Saturday, January 31, 2015

RIFTS and Your Game: Shaping the Setting as Customization

An easy way for a Game Master to take what is written and make it yours is to curate and shape the setting material to your liking. This is a liminal conceptual space where rules and setting blend, so you might as well think of this as an aspect to making House Rules.

To illustrate the point, I'll go with the Coalition States and its primary socio-economic institution: the Army. The Army is where the Coalition puts the able-bodied men within its reach. By putting all adult men into the Army, it subjects them to a single comprehensive authority with total control over their lives, so we'll do that and remove all civilian life from the Coalition States: the Coalition doesn't have an Army, it IS the Army. The rules effect? All Coalition characters are Male and Military. (With two exceptions, as noted below.) This culls the playable options down to a handful of Occupations (which, really, are military specializations) and exactly one race/sex combination; it also narrows the range of playable spaces down to those specific to military operations- something that an expansionist, manaphobic, xenophobic, racist, sexist, authoritarian, and totalitarian military dictatorship operating in a milieu that justifies its propaganda on an hourly basis would be.

(Exceptions: Dog Boys and Honeypots. The former are still male-only, but male Canine; the latter is where the very few women allowed outside the home operate, both in counter-intelligence and in foreign intelligence. You expected post-apocalyptic Nazis to do otherwise? Learn your history; they would, because in many respects they did.)

Let's get more specific now.

A Coalition man, regardless of his specialization, must complete Basic Training. This includes, since the technology exists, the mandatory implantation of certain cybertechnologies. Ear modifications that act exactly as real-world electronic ear protection headphones, eye modifications that guarantee 20/20 vision as well as instant polarization (making eye glasses/sunglasses pointless), lung modifications to ensure endurance in the field, and a datajack in the base of the neck- all imposed to get any given recruit up to baseline functionality at best possible speed. (Yes, the datajack is that important; it's easier to have a unit jack into a cybernetic network to get trained/briefed/etc. than to talk it out (since all Coalition personnel are totally illiterate, so written stuff is out).

So, rules: instead of a Coalition character having a choice, they get a set package of cybernetics as a standard feature of that Occupation, to be considered part of Basic Training and not Specialization training.

Now, let's do some variation thinking.

Abolish man-sized energy weapons and instead replace them with latter-day (but otherwise conventional) firearms. As our Coalition is based in North America, they will use foreseeable iterations of U.S. Army small arms or rivals thereof. Instead of the M9 (i.e. a Beretta 92 model), we'll grant the Coalition officers a latter-generation Glock 17 or 19. (Pilots or similar personnel will be issues a Glock 26, while Technicians will instead be issued a hypothetical Glock carbine--as a real one does not exist as of this post; other manufacturers do this--chambered for the same handgun cartridge, and thus uses the same magazines; we can base this on the Keltec Sub-2000, the Kriss Vector, or some other real-world model but I think just imagining an up-sized Glock filling out the same profile as the venerable M1 Carbine would do.) This will have some cascading effects, but I think those to be desirable ones that are beneficial to the game experience anyway.

Likewise, the standard rifle will be iterations and variations on the AR-15 platform (currently the M4 variation in the U.S. Army). Maybe the standard cartridge will shift to the now-new .300 Blackout cartridge, instead of the current standard 5.56x45mm NATO cartridge. Upgunned versions chambered for the .308 Winchester cartridge ("AR-10" sorts) may be the standard issue instead, depending upon the commonly-encountered opposition of the Coalition. Specialized operators will still use bolt-action rifles, often chambered for that Winchester cartridge by default; far bigger and more powerful cartridges (such as the .50 BMG) will be employed as required (and yes, for those not paying attention, such rifle platforms exist and have for some time).

The game's "Mega-Damage" conceit, when confined to its original scope of use (i.e. tanks and similar objects), works fine; the vast majority of entities in a RIFTS campaign do not qualify for such a status and therefore should be handled accordingly. (You can achieve much of what is implied by using Mega-Damage by other means, especially for super-natural entities, such as Immunities and Resistances or some other concept that other tabletop RPG engines handle very well.)

