Monday, November 9, 2009

A Different Type of Torture

Once again, not talking about the Seahawks here, though to all the Detroit Lions fans who may be reading this I can only say, "Better you than me."

[and incidentally to anyone who's wondering: there ARE Lions fans out there, many in attendance at Sunday's game. What's more, they courageously cheered for their team the entire game, only leaving at the very end, and while obnoxious at times, were mostly classy and stopped short of starting any fights...which is to say, they were a damn sight better than the Green Bay fans last year!]

And speaking of fans, thanks to the readers that nominated my blog for addition to Grognardia's web site. I was afraid I wasn't "Old School" enough for inclusion but he threw me up there anyway. We'll see if that has any influence on my hits this week (last week was my 2nd highest recorded with 954).

Okay...back to torture.

Originally, I wanted to title this post "Guilty Pleasures," but I've soured a bit and I'm afraid this may devolve into a bit of a be it. Yes, this is about Rifts again, a very innovative setting game with a ton of supplemental material, firmly chained to an ugly Old School-esque system, but spouting rhetoric of a New School variety.

What do I mean by New School rhetoric? Specifically, I'm talking about all the BS writing that requires/assumes a GM is supposed to run a game in a particular style that encourages "story creation" even while there is nearly nothing in the system that facilitates the same AND appears to simply counting on social contract between folks at the table allowing the GM to come up with a nice story (i.e. railroad) while allowing the players to do some cool things (with their "heroic" characters). Ugh.

However, let me return to the good stuff first...the "guilty pleasure." I've been reading my new copy of Rifts World Book 17: Warlords of Russia off-and-on since purchasing it on Friday. If I'd found time to blog about it then, you probably would have heard a completely different tune.

I forgot just how damn good some of these Rifts' supplements can be. Yes, I talked about Wormwood before, but that was recall from memory alone. Having Warlords in front of me, I can really delve into the nitty gritty of a setting book...and this thing meets all the expectations of its type. AND I finally get an idea now why Palladium has lasted as long as it has.

Warlords of Russia is well-written. Siembieda and Mr. Krueger (who receives "additional text" credits) are articulate, straight-forward, and entertaining reading. The book is thoughtful (well, as thoughtful as the Gonzo-action world of Rifts needs to be) and interesting, fun without devolving into silliness (save perhaps Warlord Romanov) and a helluva' lot better organized than any Palladium core book. It simultaneously manages to juxtapose the 21st century Russia (with its black markets, longing for independence, and longing for the lost age of Empire), with 20th century Cold War-style Russia (of the James Bond variety) with 19th century Russia (of the pillaging Cossack variety). Even if you completely removed the raging supernatural monsters, you could still have a very cool, high-tech post-Apocalyptic setting for any role-playing game, film, or book. It makes ME want to write short stories and screenplays anyway.

The cyborg stuff is slick and well-done, again feeling very much like the stereotypical "Russian" variety (these are not the sleek little transistors and sophisticated engines a stereotypical German or Japanese culture might create, but the robust, practical, gear of war, easily "tuned up" with the healthy whack of a wrench). I love it. I love the warlords, I love the New Sovietski, I love the new guns and vehicles (more here than you'll find in the original Rifts book...enough to make a setting-specific campaign...which is what I want!).

The history and political factions are present, exploring the reason things are "the way they are" and providing insight into the motivations of the powers that be. And there are many nice setting-specific OCCs to choose from (easily supplemented by the adventurer OCCs of the core book...who needs a "Gypsy" OCC when I can use the Vagabond? Duh!).

Yep, reading the Warlords of Russia left me on the verge of a great up swell of love for Palladium and Rifts. Who cares if the game system is crap? I can smooth out the rough edges enough that playing the setting will be a dream!

Or so I was thinking a couple days ago.

As time went on, and I had more opportunity to read Warlords and more time to consider a possible campaign, I remembered something else...something that, like the nice detail, writing, and organization of the World Books, I had once known, but had completely forgotten. And that something is this: Rifts tells you nothing about how to play the damn game.

