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Quality in Rifts: Remembering Pete Overton

Quality In Rifts: Art of the Hunt - Psi-Stalkers

By Pete Overton

Last Updated: 01/21/1999

Rationale: The Psi-Stalker has always been one of my favourite characters that I never got to play much, because they are mutant humans, but not fully diverged from humanity yet. They serve humanity faithfully yet at the same time feed in a vampiric way that will forever set them apart. I wanted to expand on them and their culture and add some depth to any Stalker PCs and give them some context for working with the rest of a PC party.

History: Psi-Stalkers, officially classified as Homo Sapiens Sensus, arose a few decades past the Cataclysm. With the advent of psychics slightly before the Coming of the Rifts, their powers practically quadrupled afterwards, but few survived. Those who did found their powers had advanced a great deal in very little time, and struggled to control them. Their abilities were much desired by the remnants of humanity, because they were more adept than the newest psychics at detecting supernatural and magical threats. However, those first few decades after the war were terrible ones, and the fallout was a severe problem except to those who stayed well away from the major areas of impact.

Unknown to anyone at the time, the massive energies released at the time formed a sort of hyper-Darwinistic effect, which adapted creatures to their new environments in mere decades rather than the eons is usually took. The creatures that survived the war came out much stronger and better able to deal with their new environment. The first offspring of the original psychics who survived emerged as seemingly normal humans, but when they hit puberty their skin turned chalk-white and they lost all of their body hair while their detection powers nearly tripled overnight.

At first these new freaks were feared, but quickly they proved their worth, outstripping even their parents at detection of supernatural creatures, truly becoming important in the Second Dark Ages. People began to notice that they ate less and less food as time progressed, and were curious as to why that was, but frankly were too content with their early warning systems to get into it. The next generation of the mutant humans came out like their parents looked and required almost no food at all, instead evidencing some sort of feeding on the creatures that they detected. Accused of being vampires for a time, it was revealed to the ignorant masses that for some time the mutants were able to feed on the psychic energy of supernatural creatures and that the latest generation *needed* to feed on that energy to survive. Darwin was proved accurate as in the new environment a new offshoot of the human race emerged equipped to handle the new supernatural threats.

The newly named Psi-Stalkers also evidenced an immense predatory instinct. They had an almost feral glee in hunting down and taking down supernatural creatures that the humans of the time. It was soon noted that some of the Stalkers left the city, finding it too confining, and spreading out into the wilderness, teaching themselves wilderness skills, scrounging skills, and tracking and killing random supernatural creatures with even more unrestrained ferality than their city counterparts. Soon there had developed two subspecies groups within the Stalker race -- the Civilized Stalker (Homo Sapiens Sensus Urbanis) and the Wild Stalker (Homo Sapiens Sensus Naturis).

The Civilized Stalkers were more inclined to interact with humanity and became masters of urban and near-urban stalking, often posted at entrypoints to detect problems as they tried to enter the city. Their instincts were more restrained -- just as sharp, but not allowed to run rampant like Wild Stalkers, the predatory instinct in them unleashed only when the hunt for the supernatural was in progress. Despite all of their service and naturalization, they were still considered second class citizens and were still partly feared for their instincts while praised for them at the same time. There was a subtle pressure growing in the Civilized Stalkers which tended to cause mood disorders in them, sort of a caged animal response.

The Wild Stalkers on the other hand were masters of the wilderness and ran around following their instincts and bonding with the creatures of the woodlands. Their interactions with mankind often ended in tragedy, however, because of their social awkwardness (and sometimes sheer antisociality) and almost amorality made them very unpopular with wilderness travellers. Some of the more out-of-touch people saw them as dangerous deebs and tried to take them down usually. They were passionate, emotional creatures and often did things without thinking them through.

As the Coalition arose, they saw the value in the Stalkers. Fearing and loathe to attempt to control the Wild Stalkers, they put out a call to the Civilized Stalkers to join the CS, and were subsequently paired up as leaders of the Psi-Hounds. That was a match made in Heaven because of the Stalkers' deep love of animals and need for companionship were both satisfied. The CS was wary at first of giving them too much to do, but time and time again they proved their loyalty and merit such that to this very day they are considered valuable members of the team, although not equals, of course, but as close as any nonhuman will ever be.

