GM Field Guide #8: Geography and Distances
Updated: Mar 27
A Macro-Level Discussion
There really are two factors to this discussion. At the macro-level, this is more inclined for the GMs out there for the purposes of adventure creation and campaign design, while the micro-level involves the application of distance and geography in terms of encounters and the tactical decisions made by the Players. In this article we’ll discuss the Macro-Level considerations.
Campaign Influence (Macro). The idea of using geography in the presentation of an RPG is a pretty core component to world building. The map defines boundaries in terms of both geography and political sovereignty; these could be entire worlds, regions, or the city-spires/underground cavern system that defines a mega city. These in turn situate the GM and Players, identifying where the proverbial ‘blue’ and ‘red’ forces are, as well as inform on limitations to movement or mode of transport. It also provides a GM the framework for shaping adventure ideas: defining factions, topography of the realms, the influence of neighbouring factions, and the regions that would most likely support a conflict our intrepid adventurers could be sent into (e.g. war zones, areas of unclaimed territory).
DISCUSSION – MACRO-LEVEL
Real World Expectations (Macro). Rifts uses real-world geography to support much of its world building. We can open an atlas or go to Google Maps and point out the major continents and other land features; on Rifts Earth, things are largely still there. Cultures remain relatively unchanged (e.g. languages spoken, cultural norms), less some obvious exceptions for the purposes of fleshing out the post-apocalyptic world building. There are enough tropes and stereotypes a GM can leverage to represent other cultures with enough accuracy to conduct the adventure – we don’t necessarily need a cultural deep dive or report for the purposes of game play. As a psychological aspect to the game, the GM can leverage this information to help define their adventure ideas while still grounding things in a manner the Players can interact with and at least anecdotally understand. It’s a kind of cheat for the GM, but also supports Player expectations. Some examples:
NGR. A GM need not be a German citizen to shape an adventure in the NGR. Having escaped much of the ravages from the apocalypse, you can realistically get away with a fair bit. The autobahn and major road/rail networks still likely exist, as does modern air transportation. Germanic culture and food can be simulated, and fashion/architecture are completely up for grabs.
Westerns. A player need not be an American to play a gunfighter in the New West. Expansive landscapes encompassing the spaces between villages and towns likely remains a thing. Westerns can provide some idea for the more rural architecture, while larger cities can rely on modern designs. The adventure has no requirement to feel like a spaghetti western either. The cowboy/villain/sheriff and the dusty town saloon are things you can employ, but I daresay there is much more adventure to be had.
Africa. Much like the Western example, large and sprawling distances between settlements are likely the norm. This is a massive continent with whole regions that support difference topography. It’s not all desert in the top third, jungle in the middle third, savanna in the bottom third. The distance from Cairo (Egypt) to Johannesburg (South Africa) is ~5,250 miles (8,400+ km). By comparison, San Francisco to Halifax is ~3,750 miles (6,000+ km). No small difference. Entire regions could be detailed as extensively as the Coalition States’ sphere of influence.
Modern Cinematic Media. The movies, television series and streaming services have provided us myriad examples that have established a baseline of expectations (whether right or wrong) to influence campaign design at a macro level; styles of architecture, modes of transport, certain elements of culture. I’d strongly (*strongly*) recommend a modicum of respect be applied here, and encourage GMs to do more than a Wiki search for how other cultures present themselves.
Topography. The introduction of Atlantis certainly reshaped the Atlantic Seaboard, and could realistically expect to influence shorelines across the globe. Certain regions have seen wholesale turmoil and upheaval (e.g. Australia, the Amazon basin), while others are very much the same (e.g. Great Lakes region, NGR). The real-world geography of the region is a start point. The upheaval and turmoil that occurred due to the Apocalypse allows GMs the opportunity to change topography to match the needs of the story. If a raised tectonic plate would save a region of Georgia from being swept clean, then go ahead! Need a river to be swollen to the size of a lake? Done! Do you need a mountain in the middle of the Sahara? Done! Don’t be afraid to play with the topography to meet the needs of your storyline and campaign.
Global Reach No More. The advent of satellite communications provided phenomenal reach to nations and people alike. Combined with modern transportation, they allowed for integration of economies and globalization. In the world of Rifts, things are dramatically different. Both GM and Players need to realize this limitation. There is no rationale for a PC starting on the island of England to know much about anything occurring in the NGR, let alone Australia, or the Coalition States; the same should apply to communications to and from those regions.
