Saturday, May 31, 2014

Playing a Magic-User in RIFTS, Part 18: An Overview of the Three Galaxies

As noted in the Interlude, I'm bringing this series to a close as its useful life has run out.

This week, as an end-cap, I'm going to bring some notes about playing a Magic-User away from the core milieu of the game and bring my notes instead on the wider Megaverse over the next few weeks.

  • The Three Galaxies has a norm of institutional magic use, such that de facto techno-wizardry is the norm (and by that, I mean that is it normal to view magic and science as separate, but complimentary, disciplines). Magic-users are core parts of all of the agencies of the Three galaxies, either as full agents or as associates/auxiliaries. Each of the major powers (and, by extension, many minor ones) recognize the power and advantage that magic use grants to those that employ it, so anti-magic sentiment is rare out of institutions and almost as rare out of populations. The sentiment of the Coalition States, therefore, is one of the things that would mark it as a minor power (if recognized at all) in the wider scheme of things.
  • Institutional magic use also means institutional magic development and refinement. Unlike most of Rifts Earth, magic-users in the wider Three Galaxies are far more likely (regardless of the form of their magic) to enjoy the benefits (and pay the costs) of a formalized and systematized pedagogy. There will be "Harvard men", "Oxford men", etc. because institutions leave their marks upon those that pass through them and those marks become tells to those who are aware of them. Relationships between educational and training institutions and various agencies of Megaversal powers will form and normalize, much as they do in real life between our universities and governments or corporations. (e.g. The Consortium of Confederated Worlds' service academies will include magic-users, and those magic-users who come out of those academies will go on to join the CCW Fleet, and then those who survive will go on to political or corporate positions- and the potential for being a skilled magic-user will be one of the paths out of poverty for CCW residents seeking to better themselves using socially-accepted means.)
  • Institutional magic use also means institutional awareness of the power that magic provides, and that it can be taught/bestowed upon others, so therefore magic will be treated like any other science or technology which poses a probable threat to a government: it will be regulated, restricted, confined, controlled, and otherwise fettered to minimize that threat while maximizing its benefit to the government. (Or, in actual anarchies, the nation.) Magic use outside of the boundaries set by the government will be like political groups outside such boundaries: they will go underground, act in secret, and operate in a conspiratorial manner. (Much like being a magician or psychic in Coalition territory.)
  • Magic use in the Three Galaxies, while diverse in an absolute sense, will be homogenized in actual play due to players being in regular contact with the major institutions and their institutional cultures- which, as noted above, will include their magic societies. Local variations will not vary much, if at all, from examples found on Rifts Earth; it's going to be different sets of trappings, but the substance (and therefore the mechanics) will be the same. Shaman are Shaman are Shaman, as it were- and it is still quitely likely that the Kreegor will brutally exterminate them with superior magical prowess coupled to overwhelming conventional firepower should they decide to do so (which further homogenizes the Three Galaxies' magical community).
  • The minor players, where not already given useful examples in the product chain (e.g. Splugorth), will conform to varying degrees to the examples of the major powers because it is necessary to do so to maintain some form of autonomy apart from them; if they are not lost colonies, auxiliary or vassal states, or otherwise derive their origin from a major power then they will do so because--admitted or not--the example of the major powers is better than their own development and they adapt to survive.
  • One consequence is that magic-users, in general, will be encountered more often. The bulk of these encounters will be with the tradesmen or technicians of the magical community; their skills and knowledge are narrowly focused, and shallow in depth, but often honed to a professional grade of competency because they--despite being magic-users--are still ensconced in the same level of socio-economic reality as the mundane population. The magic that they work is the means by which they make their living, and as such they either the ambition or the ability to fully manifest the potential that magic-use in general permits to mortal users. This is the realm of NPCs. The technician who oversees the Rift Drive on a United World of Warlocks starship is a magic-using engineeer specialized in the practical aspects of Rifts and dimensional magic theory; he's, at best, Scotty- and not at all Saruman.
  • Another consequence is that non-users will not take magic as seriously as they should most of the time because the users that they encounter do not wield world-smashing powers, or even city-smashing powers, or have the potential for such; no one worries that the dude making custom bikes in a workshop out of the way of the main street in town is going to unleash nuclear forces that can't be handled- that's what the magic-using technicians and tradesmen are at. As a consequence, the perception of difference between magic and science is somewhat blurred; the conditions for full and proper techno-wizardry are there, but the breakthrough cognitive thought just hasn't happened yet. (Not unusual in real history; the Greeks has steam and hydralic technology, but did not think to use it to do real labor due to the massive slave and servant population.)
  • Warfare, therefore, will account for what the known norms of magical practice allow for and will--in all competent actors--be planned for as best as that actor's resources allow. As with warfare, so with personal combat; if you're in an environment where your opposition can freely move at short-range with portal mechanics, you're going to train to deal with that and have counters ready to go.
  • The Three Galaxies is a setting where magic-use is open, wide-spread, and institutionalized magic makes possible. Play accordingly.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Playing a Magic-User in RIFTS: Interlude

While there are plenty more magic-using Occupations in the game, those that remain are now variations on the Archetypes that I put down early on in this series. It is not a useful employment of this space to go over such details, so I won't spend this entry or future ones doing that.

