GM Field Guide #3: Playing Coalition States As Antagonists
Updated: 1 day ago
General. Short of playing characters from the Coalition States, the CS is pretty much the quintessential antagonist for most Rifts campaigns. As a GM, what’s not to love about these guys when determining encounters, brainstorming ideas for campaigns, and giving quick and dirty bad guys to throw against your player group? In this futuristic Earth setting, humans have fallen several pegs on the food chain. The CS is one of the few bastions of human-centered civilization and instituted certain policies it felt necessary for survival, ones that certainly fly in the face of the contemporary liberal western worldview. This can also makes them a more interesting foe, because of the multiple layers and angles a GM can take. There is a history to the decisions the CS took, ones that were based on events presented in canon. They didn’t just decide these policies out of the blue, and those policies have certainly been manipulated by certain ‘bad actors’ to further their own ends, that make the CS government what it is today. But just like any political discussion, things are messy: the preconceived notions a person has of the CS is shaped by biases from their own worldview, which will not be the same as someone else. It also does not necessarily translate into immediate effect to the individual soldiers of the CS.
General. The reasons for playing the CS as antagonists are myriad, and I certainly don’t need to quote the obvious, but here are a few of my reasons:
Nobody Likes a Bully. For many GMs and players, the idea of a single, autocratic system rings falsely; grossly over-simplified, like a picture frame that is slightly off level, you have to level it. The big machine of the CS is a monolithic enemy, what I liken to the massive armies of the Russian/Warsaw Pact that threatened to steamroll through Europe during the Cold War. Of course, in this example, magic and dragons are a “bit of a road bump,” but hey, who’s going to be nit-picky? The CS wants to mercilessly crush those speed bumps, for a variety of reasons that they feel justified. Most people love to cheer for the upset win, the underdog that overcomes the odds. Playing against the CS certainly places players in that role.
Big Brother. As a CS citizen, the government is full-on Orwellian with how they handle things, leveraging “alternative facts” and blending truth through the lens of a few in the leadership who have a very clear bias. As such, you have clearly bad apples at the top, controlling and influencing the whole, who perpetuate the “great lie” they’ve been fed and continue to feed to others. Like it or not, these humans, armed and armoured against what they feel is an existential threat, may very well point and shoot first, ask questions later. I discuss the “how and why” in greater length in The Bazaar 5: Mechanisms of Influence, The Bazaar 6: Spectrum of Fanaticism, culminating with The Bazaar 7: Worldviews and Narrative Elements.
Challenge to Worldviews. This is the really tricky one for a lot of players and GMs. There are some who have a visceral issues with the idea of playing a CS character, which is perfectly fine. For these folks there is no wiggle room: CS soldiers are the bad guys, end-of-story. That is a position that ultimately I have to respect; this is a game where everyone is supposed to be having fun. My personal preference is to play the Coalition States, particularly at the level that interacts with the players, with more nuance. Sure, the CS NPCs may have a mission that is diametrically opposed to what the players hope to accomplish, but they aren’t necessarily bloodthirsty maniacs looking to leave a wake of murder and destruction. Some of the most challenging opportunities a GM could provide is having the characters role-play with the CS soldiers, either challenging the players’ perspectives or giving them opportunities to interact, perhaps even force them to side with the CS squad against a common enemy. Depending on the players’ views and how well this may go over, a crafty GM may also be able to use this against the group as a campaign arc (e.g. there’s a witness to their collaboration and accuses them of sympathizing with the CS). This is entirely a GM’s judgement call; as demonstrated earlier, this can go over like a lead balloon with some players.
GM Considerations. For the GMs out there, a few tactical tips when playing a CS squad. Players generally play in small squads (3-6 player characters) and have a wide variety of skill sets and powers they bring. This is less much less so when we look at a larger military like the CS. At the squad level (8-12 persons), there is some room for tactical flexibility, but in comparison to the player group, a typical CS squad likely has nowhere near the same diversity. That said, what they lack for in variety, they make up for in tactical employment and Joint Operations in a larger, Operational sense; more posts on Joint Operations and Tactical-Operational-Strategic Campaigns forthcoming. And while I do not present this as a definitive “this is the way to play,” from an Infantry officer it is a guideline for certain elements of tactical employment.