Modern Versus Medieval Transport. One of the key differences in a post-apocalyptic or modern setting with a medieval one such as AD&D. In the ancient settings, horse-bound transport or sailing are the predominant forms of quick, mass transport. This also means there is a maximum distance that can be travelled in a day that has a fairly low upper limit when compared to modern machines. In the Rifts setting, there are vehicles that can exceed the medieval daily maximum in the span of an hour. This makes regions of Rifts Earth much smaller for the purposes of connecting one community to another.
Modern Transport in Rifts World. Something of a bugbear for me. I’ve found that the significant library of World Books and Sourcebooks has made the Rifts world just a little too “small.” The expansive information seems to have left fewer and fewer regions of the Rifts world as ‘undiscovered.’ It’s to the point that there seems to be a village or major town around every corner. Compound this with a plethora of vehicle/power armour entries that all have the capability to traverse hundreds of miles in a day (heck, in some case hours), Rifts Earth can begins to resemble our contemporary lives more than a post-apocalyptic setting. That said, there are a number of factors both the GM and Players should consider in traversing such long distances:
Vast Wilderness. The sense of vastness seems to be losing out to the increasing number of books. Particularly in North America, the space between major inhabited zones is getting compacted. To counter this, one must recall that despite the dots or clumps of humanity, they are not evenly dispersed. There are ‘human city states,’ but they are few and far between; outside of these, ‘there be monsters’ should be the rule of thumb, where humans are definitively not the top of the food chain. Have that random encounter table handy, or a few pre-determined encounters ready at hand.
Mass Transit System. There is no longer any access to a massive interstate system of paved roads to move freely from one region to the next. Some of the greater civilizations may have a formal system of roads (e.g. the CS, NGR), but outside of that, you are relying on dirt paths or going cross country. The implication of not using a paved road should not be minimized. Whereas today, one could expect to drive several hundred miles/kms a day, this is a very likely an impossibility in Rifts Earth.
Types of Topography. The difference between trying to traverse the open plains one might find in the American Midwest is vastly different than that of the Appalachian forests, mountains without clearly defined passes, the densely overgrown thickets of the Dinosaur Swamp, or the innumerable rivers and bodies of water than simply pose an impassable obstacle. The impact of these types of terrain can be used to really ‘mess’ with the party, or provide adventure tangents during the time the party traverses from point A to point B. A massive forest with only goat paths means that Mountaineer ATV or NG robot will have to find alternate routes. Traversing over the tops of the trees in a hover jeep may make great time, but makes a tempting target for a beast with flight or an antagonist with long range weapons.
Distance From Support. Something to keep in mind are sustainment requirements for the party. Everything from repairing damage to vehicles and armour, to maintenance of kit and equipment. Things are liable to break down. Unless the party includes a wiz-kid fixit or an Operator PC, the distance the party travels from their base of support should be considered as a factor that a GM can fold into the adventure.
Distance From Shelter. The protection afforded by walled cities, and the armed forces that keep the snarling monsters and demons at bay, is a significant factor that can be used by the GM. The threat of attack out in the wilderness, by demons and monsters (be they D-Bee, demonic or human) is no small thing. Typically only playing in a small party of 3 to 6 PCs, this is a small, vulnerable group. That small camp made in the middle of the forest offers some great cover for monsters to sneak right up to the party. Camping out in the desert with little to no cover leaves the party exposed. All of these can be really impactful decisions by the party that a GM can then use to make impactful encounters.
Situating Adventures. The world literally is your oyster, and the Rifts library certainly provides copious amounts of information. That said, how the GM situates the adventures is a pretty important step to campaign design. Adventures within Chi-Town or the NGR can shake out very differently to ones in the wilderness. By way of example, the CS Chi-town portion of Indiana, the region around Lazlo, and much of the NGR would likely have efficient, paved highways connecting major communities together, like our contemporary system. Air travel likely very similar. I would expect the Magic Zone or the Russian expanses to be much more reliant on dirt roads, let alone what one would find in the jungles of South America, south-eastern Asia, or the Dino Swamp. This becomes even more problematic for desert and arctic travel, where seldom used roads are very likely only temporary. A few questions to ask yourself as a GM:
Is this a wilderness-based adventure?
