A GITS:SAC lesson on Power Levels, Balance and Scale.

Going from a formulaic, allegedly balanced system like 4E D&D to running something as gonzo and varied as RIFTS has had me pondering the benefits of a system that has a varied power scale. For those unaware, RIFTS is one of those games where character level doesn’t define the power scale of a character, as much as his racial or occupational character class. Even starting with beginning level one characters, some classes start off with mediocre weapons or cash where other classes are literal one man armies and literal walking tanks. When you’re accustomed to games where everyone’s on the same power scale (like a party of similarly leveled characters in D&D), switching over to a system like this could be a bit of a culture shock.

My current two players span the power scale pretty well: We have the mutant muskrat “Glitter Boy” power armor pilot, and the other is a psionic “Burster” and dual wielding katana freak. One is pretty much a mobile artillery unit in a mechanize battlesuit; armed with a railgun that can wax targets up to two miles away.  The other one is like an up close ninja assassin with pyrokinetics and telepathy.  At first I thought to myself “How the hell do you make these two work as a team!?”

If the situation comes up that the dungeons are starting to get too claustrophobic for you, don’t be afraid to expand the scale of your campaign! Whether it’s modern, science fiction or military….realize it is possible to craft scenarios where the players work together as a team, but not everyone has to be on the front lines of the battlefield together! Your scouts, your smooth talkers and your sneaky types can easily play important roles on the sidelines of the big hitters and still get equal spotlight time!

For a better example, let’s use Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex

I may get my cyberpunk nerd cred taken away for this, but I’ve been putting off watching this series for a while. Tonight I finally got to sit down to a few episodes with friends, and loved it. And one thing hit me about the series: It demonstrates how characters of various “Levels on the Power Scale” can operate as a team and get shit done.  The example I’m going to use in particular comes from the events of the second episode of the first season (Testation). Without giving away much spoilers, the basic plot rundown is that an experimental mechanized tank had apparently been taken over by something (it had no pilot) and had gone rogue, heading towards a nearby city.

The protagonist characters, agents of Section 9, are dispatched to investigate the cause of the tank going rogue and, if needed, to take it out. Staying within close proximity and chasing the sucker down were our two main badass characters, Major Kusanagi and Batou. These two have been shown in the previous episode (and the movies) to be pretty hard-assed cyborgs who are quick thinkers and experienced close quarter combatants. In this particular mission, both of them pursue the runaway tank using  a squad of Tachikoma Spider Tanks, which have their own AI but apparently can also be piloted.

Meanwhile, the sniper Saito sets up miles away. The dude’s sniper rifle alone looks like some hot shit; but he also apparently has this crazy ass cyber eye that links up with military spy satellites and allows him to get all sorts of readings on the target. This character, along with the more “hands on” combatant characters of Batou and Major, had me thinking of the dichotomy of my Glitterboy and Burster/Assassin-ish character. The long-ranged artillery or snipers may be the “god damn” of damage dealers; but they also attract attention to themselves, and usually have setups that are too bulky or cumbersome should they be engaged close up. But this doesn’t mean they should be side lined for their one trick shot….as a GM, keep them engaged with the reconnaissance details and have them constantly updating the hands-on combatants with what’s going on around them, and keep your boom guns on hand for when things get really tough.

The interesting factor (for me at least) in this episode was that despite their fire power out in the field, the person who ended up turning the tide of battle wasn’t the crazy combat cyborgs or the uber sniper. It was the relatively unmodified human detective Togusa (who is known for just packing a 9mm pistol and little else.) To me, this guy feels like the dude in a Shadowrun team who takes no Cyberware, and focuses entirely on skills and attributes. In a game like RIFTS, he’s easily a “low powered” class akin to the City Rat, Vagabond etc. He may not have the heavy weapons, crazy augmentations or power armored mecha…but he has the damn smarts, social skills and investigative know-how to get answers the squad needs in order to save the day. Which brings me to another lesson: Even in high-powered games, don’t turn down the guy who just wants to be the oddball or the “face” type.  And don’t think he has to be on the battle lines with the group to be a benefit. And, if you can work it in, don’t run him separate either. Let him have his own scenes or encounters as the combat situations are going down….let his investigations, research, hacking or whatever tie in with the big boys in an effort to find the pay dirt they need to really excel.

Now, if you guys don’t mind, I have to scrub off the nerdery that was me using an anime reference to explain an RPG concept. There’s some ranks of geek that I try not to succumb to.