The rules effect? To eliminiate needless redundancy in conceptual spaces, as well as conceptual confusion, by keeping the baseline of Coalition campaigns as close to that of "The Army vs. The Monsters" as possible- and thus making buy-in very easy for new and returning players, since the unrealities they need to deal with are confined to a few Gee-Whiz widgets and the inhuman presences that they confront on a regular basis.

There, a set of examples of how you can make the body of RIFTS into the game you want- all at varying degrees of emphasis (rules vs. setting), degrees of player-vs.-GM engagement, degrees of in-play vs. away-from-table engagement, etc. so you can see what I intended to do to achieve the desired effect- and thereby do this sort of thing for yourself. This is one of the many reasons for why being as skilled and as knowledgeable of things beyond gaming matters; you can't do this well, if at all, if you refuse to improve yourselves as individuals.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Community Trend of Willful Stupidity Hurts the Game

One thing I noticed when discussing RIFTS with others, online and in-person, was the distressing tendency to avoid anything that would make the game as-published (especially setting material) unusable right out of the box (as it were)- to not question or analyze either the rules of the setting as presented at all, but take it as-given and go no matter how ridiculous or unworkable it may be.

There is no kind way to put it: this is the thinking of a child barely able to reason at all. It's a combination of naivety and willful ignorance that appalls me. It assumes that things "just work" with tabletop RPGs, when they rarely do, and eschews the need to engage with the game to get the result out of it that you want. I also find the appalling gaps in the knowledge of others, often willfully so, contributes to this problem; a lack of education on what religion is, how it works, and why it is not the same as faith or belief in one or more gods is ably demonstrated in the game's treatment of gods and demons. (The comic book trappings betray Siembieda's background in the comic book world of his youth.) Ignorance of how physics works (ballistics and energy), how injury and medicine work, how militaries work, etc. run rampant throughout the game's corpus and too many follow that lead in a blind-leading-the-blind that is now inexcusable.

You're reading this. You have Internet access. Rectifying gaps in useful knowledge is now easier than has ever been before! Failing to make the most of this opportunity, and then using that knowledge to fix fundamental load-bearing pillars of one's mechanics and setting premises, is a grave error that demonstrates the terrible quality of character for far too many people. It's neither tedious (you can break it up into chunks you can digest over a coffee break), nor difficult (arrange chunks in an easy-to-hard progression) to do this about anything. YouTube alone is so great a treasure that I cannot comprehend the refusal to make the most of this resource.

While I can, and do, put some effort into fixing what's broken here I am unable to be as Atlas and shoulder this alone. I expect you people to do likewise, to expand your knowledge, in order to make this game as good as it could be had it been made by a sufficiently knowledgeable individual.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

RIFTS and Your Game: Making The Most of Who's At The Table

There are plenty of people who play tabletop RPGs, and what they get out of the experience varies. Lots of online arguing goes on over these differences, but at the table that need not be something that makes the fun go away. This is a hobby with a diverse array of satisfactions to obtain; make use of that for your group's benefit.

Both online and at the table, you will encounter people who play the game for reasons other than why you do so. It is wise to make the most of the matter, and you do this by apportioning some of the necessary work around to those who are interested and competent to do so. Do you have someone who is great at managing the minutia of the rules? Let them be the table's Rules Encylopedia, to consult as required. Got someone into the numbers game? Let them optimize characters to achieve the desired performance, in terms of mechanics, and instruct others in how to use the tools to get those results. You get the idea. Yes, this is very much like managing actual employees at your job; take the opportunity to develop and hone those skills. (And they say that tabletop RPGs impart no useful skills.)

