Saturday, March 29, 2014

Playing a Magic-User in RIFTS, Part 10: The Shifter

The Shifter is the second of the Occupations in the core rulebook derived from the archetype of the Western High Ceremonial Magician. This Occupation, in contrast to the Ley-Line Walker, focuses its skillset and magic knowledge upon the practice of ritual magic- specifically, on rituals that cross barriers of time and space to allow communication and travel across those barriers. The closest synonym, in Palladium's offerings, to this Occupation is that of the Summoner from Palladium's fantasy game; this means that the Shifter is at its best when played by an individual that comprehends how dependent this Occupation is upon preparation, planning, and attention to detail.

The Shifter's emphasis on ritual magic requires that a Shifter pay attention to the geography of the area, including its inhabitants. Does it have a ley-line? Does it have a nexus? Can he reliably access that power, if present? With whom, if any, does he compete with to acquire that power? Why is he so concerned? Because he cannot possibly work his ritual magic using only his own cultivated reserves of mana. He has to find and use mana sources outside of himself, or his rituals cannot work; he won't have the power necessary to succeed.

The Shifter also needs to keep careful and meticulous records of time, due to the effects that particular moments and occurrences have on their access to external power sources. The Shifter, if he suffers certain deficits of character, may also become proficient--if not expert--at medicine for purposes of practicing animal and human sacrifice; this too is a proven, and therefore known, way to acquire mana external to one's own reserves. Combined, all of this means that a competent Shifter will have a significant bias towards being meticulous, detail-oriented, practitioner of magic who relies on planning ahead and preparing accordingly to succeed.

The Shifter cannot avoid being charismatic, strong-willed, and intelligent if he wishes to succeed; the best of them, contrary to expectations, will also be healthy and strong in body due to the connection between bodily and mental health. He regularly traffics with entities comprehensible (variously so) to him, and is capable of striking bargains with some and compelling the obedience of others. Contrary to expectations, this requires that the Shifter has a command over interpersonal skills that one would expect from someone trained to command subordinates and parley with equals- someone trained to lead men. (It is not accidental that mythological examples have such backgrounds.) Because he needs to prepare, he does not travel light or often; he's the sort to think in terms of expeditions when departing from well-traveled roads (literal and otherwise) and act accordingly. He is likely to be found at one of his sanctums, as his emphasis in magic requires prepared spaces and other infrastructure; while fully capable of casting spells, what he knows is far fewer in quantity than a Ley-Line Walker and often focused on utilitarian needs. Veteran Shifters acquire an entourage, a warband, of henchmen and servants; some are ordinary folk, some supernatural, all bound to the Shifter and acknowledge him as leader- if not master.

While many Shifters do reveal themselves deficient in character over time, and revel in evil accordingly, not all of them do. Far more likely is that the Shifter simply becomes obsessed with the potential of his practice and loses sight of the reason for why he took up this Occupation originally; in other words, you're far less likely to find Faust and far more likely to find Radagast- someone who takes up residence in a particular place of significance (if not power) and becomes increasingly immersed in his particular pursuits. (If left alone, he is practically harmless.) Dealt with in the proper manner, one can parley profitably with such a Shifter; do it wrong, and you're in for a world of hurt- if he's merciful.

Using a Shifter for a NPC is a good choice for someone who either acts as a mentor and captain for a group, or for a group's opposition. Their powers over cross-dimensional barriers makes then particularly good for adventures and campaigns focused on making the most of what RIFTS has to offer; in this respect, they are equal in potential to Temporal Raiders and their playable Occupations (Wizards and Warriors). They make for great NPCs that a Game Master can do some solid world-building, in the local and regional sense, around; if you need someone of note who's big on otherworldly stuff, a Shifter is your go-to option.

