The Bazaar #3 - Campaign Levels and Managing Power Levels
Rifts is often regarded as a power player or god-player dream system. The setting, to some extent, certainly can lead players down that path, and by the good graces of the GM and access to some of the more egregious cases, you can have a nigh invincible character running amok in the Chi-Town ‘Burbs with little hope of the Coalition States from reigning in a player’s actions.
I think this is a somewhat unfair characterization. Sure, the setting is grimdark and there are some truly horrific things happening out there, yet the game system itself doesn’t equate power gaming. At least it doesn’t have to. The Palladium Rifts game system has some quirks that need some careful management, S.D.C. and M.D.C. being one of the more obvious and cited issues. Does playing Rifts mean that you have to be playing a demi-god and challenging the Coalition States for regional hegemony? Hardly. A player group of Coalition Grunts and related OCCs cut-off from home base having to fight back to civilization can make for a compelling campaign.
THE DIFFERENT CAMPAIGN LEVELS
The S-Tier (God-Tier). So you want to play a character that can go toe-to-toe with the biggest, baddest demon on the block? Are you facing off a whole company of Glitterboys bearing down on you? Pfft. You laugh in the face of such trivial foes! Retreat is not a word in your vocabulary – you probably don’t even have the skill to say the word in anything other than your own language (not that you would deign to do so), or maybe you speak ALL the languages. In any case, when push comes to shove, you pull out a Death Star and play with it like a Rubic’s Cube. Cosmic Knight Players need look nowhere else.
Tier 1 – Giant Robots and MDC D-Bees. Big stompy robots and D-Bees with a triple digit MDC stat-line run this show! Maybe you’re a Glitter Boy, a Dragon, a Titan or some other RCC with hardy stats. You rely on these to get you through all but the most over-the-top encounters, where retreat is a thing you may have heard other people mention, but you got this. And if not? You got people to make it right and repair or heal you and your party’s heavy hitters for round 2. You say Glitter Boy, I say shiny Boom Gun!
Tier 2 – Men-At-Arms. These are your typical combat classes. Consider the CS Military, the Juicers and 'Borgs, the Mind Melters, Ley Line Walkers and all their ilk fitting in here. These are the OCCs that likely come with a number of OCC Skills, very few Other/Secondary skills, and most of them are oriented to how you fight. You start with lots of gear leaning towards weapons and bionics / cybernetics, or maybe a sheet of carefully selected magic spells or psionic powers. You laugh at anything carrying a weapon that does anything less than 1D6 x 10 MD.
Tier 3 – Scholars and Adventurers. You are a niche player, the snowflake or the try-hard. You make up for a lack of combat hitting power with the odd skill that maybe, just maybe (not likely) will come into play for some of those elusive role-playing XPs. Better hope your buddies playing any of the other three levels give you the chance before a slug-fest brews up! I mean you just never know when Breaking/Taming Wild Horses, or Singing may be the one thing that saves the party. Better hope the GM doesn’t force you to act it out!
Tier 4 – Sucks to Be You. An interesting idea I always thought to develop is the typical portal fantasy trope of ‘rifting’ the players into the setting. Attributes would be assigned based off variance to an average of 11 (with some arbitrary inputs by the GM). Players are restricted to an OCC that best reflects current skills (mostly Vagabonds, maybe the odd trained OCC). By way of example, I’m a trained Infantry officer (major), but even the CS Grunt has OCC Skills I can’t claim to have; can’t remember the last time I qualified on my energy rifle or worked on my robot combat techniques.
The Game Master. Really the cornerstone person of the group, for more than just creating the setting and encounters, but managing players. It’s really not that easy managing a party with a Cosmic Knight, Glitter Boy, a Ley Line Walker and a Rogue Scholar. What exactly are you going to have them do that doesn’t disaffect one of the players? It’s this one person’s job to walk that tightrope, and sometimes you have players that just can’t help themselves. So, what is a GM to do?
Campaign Levels. First step, pick a level and broadcast this to the players. If you tell players they are restricted to human Men-At-Arms or Scholars and Adventurers, sure, you may get some grumblings from the guy that wanted to play an Octo-man Ley Line Walker. But campaign design thereafter can be the key. And frankly there are a few really provoking OCCs a good role-player and/or GM can exploit. I can only counsel that this is a part where both GM and players do some give and take to ensure everyone has a compelling adventure the GM is excited to run and players to role-play.
Campaign Level Foes. Unlike most other system, Rifts doesn’t have a way to compare character levels to Monster ratings to kind of gear encounters to something the player group should be able to handle. Like any adventure module though, there is typically a series of engagements and encounters that lead to a “level boss” players need to deal with (not necessarily kill). A GM needs to make sure the opponents and encounters are challenging, but not so much that you deplete all their resources in one go. This may require a few test scenarios to see how they gel and what they can handle. A random encounter may not be ideal; maybe pre-selecting something and run with it. If Session 0 was character creation, make this Session 0.5 and see how the party deals with it.