So, wrapping up this series will be some posts on magic-users away from RIFTS Earth, focusing on the other major milieu of the game (i.e. the Three Galaxies), and then--for you tinkers, designers, and others who're inclined to mess with mechanics--some posts on my opinions regarding the strengths and weaknesses of playing a magic-user, and how to exploit the former while fixing the latter.

After that, I'm putting this series on the shelf for a while and shifting gears to another pillar of power in the game: Psychics.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Playing a Magic-User in RIFTS, Part 17: The Shaman

Palladium, for some reason that I think is not too hard to understand, seems to think that shamanism is an American phenomenon that is confined to the First Nations of that hemisphere. Furthermore, this seems to be confined to North American First Nations (due to Central America being overrun by vampires and South America being overrun with alien invaders of other sorts), so when one picks up RIFTS: Spirit West it is not surprising to see that the various Shaman Occupations are built on the assumptions that those Shaman are going to be First Nations (specifically, from the various Great Plains and Southwest nations or remnants originally from elsewhere that nonetheless relocated there). There is no concept extant that Shaman can arise in any other context, so there is no consideration given to any other variation thereof; this greatly limits the scope and scale of the Shaman Occupations in this book. Spirit West, therefore, is far more about making the mysticism of the 19th century Old West playable in a monster, mutants, and massive machines milieu than anything else.

That said, let's take a look at what's on offer.

The book has two Occupations that are not magic-users; these are two of the Warrior Occupations (Tribal and Mystic, respectively; the former is purely mundane, the second is a psychic.). The rest, be they labelled as Warrior or Shaman, are shaman variations; the variations are in emphasis and specialization, but otherwise they conform to the Shaman archetype of an individual chosen by the spirits to become a bridge of some sort between the ordinary and supernatural world. Totem and Spirit Warriors are Magic Knights; they trade some portion of mundane existence for a magical augmentation to their martial capacities, at the cost of some degree of behavior restriction (and an ongoing relationship with the source of their powers, which needs to be kept happy). The Shaman are, for our purposes, primary magic-users; they make the same sort of bargain, but are more about using their powers to aide the tribe and afflict hostiles using those powers themselves instead of in additional martial arts. These split by focus or source of their powers (Animal, Plant, Fetish/Mask, Elemental, Paradox, Healing), but otherwise are similar enough that one can generally grok one another's abilities and restrictions.

Okay, now, to extrapolate without resorting to outright mechanical revisions.

They chose you. Shaman are chosen, neither born nor made; senior shaman can, and do, foster their juniors (and societies of shaman chosen by a given spirit or spirits are very much a thing; priesthoods form out of them, should the circumstances allow it) but this is not necessary. The spirits are more than capable of teaching their chosen shaman how to do what they wish from him on their own; more formal priesthoods lack this they-call-you provision, which is a clear mark of distinction between these traditions.

Your powers are gifts from them, that come at a very palpable price. You are not an ordinary man anymore; you are taken up and adopted into the spirit world, to a certain extent, and you are expected to abide by the conditions that come with those powers, period. Your spirit patron comes first, always, and your duty to your people is--in large part--to keep them in harmony with the spirit world as your patron shows it to you. This can, and will, lead to conflicts between shaman societies when their spirit patrons' interests conflict. (Deer societies and Wolf societies are not friends.) A hippy you are NOT.

Your people expect you to represent them to the spirits. Bridges are two-way affairs, and the spirits expect you to be the one who relays between ordinary and supernatural. When the people are in distress, and are unable to handle things as they usually do, they will expect you to contact your spirit patrons and consult with them about the matter as best you (and they) can.

Now, that in mind, you're going to play a character that's not a self-serving loner. You're part of a community, part of a culture, and being a Shaman (any sort) means that you're participating in that situation--in that environment--and therefore you are part of both that tribal society as well as your shaman society. Keep that in mind when you chuck those dice and see that you can opt to play some form of Shaman; you're not a free agent, so if you don't want to deal in that sort of relationship work then I suggest you choose another Occupation.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Playing a Magic-User in RIFTS, Part 16: The Necromancer

Palladium's take on the Necromancer first appeared in RIFTS: Africa, and like everything else in that underwhelming product, this Occupation is a disappointment that does not fulfill player expectations and reveals that quality control at Palladium was (and remains) something that is akin to that of Taurus firearms: when good, great; when bad, horrible (and when good, often built upon another's framework). To play a Necromancer, as shown here, is to have one of those lemons and be in need of a juicer.