So, if you want to think ahead, be prepared, and otherwise pretend that you're a Time Lord then this is the Occupation for you.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Playing a Magic-User in RIFTS, Part 9: The Ley-Line Walker

The Ley-Line Walker is one of the two Occupations in Rifts, along with the Shifter, that map most closely to the standard Wizard archetype of magic-user. (The Shifter gets his attention spotlight next week.) For reasons that I am uncertain (as of this post) that I comprehend, Palladium Books decided to split that archetype into two components. Whereas the Shifter focuses on the ritual summoning and binding of entities (natural and otherwise), with more utilitarian spell-casting as a necessary sideline capacity, the Ley-Line Walker flips this competence emphasis and then adds a few related toys.

The Ley-Line Walker, therefore, is one of the Occupations where the magic-user's origins are irrelevant because this Occupation is one of those whose power over magic is a product of years of formal study and practice- specifically, in the form of practical empirical experimentation and reporting of the results. As with the Shifter, the Ley-Line Walker is an outsider to the supernatural community, and only taken seriously due to the powers that they can command as a result of their research and development of magic technology--what we call "spells" and "rituals"--that they apply practically to the world. They are scholars and scientists that specialize in the paranormal, and nothing more.

The powers that this Occupation has with regard to ley-lines is what distinguishes it from others in the same archetypical category. Those powers are also shared by all True Atlanteans, so it is reasonable to presume that this Occupation arose with True Atlanteans long ago when they dominated Rifts Earth in its previous high-mana phase, and therefore non-Atlanteans who practice this Occupation can be presumed to benefit from some form of contact with True Atlantean culture. Furthermore, it is reasonable to presume that students learn to cast spells and conduct rituals as an outgrowth of mastering the ley-line powers; their entire paradigm behind the study and use of magic will be seen through that lens.

I noted previously that this Occupation is a prime candidate for people who want to be like Gandalf. Given that True Atlanteans, outside of whatever refuges they foster, are routinely on the move this should not be surprising; as they are, as a people, engaged in a resistance movement (complete with turncoats) against Lord Splynn (and getting caught up in others' struggles wherever they go in the process), it should not be surprising that they would want to foster their culture amongst friendly peoples whom they encounter- and this goes doubly-so for their fellow Men back on Earth. As a Game Master such NPCs are really easy to do; as a player, a Ley-Line Walker is the go-to option for when you can't play every session or you want an easy-to-insert character wherever your real-life interests take you.

This too should reflect itself in the Occupation's culture. While there are centers of refuge, of knowledge, and so on where Ley-Line Walkers (especially those too young, old, otherwise incapable) I would expect Ley-Line Walkers to travel frequently far and wide. I would expect them to become people whose everyday life consists of maintaining and expanding social networks, one-to-one connections that they can call upon in times of need in return for favors done. It explains why this Occupation emphasizes spell-casting over ritual works; rituals, while doable, are far more of a thing one does when staying in a specific place for any length of time whereas spell-casting is very friendly to frequent and regular traveling. A Ley-Line Walker cannot help but to become a cosmopolitan, multi-lingual, broadly-traveled individual over his lifetime- much like the True Atlanteans that founded this Occupation ages ago.

So, think like someone who's always on the move. Travel light. Be self-sufficent. Be a good guest; you never know when those whom you meet today are those whom you call upon tomorrow. (Yes, even for evil characters this makes damn good sense; bridge-burning is bad for business.) Know the territory and those who dwell within it. Help when you can, how you can, those who need it (and, frankly, deserve it; again, evil would do this too). Be like Gandalf (or, at worst, Radaghast) and you'll do very well as a Ley-Line Walker indeed, and in so doing you'll hit what True Atlantean culture is in the cosmos of Rifts.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Playing a Magic-User in RIFTS, Part 8: The Warlock

Palladium's failure at nomenclature manifests again with the Warlock. This Occupation, originally from Palladium's fantasy game, is actually about a man with an innate connection to one or two of the four Classical elements of Western High Magic: Air, Earth, Fire, or Water. (This concept would be reused, and refined, in a more effective manner as the "shugenja" of Legend of the Five Rings.) This connection marks the magic-user as part of the spiritual community that the spirits of these elements possess, as a "little brother", and as a result this Occupation is akin to the Mystic in that their use of and comprehension of magic is both colored by this innate connection and comes from it. It is, for all intents and purposes, a shaman variation and should be handled as such.