Abilities: The most famous of the Stalkers' abilities is that of the detection of the psychic scent. Much as bloodhounds can track by the physical scent of their target, each person gives off a distinct psychic scent, sort of like a detectable psychic fingerprint. The greater the power of the person, the more detectable the scent is. Psi-Stalkers are often adept at classifying and remembering specific scents as well, meaning that they could track individuals as easily as the bloodhound could. This works equally well for psychics (ISP) and mages (PPE) and even magical devices, and he will be able to track it to its source by instinct, just "knowing" that THAT GUY is a latent psychic. If powers are actively being used, it is the rough equivalent to tossing up a signal flare to the Stalker and makes it far easier to find the source. The same principles apply to supernatural creatures, but I would suggest that they are MUCH easier to remember the scent of than a variety of humans (which sort of follows the "own-race" theory which is a controversial topic anyways). PPE-dead areas (like space or a desert) make their tracking MUCH easier since there is little in the way of interference around them.

Of course, this ability is not without its flaws. Ley Lines have a tendancy to wash away all psychic scents, much as a real-water river would do so for a bloodhound. Magic Zones tend to be a very disorienting experience for most Stalkers and they avoid them if they can although the propensity of supernatural creatures that exist there means that they often risk it for the hunt. Large sources of PPE also interfere with their tracking abilities, such as if three people in a city block area are all carrying rune swords or he is in a Magic Zone.

The well-known affinity with animals is a curious one to explain. It involves a combination of kindness to animals back during the Second Dark Ages and their inherent empathic powers that seem to understand the other well. Stalkers (both types) have a very calming influence on animals and while that calm exists it allows the Stalker to get its intentions across to the animal. In the early days, there were stories of Stalkers who would heal injured animals and gain their lifelong friendship. The story of Teena lives to this day, the Stalker with the Grizzly Bear ally. Legend says that a distant relation of Teena's saved a distant relation of the bear's during the Second Dark Ages with such an act of kindness that each generation past that sought out each other and travelled far and wide together. Teena is the modern day descendent of that Stalker and the bear is the modern day descendent of that Grizzly. It may just be coincidence, of course, but the story is endearing to the Stalkers, having never really gotten along with humans much, they prefer their animal companions.

Needless to say that Dog Boys and Stalkers get along famously. However, curiously enough, most other mutant animals sense the Stalker's predatory instincts and sense them as a threat and will attack them! Why it is that only Dog Boys get along with Stalkers is unknown, although a good many suggest it has to do with CS engineering of the psi-hounds. But Stalkers forced to work with other mutant animals do so with a great deal of tension and threatening. All Stalkers admire Cyber-Knights and aid them when they can as long as it is not too much out of their way. It is suggested that this is due to some ancient mutual pact of protection.

A key point that players often forget is the other people in their own party. Let me put it to you this way. Picture your absolute favourite food in the world. Now picture that food strapped to your husband/wife/friend. Now picture that food smelling tastier and tastier as that person aged. It's no laughing matter to a Stalker in a party with a mage or psychic, much less a supernatural deeb. Their instincts are well-honed for their necessary survival in the Second Dark Ages and have only been perpetuated in the intervening time. At some point or another the issue will have to be dealt with, but much as a vampire PC would always have to deal with the possibility of snacking on one of the partymates, so too would the Stalker have that always in the back of their head.

While on the topic, let's discuss those nice friendly party PCs who say great things like "Oh, I've got lots of PPE, go ahead and feed on me, I'll meditate and get it right back." Perhaps a detailed explanation of what it feels like to have someone feed on your psychic lifeforce is in order. Unlike true vampires whose bite can be made quite ecstatic for the victim, the Stalker essentially drains away the lifeforce. Now, the lifeforce is called that for a reason, it is a force for life, and it does not want to go anywhere because it has a body to keep alive. Thus, to put it tritely, it resists. So it becomes a contest of wills, the Stalker invasively ripping the lifeforce away while the creature resisting fighting him off with every ounce of strength. This isn't book canon, but helps to define the Stalker as a *different* creature and prevents mage/psychic characters from being batteries.

Now, the reason that Stalkers almost universally kill their victims is this: not only does the PPE double upon the creature's death, but it also *flees the body*! Thus there is little contest involved as the Stalker simply drinks up the fleeing lifeforce, and it is far, far easier than trying to take "a little lifeforce" from one person and keeping them alive. Civilized Stalkers are a little better at non-killing drinking than Wild ones, but neither prefer it. It is rumoured that the CS keeps a special detention area for captured mages sentenced to death to be used as food for Stalkers. The horror of that should be pretty obvious I imagine. However, it should be noted that contrary to the canon statement, Stalkers can feed on anyone's PPE, but feeding on a normal's PPE is sort of akin to making a big huge steak and cutting off a 1cm^3 piece. Supernatural creatures, psychics and mages have sort of lush, delicious PPE/ISP that nourishes rather than taunts. Only in the most dire of situations would a Stalker consider feeding from animals or Dog Boys as they are cherished equals.