Seriously, nothing. No insight, nada. I'm looking at the core book, and here're the chapters in the Table of Contents (I'll paraphrase):

Glossary of Terms
Creating A Character
Alignment, Experience Points, and Insanity (yes, that's one section)
Classes ("OCCs" or Occupational Character Classes)
Psionic Powers
History (of Rifts Earth)
World Overview (mini-setting material)
Magic Spells
Equipment (weapons, armor, robots, vehicles, cybernetics)
Game Master Section

Now you might THINK there'd be something about how to play or run Rifts in the "Game Master" section. But you'd be dead wrong. The GM section consists of FOUR PARAGRAPHS + 1 paragraph, sub-title "Some Short-Cuts," which is simply an introduction to a few "quick roll" tables (random demons, a generic dinosaur, some coalition grunts, a a couple (literally two) monsters). The four paragraphs (less than a page of the 256 page Rifts core book) gives NO INFORMATION on how to set up a campaign, or an adventure, or what a typical Rifts campaign/adventure might look like. There are no "sample adventures" - hell, there are no ideas presented at all!

In fact, there's no information on running the game at tips on adjudicating, no info on how to set the stage, nothing. Only four paragraphs of Kevin Siembieda simply describing his FEELINGS regarding some of the PLAYTEST results. That's it. There are no specifics, just "the players grumbled about the length of character creation," or "the players loved the setting," or "this is a thinking man's game."

There's not a single idea or hint of how to run this "thinking man's game."

Which is probably why my stunted, still-born campaigns of the past consisted of nothing more than a few random fights...and, um, that's about it! I remember the usual Rifts' game session went something like this:

1) I described the setting of the game.
2) Players spent some time figuring out which kewl character they want to play.
3) Character creation.
4) I introduce some flimsy justification for several disparate characters being together.
5) Introduce antagonist.
6) Fight!

And generally that was about it. Most of a game session (4-5 hours) would be taken up with this, up to and including the single fight. No one had enough interest, to warrant pursuing a second session (at least not one with the same character, assuming said character survived). But you know what? Check out that table of contents there...I pretty much used the rule book to its MAXIMUM POTENTIAL.

Character creation? Check. History and color of setting? Check. Combat? Check. Hopefully there were some skill rolls involved somewhere along the line.


Anyway, guess what? Warlords of Russia is both nicely written and well-organized, and is chock full of cool ideas and lots of setting specific "color." It includes new background and history, new OCCs, new gear and weapons (lots of new 'borg stuff)...even some new skills.

It has NO information on how to run a game set in Russia. It has no "adventure ideas." Basically it provides nothing more than a setting to be used with a core rule book...a core rule book that tells one nothing of how to run a Rifts game.

In other words, pretty useless.

I remember now that this was a large part of my frustration with Rifts and one of the main reasons I sold everything, even Wormwood. Wormwood was chock full of cool ideas and information, but had none of the information I needed to run a game.

I am certain that K.S. and company have very specific ideas of how to run a Rifts game session AND a consistent campaign. Too bad they didn't bother to enlighten the rest of us.

What a crock of shit.


  1. ***EDITED to correct some truly horrendous typos and grammatical stuff. Sorry...I was in a hurry earlier!***

  2. Yeah, and that's why I'm looking at Palladium's stuff in the same light as role aids, judges guild* modules, and other third-party RPG stuff from the 70s/80s - something you add to an existing game, something for experienced GMs who already know what they're doing. Pity, really, but what else can we do?

    *: for whom I suspect KS was an illustrator, which is suggestive when you think about it...

  3. Actual play threads can be a godsend in terms of getting an insight into how people use a system/ruleset to its fullest potential. I found this one to be particularly inspirational for running a "by the book" Rifts game:

  4. Actual play or people demo'ing a game can always give you keen insight, Sir L...I just wish the game came fully supported "in book," so to speak. As in: if I buy the rules but don't have access to the internet (and AP threads), the rules should STILL show me how to play the game!

  5. Absolutely. I remember being terribly disappointed with the quote-GM Section-unqoute in the old main book. Without the old Sourcebook 1, with its adventure and world info, I wouldn't have had the first idea how to run a Rifts game.

    And you know what's even worse? The Rifts "Ultimate Edition" doesn't expand the GM section one whit--and actually drops the few random demon/monster stat droppings that the original main book had! Instead, you get a comprehensive guide to all the different worldbooks and sourcebooks (aka a two-page advertisement). I seem to recall there are some other spots in the RUE where you're actually referred to another supplement for relevant stats. I kid you not.

  6. Wow...I actually had no idea (I haven't even thumbed through RUE). I'm glad I just picked up the original book (and used). If I'm going to tilt at, "play Palladium"...I'll do it in the easiest, cheapest way possible.
    : )

  7. Not to be a Palladium defender, but I just wanted to point out that several worldbooks contain adventure ideas and seeds (HLS) - Xitixic Invasion, Adv in Dino Swamps and Siege on Tolkeen come to mind. Moreover I think Game Master Guide give some tips on running adventures. Anyway, i agree RUE doesn't help in this issue though.