The Warlock, therefore, has a background built into it that all Warlock characters will share. Below are the salient qualities.
  • Warlocks are born, not made; their connection to the elements is an inborn quality, especially the connection to the specific element or elements from which a specific Warlock gains his spell-casting abilities.
  • Because their powers are intuitive, as a Mystic's powers are, the powers that a Warlock manifest are a reflection of their life's events to date, barring any specific mentorship to foster the development of specific abilities; a Warlock that never needed to attack or defend won't develop powers that do so, so mentorship will artificially foster such things to achieve those ends, in the way that a martial arts master holistically trains students.
  • A Warlock's ability to contact, communicate, and summon elemental spirits is an innate quality; this means that they manifested early in life, and grew in power and sophistication as the Warlock came of age. Warlocks are insiders; Shifters, etc. are outsiders. This totally colors how they see the summoning and control of elements- regardless of their morality, sanity, etc.
  • Because Warlocks have had direct experience with spiritual entities since birth, as other shamanic sorts do, they are difficult--if not impossible--to turn into religionists as we in the real world comprehend that idea. These are people for whom talking to sentient walking things of raw elemental substance is as ordinary as airplanes or robots; it's a concrete, verifiable reality to them. You can't convince them that it's not real, or that it's all some sort of trickery by (insert boogeyman here).
  • Warlocks, being marked by the spirits, and enjoying a relationship with them, tend to extend into generational lines of Warlocks because immortal spirits prefer to go with reliable mortal counterparts- so young Warlocks are often the children of Warlocks, and over time form blood-tied societies or clans in the way that Stalkers or other innately-powered Occupations routinely do.
  • Education and training, as such, is not a priority for Warlocks. They learn everything that they need to know through their experiences with their spiritual brethren, and their own experiences as individuals, with some specific communities having elder Warlocks mentor emerging ones as they grow up. A Warlock's lived experience is that formal schooling, regimentation, etc. is a waste of time; what they need to know is what life and the elements put to them- and this is the seed for Warlock stoicism, even a sense of fatalism at times, that this Occupation's culture is infamous for.
So, let's put this together. A Warlock is an individual marked as a mortal relative to the immortal elemental community, and through this connection he acquires the powers of one or two elements as well as the ability to communicate and call forth those immortal brothers. He is an insider to this magic society, and treated as such by them. Because he learns his abilities through intuition and experience, formal training and education doesn't help him in his development much (and is often seen as worthless); his is a world where you do or die, and death is just a thing that happens, so it's not that big a deal- and this holds regardless of his moral character, as it is an ethical framework and paradigm. So, your elder Warlock is far more like the old martial arts master than anything else, and your young ones are more like eager fighters.

A Sample Variation

Deep in what formerly was known as the Boundary Waters, a survivor group that formed immediately after the Coming of the Rifts started manifested as Warlocks when they started having children. As the Boundary Waters is an area dominated by lakes, these Warlocks are always attuned to Water, with some taking secondary attunements to Air or Earth. Over time, the powers of these Warlocks merged with the survivalist skills of the original survivors. The result is a magical society of elementally-attuned rangers, now known as "Forestwalkers", and they have a loose affiliation with nearby powers such as Tolkeen as well as a long-running conflict with Stalker tribes that roam those same areas.

Most of this community is magically-active (i.e. are Warlocks), but the basis of their community remains the skillset of woodsmen, rangers, hunters, and so on (i.e. Wilderness Scouts). Playing a Warlock from this community is an easy thing to do: take as many skills from the Scout skillset as can be had, and use magic to compensate for the gaps. Think like someone who's some form of tribal warrior that's also a practicing shaman. You're not required to conform to the withered wizard in robes steretotype, so don't; this variant is here to show that you can mix elemental magic with a mundane skillset and create a viable, effective hybrid that adds value to a group. (Running games with such communities makes having the Occupation in a campaign far more interesting, so do that.)

