mythology surrounding them. Of those sources, one pattern that emerges that that the successful and competent practitioners are those who comprehend the reality of how magic works--its fundamental principles, confirmed by repeated experimentation over time and in various places--and then seek to apply that knowledge to create wonders heretofore impossible to achieve in any other way. In short, they are scientists and engineers and the facts that they discover become the basis for new and improved technologies--new spells, rituals, ceremonies, etc.--that others can employ and benefit from. In short, these magic-users are people who--for all intents and purposes--approach magic as just another science.

In the core rulebook we have the Ley-Line Walker, the Shifter, and the Techno-Wizard. Each of these Occupations are expressions of the aforementioned archetype, with different elements emphasized. The Walker focuses on casting spells, the Shifter on ritual magic, and the Techno-Wizard on magic item creation. Yet each one is capable, to some diminished capacity, on doing the others' thing; this is not the mono-maniacal focus that one sees in craft traditions. These Occupations other notable abilities are direct derivatives of their core capacities, sample applications of the principles that are fundamental to that Occupation's discipline as well as indicators of the basis for their body of knowledge.

Magic-users of this sort find a lot in common with Body-Fixers, Cyber-Docs, Rogue Scientists, Rogue Scholars, Operators, and similar mundane scientific and technical Occupations that deal in non-magical science and engineering pursuits as well as professions (such as law) which promote a similar mode of thinking and reasoning in its practitioners. Therefore, playing such a magic-user should involve the player getting familiar with how such people think and behave in their work lives; there is a commonality of thought and behavior for these professionals, even if they exhibit a wide array of behavior in other areas of their lives, so knowing how they think and do will serve you well in maximizing your gameplay experience.

The other thing that magic-users of this sort often do is pursue research. While pure research is good for setting verisimilitude, and Game Masters are wise to pay attention to this both for adventure potential as well as for campaign management, players are advised to focus upon applied research; they should focus on application of discovered principles instead of seeking out new principles, which translates into creating new magic technologies (spells, rituals, items, etc.) and techniques for their use. Creating new technologies is one of the best ways for a player to distinguish his magic-user from all others, so it would be wise to learn what rules exist (or make new ones if not satisfactory) to do just that; remember that these creations are intended to be verified by recreating the process, so having a sound system for doing so is a feature and not a bug.

Your magic-user will need downtime to get the full benefit of his skills and knowledge, and he will need a place to do research and conduct experiments; Game Masters should be friendly to these requirements and accede to players' wanting to establish such things for their magic-users. In particular, the Game Master should work with players to establish what the magic-user needs to do to accomplish the research objectives. As has been the case since 1974, these sorts of magic-users are campaign-drivers in their own right when both players and Game Masters exploit this potential. The other Occupations in the game, and their variants, of this sort show the incredible diversity available for those willing and able to make use of it; I recommend taking the time at and away from the table to make this happen.

Starting next week, I'll move into more specific examples.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Playing a Magic-User in RIFTS, Part 4: Those Who Work Crafts

In the development of magical practice, there is a next step from striking pacts with supernatural entities capable of imbuing power into mortal users. If this persists within a community long enough, that community will inevitably figure out how to replicate some of those powers as a consequence of their innovation over how to use those powers. The subsequent refinement into a systematized practice is much like how early martial art systems came to be, which is why I refer to these types of magic-users as "crafts". This does not mean that they comprehend what those powers really are, or how they work, so we're not talking about a proper application of science and engineering to the use of magic (yet). We're talking about those who figured out, over time, through a simple process of accidental discovery and later refinement into a systematized practice. In short, this is what I call a "craft".

A craft is a system of magical practice wherein the magic-user learns to harness some combination of discovered knowledge and practical application that produces manifest effects in the physical world. The comparison to martial arts traditions is an apt one, and another apt comparison is to tradesmen of a pre-modern or early-modern sort. In both cases, the knowledge itself is considered valuable due to the power of the effects it produces. Because it is so valuable, access to it must be kept away from the many and restricted to a few who have proven their worth to the keepers of these secrets. What we are talking about here is a mystery cult. These magic-users are the sort who view secrecy and privacy as values greater than any other than survival of those secrets.