The player expectation for a Necromancer is not just that he be able to gather useful information through contacting the dead, but to call them forth from the grave and bind them through his will to be his slaves--his immortal, unyielding agents--and execute his orders. Furthermore, the player expectation includes the ability to manipulate the minds and flesh of living targets as well as all of the dead. In terms now relevant to talk of gaming design, a Necromancer is expected to be a primary-spellcaster that also has one or more pets to manage (some temporary, some permanent); in other words, they expect an undead-themed version of the Warlock class from World of Warcraft (which is, quite frankly, a very good iteration of a playable Necromancer) or the Avatar class from Green Ronin's (now out-of-print) The Avatar's Handbook. The former, to an extent, is met. The latter is lacking.

The Occupation has all of the expected look and feel, but lacks the substance. The Occupation's spell-list looks good on paper, but in practice the targets of the spells can either work around non-crippling effects or ignore them entirely. It lacks direct damage, and the pets that it creates are completely irrelevant to the expected quality of opposition in RIFTS; it doesn't matter if your NPC pets can reform after being blown to bits if you can't do any harm to them whatsoever because those you reliably control are too week, and those that are not cannot be reliably controlled- and that is the case with undead a Necromancer creates. Those who would want to play a Necromancer, therefore, must change how they employ the powers of this Occupation.

In short, a Necromancer is not a tactical threat. It is not primarily a strategic threat. It is primarily a threat on a logistical scale, and logistical threats are NPCs. When your man is someone who's ability to contribute at the table might as well be that of a Rogue Scholar or Scientist with some supernatural benefits and pets because properly leveraging what your powers can do and making the most of your Occupation's assets means that you're playing a different game from everyone else, you've got a problem. Working around this problem means changing your table to something that spends a hell of a lot more time and attention at the logistical and strategic levels, which means that you're playing a wargame or an economy simulation and not a true and proper adventure game (which is what a proper TRPG is). If that works for you, go for it; otherwise, your options are to cut it out from player access or to change the Occupation into something that works for you. Given how Palladium rolls, make some shit up that you think would be fun; you're unlikely to fuck it up any worse than it already is.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Playing a Magic-User in RIFTS, Part 15: The Temporal Wizard & Warrior

Introduced in RIFTS: England (of all things), Temporal Magic enters the game through the Temporal Raider Racial Occupation (not playable as-written) and its two playable Occupations: the Temporal Wizard and the Temporal Warrior. Alas, those looking to get their Time Lord on will be sadly disappointed.

These two Occupations are unique in that a player may opt to enter play above 1st level, but at the price of a restriction in his character's Alignment options (downward, of course) and sanity (also downward). The options are to represent the effects that the Wizard or Warrior sustains from his association with the Raider that trained him, who is a universally evil and abusive entity that cannot help but to corrode the character of his mortal associates if they stay too long. The benefit, of course, is more power and the other benefits of being higher level (which, this being a Palladium game, aren't that great). Quite frankly, it's a bad deal; don't do it.

These Occupations are supposed to be all about time travel and time manipulation, but the spells at their disposal are weaksauce; this is because, quite frankly, player access to such things cannot help but to take a campaign and turn it into a Time War due to players wanting to make the most of the time manipulation powers at their disposal as well as time travel traditionally being just a MacGuffin used to set a story in whatever genre that the writer wanted to mess with in that story. (As so well demonstrated by Doctor Who, of course.) Instead, the time powers at a player's command tend toward the tactical end of things with some provision for forward travel through time and (oddly) dimensional manipulation (i.e. appearing as a 2D image so one can go flush along a wall). This is unlikely to satisfy anyone who would be interested in either of these Occupations.

So, how to play them? You should look at the Wizard as being a technician focused on the manipulation of time in the same way that a IT specialist is a technician that focuses on some form of computer or network technology, and the Warrior as being a Magic Knight with a time theme to his wiggly-fingers stuff (and that, in turn, being more like the magical martial arts of a wuxia film or the Jedi arts of Star Wars). (The powers of the Raider are vaguely defined, as one would expect of something intended to be just a NPC, but are said to be far more powerful.) Both Occupations are not proper scientists or engineers that grok Temporal power at a core principle level; they're limited to applied comprehension, at best, and it would not be wrong to think of them as being a tool-user/maintainer caste meant to be under Raider supervision most of the time. This would account for their weaksauce abilities in comparison to expectations.

While Shifters and Stone Masters often end up as NPCs due to logistics, I expect these Occupations (and the Raider) to be primarily NPC or not appearing at all because--quite frankly--they suck. They suck enough I recommend against including them at all, and I recommend instead just rolling your own Time Lord RCC because that's what you really want anyway.