Character Creation. Maybe the lower you get in level, the more liberty you give with character creation? You may give them further restrictions on the OCCs available (e.g. all CS OCCs only, all must be D-Bees or magic users). Maybe give them a freebie 6 on a dice roll for stat creation? Max amounts on credits and Black Market items? Start at higher levels? An extra bit of cash to budget their gear? Who knows? The key, of course, is to make it as enjoyable as possible. My sense is that most games are played around the Tier 2 level (plus or minus), so take this into account when players start wish listing what they can play.
Adventure Modules. In a lot of the older books, full-fledged adventure modules are included. These really work well for introductory missions, or even stand-alone ones where characters that don’t wield cosmic powers can have a real influence on the outcomes. They are developed enough that various reactions are provided given PC choices. Further books provided reams of Hook Lines & Sinkers (HLS – I think Kevin really likes fishing) to use in different settings, which are basic outlines for GMs to develop from; great ideas abound, but the GM has to flesh out NPCs and plot lines.
Planned Encounters. As part of the adventure, there are of course planned encounters. In many cases this is translated into “pick a fight with X, Y or Z.” In many cases that doesn’t have to be the case. Options for success without pulling a vibro-knife or pulling a trigger need to be “baked into the scene,” so players who dig a little into their role-playing chops can get creative. You know you players, perhaps a little extra thought into what they would do, then translate that into a reaction the NPC has (pick three or four).
Random Encounters. A lot of tables out there in the Palladium Books library to choose from. Most of these are your random “pick a fight with X, Y or Z,” and that’s fine! Most players really like flexing their combat prowess. Consider this your Ace in the Hole in case players just aren’t responding to your planned encounters.
Always a Bigger Bad Guy. One of the premier concepts of Rifts is the fact that demons, gods, supernatural intelligences and truly cosmic level powers are interested in Rifts Earth. What is a lowly peasant to do? I’d suggest reminding players from the outset that there are always bigger, badder monsters out there. The PCs may be a juggernaut combat squad, but how would they handle a Mechanoid or Xiticix invasion? How would they react if they took a stroll down the boulevards of the Splynn Markets and a few Metzla take offence to their presence? Hey, I hear four guys riding horses are tearing things up in Africa.
Play the Enemy Like You Would. I’m not a fan of recommending movies to GMs or players, in general. Most times, Hollywood has grossly over-exaggerated weapons’ capabilities (hand grenades do NOT produce balls of flame). That said, if you want to know how to play a CS platoon, give Band of Brothers or A Bridge Too Far a watch for context. Squads work in conjunction with each other to form platoons; those work together in the context of a company. At that point and up, you’ll have power armour and robots or specialized troops and vehicles supporting. They fight together as a team, so give them a planned strategy for the initial contact with the characters and go with it from there.
Example: One party I GM’d for had a few big bruisers who thought they were ‘all that and a bag of chips.’ It included a super powered D-Bee, a Glitter Boy, a Juicer, and another D-Bee with some fancy mutations for combat. No stopping them, they thought. Let’s go kill Emperor Prosek, they suggested. First thing, raid a small CS outpost and get intel; just the 30 CS Grunts with basic las-rifles, a pair of plasma guns, two SAMAS and two APCs. Charging across open terrain the APC rail guns fired from range, SAMAS peppered them from the flanks, and once they made it into range, with only twelve of the Grunts shooting (4 shots per melee), they suddenly discovered how bad an idea this was and turned to run. I dealt a total-party-kill before any CS Grunt e-clips needed to be swapped out. We reset and they started playing a tad more cautiously. Emperor Prosek lived happily ever after, so to speak.
Personal Preferences. Unless specifically tailoring characters to meet a GM’s campaign or setting, I genuinely prefer playing Scholars and Adventurers. The concept of tackling the great wilderness and the craziness encountered there, based more on the skills and special abilities of the character class, is a challenge I really enjoy (no Sing skill was ever selected though). There is something to be said for the ingenious and alternate directions a low tier character can take when a straight-up confrontation would basically lead a total-party kill; sometimes that straight up fight against the monsters and demons coming out of the Rifts Nexus is not the way to go. I find it also leads players away from the obvious hack-n-slash (shoot-n-scoot) response to any problem.
Regional Influence vice Meta Plot. I am not a big fan of throwing characters into the thick of the greater plot to see how they would change things. Kill Emperor Prosek and see what happens? Fight alongside Tolkeen and kill off the key general that strikes the key blow to gain CS victory? No thanks. I prefer smaller scale games, where characters have a challenging set of encounters set within the parameters of the canon as presented in the books. From a fictional perspective, consider this akin to low fantasy. This is foundation for the storyline of A Scout’s Honour – set in and around Free Quebec, I have yet to reveal the year P.A. or what pivotal events occur that will influence the characters (details coming soon, trust me).