GM Field Guide #9: Topography & Tactics
Updated: Mar 27
In my previous article, The Bazaar #40: Geography & Distances, we discussed geography-related issues more inclined for the GMs, supporting adventure creation and campaign design, which also included traversing the distances between major settlements. The extension of this approach now involves the application of geography and distance in terms of encounters and the tactical decisions made by Players. In this follow-up article we’ll discuss these Micro-Level considerations, which have more direct impact on the PCs, particularly once we start rolling for initiative, but also some suggestions for the GM on how to deal with these factors.
Tactical Considerations (Micro). Several RPGs (e.g. D&D, most d20 clones) use specific game mechanics that leverage tactical maps for encounters. This is demonstrated during scenario play with models on a grid reference map, and has arguably become a gaming standard for TTRPGs. The impact of the topography in a combat scenario/encounter can be pretty profound on the Players, and maps that present specific obstacles or opportunities can make for some very compelling game play. It implies that game mechanics are written to support this kind of interaction, a threshold for which Palladium’s rules clearly do not meet. As such, this imposes a certain tax: the GM must adjust and/or reinforce the game mechanics; and, Players must abide by these incumbent benefits and/or restrictions. Given the differences in the equipment and weapons compared to D&D, the Rifts GM might find themselves forced to use ‘theatre of the mind’ for combat.
DISCUSSION – MICRO-LEVEL
Real World Expectations (Micro). The same expectations for what currently exist in the real world can be applied to tactical encounters. The GM can use real-life city plans, schematics of city subway systems, or even building architecture to reinforce the adventure. We all generally understand how a multi-story apartment building works; various apartments per floor, elevator(s), stairwells, perhaps balconies, parking basement, and the like. This is particularly pertinent to a GM planning an adventure in their own backyard, or in some locale the GM/Players have some familiarity with. It’s sort of a crutch, which to be upfront, is perfectly fine. As a trope, it provides a great start point for the GM, reinforcing Players’ expectations and allowing for some creativity. It also allows a GM certain flexibility to throw in twists to the expectations:
A monster hive took over the subway station, expanding by tunnelling further down.
The tunnel the PCs must traverse connecting two terminals has collapsed, forcing alternate routes
If the subway system is not complex enough, consider that perhaps in the future there are additional subway lines installed?
The d20 System Influence. I’m not here to knock another system, but at the PC/Group and the tactical level for small party engagements, the tactical approach relying on hex-maps/game mats does not necessarily or intuitively work for Rifts (or any modern/futuristic, for that matter). It functions just fine for a medieval system, where weapon ranges and distances are much shorter (e.g. a bow reaches ~120 ft, what have you), and special abilities (e.g. Feats) are specifically written to support these tactical game mechanics. For Rifts and many other Palladium Books games, these mats do not support some of the more iconic characters or technical weapons PCs may use. If a square inch typically represents a 5 x 5 ft box, then the typical energy rifle (range of 1600 ft) needs over 300 squares, which works out to over 25 feet of graph paper – forget the dining room table. Throw in a Glitter Boy/robot or any power armour zooming around the conflict at range, and most player groups will be looking to set up in a back yard or a park. So, while this approach may work for close combat scenes, it fails to be relevant in wider conflicts with ranged weapons. Something to consider.
Local Topography. Particularly when dealing with familiar locales, the GM can leverage a lot of assumed knowledge of the local landscape to support an encounter. The line-of-sight limitations for the central core of a city, the routes and hiding spots behind buildings in a commercial or industrial park, or the depression created by a local gravel pit or mining operation. All make for compelling adventures as both GM and Players can pull more from their collective knowledge of the region to support PC actions. This engagement provides PCs with a level of agency that a GM can really have fun with.
Make Choices Matter. Take a moment to decide how each portion of the adventure plays out. You can throw curveballs at your PCs, where a familiar road ends at the edge of a forest and the open expanse leaves no indication of where traffic should go from there. There are myriad ways to ‘mess with the PC’ by giving them obstacles to overcome or solve through. Just bear in mind that there should be *some* form of solution.