Finally, under *NO* circumstances would a Stalker ever hunt or kill another Stalker. The nature of this ban is unknown but never in the history of Stalkers has one ever killed another one. As much disdain as exists between the two subspecies, never would one kill the other. They compete an awful lot, but would never actively kill another. Now, there is nothing that says they have to take active measures to prevent the death of one of their own -- which is to say that while they can't attack and kill one another, they can stand by and watch each other die if they like. The sole exception is when challenging a weak leader, for to be bested and not killed is a far greater humiliation. In fact, there is a thriving system of challenging other Stalkers, but it is rarely lethal - the world is dangerous enough without killing off your brethren. Younger whelps can be smacked down, and elders can be replaced when they grow too weak. Thus the cycle of life continues.

Culture: Civilized Stalkers usually fulfill the need for companionship with Dog Boys or open-minded humans. It is their nature that despite their appearance they often try to blend into the culture of the people they serve, having a dire need to belong. Civilized Stalkers will keep in touch with one another and the CS provides specific gathering places for them all to meet and exchange stories and so forth. Civilized Stalkers quite often grow up feeling like outcasts of sorts, being made fun of and pointed out that they are different at every turn despite their valued status. This often breeds a mood disorder in them, usually manic-depressiveness, in which one week they are treated as heroes and they are happy and the next they are reminded that they are freaks and they are not so happy. This dichotomy of existence would be unbearable except for the constant adoration of the Dog Boys they work with. The other thing that keeps them grounded is their clan.

Civilized Stalkers form city-specific clans (such as the Chi-Town Clan, Lone Star Clan, etc.) to act as a sort of an overriding family unit. There they can feel the bonds of family and friends and can exchange stories of valor and of failure and commiserate about their masters. Each clan purchases or is given a large building (usually a warehouse) to call home and the members all decorate it together. Rooms are available for sleeping in and new Stalkers to the city can always go to the clan's headquarters and expect a warm welcome. Joining a clan is as easy as relocating to that city, although the initiations can get quite brutal, though it is all done in good fun. Civilized Stalkers have a much more supportive attitude than their Wild counterparts and often when one gets in trouble the rest will help if possible. The most famous story is where young Kalta lost a mage he was assigned to bring in while in the Burbs and so he was sentenced to death in the mage's place for his incompetence. The Chi-Town clan literally did a house-to-house search of the Burbs until they found the mage hiding out in the basement of a building and brought him to justice, thus sparing Kalta's life.

Clans are organized around the familial aspect. Often the eldest Stalker alive in the clan is in charge, given the title of Grandfather/mother. They have a handful of those under them who are the parents proper, called the Fathers/Mothers who see to much of the day to day affairs. Stalkers refer to each other as Brother/Sister or in the case of visiting Stalkers, Cousin. The Grandfather/mother is always the eldest, but they do well to listen to the advice of the rest of their clan. The ultimate protest in a Stalker clan is to withdraw yourself from it, because that shows the most utter disapproval you can muster. In general because they try to emulate the family model, it usually works out that way and barring some squabbling they all get enough grief from the rest of the world to sit around and annoy each other.

Wild Stalkers are usually loners and fulfill any social need with animal friends, befriending animals of all kinds. Their lives are almost always revolving around the hunt, because for them each day is a test of survival. They have little time for frivolous things like sports or family, but do try to get as much pleasure in their lives as possible. They are quite content to be left alone and do a lot of leaving alone themselves, but when forced to interact with anyone their true weakness emerges. They are blunt to the point of sledgehammerish and have no tact whatsoever, and often look down on all who approach them, even more so if the poor people are lost in the big bad woods. They are very Darwinistic in their outlook and claim to be the original line that the Civilized Stalkers shot off of and feel that if you can't do it yourself, you shouldn't be doing it. Putting them in a social situation is like setting a nuclear weapon. However, just because they are blunt doesn't mean they are stupid - they can be exceptionally cunning when they choose.