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Playing a Magic-User in RIFTS, Part 7: The Witch

Palladium Books is not known for clear use of language, especially compared to the common use or established professional/cultural usage thereof, and this is most obvious with regard to the Occupation known as "Witch". It resembles only lured horror movie stereotypes and the Early Modern witch craze that all such images stems from, and neither the historical reality nor the Neo-Pagan reconstruction of pre-Christian forms of nature worship, and the term "Diabolist" (which Palladium uses for its specialist in Ward Magic, non-nonsensically) is more appropriate. That said, let's get on with how to best play this sort of magic-user.

The Witch is a Pact-making Occupation. It is the most fundamental iterations of that sort of magic-user paradigm, so let's look over the core of what sort of individual typically--iconically, you might say--takes up this Occupation.
  • The supernatural patron chooses the mortal to act as its agent in the world. Even if the mortal is aware of the entity's existence and seeks it out, the mortal is still no more than a helpless s act as its agent in the mortal's wupplicant compared to it, and at best can do no more than to argue that he is the best possible agent to carry out the entity's agenda. So, at best it is Employer-Employee and usually it is Principle-Agent or Master-Slave because the Witch is utterly and totally dependent upon the entity for his ability to act effectively at all.
  • The supernatural patron preys upon the weak and vulnerable. You should think of the Witch's patron as a cult leader, so you're looking at the psychology of a malevolent psychopath--for a supernatural entity, definitely a primary psychopath (i.e. a born one, not someone damaged into it- that's a secondary psychopath)--who seeks to transform other individuals into vessels through which it satisfies its needs and accomplishes its goals. It seeks to do this because it is either unable or unwilling (often both) to do for itself, so it finds those who are most vulnerable to its influence- someone who is emotionally and mentally weak, often materially poor and socially incompetent or excluded and bitter about it.
  • The mortal who accepts the pact offer is a loser. The Witch is usually uneducated, originally poor in financial and material terms, ambitious and prideful far beyond his actual competency and potential, outside or on the edge of social acceptability, and is unwilling (usually) or unable (rarely) to do what it takes to achieve its goals under their own power. (This is one of the reasons for why the stereotypical Witch of Hollywood and the Early Modern witch craze was a woman.) He believes that the power offered to it by the patron will be his alone to command, comes at a trivial or easily paid cost with no undesired effects or consequences, and through this power all of his grievances and troubles will be readily resolved in his favor- and his life thereafter will be that of a god amongst men (i.e. Easy Street). He is an individual of poor character, weak mind, low cunning, and powered more by desperation and delusion than anything else; if he does not develop any charisma, he will soon double-down on his bitterness and wield his borrowed power for ends far below what that power's potential actually allows. This is wholly acceptable, even desirable, on the part of the patron; Witches are wholly and utterly expendable.
There is room to maneuver here, but there's your baseline to work with. What this means for the Witch is that they are not independent actors; they are always tied to their masters, serving their masters and executing the will thereof. Some accept this and make the most of it, but most do not; they do it unwitting and often half-heartedly while pursuing their own goals. Adolescent thinking produces adolescent behavior. Because of this known phenomenon, Witches--regardless of sex, age, social class, etc.--are often akin to high-school/secondary school students taken to an exreme (as most real cults do) so use them for your modeling of player and NPC Witch social networks, groups, and interactions.

Witches, therefore, are predators but not at the apex of their specific dominance hierarchy; their patron is always (at the least) above them and will deal with them when they find it necessary to do so (if not immediately with a Witch steps out of line). They're not that different from Palladium's vampires, really; the patron uses the first Witch to build up a cult, and then spins off cell-like subsidiaries through additional Witches recruited into the cult (assuming that the first Witch doesn't fuck things up), building up until they can take over or bring through the patron into the world (which usually means taking over). (This justifies the Alignment restriction.) This is an inherently predatory pattern of behavior, which cannot be and is not justifiable as being good.

