Sunday, December 28, 2008

More Thoughts on the World of Rifts

I'm getting set to sit down and spend some quality time with the BRP core rulebook and the Rifts Ultimate Edition, Gamemaster Guide, and Book of Magic. In so doing, as I indicated in my last post, I'll be making quite a few tweaks and changes, some minor, some probably major, to the setting and background.

What those changes will be exactly is still somewhat foggy and ill-formed, and I expect that I'll arrive at some more definitive ideas as I get into the conversion process. But I thought I'd just throw some of my half-baked noodlings against the proverbial refrigerator door and see if any stick, and at the same time lay out some over-arching objectives for what I want "my" Rifts world to look like.

A brief aside on the standard history of Rifts, in case you're a bit fuzzy on the details. About 100 years in the future mankind has reached a point of near apotheosis. Technology has conquered many of the world's ills, war is but a distant and unpleasant memory, human enhancement through cybernetics and genetic engineering is the norm, etc., etc.

Then all Hell breaks loose. The nations of the world are plunged into a world war of unprecedented devastation. This sets off the Mother of All Chain Reactions; because every time someone dies, their psychic energy is absorbed into Earth's magical network of ley lines, the network overloads on the sudden influx of the hundreds of millions of souls destroyed by nuclear war. The ley lines surge with energy, and where they meet they rip tears, or rifts, in the fabric of reality, opening gateways to other worlds. One of the biggest gateways literally rifts back the lost continent of Atlantis. The sudden reappearance of this large landmass causes massive tsunamis, coastal flooding and global eruptions, causing yet more deaths, further overloading the ley line network and opening more rifts. Then the aliens start pouring through...

A three to four century "Dark Age" ensues, during which humanity is nearly wiped out by plague, famine, and the reappearance of monsters, demons, and other intelligent races. It's only over the past hundred years or so that things have started to stabilize somewhat, with the re-emergence of centralized power structures such as the Coalition States in North America.

Looking back over that, it occurs to me that I'm only going to be keeping the bare-bones minimum of that background. First to go, as I mentioned in my previous post, is the "official" version of the coastline rise. I've always thought it was way too conservative to begin with, and since I've decided that I want to bring back all the "lost worlds" of myth, not just Atlantis, I got to bring the seas up to a much higher level: about 300 feet. I was quite pleased with how this came out, as it ate up most of southeastern US, an area that had been consigned to utter wilderness anyway. There's still enough land to fit in the awesome "dinosaur swampland" that the South has become, but it's a more manageable size now, if that makes any sense. I also went ahead and made California an archipelago, blaming it on the murky "geological upheaval" that came with the reappearance of the lost continents--and after all, the "island" of California is arguably a lost land in its own right!

Next on the chopping block for my version of Rifts Earth is the period of the Dark Ages. Being a fan of Gygaxian Naturalism, I've been increasingly bothered by this period, which seemed somewhat unnecessarily tacked on, especially in light of the fact that most descriptions of Rifts Earth, both official and unofficial, seemed to want to portray it as a post-apocalyptic world. I'm sorry, but four centuries is a lot of time, even for a relatively static world. Think about what's still around from four centuries ago, and how much has changed, and now think about art like this, that would be fitting for a game set in the immediate aftermath of a the Great Cataclysm, as opposed to hundreds of years in the future, when there'd be little recognizable artifacts of the previous world left. In effect, the world of Rifts as written should constitute an entirely new world with only the dimmest connections to the previous world, more Dark Sun than Twilight 2000.

My mind was made up after I read The World Without Us, which, as a thought exercise, examines what of humanity's legacy would disappear, and how quickly, if the world were to be purged of humans tomorrow (Mount Rushmore and diapers in landfills have about the longest shelf-life, in case you're wondering). If you don't want to read the whole book, check out the magazine article that inspired it. In short, things would fall apart pretty dang quickly, and that's even without nukes, volcanoes, and resurgent demons to help things along.

