GM Field Guide #1: Perspectives - Playing the Coalition States (Part 1)
Updated: Mar 27
To assume that a population is defined by one individual, or the loudest sub-set, fails to take into account the totality of the group. It reinforces maligning stereotypes and reduces the whole to a caricature; otherwise known as national personification. By way of example: Japanese follow the code of the samurai; Russians drink copious amounts of vodka and never crack a smile; Germans are hyper-efficient engineers and drink lots of beer; Canadians are polite… well, okay, maybe that one example is true! There may well be some grain of truth to each, but in small doses or in selective cases. For the most part, national stereotypes are based on interpretation of historical events long since passed, with little connection to our current reality. Another aspect, cultures are literally the sum of all its parts – the good, the bad and the yes, the ugly.
Polarizing Effects. I’ve always found the concept of playing Coalition States characters can quickly become one of the more polarizing issues within Rifts fandom. Just how bad are the skull-wearing “bad boys” of the Rifts setting, and how far can you really push it? Godwin’s law remains ever present, hanging there, waiting to be invoked. This, of course, is only reinforced by the iconography and uniform similarities to historical precedence. I for one have seen too many of these discussions degenerate into mindless name calling and pedantic nit-picking. So why on earth write up an article? Why stoke the flames? Well, in the wrong hands, a CS protagonist simply turns into a mindless evil, a trope that at best becomes an issue for the GM to stage manage and at worst a detractor to everyone's enjoyment of the game. It becomes an excuse to reward lazy story telling on the part of the GM or interactions with players; at worst it gives license to role-play some truly offensive scenarios. The historical context is one with varied world views and internecine politics that shaped it into the monstrosity we have read about and study in history and political science classes. The dynamic of the Coalition States does bear some passing similarities to the historical context, yet to simply assume one equals the other based on a similarity on iconography denigrates the potential of the Coalition States in your campaign. More importantly and the key element to this series is from a GM and role-playing perspective, is a wasted opportunity for some truly creative campaigns and in-character game play by those willing to develop the character beyond the stereotype.
NOTE: For purposes of discussion I will not be falling into the Godwin trap. I believe it bears little benefit to the discussion to bring it up.
Spectrum of Response. The Rifts Earth is a fictional setting which a GM can make malleable to their vision. Like any element of a society though, the level of devotion to any particular ideal is wide ranging. That variance provides a GM with a great tool for encounters, allowing you to play on the stereotypes, misconceptions or assumptions your players’ may have. By way of example: In a small town of five hundred folks, there are differences in opinions on a variety of topics that a GM should exploit. How then could a massive collective such as the Coalition States not be afforded the same differences of opinion?
The Primary Issue. The issue GMs and players face when dealing with the Coalition States typically always comes down to: how do they deal with non-humans (e.g. D-Bees, creatures of magic, mutants) and magicians (e.g. spell casters, super powers, natural abilities). This is definitively a pivotal issue; unfortunately, it has much more nuance than is perhaps given, and one of many I hope to examine in future posts.
Limits to Player Character Selection. One of the primary fallouts when setting a campaign is the inevitable decision point whether certain classes will be allowed based on the campaign setting and the players' desires. Throw one magic user into the mix and it becomes limiting as to where you can send your players; throw in a visibly non-human D-Bee and it becomes even more so. The GM has a choice to make on whether this is playable in their campaign. For the most part, this is mostly limiting to where they can go: magic users and D-Bees likely not ever getting into Chi-Town; you may get away with the 'Burbs, but you are *really* working against the grain. Not impossible, but you'd likely spend more time dodging NTSET and Dog Boy packs than much else; a creative GM and group certainly could make this work.
MECHANISMS OF INFLUENCE
General. There are a number of reasons why someone would fall at different points along the spectrum of hate/religion/politics/football teams/cars/etc. Just like in real life, our parenting, experiences, friendships, hardships, education, social strata, all of it factors into our opinions. The Coalition States appears to use several factors to assist in messaging, making it largely easier for them to convince “the masses” what they should think. This is not a hard-and-fast thing, but a few tools they can exploit:
Limitation on Literacy. When you are subject only to visual and aural forms of communications, you are limited to the information by the mechanisms of delivery. By leveraging illiteracy, the power-in-place keeps the target population from seeking differing opinions. By controlling the radio waves, television broadcasts and computer networks, messaging provided in easier to manage sound bites that can be selectively edited, the CS can more easily manage the narrative.
Limiting Encounters. By keeping people from interacting with the “other,” it makes it easier to demonize and provoke strong negative feelings by association. Without the ability to form one’s own opinion, one can’t create an informed opinion. Even anecdotal evidence suggests that once people have a chance to encounter the "other," they have significantly improved chances of curbing negative opinions through human connections; the power of the personal making choices based on their own experiences vice accepting something as gospel upon hearing it.
Repetition. Like all propaganda machines, simple messaging and copious repetition allows for it to set. It more easily becomes background noise that just melds into the consciousness and forms that unseen baseline of emotions that influences action and thought. Examples include lacing broadcasts with simple but catchy or shocking messages, ensuring news broadcasts are managing the same storylines and edited to support a common theme, or targeted posters throughout the neighbourhood.
Exploiting Anxiety. Humanity has fallen from the apex to middle-ish rung on the ladder. Tapping into the uncertainty of the race’s survival and the anxiety of being beset on all sides by demons and the inhuman (D-Bees, etc), the human-first agenda seems an easier sell. Unanswered questions can be given a plausible reason, one that places the inhuman patsy as a believable and easily assailable target for blame. The Coalition States is beset on all sides by those they have vilified as enemies: Tolkeen, the Magic Zone, Pecos Empire, the Xiticix, Atlantis controlling the Atlantic, demons aplenty from the various nexus points. A spat with Free Quebec pretty much the one exception in the more recent narrative.
Use of Ethos. This typically revolves around the credibility of the speaker or author; old school news anchors had this (i.e. Walter Cronkite), as do subject matter experts (doctors, engineers, scientists). In the case of the CS, when the Emperor or his son speaks, it definitely adds weight to the words. One could assume a series of other “chosen ones” or surrogates are delivering the messaging lines, ‘first hand accounts’ from survivors, those that passed through some experience to lay the blame on the magician, the D-Bee. Find one that committed truly heinous acts or is easily identifiable as non-human to simplify things further by way of comparison to a clean-cut, calm human in a position of authority.
Use of Pathos. Basically the “Tugging at the Heartstrings” phenomenon; think back to the Live Aid and UNICEF for the Etheopian famine, or the more recent hurricane fundraisers for the Carribean. For the CS, this likely revolves around stories of grief and hardship, shock imagery of humans in pain, suffering, or dying at the hand of their enemies. The aim is to show humanity passing through the crucible, as victims, yet maintaining a position of influence over their collective fates.
Use of Logic. Facts and logic presented with enough of a kernel of truth to keep even the skeptics considering the messaging. Manipulation of statistics, scientific terminology and other official sounding terminology to lend weight and allow that narrative over-reach into a dangerous place. Essentially this is used to undermine a person’s cognitive sophistication, a fancy term for the ability to tell fact from fiction.
The first in a series of posts that will explore the motivations and machinations of the Coalition States, with a view to providing players and GMs alike a greater contextual background for either playing CS characters (as a single member of the party or the party as a whole), playing against CS characters and giving them more than a single dimension to play with, or at the very least, some food for thought in providing the faceless enemy you pit your players against with a little more of a motivation for their deeds and how they conduct themselves.
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