Saturday, September 27, 2014

Common Campaigns in RIFTS: The Exploration Campaign

Five-year missions, expeditions into the unknown, seeking the Northwest Passage- these are stories of exploration and RIFTS has plenty of room for those who seek to make known what is unknown.

The core of a campaign focused upon exploration is that the players assume the roles of individuals who are either trained for exploration, or they are specialists of a different--but necessary--sort assigned to such a task. The specific venue varies widely--overland, oversea, undersea, space, planar, etc.--but the format is the same: a team of explorers forms to investigate what, if anything, lies beyond a given threshold. This can be a mountain range or other significant terrain feature, space itself- you get the idea. Adventures are built around penetrating this threshold and then seeing what is there; making first contact with locals, mapping the territory explored, and preserving this information long enough to report back to their patron(s) so follow-up expeditions can be made with the benefit of that knowledge.

Exploration campaigns, therefore, are mixtures of diplomacy and adventure on a dangerous and unknown frontier. Players should be working with low amounts of information, dealing with material scarcity due to being at the tail end of a long logistical train (so they can't operate at optimal efficiency or effectiveness most of the time; this is "count your rations and arrows" territory), and have to deal with constraints that players in other campaigns either don't have to worry about or never even realize exist. Figuring out how to compensate for these scarcity issues, often by interacting with the locals and learning their methods, is part-and-parcel of a properly-executed exploration campaign.

The other issue with an exploration campaign is that what often follows is either exploitation of natural resources, or population movements into colonial settlements, and either development not only strains extant relations with the locals but--unless reversed--inevitably pushes back the frontier as Civilization (i.e. whom the explorers represent) comes in to fill the void that a frontier represents. You can either end a campaign when this phase of exploration arrives, or you can roll with the punches and take the opportunity to shift the campaign in a different direction; each primary exploration expedition, each first contact situation, each push into the unknown presents an opportunity to find something heretofore unseen and unknown to the players. New mysteries to solve, new cultures to interact with, new lands to investigate- this is the feature that keeps it fresh for years on end. Exploit this feature whenever things start to flag.

Exploration campaigns are best done the old-fashioned way: the sandbox. The GM should decide on the region to explore, and set up initial sets of circumstances (including what Occupations, technologies, etc. are allowed to players), and then let them interact without any concern for narrative logic of any sort- the players will, without fail, fill in all such voids with their own notions and thereby succeed or fail without so much as a word out of the GM's mouth. (And that is the other side to all of this: expeditions fail, often disastrously. If they want to be the Donner Party, let them.)

This is a model where your Men-at-Arms will not be so heavily represented, and your Men-of-Magic/Psychics will be likewise reduced in prominence, in favor of Adventurers and Scholars. You need Wilderness Scouts, first and foremost, and then Scholars and Scientists (including medical experts and technicians) with focuses on field operations (which is done by skill selection and equipment choices; someone that needs a big-city lab is not the sort to send on such things, unless it's based out of something like a starship, and that likely means such an individual will be a NPC). Generalists will be more prized members, speaking of Armsmen and Magicians/Psychics, over specialists and time-limited augmented individuals like Juicers are bad choices- as are those tied to logistical trains (Cyborgs) or already unstable (Crazies). (This, again, is where the magical sorts have an advantage so long as magical power is in sufficient abundance.) Problems are better solved by talking or fixing than by fighting, most of the time, and running is not a bad idea- players cannot presume that whatever they face they can handle.

Exploration campaigns are also easily transitioned into and out of because the core of the campaign's paradigm is inherently unstable, and thus temporary, so you can use an exploration phase as a change-of-pace for another campaign when you see the need for such a thing. If you start as exploration, but the players are not interested anymore, it is not hard to let the frontier shift away from them and let them take up positions in the emerging post-exploration communities that arise in the wake of successful exploration expeditions. When devising what to do with a game of RIFTS, don't count exploration out; even as just a temporary phase, you can really get to the heart of what makes tabletop RPGs special by returning to the origin of the hobby- exploration of the unknown, be it for gold, for glory, or for getting away from where they came from.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Common Campaigns in RIFTS: The Starship Campaign

This is the sort of thing you'll see in a Three Galaxies setup, usually, though a Earth System version ("Spaceship" instead of "Starship" due to the lack of FTL technologies) does happen. You've seen this in other media in many variations--Firefly, Star Trek, Star Wars, Outlaw Star, Angel Links, Space Battleship Yamato, etc.--so it's not a hard one to figure out here. The players assume the role of a ship's captain and crew, and the campaign focuses upon their activities. Other tabletop RPGs, such as the venerable Traveller, are all about this sort of thing.