I say all this to say that, since I love post-apocalyptic flavor anyway, I'm ditching the Dark Ages concept and saying that the calendar used by the Coalition, which sets the Cataclysm at about 100 years in the past, is correct. The more I thought about this decision, the more I realized how little I'd have to change. I think a century is plenty of time for nascent polities to reemerge from the ashes of near-destruction. It's also plenty of time to allow the spread of magic and psionics, and their study, yet still leave things relatively new and little understood, which is how the RAW setting pretty much presents things anyway. After the wholesale destruction wrought by the Cataclysm, I really don't think there needs to be a long Dark Age to make people forget about the old world. In short, getting rid of the Dark Ages just feels right.

But now I'm thinking of going one further, and having the Cataclysm occur in our immediate future. Maybe jump on the silly 2012 bandwagon--hey, Shadowrun did it, so can't I? 2012: magic and dragons return with a vengeance. The nations of the world panic, bringing on global nuclear war, and you've got your Cataclysm.

Benefits: a slightly more "realistic" (and suitably post-apocalyptic) tech level, with way more chemical slug throwers, which I happen to find much cooler than laser guns anyway. But then we miss out on a lot of the high tech goodness that's there to counterbalance the magic and psionics. Where do the mechs come from, for example? Or the nanotech, or cybernetics? Hmmm. I'll have to think on this one. One idea is to have the tech come out of Area 51. That's essentially canon anyway--the Coalition basically got its leg up by finding a bunch of pre-Rifts technology and copying it. Another idea is to have the high tech stuff come from dimensional travelers; they don't all have to be demons and primitive humanoids, after all. Or, I could just scale back the tech side of things and have stuff like mechs, Juicers, cybernetics/bionics, and such be emergent technology...hmmm...

Even if I go with the standard Rifts timeline of having the Cataclysm strike at the end of the 21st century, I've already decided I'm going to make absolutely no effort whatsoever to emulate the MDC damage system in my conversion. Even when I was running Rifts with the Palladium system, I used some house rules I found online that brought MDC weapons down from their lofty perch and made them just slightly better than non-MDC weapons. The lack of granularity in the system always bugged me--you shoot a deer with a non-MDC rifle and it puts a hole in it; you shoot a deer with an MDC pistol, and the thing is atomized--and just led to power creep anyway. BRP's default approach of making lasers only slightly more damaging, and better able to penetrate armor, works a peach for me.

The other big question mark still remaining for me is how to approach magic. For one thing, I'm not sure yet whether I want to try and convert the myriad systems of magic and psionics wholesale, or just BRP's generic "magic" and "sorcery" systems. I'm of two minds on this, and will have to do some more reading in the Rifts Book of Magic before things start to gel, I think. The other thing I'm sort of tossing around is how I want to approach ley lines.

In the standard setting, you've got ley lines criss-crossing the land like rivers of magical energy. I've never found this imagery particularly captivating, and in fact I've found it a bit tiresome to integrate into my games. So I'm thinking of ditching them. Perhaps Rifts are just ancient dimensional gates that were always there, constructed by "the Ancients" that had used prehistoric Earth as a sort of interdimensional truck stop. After the mysterious departure of the Ancients billions of years ago, the doors slowly swung shut, deprived of the magic energy required to keep them open thanks to the movements of the heavens--if I go with the 2012 schtick, it could have been the end of the First Age or somesuch. With the coming of the new age, the Great Cataclysm, in effect, became the massive human sacrifice required to re-open the doors. I suspect my decision on how to handle magic systems in my conversion will largely determine how I decide to handle ley lines and rifts.

Oh, I might ditch the Glitter Boy as well. Especially if I go with 2012 tech levels. More on that in a future post.

In the end, my objectives for this project are to ground the world in a post-apocalyptic Gygaxian Naturalism, without losing sight of the gonzo "metal" flavor of the world. Shouldn't be too hard. I'm going to hew mostly to the material presented in the earlier books, largely ignoring the developments presented in the Coalition War Campaign series, if for no other reason than I'll always love the early Dead Boy armor designs.

I'll post some notes on my BRP conversion as I get into it. (Of course, I probably can't be too specific lest I risk the wrath of one of those famous Palladium "cease and desist" orders--I swear, within an hour of Palladium going out of business, whenever that may be, the Internet will be flooded with fan conversions.) Something I'm particularly excited about is that I've suddenly made my Rifts game 100% compatible with Call of Cthulhu! Oh yes, I'll be using Sanity for sure...

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