Saturday, August 30, 2014

Common Campaigns in RIFTS: The Mercenary Company

RIFTS is a tabletop role-playing game that has its roots in the early days of the hobby. For all of the kitchen-sink approach that RIFTS is famous for, it remains a game that--like the better editions of Dungeons & Dragons--plays to the strengths of the tabletop RPG medium. RIFTS remains very close to the tabletop wargame medium from which tabletop RPGs derived from, Specifically from Dave Wesely's "Braunstein" wargame scenario format, married to the West Marches paradigm of campaign creation and management. It is no surprise, therefore, to see that one of the most common campaigns in RIFTS is built around a group of mercenaries.

What makes for a commercially-viable tabletop RPG is now a well-known fact, and this fact also applies to the use of a tabletop RPG to create and run a successful and entertaining campaign with that tabletop RPG. Building a campaign around the conceit that the players assume the role of a group of mercenaries engaging in their bloody trade, for whatever reason, hits all of those linked elements dead-center of the bullseye. It's popular enough that some assume that it is the default campaign paradigm.

Let us be clear about what a mercenary is: a combatant-for-hire, often specializing in a specific method of operation, who renders services related to combat or warfare as an independent contractor to clients in return for compensation on a contractual basis. A magic-user can be a mercenary, as can a psychic, or anyone else whose Occupational Character Class does not explicitly call itself a mercenary; it is the case, however, that most of the mercenary operators will be Men-At-Arms and often pursue the mercenary career as part of a family business (or something similar) and that will be reflected in the formal name of a character's O.C.C. (i.e. this is where your Headhunters, Glitter Boys, etc. come from) simply because warfare is a mundane and ordinary suite of skills that anyone can pursue and master.

So, banish from your mind any one-to-one association of mercenaries with specific Occupations.

Now, that said, a successful mercenary campaign has a few elements that cannot be ignored:
  • An environment (milieu) full of potential armed conflict. The specific region wherein you intend to run your campaign must have two or more distinct groups that are already into conflict, but has yet to break out into any serious combat encounters; no side has yet to do violence to another, but the tension preceding such a watershed event is present. Mercenaries thrive on war, and without potential clients there is no need for mercenaries to maintain a presence. Furthermore, these conflicts must be solvable, and solvable on a lasting--if not permanent--basis.
  • An environment wherein the conflicting powers lack the means to handle all of their dirty work themselves. This constraint not only is one where material resources, specifically manpower, is too scarce to handle all of the conflicts before them. It also includes political means, so as to deflect or negate undesirable political or economic consequences for acting under their own flag. Mercenaries operate in the liminal spaces wherein these conditions exist; when these conditions fade, so does the space for mercenaries.
  • An environment wherein the mercenaries are free to avoid bothersome entanglements, in favor of pursuing their own goals. Mercenaries have their own ambitions, and that means that players playing mercenaries should also come to the table with a long-term goal in mind. They will be wise to stick to that plan, which means actively and regularly reviewing relationships with clients; they need to know when to cut someone off, when to change allegiances, when to quit the field altogether, and when to go all-in. Mercenaries are businessmen, and playing a campaign cannot avoid dealing in the business side of being a mercenary.
  • An environment wherein there are other objectives to pursue that are not actors in the environment per se, but may contribute to it in some fashion. This is where your treasure troves, caches of pre-Rifts artifacts, your ley lines and nexus points (especially ones where a reliable or controlable rift exists), or other site that possesses strategic or logistical significance in the region comes into play. If there is no contract on offer, or one worth doing, something like this will be pursued by a savvy mercenary group seeking additional revenue streams or capital for fueling company operations. Furthermore, companies seeking to transition into socio-political players want to find sites like this to take, hold, and build a power base upon. They are ripe opportunities for adventure, and therefore for conflict; have plenty of them in your game.
This is considered the default mode of gameplay in RIFTS because it is damn near the default mode of tabletop RPG gameplay regardless of what the specific tabletop RPG is, and because it remains a mode that requires players to know nothing at all before hitting the table it is still the most dominant method to organizing and sustaining a RIFTS campaign. Other modes, to varying degrees, are modifications of this master model. If you have no other idea as to what to do with RIFTS, then this is your go-to format to run with; just be careful with what you allow players to access, and everyone will have a fun time.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Playing a Psychic in RIFTS, Part 10: Putting It Together

By now, you know what kind of psychic your psychic man is. You've gotten into your man's head, so you know where he's coming from and how his thinks. Now, how does your man deal with others?

Good question.