They will need a jeep or boat to get around.
What impacts will damage to the vehicles have? Did you sink their boat?
Is this an urban setting adventure?
Will they have a personal mode of transport or rely on public transit?
Can they hire a taxi or are distances short enough to walk?
If expected to traverse larger distances, how will they deal with the loss of their mode of transport?
Integrate Travel Into the Adventure. Make the travel a role-playing experience, by integrating the PCs into a non-combat scenario with NPCs. Make travel a role-playing experience that dovetails into the adventure. The idea is to try to avoid the missed opportunity that comes with a ‘time skip’ into the future. Who knows who they may encounter and what ideas may develop into another adversary or ally? The role-playing aspect is also important for several classes, and even the gruffest Men-at-Arms can earn a modicum of XPs (sometimes in the most comical of ways) through the interactive aspect of the game. A few things to consider as a GM:
Non-Combat Scenarios. Perhaps a truck in the convoy breaks down with injuries.
PCs must act as security for the three hours they are stuck there. Maybe nothing happens, but you can build the tension through interaction with NPCs. Securing the site can provide some gaming opportunities and a chance at some XPs.
PCs might have a chance to flex mechanical skills to repair vehicles, or medical ones for injured NPCs.
Combat Related. A nearby conflict causes a diversion. PCs must scout ahead and along the flanks, keeping an eye out for trouble. Perhaps they come across a group of injured warriors involved in the conflict. How do they react?
If they help the injured, perhaps the other side sees this but does nothing until later in the campaign. Perhaps the injured party’s compatriots arrive with triggers at the ready?
If they kill the injured (whether on purpose or not), how do either of the armies react?
Opportunity Knocks. There are innumerable opportunities for the PCs and NPCs to explore recently discovered pre-Rifts discoveries. Perhaps the injured soldiers above were guarding a pre-Rifts bunker system? Do the PCs and NPCs find a way to get in and explore? What do they find?
Integrate Adventure Into the Travel. Make the travel as a specific adventure in and of itself. Essentially the travel portion becomes a bolt-on module to the adventure, thereby advancing the story and allowing characters to earn Experience Points in some meaningful way. By making it a distinct step in the overall campaign, you as the GM need to spend more time planning the specific plot line, NPC interactions, and encounters. If you dovetail the adventure from one into the next, it can become an effective tool in extending or developing your campaign without resorting to a ‘time skip,’ and have the PCs suddenly move from one locale to the next.
Gloss Over Non-Conflict Travel (aka Love the Time Skip). Dependent on the time factor, there may be circumstances where the ‘time warp’ is (gasp!) actually supported. In the case of a single session adventure, if the travelling portion of the adventure is relatively meaningless in the grand scheme of things, or there is some time savings to be achieved because something else went too long, perhaps a time warp is exactly what you need! Just remember that it should be something you could exploit to ensure there isn't a grinding familiarity to the adventure; if you *always* have a conflict can be just as boring as waving it away at every turn.
Rifts Earth is a really messed up world - something of a blindingly obvious statement. The arrival of Atlantis and the upheavals Ley Lines have caused should have completely wiped clean the Eastern Seaboard. And yet we find a relatively unscathed Madhaven on the ruins of New York City. Why did some locations get completely destroyed and others spared? Chalk some of it up to author’s license and world building choices, which is perfectly fine. This is simply that macro-level effect you as the GM can leverage in your own campaign setting.
From an adventure/campaign setting design perspective, contemporary sources of information are a gold mine for creativity. It also presents a neat and tidy ability to reference real-world sources. There is nothing better than a pre-built dungeon by Googling “subway map” for a city and adjusting as required for your purposes. The part where things get more “by the seat of your pants” is the tactical/micro-level considerations, which we’ll discuss in more depth in the follow-on article.
Just remember that travel in Rifts Earth is very much different than our current understanding. The My Location functionality of our phones aren’t necessarily available while traversing the expanse between settlements – there are no cell towers or GPS satellites to maintain a grid of connectivity. This is a topic that could be given and whole lot more attention and discussion, which frankly is the point of this post. Discussion with others who may have tackled this problem differently. Is the travel element something you are challenged with, or do you have a solution that seems to work for you and your gaming group?
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