The most obvious Occupations in the game that follow this model are the Druid variations from RIFTS: England. (The Millennium Druid is of the Pact sort.) They possess and apply a body of knowledge, maintained through secrecy over long periods of time, that has demonstrable supernatural effects and recruit/train through an initiatory process. They are not dependent upon another entity, in whole or in part, for their power but their comprehension of is lacking; within their base of knowledge what they know makes sense, but errors of judgement and a lack of cultural support for proper inquiry and research (often due to isolation) means that their often trapped in a narrow paradigm with strong boundary conditions that inhibit proper breakthroughs of new discovery. The subculture of a craft emphasizes tradition and conservatism for legacy reasons, reasons that have to do with the craft's origins that have not been properly processed and put into its place, and only sometimes due to those conditions persisting.

The other thing about crafts is that they are, in the long-term, an unstable state. Either they collapse under the weight of their conservatism and secrecy or they complete the transition into a full-fledged discipline akin to that of a real-world scientist or engineer. This is because of how they acquire and maintain the knowledge that permits their powers to exist; accidental discovery is a thing, where someone does something that works but is not expected, and eventually it is both reproduced and transmitted to others. This process inevitably reveals patterns, and those patterns reveal that these powers can be studied, researched, and developed; sub-cultural resistance to such things comes up, and either the progressive elements win and transition to a proper discipline occurs or the conservatives win and the status quo persists- and if this remains long enough then the craft collapses due to being unable to change as their environment changes, destroying them.

Therefore, moreso than most, playing and running a craft-based magic-user means knowing what the current state of that craft's subculture is; your man's experience with this subculture matters greatly towards how he views his magic and how he uses it. Playing a Druid is not playing a Vanguard, and playing one of those 10 years earlier is not default time. Playing the culture game is necessary for these sorts of characters, and in later posts I'll show how this works through examples.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Playing a Magic-User in RIFTS, Part 3: Those Who Strike Pacts

This week I'm going into some depth about those magic-users who get their powers through some form of client-patron relationship with a supernatural entity.

Some magic-users gain their powers through a direct connection to a supernatural source. This source is often a distinct entity, such as a spirit or a god, but this paradigm that also includes a source that is a collective entity such as the elemental powers that Warlocks derive their power from. These magic-users do not comprehend what magic truly is, or how it works; they are not akin to scientists or engineers. They are, at best, akin to technicians in that they know what their powers do and how they can best apply them, but they have no comprehension (outside of what their patron allows them to know) so you can expect them to master the practical employment of their powers, but be unable to innovate such that they can create new ones. They are users, not programmers.

The Witch and the Priest are the two most common examples of this paradigm in practice. In both respects, the magic-user enters into a contract with a supernatural entity. The magic-user agrees to act as the entity's agent in the user's environment in return for the entity's investment of power into the user, making the user's continued employment of his powers conditional upon fulfilling his patron's agenda (which means following orders). This is not a negotiation that goes entirely as the user intends, as the entity enjoys a massive power differential over the user, but the patron is rarely so aware or intelligent that it cannot be outwitted by an exceptionally cunning user. Whether this is because the entity is unaware, uncaring, or merely entertained by the user's attempt to get around the patron's constrictions upon the user's end of the pact is not that important; what matters is that he is not the source of his powers, and that he has some constraints on their use for reasons that are not emergent properties of those powers.

The Shaman and the Warlock also fall into this category, as are some Druid variants, but they are looser examples. The Shaman is chosen to represent his patron to his people, and the Warlock has a tie to the elemental planes that is neither his choice nor inherent to his being. Their powers are as ill-comprehended by them as the Witch and Priest comprehend theirs, but the constrictions upon those powers are so much looser; this is due to the nature of the relationship between the supernatural entities imbuing them with power, compared to the two Occupations above. The Shaman is not a subordinate of his totem spirit; this is not a true patron-client relationship, but rather principle-agent (and in both directions; he represents the totem to his people and his people to the totem). The Warlock's relationship is more like that of an adoptee or a master-student pattern; the elements decide that the user is a good choice for their association, and the imbuing of power into it (and training in the use thereof) is their way of forging that bond. Unlike the others, it is unheard of for a Warlock to lose his ties to the elements; this is (rightly) seen as being reflective of their overall long-term thinking and general apathy vis-a-vis mortal perceptions of time and the importance of mortals' lives.