Perhaps the jungle has overgrown the road into a barely walkable trail? What do your PCs do with their ATV? Is circumventing the obstacle an option, or would it take too much time?
Does the detour perhaps not allow them to reach their destination?
Does pushing a hovercraft to skim the treetops seem like a good idea, exposing them to any random ambush from a hidden position? Perhaps Piloting skill checks are required to determine how fast and safely they can traverse the terrain.
What about a random surviving Tolkeen Water warlock targeting water traffic that, in their mind, support CS allies (at this point any technological craft could be seen as an enemy)?
Precision Versus Abstract. In a conflict scenario or battle encounter, after a certain point the distances simply become an abstraction to the human eye, which should be reinforced with in-game play. The difference between 10 and 20 feet (~3 to 6m) can be easily and effectively gauged, so expect a PC to be able to. The difference between 1000 and 1500 feet is much less accurate to the naked eye. Additionally, what relevance does the precision of your distances mean? Is there truly any significance in the fact that something is 300 ft or 500 ft away? What game impact do those calculations support? The way this is presented by the GM should sustain the storytelling and can be done in one of two dynamics:
Visualization. This is a more ‘theatre of the mind’ approach. “They launched an ambush from the forest, let’s say around 150 feet away.” Verbally provide an assessment to Players on how quickly their characters could feasibly cover this distance, and what impacts that may have on weapons, spell, psionics, movement, and line of sight. It also supports the discovery aspect of things that remain out of line-of-sight until they decide to pop loose.
Game Mechanics. This approach falls more in line with the d20 battle mat approach. The GM knows the typical PC running speed over two melee rounds is 120 feet. “They are 150 feet away.” If you are using models and play mats with the squares to identify distance, you can easily demonstrate this. Players can run through the mental gymnastics whether they can make the distance at a sprint, or if a spell is out of range. While this method certainly supports line of sight limitations, there are restrictions to what you can hide from a pre-drawn battle map (e.g. details of the twisted alley they technically can only see the entry to). There are technical aids to this effort, but not everyone is willing/capable of forking over for an electrical table; a consideration.
Modern Weapons versus Ancient Weapons. In one of the most impactful factors that will affect the tactical aspects of your combat scenarios will we the weapons and/or magic involved. Whereas a grid map could satisfy close combat and the relatively limited reach of ancient, ranged weapons (e.g. bows), the map explodes in size and scale with modern weapons (e.g. energy rifles, Boom Gun, missiles). Sure, combat can and often occurs at shorter ranges, but this still means *much* bigger map scales. These ranges, considering combat zone restrictions to line of sight, may greatly influence PC decisions.
GM CONSIDERATIONS – MICRO-LEVEL
Establish Expectations. One of the worst things a GM can do is kill the group vibe by enforcing a day-to-day routine maintenance phase while going from Point A to Point B. If you are going to use a time skip but suddenly throw out the question “whose keeping watch at what time on night 3,” you’ve just jolted Players out of their rhythm, and possibly ruined an interaction or encounter. The same with how you conduct your battle encounters. Theory of the Mind supported by quick, hand-drawn sketches may work, while others require more detailed presentation. Establish this expectation early, and be prepared to support it:
Visualization Approach. If using a more “theatre of the mind” approach, set yourself up for success with baseline descriptions from the start, with an understand of the party’s capabilities to bridge any gaps. Essentially, you’re layering clues and cues for Players to key off of and initiate an action or attack to move the encounter forward to conclusion. Be prepared to scribble down a rough sketch, emphasizing ‘Not to Scale.’
Mechanical Approach. The “mechanical” dynamic requires you have the site pre-drawn with distances and locations pre-determined so Players have some understanding of what they can accomplish. This is more supportive of lower range or close-quarter encounters, but is no less conducive to making game-play faster and more dynamic.
Know Your Table Space. Part of the pre-work for the GM is spending the time going over the sites of your encounters. This can have dramatic influence on Player tactics. You can only plan for so much, and Players have this uncanny ability to think outside your original plan with startling regularity… ugh. LOL.