Make-up of a Typical Section. Palladium Books presented a number of sub-sub-unit breakdowns (a sub-unit is a Company, so a sub-sub-unit is anything smaller) in Sourcebook 1, and for the most part they are soundly designed. The CS Infantry Section most likely resembles the Short Range Reconnaissance (Recce) Squad (human). It consists of 8 soldiers: 4 ‘light’ soldiers (CS Grunts) with standard issue armour and energy rifle, 2 ‘heavy’ soldiers (CS Grunts or Technical Officers with Weapons MOS) armed with heavy armour and a heavier weapon (i.e. plasma gun), a Technical Officer (Communications MOS) and a Squad Leader (senior CS Grunt). The prospect of attaching SAMAS power armour is very slim, robot support exceedingly unlikely as stealth and defensive manoeuvres are more likely aligned with their mission. They will each be armed with a multitude of grenades and e-clips, as well as explosives.
Make-up of a Typical Platoon. A platoon would be three Sections, including a small 3-6 person Headquarters element (led by an officer: CS Grunt or perhaps a Military Specialist), a senior CS Grunt NCO, a Technical Officer with Communications MOS, the remainder Grunts for security), as well as a heavy weapons detachment, which includes another 4-6 soldiers (CS Grunts or Technical Officers with Weapons MOS) armed with heavier weapons, which may include things like a man-portable missile launcher, a tripod-mounted railgun, etc. The prospect of attaching SAMAS power armour is mission dependent, while robot support still somewhat unlikely, but we may start seeing more APC support.
A Precis on Joint Operations. One of the first things the Sourcebook 1 reference for the Short Range Recce Squad includes is the option to substitute a couple of Grunts for 2-4 Dog Boys. The Dog Boys instantly provide a wider range of skills and abilities to augment the section. Now the squad can actively sense magic, psionics and supernatural beings, leverage augmented tracking capabilities, use psionic powers, not to mention the breed specific abilities and the natural combat capabilities they add. There is also the options of adding a pair of SAMAS in support. This dovetailing of different capabilities is a very small and discrete example, but a fair enough representation of what Joint Operations can mean at higher levels.
Stop Playing the CS Like Stormtroopers/Red Shirts. From a professional standpoint this is something that has always irked me. The Coalition States should not be your pushover encounter that characters dispatch with relative ease as an exercise in rolling dice. Depending on your player characters’ dynamic and power level, a CS section or platoon can be a real challenge. They are not mindless drones that just drop into a crouch and start blindly firing their rifles back at an enemy. There are a number of TTP (Tactics, Techniques and Procedures) a GM can use to really mess with his players. Nor do they necessarily fight to the death to the last man. Not every hill or ruined building is the Alamo. Heck, a long-range recce section engaged at long range is likely going to try to evade the engagement by ducking into some heavy cover in order to escape. They can make fighting withdrawals, feints, flanking manoeuvres, or simply fix the players while they wait for back-up, which may or may not lead to increasingly difficult encounters.
TACTICS, TECHNIQUES & PROCEDURES (TTPs)
General. Certainly not a deep dive into Infantry Tactics Techniques & Procedures, these points can equally be applied to small unit tactics (4-6 pers). You can’t necessarily “cut-and-paste” these into the RPG environment, otherwise you’d risk losing PCs to the first shots fired against them; given the advent of MDC armour, that gear can soak up a few shots. While this would certainly be more realistic, it doesn’t promote a good play experience. Given that the CS military is essentially based on U.S. (read: NATO) military doctrine, one can assume the following generalities apply.
Section Battle Drills. The standard Infantry Section has a number of Battle Drills and TTPs it can use in reaction to a number of scenarios once engaged. Without getting into a lecture, once under fire, the Section’s Battle Drills kick in: React (shoot back, first attacks are likely Wild shots); Locate the Enemy; Win the Firefight (fire at them so they duck for cover); Approach (fire and movement); Assault (charge into close combat); and, Consolidate (after the battle is won).
