Tuesday, July 8, 2014

First Time GMing: RIFTS

            My first time gaming was also my first time GMing, by the simple expedient that I was the one who owned the rulebook. My first RPG was RIFTs, purchased ahead of  the bigger name Dungeons and Dragons because of the awesome ads Palladium used to run in Marvel Comics, the ones that (very briefly) described the game with an accompanying illustration of either a pack of Dog Boys led by a Coalition Psi-Stalker or one robot crushing another robot’s skull. Yeah. I had no idea what Line Walkers, Juicers, Crazies or Dog Boys were, but they sounded a fuck of a lot more exciting than fighter, mage, thief.

            This was sixth or seventh grade, and for my first session, it was just myself and a single player, my oldest friend, Erik. The next year we’d find some other folks to join the game, but we played one on one for a while. Looking over the rule book, we both decided that for our first time out of the box, we wouldn’t try playing in Rifts Earth, just because that was a whole lot of cultural and world information to keep straight, all the while learning the basic mechanics of the game, and the whole concept of role-playing games in general. So I cobbled together a homebrew world, which was in many ways a precursor to Otherverse America.

            At this point, neither Erik nor myself had read any William Gibson and didn’t know the word cyberpunk, but we’d both seen plenty of James Bond movies, Robocop and very recently, a bootleg VHS tape of Bubblegum Crisis, and that was what I was going for. So first game session, and I’m homebrewing a campaign world. I decide it’s the 2020s, and Erik’s character (a high tech private detective type) would be infiltrating a mega-corp. His character by the way was another homebrew, if a fairly minor one- a City Rat’s skillset and outlook, equipped with a set of SAMAS powered armor, because we both really wanted to try out all the cool equipment.

I’d just finished reading Michael Crighton’s Rising Sun, and I stole the novel’s Nakamoto Tower setting and related mega-corp as the villains. The basic premise: Nakamoto was on the verge of a technological break through, and a rival mega-corp wanted the tech, and wanted Nakamoto’s own research sabotaged. In other words, the prototypical cyberpunk plot, but it worked.

Anyway, I learned my first lesson of GMing that day, that the players never do what you expect them to do. Once Erik’s City Rat was assigned the mission, I expected he’d either barge in guns blazing or else stealth his way in. Instead, he did something fucking absolutely brilliant. Using a false identity and some of the advance he got for the job, he simply rented some office space in the Nakamoto Tower! Now, while he was still several floors away from Nakamoto’s secured research facility, he had a legitimate reason to be in the building. He made up a dummy corporation on the spot, even hired a cute secretary to keep up appearances (and yes, later in the session he had a chance to bang her. In my defense I can only saw we were both 12, and hey, I previously mentioned James Bond movies as an inspiration for the mission, right?).

Over the next few days, he was able to gather tons of intel on the Nakamoto corporation, and even ship his SAMAS into the building, piece by piece, in boxes of office equipment and crates of furniture. When it came time for violence, instead of having to fight his way into the secured skyscraper, he already had his powered armor ready to go, right inside the opposition’s security cordon.  

            The violence also taught me my second lesson of GMing- sometimes you don’t need to roll for every attack or skill check, and sometimes you have to houserule something that’s missing. A powered armor dog fight over the streets of future Los Angeles, between Erik’s SAMAS and a pair of Nakamoto Flying Titans ended with one of the Titans scragged outright and the other ejecting from his blasted armor at the last possible second and trying to escape on foot. (My first houserule: that rather than dying when his Flying Titan got down to zero MDC, the pilot could eject, mainly so Erik’s City Rat would have a chance to interrogate him).

            Erik took the opportunity to question him. Oh yeah, did he ever. Ejecting from his SAMAS either out of some misguided sense of fair play, or because SAMAS versus unarmored human is too easy a fight to satisfy, Erik’s character tackled the fleeing pilot on a rooftop. He ended up sitting on the pilot’s chest, a Wilk’s laser pistol pressed to the pilot’s head. The interrogation that followed was VERY successful, and after it was all over, Erik decided to blast the guy. Because it was my first game, and I didn’t know any better, I had Erik roll to hit.
            The guy dodges.
            Erik shoots again.
            The pilot (who has a 6 ft dude squatting on his chest and a laser blaster more powerful than a tank gun pressed to his temple, mind you) dodges again. The fuck? We both have this look on our face, like we can’t believe this is happening. I realize that given the power of the laser weapon, the rooftop beneath this guy’s head is cratered, but he’s managing to squirm out of the way of every blast.

            We both start flipping through the rule book. Aren’t there any rules for point blank shots? Can’t I just kill this guy? We spend like 10 or 20 minutes looking for some kind of common sense rule about instant kills and point blank shooting. Finally I make an executive decision that yeah, Erik can just blast the pilot in that situation. He puts the pilot out of all our miseries, and I think at that point, even the pilot was relieved.

            After holing up somewhere to fix his damaged SAMAS, Erik’s character began the climactic assault on Nakamoto. (Fixing the armor was another thing I had to houserule. I just said that after a few hours of hard work, his SAMAS was back to like ¾ its maximum MDC.)

            The next few battles were a lot less memorable than the execution of that poor pilot, but were fairly satisfying to a pair of blood thirsty young gamers. The climactic twist, which I’m still fairly proud of, was the tech the Nakamoto mega-corp was working on was afterlife research. Basically, they’d created an enormous artificial rift to what they were hoping was heaven and were sending in robot probes to map it. The way I ended up describing the portal- a big metal ring with glowy tech bits- was pretty similar to the stargates from the eponymous movie and TV series (though that was a few years off at the time). Anyway, Erik’s assault destabilized the portal, and some kind of demon stepped through- I got some good use of the random demon table at the back of the Rifts corebook building that thing.