Another variant is the Tattooed Man and its variants. These magic-users are actually men-at-arms. Their magic powers are bestowed upon them by their patron, in return for servitude (in the case of slaves or indentured servants), yet they have no comprehension whatsoever as to how these magic tattoos operate. All that they know is how to activate them, use the effects generated, and manage the power that fuels them; they might as well be Vagabonds in all other respects. While their powers can't (usually) be stripped, as such, the powers that they possess are nothing like what proper spell-casters and the ritual-workers that typify Warlocks, Shaman, Witches, Druids, etc. are; their lesser power (by comparison) makes up for their lack of vulnerability to losing their powers. This category also covers super-powered individuals such as D.C.'s Shazam (i.e. Captain Marvel), and those like him (e.g. Buffy, some Magical Girls); they receive their powers, in the form of human physical augmentation instead of spell-casting, but are otherwise the same.

The Shifter is not, in the baseline sense, in this category. He slides into it when he makes use of his Occupation's ability to contact supernatural entities and strike pacts with them, at which point he's in the same boat (with regard to those gained powers) that a Witch is- but he has the notable advantage of knowing how magic works in a very academic and scientific manner, which allows him to turn the powers he gains from these pacts into the sorts of rituals and spells that he ordinarily uses. This makes the Shifter, if he is both sufficiently resilient as well as ruthless, a dangerous magic-user; he can make pacts, extract new powers wholly under his command from them, and then dissolve those pacts before restarting the process anew.

By now, you can figure out for yourself what other Occupations fit into this paradigm. Now that we've got this established, let's get into playing them.

Your man is a user. This means that the sort of deep and thorough examination and study of how his magic works--the sort of thing that a Ley-Line Walker, Shifter, or a Techno-Wizard possesses--is not present. He is more like the Mystic in that respect, and often has his powers manifest in a similar manner (in that they appear suddenly; the user intuitively knows what to do and how to do it); otherwise, his patron instructs the user after receiving the investment of power. He views his powers in the way that a Coalition soldier views his tools, and like that soldier he can (and often does) refine his technique such that he can innovate new applications for those powers. Yet, when faced with a situation that demands a knowledge of the workings of how supernatural power works he is as useless as a Vagabond. (Don't ask a Warlock about how to best exploit a Nexus Point; he does not possess the knowledge required to do so.)

Your man does not think of himself as a magician. He sees himself as a priest, shaman, etc. if his powers originate from a clerical Occupation (which includes the Witch; he's a cult leader), or otherwise as a soldier/warrior/artisan whose powers are but tools of his trade. He views magicians as the sort that Shifters, Ley-Line Walkers, Stone Masters, etc. are, and that is often due to his ignorance regarding the nature of his powers. He sees his powers as gifts, grants, blessings, etc. and not spells and rituals and his language usage will reflect this perception. He views the fact that those same Stalkers that go after "magicians" also view him as prey to be due to the supernatural power imbued into them by their source; it is, at best, part of the price for their powers and not proof that they too are magicians. (Stalkers, for their part, are just as likely as not to buy this line of argument; they aren't experts on what magic is or how it works either.) That his powers interact with the spells and rituals of magicians, by and large, doesn't bother your man either; power is power.

Your man's relationship with the source of his powers is the primary relationship in his life and it comes before all else. Maintaining this relationship is always top priority, and as your man is typically the client or agent of that source that always means being prepared to fulfill the obligations put upon him by that patron/principle. While, in play, this should not (typically) be the all-consuming thing that it could be it should never be out of your mind- because it is NEVER out of your man's mind. The price your man pays for power is servitude, if not outright slavery; you're playing the sort of man who is always on call, and so must be prepared to drop everything when duty calls- OR ELSE!

Running campaigns for these characters is actually really easy, in that it provides ready direction and content for your players to go with and work through. However, it works far better if you sit down while away from the table working out the nature of those characters' patrons/principles/etc. before you bring them front-and-center like that. I advise you to do just that; it's preparation time well-spent, and brings great returns on that time investment when you make it recur time and again.