Player Visualization. How do you want the Players to visualize the encounter space, and how will this influence the game play? This is especially pertinent if this is a space they know from “real life.” A little license may be required as Players throw unknown factoids you did not know. Be prepared to roll with these punches, throwing "on the fly" rulings for things like cover and line-of-sight, with a view to adding to the encounter’s authenticity and Player agency.
Location! Location! Location! Are there hidden traps or blind corners that the enemy can be lying in wait? Are there secret lairs for the monsters to hide within? Do this with the capabilities of your PCs in mind, particularly if you are springing a trap on them. Try to ensure they have an escape route or *some* pertinent chance to survive that does not solely rely on killing everything in front of them. A fighting withdrawal to save their PC’s lives could lead to some compelling game play.
3-Dimensional Space. If you have a superhero with flight, or a sniper character, ensure you think of the 3-dimensional space. What blocks line of site/provides cover on the approach? Have this all pre-drawn, or at least be prepared to explain/draw out what the PCs can visualize. Allow the theatre of the mind to do some work for you. If using battle mats, ensure the mat and scale supports some of the more long ranged options for the PCs.
Restrictions to PCs. This is a tricky one. The GB Pilot may have serious issues leaving behind their Glitter Boy power armour so they can join the party in a “dungeon crawl” of an underground structure with only 8 foot (2.4 m) ceilings. What about the party’s Mountaineer ATV? Be considerate of this gear’s limitations, but also what impact it has on the Player who must do without an iconic piece of the PC’s identity.
Battle Mats and 3D Terrain. I’m not going to pew-pew on battle mats or 3D terrain; lots of Player Groups enjoy the tactile element and the ability to visualize the battle. And in many instances, the use of a battle map or three-dimensional terrain can certainly speed things up or provide Players with the cue they need to accomplish tasks at hand. Remembering that the Palladium Books' core mechanics do not necessarily dovetail into battle mats or 3D terrain, it can support small party encounters at close ranges, say 100 ft by 100 ft (depending on the scale, about 4 square feet of table space. For any members of the party not specifically represented on the mat, the GM must resort to use of ‘theatre of the mind’ solutions (e.g. to integrate the SAMAS playing zooming around at 500 ft in the air, near the outer range of their rail gun).
Graph Paper. An alternative to Battle Mats, the typical 8.5 x 11-inch graph paper runs ~20 x 30~ squares, netting you about 100 x 150 feet. At that scale though, you’re all huddled around a small sheet of paper. Large sheets are available, but at best the effective tactical space remains about ~100 feet squared, occupying much the same table space as a Battle Mat. Energy rifle ranges typically reach 10 times that distance, so we once again must consider ‘theatre of the mind’ solutions.
Modern Warfare Tactics. So, I’m relying on years’ worth of military Infantry tradecraft and training, then grossly over-simplifying for effect here. Modern, contemporary warfare, is heavily technology dependent – we use GPS, satellite phones and myriad of integrated computer networks and mechanisms (e.g. drones, relay communications) to accomplish the task. This small squad-level tactical approach is still largely applicable in Rifts, though very (I mean exceedingly) rare for a GM or Player group to truly represent in any detail. There are NATO-standard Tactics, Techniques & Procedures (TTPs) for things like a combat reconnaissance patrol, an ambush, or an attack of static positions at the Platoon/Company-level or higher, be it mechanized or not. This may or may not be applicable to your group, a level of granularity I would not expect from most player groups. In all cases though, one of the key tenets to planning is the terrain, topography and access/egress routes for both Friendly and Enemy forces. The Group doesn’t need my level of tradecraft for an adventure – the issue at hand is that this factors heavily into the tactics.
Non-Combat Elements There are several issues to present your Players as they plan their attack. This can lead into some great role-playing opportunities for XPs as Players actively spend time planning for the ambush/attack, and then execute the attack, dealing with random reactions you throw back at them.
Planner versus Doer. This is honestly something you can really use to level the PC playing field. Non-combat OCCs can really develop their characters in the “planning phase,” giving the mechanic or scholar just as critical a role as the Juicer who later flits across the battlefield during the fight.
Attack Site. Is it an urban setting, wooded, or open area? Urban and wooded areas mean much closer ranges due to line of sight blocking structures/foliage. Can the PCs or the enemy punch through a wall and flank/escape the PCs?