Notes on Their Powers

While Witches are treated as spell-casters, Witches explicitly are utterly ignorant of how their powers work, and their mechanics would be enhanced by having their powers work differently. I recommend that the Game Master pick the Witch's powers instead of the player, and the player be told only the necessary information required: what it is, its general effect, and how often they can use it (in terms of actions/round or how often until they have to rest). In other words, more like how Palladium handles other forms of power instead of magic (which best resembles traditional High Ceremonial magic), because this is a better way to experience the Witch's relationship to the powers that he gets from his patron. (If it serves to further discourage Witches as player-characters, I find this acceptable; in my experience, most who go for this do so to troll the group and be a colossal dick.)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Playing a Magic-User in RIFTS, Part 6: The Tattooed Man

Now that we've addressed the basics and the three major archetypes of magic-users, we're going to start talking about specific types of magic-users.

A Tattooed Man is, as described in RIFTS Atlantis, a humanoid individual who augments his extensive martial training regiment and practice with a large array of power-generating tattoos. Within the environment of RIFTS Earth, and in much of the Megaverse, Tattooed Men are presumed (correctly) to be a caste of slave warriors for one of the Splugorth species of Sufficiently Advanced Aliens- and otherwise to be scions of one of the Atlantean houses long dispossessed of their Earth homeworld. This is not always the case, and below I shall describe one way that a Game Master may reinterpret this specific form of magic-user for his own campaign. I will also address the major error in terms of game mechanics, and provide one solution that better fits what the powers of a Tattooed Man. While the game makes distinctions between various Occupations that fit this description, I will--for the purpose of this article--lump them together.

Notes on the Occupational Culture

The culture of Tattooed Men varies upon how the power-imbuing process goes for them, but there are common elements. The slave-warriors produced by the Splugorth in industrial quantities experience severe physical trauma due to the tattoo masters there not caring about the recipient's health or sanity; those that fail to endure the process are dispatched and have their corpses fed to other slaves. Those created by the Atlantean houses express far greater care, as their Tattooed Men are often treated as elite warriors and therefore enjoy higher value in the eyes of those creating them- manifesting in both longer times taken to imbue the tattoo powers as well as more comprehensive care taken in both preparation as well as recovery from the imbuing process. This formative, initiatory experience sticks with a Tattooed Man thereafter and becomes one of the defining experiences informing his character and identity. Because the process for becoming a Tattooed Man is, inherently, an initiatory one there is a certain commonality of perspective amongst Tattooed Men regardless of their relationship with others like them. It's not the same as that between Warlocks and the Elements, but rather the sort that often arises in real-world professional societies.

The fact that Tattoo Magic is known to be physically traumatic means that the process by which the tattoo master imbues the recipient with the power that the tattoo conveys is an amplification of the real-world tattoo process, which is not without discomfort if not outright pain willingly taken by the recipient. So, let us imagine that the Tattoo Magic technology takes that real-world tattoo process and uses it as a means to introduce a limited form of physiological retro-fitting of the body to accept the necessary infrastructure needed to wield the power that the tattoo imbues. This process, as one would expect, should be akin to receiving cybernetic or bionic augmentation (or, indeed, any other augmentation of the body; to get the same result, the process must also be the same). Taking this process slowly, as one would for any mundane form of major surgery (because that's the closest mundane equivalent), minimizes the impact to the recipient's physical and mental health. Going through it fast reliably damages both; imagine getting put under the knife while awake without anesthetic with upwards of a dozen procedures done in rapid succession or in parallel, and then patched up in a haphazard manner before being pushed out the door- that's the Splugorth way of doing things. If you're not taking this into account, you're doing the Tattooed Man wrong.