This is also a good opportunity to become familiar with elements of the game that you would otherwise miss, don't properly appreciate, or aren't quite up to speed about. The game itself is a machine, however wonky, and the setting is a thing that operates under principles that mechanics alone cannot account for; I can only address so much at a time, so I would hope that you folks would be willing to do some examination and exploration of your own instead of waiting for me (or another writer) to do it for you. Those other elements attract those people whose perspective differs from yours, so you will soon tie faces to ideas and have opportunities to discuss productively with those people about these things- and in doing, make both of you better and more satisfied participants.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

RIFTS and Your Game: Set Your Expectations First

I'm taking a break from talking about House Rules to talk about something else.

First, a reminder: I do not think of RIFTS as a single game, but a dozen or more games contained within a single product line and sharing a ruleset. This means that I do not see things as some of you do. Please account for this difference should you wish to reply.

Regardless of the game, it is vital that everyone on the table be of one mind as to what the campaign is about, and therefore what to expect (and what is expected from them) when at the table.

What this means is that the Game Master and the players need to have a chat. If one player looks at giant robots and thinks Battletech, and the GM thinks Mobile Suit Gundam, there is going to be some needless friction that detracts from the fun to be had. The same sort of thing is true of magic, psychic powers, personal weapons, cybertechnology, and so on. Having confirmation of what the elements of the game mean at the table ensures a more manageable game for the Game Master, and a more entertainment experience for the players; when you are certain as to what to expect, then you can direct your energy into engaging the game and immersing yourself into the immediacy of the experience- which directly makes the time spent more fun by eliminating nagging bits that pull you out of the moment.

This is why I talk about curating the available content, making House Rules, and so on: it's all there to establish what to expect at the table, up front, before the dice get thrown. Marking out the boundaries and so on first ensures that all who sit at the table can skip to the fun part once you do start throwing dice around. It also makes it easy to notice when something isn't working, quickly identify what's wrong, and then remedy the issue. This is a fundamental element, a load-bearing pillar, to making any tabletop RPG work for you and yours; you can't just sit down and play- that's one of the adverse differences in medium between TRPGs and other RPG media, but the hassle is worth handling.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

House Rules & RIFTS: Managing the Game - Verisimlitude, Pt.3

There is a term, usually seen in online discussions of games such as Dragon Age or World of Warcraft, known as "character progression". This concerns the development of a character's personal might, be it through the acquisition of more or improved powers (whatever they are), or from the refinement of that character's attributes and skills, as a direct result of gameplay. (This is why level-based systems are dominant; they play directly into the long-established preference for character progression as a central element of game design and play.) For the tabletop role-playing game medium, this cannot be ignored (indeed, it began here), but it can be handled.

The way to address verisimilitude with regard to character progression is to require that the character acquire the new or improved power as a reward for successful pursuit of the character's goals. In other words: progression is treasure, not a leveling-up benefit. A magician must either successfully perform spell research, successfully convince someone with the power to teach/imbue/etc. it unto him, or take it as Spoils of War from an enemy magician. A cyborg must find the bionic component and either trade or steal it, and then find someone or some thing to install it. You get the idea. By this means, the GM can constrain progression to a rate he finds acceptable and he controls what powers a character may acquire. (You can't rebuild your Cyborg into a man-sized Transformer if the technology to do so is not available.)

This also applies to more mundane aspects. The GM controls what skills are available to acquire, and what it takes to learn those skills from said sources. It applies to raw attribute development (usually physical) also; such progression methods requires that the character commit to and devote time to a program of training and study (yes, even for physical development) that they may not be able to do for reasons of more pressing matters requiring their attention. (You can't pick up Electrical Engineering if you're a combatant in the middle of an active military campaign, and you'll not be able to master the Way of the Ennervating Fist if you're already consumed training to master the Strike From All Angles Sword Skill.)

In short, you--as the GM--can, and must, establish what the players can do to progress their characters and then to set what the costs for those improvements are at your table. That is not just one ruling, but a small handful of them that all work together to create the desired effect. A reasonable player will not have an issue with this approach.