You've got three major variations of this campaign archetype.
  • The Tramp Freighter: The ship is a working commercial vessel of some sort (usually a small-scale cargo or passenger vessel, working as a for-hire charter vessel or along adjunct lines tied to major commerce lanes). The scope of the campaign is often "local" (in space-faring terms; working within a solar system is the lowest end, within a small stellar region or zone the typical end, w/ greater scope being very rare). Common gameplay activities revolve around keeping the vessel operational, keeping themselves in good health, and keeping their difficulties away. Players assume the roles of characters with little or no augmentation, supernatural power, or out-of-the-ordinary technologies. (So, we're looking as the sort of table where being a City Rat is not out of line, and being a Vagabond is a viable option; ordinary military personnel in their ordinary capacities are a significant challenge, and better outwitted than outfought.)
  • The Exploration Expedition: The ship is a public or private vessel configured for (if not purpose-built for) long-term, and often long-range, exploration. The scope of the campaign is often very far-ranging, and both the crew and the vessel will be trained and equipped to operate in a self-sufficient manner. First Contact is a common gameplay activity, and with it the potential to engaging in a wide variety of diplomatic and economic negotiations (and their intrigues) with heretofore unknown parties. While the nigh-platonic form is classic Star Trek and it's Five-Year Mission, taking inspiration from real-life histories of exploration expedition is a good idea. Players assume the role of key officers, and often take up alts of lower status who are more likely to engage in shore expeditions or otherwise do stuff that matters away from the ship. As with the Tramp Freighter, the characters are unlikely to be superhuman or super-powered (in relative terms, if not absolute ones) and the same will be--for the most part--true of the technology at their disposal at any time.
  • The Warship Campaign: The ship is a warship, engaged in warfare operations. In this respect it's a shipborne variant of the Mercenary or Military Campaign, but as with the others the ship as both homebase and focal point is part of the paradigm. Campaigns of this sort take their cues from Space Battleship Yamato, various Age of Sail series, and the real-life accounts of ships such as the Enterprise in World War II. Their activities focus around military operations, so there is an overall objectives to keep in sight, and there is a determined opposition out to stop them by means of blowing them out of the sea of stars. Combat--fleet and personal--is a common occurrence, but this need not be a series of fights; real warfare is about objectives, not slugfests, so it's about getting yours before the other side gets theirs. Players also assume the roles of key officers, and should take up alts that do stuff the key officers wouldn't do.
In addition, you're going to have the following traits in common:
  • The Ship: Whatever form it takes, the ship is a character unto itself and should be treated like one. Even if the stats for it enter play as any other of its class, that specific vessel is specific to that captain and crew and should be individuated accordingly. ("There are many like it, but this one is ours.") Players should value the ship as the expensive, mission-critical thing that it is and not be cavalier about its welfare. The ship is homebase for the characters. It's the focus of their operations. It's the center of their lives, without which they're unable to carry on at all.
  • The Travelling: It's not a starship campaign if you're not sailing the sea of stars. It's a naval game, so get out of port and out in space. You should be visiting new ports of call on a regular basis, with only a few locations being seen frequently; regular visits to a known friendly port is something that depends on the specific set up of your starfaring campaign (tramp freighters and exploration vessels will visit on very different rates of regularity and frequency). Being that this is RIFTS, it's going to be more Space Opera than Hard SF, so you've got that going for you; don't be shy about the planets and what's there.
  • The Other Starfarers: Your opposition is very likely to be as spaceborne as your allies are. This means that you and your players need to figure out how your table wants to handle ship-to-ship interactions (combat and otherwise) to ensure that the players aren't bored when time comes for the crew to make the ship happen. This will differ depending upon the ship; tramp freighters with some guns attached are not the same as a naval dreadnaught in command of a squadron or even a massive fleet. (Yes, you can get your Legend of the Galactic Heroes on here, so go for it.)
The rest is your bog-standard figure-that-shit-out-at-your-table stuff. Enjoy.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Common Campaigns in RIFTS: The Superhero Campaign

RIFTS, being a multi-genre campaign, can support entire genres if (and only if) your group buys into that voluntarily. Superheroes do work well enough, and you need not have Heroes Unlimited to make this work, but some commentary with regards to melding the usual superhero tropes with RIFTS is in order.

I am not talking about someone with superpowers in a colorful costume. That can, and does, cover plenty of Occupations in this game and therefore does not make one a superhero. (Or a supervillain for that matter.) I am talking about taking a campaign that would be normative for something like Champions or Mutants & Masterminds (or, of course, Heroes Unlimited) and using it in the environment of RIFTS. This is all about the tropes and not the numbers or the gameplay options.

A superhero game in RIFTS can handle the same range of power level--from the streets and backwoods of mostly-mundane characters to the cosmic levels of Lensmen and their inspirations (Green Lantern and Nova Corps)--so that is not the issue. The issue is that such a campaign will not be the Comics Code Authority sort of castrated content; this doesn't automatically make it an Iron Age (to use comic culture terminology) setting, but it does mean that you are not making the most of what's available in RIFTS if you sanitize things.