A Note on Tattoo Magic

In terms of how the game mechanics interpret their powers, I see this as a major flaw. The rules treat them as if they were just a hobbled spell-caster, when they have no such knowledge or ability whatsoever, and as a result it is difficult to avoid playing (as-written) a Tattooed Man as just another form of Fighter-Mage (or "Gish", to borrow yet another term of D&D-originated jargon). The visual depiction of Tattoo Magic reinforces this erroneous notion, when the mythological origins of Tattoo Magic are ignored instead of emphasized; Tattoo Magic should not result in an individual who looks like they ran with an outlaw biker gang for too long, or whored it up for Suicide Girls, but instead should resemble the Celts covered head-to-toe in woad with knotwork draw over their flesh or the warrior society tattoos found in many peoples present and past: specialized, integrated, highly-symbolic whole-body tattoo system networks that link the body's points of power together to fuel the powers granted by the tattoos. (Hell, your stereotypical Yakuza better fits the Tattooed Man than what Atlantis depicts.)

So, instead of spending mana as if a spell-caster, Tattoo Magic should work the way that Committed Charms do in Exalted: the player spends motes of mana to activate the effect, and until the player decides to end the effect the Tattooed Man cannot recover those spent motes. Furthermore, some of those powers that (as-written) require the use of a specific tattoo power to generate the effect should instead be made baseline to the Occupation's core powers (such as the Armor power; it should be presumed as part of the Tattooed Man's transformation from an ordinary mortal into a super-powered warrior). A power that discharges attacks upon a target should have an activation cost that follows this commitment scheme, which should itself be a nominal one, and a per-use cost thereafter. Tattoos that generate animated minions should have a high commitment, but no other costs, as the minion itself is sufficient to warrant the cost. (Which also means that there needs to be a significant revision to the tattoo powers.)

A Variant Example: Tolkeen

There is no doubt that the City-State of Tolkeen (especially my revision of it) would use Tattooed Men. However, the magical society there would not condone the usual Splugorth practice and neither would it tolerate the conservatism of the Atlantean procedure, not when there is an alternative that generates the faster production of the former while retaining the superior quality of the latter. As usual, the secret stems from the incredible store of mana that Tolkeen possesses coupled with the scientific and engineering know-how of the dominant magical society; having reverse-engineered Tattoo Magic from Atlantean and former slave Tattooed Men, Tolkeen figured out exactly how Tattoo Magic works and created an improved procedure that avoids the hassle and the risk. The drawback is that it requires the properties that, on RIFTS Earth, only exist in Tolkeen's Inner City.

The Tolkeen procedure work by taking the recipient into a facility wherein he is stripped naked from head to toe and then has his whole body scanned; this information appeared on the technician's screen, providing him with a complete DNA profile as well as real-time monitoring of all vital signs. At this point, the technician initiates the process; the recipient is told to visualize himself as if being armored up for the first time. (This is, for all intents and purposes, true.) The technician, under supervision, guides the recipient through the imbuing process via guided imagery; this allows for easier acceptance of the augmentations installed while minimizing any awareness of discomfort. The actual drawing of the tattoos is done by the supervisor, using the recipient's DNA and psychological profile to customize the symbolic imagery necessary for the tattoos to function properly, and he does so using a remote-operated robot.

Instead of using ink and a needle as the medium and tool of transmission, this is done directly through a laser transmitting the epigentic signals to the recipient DNA and directing the DNA expressions with the help of the recipient's mental state (hence the guided imagery). This completely avoids using the harsher processes that going through the body's cellular or grosser level of organization to achieve these results usually employs, achieving the same speedy results, and getting the recipient to aid in his reconstruction as it happens avoids the mental health issues entirely. Instead of taking days or weeks to finish, including recovery, Tolkeen's procedure takes hours; it's a full working day process, but the recipient is ready for action immediately afterword.

(Note: Tolkeen provides this procedure to anyone willing to commit to a period of reservist service in Tolkeen's militia lasting no less than five years; no other form of payment is accepted. Furthermore, Tolkeen's results tend to produce Tattooed Men whose aesthetic runs to Asimovian blends of high-technology and high-magic (e.g. Tron Legacy, Saint Seiya) than the Woad Warrior types.)