Target Composition. What’s the likely target? Are they motorized or mechanized? Supported by robots/power armour or cyborgs? Do they rely on esoteric magic protection?
Special Weapons. What heavy weapons can be best utilized in the confines of the terrain? Is magic an option? If so, what are the ranges needed? How does the attack site elements limit what can be used?
Combat Elements. The part most Players enjoy. For the GM, have the PCs executed the plan as intended? Did Enemy Forces get a jump on the ambush/know of the attack? If so, how?
Enemy Forces. When the attack is launched, just remember the enemy isn’t omniscient, and certainly does not know the plan! An effective ambush should allow little chance for the target to win, but they certainly can retaliate. Most trained mercenary/professional soldiers train on ambush reactions and communicate as they are rolling down the road. This also means survivors of the initial spray of gunfire might flee to come fight another day, opening plot opportunities.
Local Terrain. How does the battle progress after the initial strikes? Let Players use local topography to support their ideas. If there is an opportunity, throw things in there to make it easier, or more interactive. A stand of trees, a small cliff or hillock to hide behind, whatever.
Small Party Tactics. There is a definitive scale issue between what a Platoon/Company-sized group of soldiers/mercenaries/mages can accomplish compared to a Section of 3-6 PCs. Depending on the party composition, this can limit their targets, or make them a part of a greater whole. Some things a group of PCs could be tasked with in the context of a much bigger Unit/Formation.
Reconnaissance. The PCs typically are the perfect sized group to conduct reconnaissance for a larger attack. This also means they are there prior to the conflict, perhaps surveying the site for critical planning considerations. Did the PCs miss the sewers as a get-away route? Did they miss a ditch Enemy Forces could use to slink away if overpowered?
Flank Security. Perhaps the PCs are tasked with a flank that must be defended during the attack. What a great opportunity to stop a flanking counterattack, or a trailing party of reinforcements. They could also get the jump on a fleeing NPC that later comes back to extract revenge, or notify their overlords of the ambush.
Specialists. As part of a massive attack, the PCs are tasked with recovering a specific item/person from the cargo train, or penetrating the bunker first to fetch a critical piece of equipment/information. What happens if they fail? What if the target doesn’t go willingly? What if the target is a match for the PCs or it’s a trap? What if they are secretly being filmed during the attack and used as scape goats? What if they realize serious negative impacts to handing this over to their commanders (e.g. hand Erin Tarn to the CS)?
Main Attack. If powerful enough, or the target is “innocuous” enough, there is no reason why the PCs can’t be tasked with the whole attack. The targets should present *some* challenge but ensure any surprises or twists don’t completely negate a good plan for the sake of “winning” against the PCs.
The Palladium Books rules system isn’t written to support hex-map or the stereotypical square-inch battle maps popularized by the multitude of d20 games. One can certainly adapt to one, but the nature of modern combat and manoeuvre makes it more challenging. Abstraction (ironically) can add a certain realism and anticipation to the encounter, but is not necessarily a panacea. Regardless on what method you choose to deal with tactical discussions, keep it consistent and in-line with all PC’s capabilities and try to allow them to retain their equipment and gear that is at the core of their PC’s identity.
There are several ways to make terrain work for and against the PCs. The modern “dungeon crawl” involves man-made subterranean structures, which can be excellent adventure opportunities. They do present limitations to what can be brought (no titanic robot death match in the sewers). That said, how rewarding from both a role-playing and rolling through the action could it be for a robot pilot to struggle through with ‘just his body armour and a rifle’ during the exploration of an exposed section of the subway system? Granted, your mileage may vary. Using real-world settings really provides Players a venue to express their ideas in ways they are more comfortable with.
Lastly, don’t bother trying to make the mundane interesting while representing the passage of time during travel. If you recall any childhood family trips, most people generally recall travel experiences through key events and critical information (e.g. sights, smells). Reinforce encounters and plot items/NPC interactions with fruitful and memorable details. This is made easier using real world sites Players understand and get to actively engage with during a gaming session.
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