They do, however, come together in tribes on occasion, especially where a number of nomadic Stalkers continually run into one another. They often follow migratory patterns of supernatural creatures (starting from nexus points and moving out) and when they form tribes it is more like a barbarian horde than anything. They feel the tightest of kinship with each other but won't go out of their way to help each other unless a threat is so great that it could threaten them all. They very often meet other tribes and engage in challenges and most disputes are settled through nonlethal combat (often to the first blooding). Their traditions are completely oral as the vast majority of Wild Stalkers are illiterate but they have great memories and stories stretching back to the Second Dark Ages.

The tribes are organized under a typical tribal structure. The ultimate authority in the tribe is the Decider, who makes the final choices after hearing from an advisory council called the Suggesters. Within the Suggesters are a number of important positions including the Warmaster (master of combat) and Thinker (wisest Stalker). The Decider's position is neither based on age nor heritage, but rather on a system of challenges. A challenger must make a case before the Suggesters, essentially giving reasons to 'impeach' the Decider. The Suggesters decide the validity of the claims, and if they agree to let it continue, the challenger issuues a formal challenge, naming his challenge. The Decider and the challenger compete and then the Decider issues a counterchallenge of his own. If one wins both, that one is the Decider. If they tie, they do it again. It can be an ardous process and is not allowed to be done in times of war, the formal declaration of hostilities against an enemy. The nature of the challenges are what determines the true leader, though, because they can range from physical contests to riddles to karaoke.

The hunt is of primary importance to either subspecies. Their instincts are extremely predatory and they feel that they live for the hunt. To interfere in another Stalker's hunt without being invited to is tantamount to stabbing that Stalker in the back. There do exist a number of Hunt Thieves who steal the prize at the last moment, but they are universally reviled and usually shunned by the entire Stalker community. Of course, if a Stalker asks for help, that makes it perfectly fine, although he loses some of the glory of the kill by asking for help. Civilized Stalkers put less emphasis on the glory as much as achieving the objective while Wild Stalkers place high value on the kill itself. Most often they take small tokens of their successes and either carry them with them or keep in in a secret location, sort of a trophy room of sorts. Often it is not a piece of the kill itself but a reminder, such as a tattoo or a pattern of permanent paint. Civilized Stalkers have been known to keep a 'kill database' while Wild Stalkers have been known to add a bead to their necklace each kill.

Of course, inevitably some foul hunter gets the idea to fake his kill count. This of course has been known to happen and they are almost always exposed. You must remember that aside from being hunters of the psychic, they are psychic themselves, and trying to lie to a roomful of psychics is difficult to say the least. They only usually get away with it when lying to normals (non-Stalkers). When exposed, the Stalker is typically shunned by the Stalker community and by default the Dog Boy community too, both of which are terrible daggers to the hearts of a Stalker. Animals can sense when a Stalker is shunned and will share that shunning although some will take pity on him.

Spiritually, the vast majority of Stalkers are utterly devoid. Most of their religious feelings are channeled into the hunt, although a minority have developed a sort of primitive naturistic worship along the lines of Nature being a sentient entity. This is more prevalent in Wild Stalkers than Civilized Stalkers obviously, and spiritualism among Civilized Stalkers is virtually non-existent given the Coalition's dim view of religion as a rule. Wild Stalkers are much more likely to develop a basic sort of spiritualism. Ironically, if introduced to the idea of an organized religion (though preaching or whatever), Civilized Stalkers are the most fervent of the two subspecies. It takes them a long time to believe, if ever, but if they do believe, they will defend it to the death.

Let's talk family again for a moment. Specifically, genetics. The question of Psi-Stalker reproduction is bound to come up, and here is the answer. A Stalker reproducing with another Stalker will always birth a Stalker. A Stalker reproducing with a normal human will get a Stalker 25% of the time and a normal child 75% of the time, although the normal child is about 40% more likely to be psychically active.

Psi-Stalkers don't make the best of parents for obvious reasons. Wild Stalkers get the worst of it, as their parents often deposit them with a tribe to raise them while they go on about their lives. This is not to say that they are cold, callous parents, but rather that they see their entire race as their family and accordingly trust their child will be raised properly. Civilized Stalkers fare slightly better, with their parents taking an active interest in them in between assignments and often left to the clan other times. However, Civilized Stalkers have the stigmatism that Wild ones don't in that they are often made fun of a lot over their freak status by other children, whereas Wild Stalkers are accepted wholly by the tribe with little interaction with other races. But to Psi-Stalkers, the reaction to their lack of parents by other races puzzles them, because they are a race and they are all an extended family. The tribes and clans incidentally mirror each other on purposes, and by the way, woe to those who mix up the two terms. Asking what tribe a Civilized Stalker is from is slightly less dangerous than asking which clan a Wild Stalker is from.