            By the time that first 4-5 hour session wrapped up, the Nakamoto Tower was in flames, Erik had a CD full of stolen data to give his employers, his SAMAS was scragged beyond repair, and his City Rat walked, scraped and cut, into the LA sunset with his arm around his secretary.

            After that, we started a fairly long running series of Rifts campaigns that ended spanning most of our high school and our college years. It wasn’t quite a contiguous campaign, as I’ve always focused on shorter, single story arcs. We’d play out one storyline for a couple of months and than wrap it up, beginning the next with (usually) different characters on a different part of Rifts Earth. The world was big enough we could shift focus whenever one of us bought a new sourcebook and given the way Rifts characters worked, leveling up wasn’t really a major consideration.

The “series of mini-series” approach worked well, and defines my style of GMing to this day. I’ve never actually had one of those epic 15 year D&D games a lot of gamers talk about, and I’m somewhat in awe of gamers who do.

During that time, we fell into a pretty regular Saturday night game, fueled by McDonalds dollar menu burgers. Our group included everything from mega-damage fairies to borgs, Sunaj Assassins, and Glitterboys to dragons to three flavors of Juicers to a hapless Conjuror (from Federation of Magic) whose powers were so completely and hilariously useless in a MDC environment that we nicknamed him the “Aquaman” of the group. The groups Dragon was being played by this rather portly powergamer (of course), but he was responsible for the most memorable line I’ve ever heard uttered in all my years of gaming.

The group had been chasing one particular Juicer through the West Virginia wilderness for a couple of sessions. Sometimes the Juicer had the advantage and singlehandedly kicked the group’s ass, sometimes he had to run like fuck. But he’d managed to really get on the group’s nerves, and had blown up their transport a couple of sessions prior. Eventually, the group (which didn’t include any Wilderness Scouts or woods savvy characters, if I recall right) gets hopelessly lost in the woods and eventually stumbles across the Juicer’s lair, at something like 6:30 AM. They find the Juicer’s ATV parked outside this old, pre-Rifts bunker he was squatting in.

            The Dragon, he tells everybody else to wait in the tree line and he strides up to the ATV in human form. Everybody knows something is going to go down, but dude’s a Dragon- whatever he starts, he’s going to be more than capable of handling. We don’t know how right that assumption is. So the dragon unscrews the ATV’s gas cap, and still in human form, spits fire right into the gas tank.
            KA-BOOM! Parts of that ATV reach low Earth orbit!

            And the Dragon’s just standing there, naked now, because all his human clothes burned away, but the fuck does he care- he’s a Dragon. The Juicer comes roaring out of his hidey hole, dressed only in his drug harness and his undies, twin laser pistols in his hands. And I see the Dragon player’s eyes light up.

            “You mean his head’s exposed?”
            Just pure glee in this fat man’s voice. Like a kid at Christmas, and I acknowledge that yeah, this guy is pretty much naked. And on Rifts Earth that’s a very bad thing.

            “Throwing stones.”    
            Okay. For those of you not familiar with the game, throwing stones is probably the weakest of the new combat spells introduced in the (fuckin’ awesome) Federation of Magic book; it’s like a MDC version of magic missile from D&D; does piddling damage, but pretty much always hits. The Dragon didn’t want to show off, he later explained, with that same grin. So one casting, one tossed magic pebble, and you had a Juicer missing his head and most of his shoulders. Bye-bye, recurring NPC.

They all come up to explore the bunker. Inside there’s a bed, the Juicer’s armor on the floor beside it, a television playing cartoons and a bowl of cereal still cold on the table. The group did give me points for verisimilitude.

Anyway, one final Rifts anecdote. A couple of weekends ago, I ventured into the civilized lands of San Antonio for a weekend with my old friends. Among other things, I hit up a lot of Half Price Bookstores while I was there. I lost most of my Rifts books over the years- my time in the Navy cost me a lot of my collection, as did a few moves and some drama between my brother and his ex-girlfriend- drama which ended with the ex making off with six boxes of RPG books and graphic novels I had entrusted my brother with. So I’ve been trying to recollect what I’ve lost, and one of the books I scored this trip was Rifts: Lone Star.

My friend Erik and his girlfriend (who is curious about RPGs and might try one the next time I’m in town) were with me. I was flipping through the book when I came across the Wayne Breaux illustration of the infant Dog Boys playing with the female. I smile- I’d forgotten about that one.
“Hey, look,” I say, holding the book open to the page, “canine kindergarten.”

The look of horror on their face was hilarious. Both Erik and his girlfriend got this look of visceral disgust. His reaction was priceless, because he’d killed quite a few Dog Boy soldiers in his years gaming with me.

            “Ugg…. I knew they had Dog Boys, but….”     
            “Yeah, man, that’s how they train ‘em. Kinda cute at that age, aren’t they?”
            And Erik’s looking at me like he’s not sure whether to feel guilty about blasting Dog Boys by the dozens back in the day, or wishing he’d blasted more of them.

            His girl friend, meanwhile, is just baffled. Why are there dog people in this book? I explain that this one country in the game makes dog-men to be super soldiers, that they’re kind of like bipedal drug dogs. She agrees that sorta makes sense but that canine kindergarten picture is creepy as hell- it’s right in both their uncanny valleys.

            I fucking love Rifts.



Andrew Antolick said...

I love Rifts as well, a whole Megaverse of what ifs to enjoy.

I picked up Fuck the Command, now one of my new adversaries is the Pundit Clone. I thought the Nemesis's breath weapon was hazardous, but that skreed is just vile.

Hope Endara sees daylight some day, and good luck with that Psi-Watch update.

Chris A. Field said...

Thank's man- I had a ton of fun coming up with the Pundit Clone's powers. Hopefully she killed off a couple of PCs before your group took her down.