On a similar note, these characters are great NPCs- be they as allies or enemies. They come ready-made with motivation and means, making them great choices for external actors driving events in your campaign environment. Some are good even as minions, but most are better used sparingly as NPCs; keeping them rare usually works better for both verisimilitude and player suspension of disbelief. They're the leaders of movements, institutions, nations, and kingdoms; if you need a faction, employing one of these sorts of magic-users is a good choice. Enjoy.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Playing a Magic-User in RIFTS, Part 2: Becoming Familar What Your Character Does and How He Does It

When you play a magic-user, you play someone who wield supernatural power and therefore has some sort of relationship with supernatural power. It is not enough to know the rules behind how your magic-user's powers work, though that is important. It is no less important that you--the player--comprehend the power that your magic-user wields, and how they relate to that power. To achieve this level of comprehension, you are required to employ the full power of your imagination; you must see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the power that your magic-user wields- you must experience it, as best that imagination allows one to experience anything. If you do this, then you acquire some measure of your magic-user's unique perspective, and therefore become better able to decide on what your magic-user says and does when you play this character because you comprehend better who he is, what he does, where he does it, when he does it, why he does it, and--most important, in practical terms--how he does it. Remember that I am not talking about those born supernatural, but rather those born ordinary who became magic-users by choice.

Let me show this by way of example.

Let us, for the sake of example, say that I'm playing a Ley Line Walker. By choosing this Occupation, I already made a decision on what relationship that my character has with the supernatural power that he wields. Specifically, I chose the detached and experimental relationship typical of classic Western High Magic traditions; he sees the study and use of magic as no different than the study and use of the natural world, and comprehends the supernatural as a step beyond the physical world of ordinary existence. He is an educated man, literate and fluent in at least two languages and broadly familiar with an array of sacred and profane knowledge (and I use those terms as real-world scholars do, not in their popular sense; "sacred" means nothing more than "the supernatural world" and "profane" equals "the ordinary world"). He may not be a medical doctor, a physicist, a chemist, an engineer, or some other well-educated professional or highly-trained tradesman in the ordinary sense but he is does possess an array of useful knowledge that can be applied to an array of likely situations. In short, I'm playing someone who is best thought of as a Gandalf sort of figure: an individual who travels far and wide, has many contacts of varying intimacy (acquaintances, allies, friends, relatives, etc.), and often--as a direct consequence of his comprehension and usage of supernatural power--acquires a "Big Picture" perspective on things that can come into conflict with more provincial or shallow-thinking individuals.

A Ley Line Walker, specifically, is a magic-user who acquires a mastery over the useful qualities of Ley Lines. It is this mastery that promotes the "Big Picture" perspective. The ability to nigh-instantly communicate and travel by way of Ley Lines results in the Ley Line Walker acquiring the mind of a frequent traveler, a jet-setter sort, who has no problem being comfortable in places that--in real terms--are vastly distant from one another. Time and distance perspectives become altered accordingly; when your man wake up in Tolkeen, take in lunch on Center, meets up with his on-and-off Atlantean lover for dinner on a planet in another galaxy, and come home to a warm bed in Tolkeen (traversing mind-boggling distances with aplomb several times in a day) it sometimes becomes difficult to remember that the people selling their farm produce in the marketplace regard a day's travel by foot as being very far away. Similarly, when your man can telepathically communicate with his buyer in Atlantis by way of Ley Line communications it is difficult at times to remember that many people can't get fast and reliable communications across a field, let alone across a community. What this means is that I'm playing a character who, for all intents and purposes, is akin to someone who is not only always online, but can teleport ala Star Trek to anywhere on the network.

We haven't even addressed the spell-casting yet.

A Ley Line Walker otherwise uses magic in the manner of a Western High Magician: he studies the supernatural world, conducts experiments to test various hypothesis, records the results, and in time refines things until he develops a technological artifact from that work- a specific spell or ritual. He is as much a valid scientist as any physicist, chemist, or other hard-science practitioner. These findings and applications can be repeated by others, verifying those findings and applications as one would any real-world science or technology (respectively). The only reason for why my character's Stone Golem ritual creates a Stone Golem that does not look like another's Stone Golem is for purely cosmetic reasons. He uses magic; it is a tool to him, nothing more, just as a chemist uses his knowledge of chemical processes and interactions to create smokeless gunpowder. The key difference is in the experience of using that source of power to make his spells work.

