Sunday, June 20, 2010
I Love This Book
Troll and Toad sent me one of my all-time favorite RPG supplements today--Rifts: Atlantis.
From a distance (a distance I definitely did not have as a kid) the main villains in this setting, the Splugorth, are a sort of comic bookifiyed version of Lovecraftian Old Ones and their island empire is a collage of every 50-year-old science fiction idea that could be easily militarized--plus mounds of lasers and eyeballs.
The kicker for me in Rifts Atlantis, though, was the occasional inclusion of the unbelievably stylish technogrotesque artwork of Newton Ewell (a sample of which graces the top of the page there). Science fiction rpgs--being based on new ideas rather than traditional ones--need illustrations in a way that fantasy rpgs don't. And Ewell's pictures described a world exquisitely. Here technology and machinery are more fantastic than magic and dazzlingly baroque. (And this was before the anime-explosion on this side of the Pacific made this kind of thing familiar.)
The whole of Atlantis had an exuberant weirdness that seemed to take the basic Rifts ideas to their natural conclusion. The default Rifts setting was a sort of post-apocalypse with people in cities and towns (and, of course, monsters everywhere else)--not unlike D&D.
Rifts Atlantis, though, was a society of monsters. And not just Star Trek-mostly-human-with-a-few-cosmetic-changes-monsters. They were truly and gruesomely inhuman--an idea that's common enough in literary sci-fi, but surprisingly unusual outside of it.
It was awesome: the technology was made of monsters, the government was monsters, the transportation was monsters, the weapons were monsters, the monsters had weapons these weapons were made of monsters and they shot monsters. It was the whole Lovercraft-humanity-is-not-the-philosophical-center-of-reality-thing done completely goofy and all wrong. And it demanded maximum creativity--everything had to be weird. Everything was arcane or had missiles or had arcane missiles. If you were going to put a post-office box in Atlantis it would have to be weird--the metal would be made from the psychic energy harvested from dying warsnails and the stamps would be glued on with squidblood. There are Eyes of Eyelor, there's a playable PC race that's a foot long psychic slug, there are the blind warrior women being licked by lizard slavers, and it all just seemed perfectly held together by the drawings.
That was always the thing about Rifts--on paper, the the game seemed like a bad late Burroughs novel footnoted with endless lists of military hardware. But then there were the pictures--good or bad, they they were so solid, they made sense--I'd look at them and go "ok, yeah, I see it" and then it all came together and I wanted to go there immediately.
In color up there, there's the Ketih Parkinson painting of the Splugorth slaver. I'm not a big Parkinson fan, usually, and I don't love the painting, yet, somehow he manages to evoke every single pulp sci-fi novel cover you ever picked up in the 99-cent bin and went "What the holy fuck could this possibly be about? I have to buy it."
Except because Rifts is a game and not a book, the picture, of course, turns out to be about whatever you think that picture is about. Which, face it, is way better than that 99 cent novel was ever gonna be.
Nowadays there's a million high-concept RPGs with (probably) fascinating post-Alan Moore, post-anime premises, but whenever I see them, I seriously go "Ok, but you could've just done that with Rifts, right?"
(Oh, I can hear it now: whine whine whine about Palladium's mechanics. Read that and fuck off.)
D&D originally provided a little of everything--genies, leprechauns, rakshashas--whatever. I generally think of every new setting for D&D (or every new fantasy setting-plus-ruleset--that is, every new fantasy game) as a narrowing of the list of possibilities implied in D&D. Only snow-monsters, only-pre-iron-age weapons, only wizard stuff, etc. etc.
Likewise, I feel like every time somebody tries to re-do the postmodern sci-fantasy RPG I just think: ok, this is like Rifts, but with less stuff.