Fire and Movement. A section is going to use fire and movement to try to gain a position of advantage, or simply get closer to be able to kill the enemy. Once the enemy is located, they will concentrate fire to pin the enemy and start moving closer to finish them off. This is done in pairs, alternating as one runs forward a few steps, the other firing. If one of the pair is killed or wounded, the survivor joins another pair (creating a trio) and continue the approach under the Section Commander’s direction.
Breaking Contact. Let’s get the elephant out of the room. A section is likely only on a specific mission for reconnaissance (short or long range) or on a security patrol. Reconnaissance patrols are very typically on their own, so once they meet up with an opponent of equal or greater strength they are most likely going to try to disengage and run away/hide in order to continue their mission; stealth is the key to their success. Conversely, a security patrol is probably part of a greater element (company or larger), so when facing a peer-level threat (equal size), they will try to kill or fix the opponent in place for back-up to arrive and help eliminate them. When facing overwhelming odds, the section would try to break contact in a fighting withdrawal in an attempt to draw the enemy into an encounter on the Coalition’s terms, where terrain favours them, or back-up is imminently arriving.
Check Those Corners…: Your PCs want to throw themselves forward and into the CS Section? They’ve got a drill for you. Immediately after contact, the Section Commander is looking for a way to pin your players down (keep them stuck in a firefight) and then come at them on their own terms, be it “hey-diddle-diddle, straight up the middle” and charge straight at them, or flanking the PCs from either right or left. While the heavy weapons burn though loads of clips to keep the PCs engaged and afraid of eating a plasma bolt to the head, that Section Commander and maybe four or five of his buddies are going to use smoke grenades/use a covered approach route to launch a counter-attack from an angle where the cover your PCs are hiding behind likely means nothing anymore.
React to Ambush: So you think springing an ambush on a lone Infantry section will do the trick? Well, your first salvo certainly will definitively make an impact, just likely not the one you think it should. Bearing in mind the amount of damage body armour can soak up, chances are the first salvo may not kill as many as you think. In a near ambush (up close), those CS Grunts are trained to turn into the attackers, shoot (likely a Wild shot) and get in close. If you think CS soldiers getting into hand-to-hand range will make them wary of shooting into each other, the same issue should affect your players. If the ambush is at a distance, those immediately engaged (shot at) will try to keep the ambushing party fixed while the others move around to cover and try to swing in for an assault, as described in “Check Those Corners…” above. Alternatively, once again if they face a peer-level threat or something much more powerful, they will conduct a fighting withdrawal and ask for back-up.
“Defence, Defence!” One element likely often overlooked is the use of a Forward Operating Base (FOB) or some other temporary infrastructure that supports military operations. While FOBs are typically static, one can do the same from a mobile platform, with trucks and escort vehicles (tanks/PA/robots). Regardless of how it is accomplished, these sites will have a defensive layout of overlapping fields of fire based on the heavier weapons; basically the CS Grunt with a rifle protects the heavier guns from short-range attacks while they engage at range with heavier targets. One could assume an equal amount of firepower to each side of the perimeter, with perhaps a quarter of the CS Grunts ready to divert from the other sides to reinforce a particularly strained one. Never underestimate the damage 10 CS Grunts can dish out over a melee with basic rifles if your demi-god PCs just charges in. Take note on how quickly PCs can traverse the open ground those Grunts will be shooting across (my very crude math has an object travelling 100kph will need to soak up pretty much a whole melee of shooting before they can cover 300m to get into close combat. In this scenario, 10 CS Grunts with 40 total shooting attacks, each doing 4D6 M.D. (assuming two-thirds hit) causes ~375 M.D. to a single target.
I'll be the first to say that it's the GM's rules on what is included in their campaign and how they wish to run their antagonists. When I say stop running CS Grunts like Storm Troopers/Red Shirts, if that is the 'jam' that works for you and your players, go for it. That said, what I hope this may have demonstrated is a few points or tactics that a CS Squad might likely employ in certain engagements with the PCs that can both make the engagement/fire fight more challenging and realistic. Furthermore, the points noted in the TTP segment are equally applicable to PC groups in how they themselves can react if ambushed or attacked. As previously mentioned, this will be part of an ongoing series of articles, linked with my Scholar's Review of the Seige on Tolkeen series.
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