Let's take, as an example, casting a simple Fire Bolt spell. I will draw out the specific steps of what your magic-user experiences for illustrative purposes; remember that, for your character, all of this happens in three seconds or less.
  1. Your character fixes his senses on a specific target.
  2. Your character fixes in his mind the idea of a small bolt of fire leaping from his hands, flying nigh-instantly to that target, and incinerating him to ash.
  3. Your character, following the formula that he'd previously mastered, begins to generate the mana required for this spell and transmute it into fire. This requires that your character apply his mastery of vocal techniques, breathing techniques, and guided imagery to accelerate the frequency of the mana that he's cupping in his hand until its structure becomes too agitated to remain in its pure state. The ball-like shape allows an outer shell to remain in place while the internal space transmutes into fire; this is necessary to safely handle the spell effect during the casting of the spell. Your character's vocalization and breathing is how your character manipulates the frequency of the mana, so to others you sound like your voicing the wrath of an angry god or spirit. (They are not exactly wrong; you're mimicking said entity, using principles of similarity to apply that effect.)
  4. Your character feels the heat gathering about the palms of his hands; this is how he learned to track how long he has to finish his casting.
  5. Just as the shell holding in the fire is about to collapse from within as the last of its is transmuted into fire, your character "throws" the bolt at the target; this is a somatic ritual component, as the spell doesn't actually generate anything so solid that your character could actually throw it as if it were a snowball or a rock. Your character wills the bolt to strike the target; success or failure is a contest between your will to strike and your target's will to not die.
  6. Either your character's will prevails, the bolt strikes the target, and he is burned or the target's will prevails and he blocks or dodges the bolt. If the bolt strikes or gets blocked, then the fire burns what it strikes as if it erupted there and then. It has no solidity, so there is no kinetic component; you're just throwing magical Molotov Cocktails. If it misses, it still exists and may strike another thing if within the effect's range.
Again, all of this happens in three seconds or less. Now, imagine your character learning how to cast this spell. Imagine the sensation of willing fire into existing through the application of known principles of the supernatural world, known principles of the natural world, fueled by your will and shaped by your imagination. Imagine realizing that the power to directly translate a desired change in the world from an imaginative idea into a manifest reality by way of knowledge and will alone means that you are no longer confined by the boundaries of the ordinary world--no one that undergoes this experience can remain the same thereafter; this alone is an initiatory act--and how this realization forever removes you from the ordinary world that you came from. Your character, in becoming a magic-user, is no longer an ordinary man; your character, therefore, will not think or act as those that have not experienced this initiation would. Yet all magic-users were once ordinary men; your character made a deliberate choice to step beyond the ordinary and become something greater than that. Keep that in mind; there is are very obvious parallels to real-life to be seen here, so obvious that I need not specify them, with some applicable for Good character and others for Selfish or Evil ones.

So, while being familiar with the rules and mechanics regarding what your magic-user can do is important, that is not the end-all/be-all. To fully and properly appreciate what it means to play your magic-user, you must employ your imagination and get into your magic-user's head--into his life--and see through his eyes what it means to be who and what he is (and do what he does). Once you do that, you can better appreciate his perspective, and that means deciding what to do at the table (and in the game) through that perspective. By immersing yourself into your character's reality, you stop being just a guy looking at numbers and mechanics playing a boardless wargame and start truly playing a role; once you become familiar with your man, you'll start wanting to spend time with him more often--and that means playing him more often--which leads to the last bit for this post.

For you, as the Game Master, you're not off the hook. What you need to do does shift a bit, however, in that instead of doing this for a character you will be doing this for entire groups as a whole. Each form of magic-user represents some form of magical society, however formal or informal, and thus has a presence in the environment; this is especially necessary to deal with if you will allow players to play members of that Occupation. This all a part of world-building, so you need to have the vital parts done before the first player rolls up his man. When you know how these magic-users think, act, behave, etc. you'll start seeing emergent creations that you would not have imagined otherwise; this is exciting, so roll with it and see where it takes you- some of the best that tabletop role-playing has to offer stems from such events.