By necessity, you should be using some form of team as your campaign template. The trick is to pick the right team for your table's needs; if you have a group that can reliably fulfill a regular commitment to show up and play for four to six hours a week playing the same characters, then you want to use a group like The Fantastic Four or one of the many Japanese tokukatsu shows (or their animated counterparts, Magical Girls and Martial Boys). For a group with a rotating attendance, you want to use a larger organization where members come and go routinely for this or that reason, such as the Legion of Superheroes or the various Avengers lineups. This also means choosing team templates means choosing gameplay templates; committed single-character groups can better exploit serial drama tropes and premises than looser groups who either lack commitment or play multiple characters, who (in turn) can better exploit episode structures and tropes.

So, that said, here's a list of things you need to do to make it work in RIFTS:
  • Choose a Scope & Scale: On Earth, you're best being a City Defender sort of team, even if it's not strictly a city-centric team. Tolkeen is very good for a Magical Girl/Martial Boy team, using magical armors and powers with a common theme. The Coalition would do a super-elite team in the fashion of Suicide Squad or Doom Patrol, using some varieties of Juicer and Crazy that are otherwise ridiculously powerful but burns them out really fast- faster than what is the norm for Juicers. Smaller cities would work better for smaller groups, or even motivated solo players, but should also range somewhat afield to make up for the small city space.
    Out in the Three Galaxies, go cosmic. Characters should have technology or magic equal to that of starships, if not star fleets. They should be concerned about large-scale threats; planet-specific parties should be irrelevant nuisances if they are not on planets of strategic importance, and those that are not irrelevant should make the power but lack the scope of operation for some reason or another in order to prevent "Why are they not major players themselves?"

  • Cull Your Corpus: You, the GM, needs to sit down beforehand and sift through everything that is available and cut away everything that does not fit the specific superhero experience that you want. This means both what players can access as well as what the NPCs--friendly, neutral, and hostile alike--can access. By definition, a superhero is an individual whose capacities exceed the norm for his environment; if the standard soldiers or gendarmes are augmented in some fashion then being similarly augmented generally doesn't cut it- the superhero possesses an advantage of quality over the far superior quantity of the NPCs. This means that power differential is both relative and necessary to quality as "super"; Batman is super over most of what he deals with, but ordinary versus what Superman can and does contend with (which is why Batman has to rely on Writer Bias to prevail), so don't think that you can blindly employ what's in the books.

  • : Get the players on the same page. You're playing a campaign that doesn't necessarily jive with RIFTS as-presented. Ensure that your players see things your way and agree with that before you start chucking dice. If this means house rules, do it. Square that away now, before any issues arise.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Common Campaigns in RIFTS: The Military Campaign

If the mercenary campaign is the default, then the military campaign is one step removed.

The difference is that a military campaign concerns itself with the formal armed forces of a specific state, and as such character autonomy is constrained. The players do not have control over where they go or what their objectives are when they get there, which makes this a fine option for those players who are not the active sort who prefer to set their own goals or pursue their own ambitions; a military structure is excellent for the passive player who shows up with an attitude of "entertain me". The range of character options are likewise constrained, as the players' characters are all members of the same unit and therefore are going to be variations on a niche instead of a broad range of options cooperating as part of an umbrella organization.

In practice, a military campaign will have these features:
  • You are soldiers in an army akin to that of a real-world, First World army: By default that means playing a Coalition, Free Quebec, or New German Republic soldier. Your man is indoctrinated into that state's dogma, trained in their doctrine, forced to specialize into a narrow set of applicable skills, and organized into an equally specialized unit with a specific function to fulfill as part of a larger military operation that your man likely cannot perceive as the flag officers in command can. Your man is part of a hierarchy, with one character in command over the rest of the players' characters, and the range of playable activities is as narrow as your man's area of competency.
  • You are playing in a procedural campaign: The sort of unit your man is part of dictates the sort of gameplay activities that you have. Contrary to one infamous example, fighter pilots don't do ground-pounding line infantry actions. Tankers don't do hotshot mechajock action. Line infantry aren't involved in fleet battles unless and until (a) they are marines and (b) boarding actions are a thing- neither of which are common at all. By choosing what sort of military unit you want to play, you also choose what kind of game structure you want to explore. Choose carefully.
  • Your campaign is married to the political and economic conflicts of the state: Military forces are used to further a state's political and economic interests. That means that your unit can be, and if applicable will be, deployed to advance or defend those interests. Campaigns that fail this fundamental reality of what militaries are for are also campaigns that fall apart because the bullshit cannot be ignored.
This means that a military campaign is a wargame campaign, be that wargame component that of an open or covert war, or a cold or hot war, and you'll be far more satisfied with your gameplay experience when you embrace this reality and make it work for you.