First, a simple and pragmatic matter: you are playing a team-based game, wherein you cooperate to accomplish objectives and deal with scenarios put before you- either self-generated or encountered via emergent gameplay, so it behooves you (and the others at the table) to play well with others, part of which being making a man who does so.

Now, on with it.

Regardless of your man's abilities and level of power, your man is still a psychic and therefore has a unique perspective on things that non-psychics do not share. Exactly what that perspective is will vary--see the previous Archetype posts--but magic-users and mundanes cannot see things as your man does; what your man does, and especially how your man does it, is beyond their capacity to comprehend and as such your man bring a vital asset to any team that your man joins.

Telepaths and Sensitives are good at facilitating communication and unit cohesion amongst a team, either directly through psychic mind-to-mind contact or by facilitating mundane leadership and management skills to get desired results faster. Psycho-Kinetics are able to augment a team's firepower and work as a force-multiplier. Gishes have their own well-defined niches, and Hybrids suggest their own engagement within a team by what they blend together. When making your man, it's a good idea to talk with the others at the table to establish these team relations before you start throwing the dice around; the sooner that everyone is on the same page, the better everyone's gameplay experience will be and the faster that all of you can get to the good stuff and maximize your fun and entertainment.

That last part is a matter that is specific to your table, so I really can't get too specific in advice; what I can do is recommend that you look into non-fiction books about making the most of teamwork environments, and take notes as to how well your man either conforms to or contradicts the proven methods and techniques for successful integration into such environments so that you can play your man accordingly- and, if possible, do this with your fellow players. Even for the most powerful of psychics, the ability to do well with others makes succeeding at your goals far easier and more common than those who lack such social faculties.

And next week, I'll move on to something else altogether: a shift to the sorts of common campaigns in RIFTS.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Playing a Psychic in RIFTS, Part 9: Hybrids

If a Gish is a psychic whose powers synergize with a mundane occupational suite to create a superior whole from the parts, then a Hybrid is a psychic who also wields a second power source with equal power. In RIFTS, this is most obvious with the Mystic, which I covered in the Magic-User series previously. There are variations on this in other books, which I leave to you to review at your leisure.

While the Mystic is a hybrid psychic and magic-user, focusing upon sensitive psychic powers and basic spell-casting, both derived from a strong connection to the unseen cosmic forces via their intuition, the archetype in general can cast its net much wider than that. Therefore, what makes the mind of a Hybrid is not the nature of their powers, but rather that they have two or more sources of power at equal (roughly) levels and therefore have to split their attention (and develop their consciousness) between them. This is how a Hybrid's perspective enables them to become capable of seeing multiple points of view, making them capable diplomats and mediators due to this cognitive bias that comes out of their development.

The price, predictably, is that a Hybrid is never fully able to assimilate their sense of identity into either of their sources of power; the blended power perspective grants diversity and breadth at the cost of specialization and depth. Therefore they tend to seek out others like themselves, with varying levels of success, if they seek a community of their own at all. (Mystics, for example, tend towards a level of self-reliance otherwise seen only in the Telepaths and Psychokinetics.) For the player, this means that your man will always be in a liminal mind and social space where things are unclear and one's existence is more of a frontier (even in the middle of a highly-civilized place).

This makes Hybrids good for your usual gameplay scenarios. Even if they prefer to operate above-board at all times, they will still be in that liminal space and therefore be open to the sort of scenarios that are typical in RIFTS. Their ability to operate in two distinct environments (literally or otherwise) give them something other than their powers to bring to the table, and due to Hybrids being sufficiently different amongst themselves due to what powers they blend together you can have multiples of this type and not end up with carbon-copies. Distinctiveness of character is quite possible with Hybrids.

A character's personality writes itself when keeping the archetype's major traits in mind. Individuality comes at the edges, where specific encounters and experiences can color the specific manifestation in different direction. When making a Hybrid, this is your space for customization of his persona, so exploit it; you'll come up with a sufficient background in the process, and still able to put it all on a 3x5 card. Simple, quick, easy.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Playing a Psychic is RIFTS, Part 8: Sensitives

We've got our Telepaths. Sensitives are a step down from Telepaths in that they aren't literal mind-readers, and most of what the Sensitive is sensitive to stems from a thinking entity of some sort. The rest of what they sense is environmental presences that, usually, are the result of thinking entities' activities. If Professor X is a good Telepath example, then Counselor Troi is the cut-rate version that typifies Sensitives.

Playing a Sensitive usually means that your psychic man is not a power-player; for truly powerful psychics, Sensitive powers are secondary abilities that logically follow from their primary power(s). (Mind Melters always develop useful Sensitive powers, and are often logically derivative of Telepathic or Telekinetic ability, for example.) They usually aren't Gishes either, but instead take up the third (and, statistically, most common) approach to the practical employment of psychic power: as Augmentation to ordinary professional development.

So, your Empath is likely to also been a skilled negotiator, counselor, mediator or other strong interpersonal profession or role due where being an Empath greatly facilitates the development of such skills and easily integrates into such practices. One that can Detect Evil/Magic/Psi is often found as an investigator, tracker, bounty hunter, etc. and specialize in dealing with what they detect (e.g. Psi Stalker, Dog Boy). You can see the pattern: the powers point to useful practical occupations wherein the powers can be best employed.

In larger terms, Sensitives--as with Telepaths--are very likely to be found in some form of Intelligence or Military position, often as an asset run by a trained operative instead of being one themselves (unlike Telepaths; they're valued as operatives, and as a class always rise to the top of any society wherein they exist given time and no effective opposition). They're equally valued on both sides of the Great Game, and often concealing as best they can their true nature (even in the Coalition or similar hostile states), as they become targets for removal when an opposing operation makes its move; Sensitives suddenly breaking contact are a reliable signal to savvy operations that an enemy attack has come.

So, playing one means that--while you are often considered to be better than the common man--you're on the level of a soldier with some basic augmentation, or at best on the level of a well-built Cyborg, or a Juicer or Crazy; far more common is a status akin to a Headhunter, in that a Sensitive possesses relevant skills and complimentary powers that augment performance significantly, but are not themselves a big game-changing presence in and of themselves (as Telepaths, Psycho-Kinetics, or certain Gishes can be). You're not a super-hero level presence, but instead a solid pillar of a team whose collective performance can approximate such individuals.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Playing a Psychic in RIFTS, Part 7: Gishes

Taken from the Githyanki of Dungeons & Dragons, a Gish is an individual who blends some form of supernatural power usage with a mundane professional skillset to create a hybrid professional archetype. In RIFTS, we see this most obviously in the form of the Cyber-Knight and less so with the Operator (and an argument can be made for the Crazy, since so many are psychic), but the pattern holds: these Occupations blend psychic powers and professional skills into a hybrid that exploits the synergies between the two. To return to comparisons to Marvel or DC characters, we're now looking at characters such as Cable, Deadpool, Deathstroke, and others that are often supersoldiers; rarely, alas, do we get further than that in the comic world.

The way to approach a Gish is to remember that the whole is superior to the parts, and that means that a Gish is someone who spent considerable time prior to entering gameplay undergoing some form of training or apprenticeship wherein he not only learned both of these parts, but blended them together into a coherent and synergetic paradigm. Like the Psychokinetics and Telepaths, Gishes come to build their identity around their abilities; unlike those two, Gishes are made, not born, and therefore enjoy a stronger resilience psychologically when something happens to nullify one of those parts. A Cyber-Knight without his Psi-Sword and Sixth Sense is still a skilled warrior; he can pick up a Vibro-Sword and still make use of his swordsmanship skill, and technology (along with deep mastery of mundane skill) can compensate for his lost Sixth Sense. (Ditto with Psi-Warriors, Crazies, etc.) An Operator is still a competent engineer, mechanic, technician, and tinkerer without his Tele-Mechanics powers- other examples exist.

This means that you're playing someone who finds mundane people relatable, sometimes in a paternalistic manner and sometimes not, but rarely are we dealing with the disconnection of empathy that often happens with Psychokinetics and Telepaths. Yes, even if your man is Selfish or Evil, he still finds ordinary people relatable; he may regard them poorly, and see them as suckers to be fleeced or cattle to be herded or culled as needed, but the God Complex issue is rarely a problem because he remains fundamentally tied to ordinary people in a way that Psychokinetics, Telepaths, and other similarly-powerful archetypes often lack.

The other thing is that Gishes, due their training/apprenticeship background, appreciate the value of cooperation and teamwork due to having multiple perspectives built into that process. While they can, and some prefer, to work alone they rarely insist upon it as a routine matter; evil Selfish and Evil Gishes will cooperate with others to accomplish their goals, and appreciate deferred gratification sufficiently to think beyond right now and instead prioritize objectives such that they can delay or avoid betraying today's allies (Why do that? It reduces or eliminates needless complications; if you don't need to stab in the back to get your way, then don't- effective villains are not the proverbial Scorpion.)

So, if you want a more humanistic psychic character, look into playing some form of Gish. Ditto that if you want a psychic character who isn't wholly dependent upon his powers to be effective. The Cyber-Knight and Operator have their fans for very sound reasons, reasons that extend to all characters who blend power and prowess as they do. If you haven't, try one next time.