A curious phenomenon has arisen in the last 50 or so years that could herald a third branch of the Stalkers. Currently referred to as the Balancers, they are Stalkers who have started to preach a philosophy of balance and seem determined to reunite the two branches into a single one. They combine both the instincts of the wild and the naturalization of the city and tend to be semi-literate and semi-social. They try to balance their time between the wilderness and the city, often leaping from job to job depending on the location or travelling with Cyber-Knights as they go errantly about their jobs. They are not technically masters of either wilderness or city, but are adept at both to a degree, sort of Psi-Stalker generalists. Other Stalkers rarely make a big deal of them and they are respected members of the community and most don't listen to their preaching, but it's a movement which has been growing nonetheless.

Psi-Stalkers take their word very seriously and they have been known to occasionally grant an important consideration to a non-Stalker -- the idea of Blood Brotherhood/Sisterhood. It's exactly what it sounds like but the recipient is... well, the theory behind it is fuzzy, but it seems that the Stalker 'marks' his brother/sister psychically such that other Stalkers recognize it, and treat them like one of their own. This mark is *very* rare for obvious reasons and even the most respected of people rarely get this honor, because it in essence makes him an honorary Stalker with all rights accorded with it. The caveat is that the Stalker who inducted him into the race is responsible forever for his actions, which is why so rarely is it given out.

At any given time, there is one Grand Hunter in the world. The title explains the position and it is more of an honorific than a literal designation, as they are often very old. Not to be too cliché, but the image of the old man on the mountain is very much the fulfillment of this idea. His knowledge, psychic abilities and arts of war are all at their peak and stories say he will teach if he finds a worthy pupil. Much like Lord Coake, though, his presence is often considered a myth as none have been able to identify him or his location, although believers often say that it would defeat the purpose of going to him if you knew where he was.

Reputation: Civilized Stalkers enjoy the benefit of a good public relations campaign under the Coalition. While painted as mutants, they are painted as helpful mutants who should be respected. At the same time, most people don't consider them truly human and treat them as such, and their basic sustenance requirements often cause people to become very uncomfortable around them as a rule. Wild Stalkers get it even worse because they get painted as wild, untamed savages that drink the blood of the dead and torture small children for amusement. No matter which they are, both are considered less than human but their service to humanity makes up for it. Usually.

Variants: Upon buying the Psyscape book, it stated an interesting thing in it on page 83. Apparently 99% of Psi-Stalkers are classic Stalkers and exist just as described. However, 1% are considered mutants within a mutant society and these odd Stalkers tend to be Psi-Nullifiers. This hurt my head a lot, and Psyscape wasn't a really great book anyway, so I mostly ignore it.

Roleplaying Notes: It's horribly cliché, but think of the Predator movies. They are the embodiment of the hunter lifestyle and think in terms of the Stalkers. However, you do NOT play a Predator. :P But many similarities exist between the two. I cannot stress enough the instincts of either subspecies to hunt. It is bred into them like the desire to eat is for us, and if the opportunity presents itself, very little will stop them from going on the hunt. That is why they are often limited to specific roles in the military for Civilized Stalkers. Wild ones do what they like when they like usually, so it isn't much of a problem. There are no penalties for not hunting stats wise, but it should be roleplayed through continued agitation, short-temperness and general excitability.

The other key point to remember is that while they require a pithance of real food, they do need a requisite amount of PPE per week to survive. This isn't optional. It is necessary, as much as our own eating is necessary. This is one of the most dehumanizing aspects of this character, as he feeds on the psychic lifeforce of other beings and will certainly cause tension among those who are less than tolerant. As I said above, other PCs should not simply be volunteering to hand out their PPE/ISP to the Stalker either, no matter how much trust exists there. If for whatever reason you allow it, STRESS the fact that they are draining lifeforce, not simply another stat (I love how the book says it is not life threatening, eeesh). Take their maximum hit points and divide them evenly between the character's PPE and reduce hit points as the PPE is taken (which is to say, if I have 16 hp and 4 PPE, that's 4 hp per PPE drained). It is NO laughing matter. This may not be popular, but it is effective at reminding that they are mutants, not humans.

All Stalkers respect strength, a legacy of their Darwinistic origins. Civilized Stalkers have been known to disregard officers that they consider weak, although eventually they reluctantly listen to them. Wild Stalkers have been known to mercy kill the weak (or whom they consider weak) for their own good so as not to take up good hunting time. You have to understand that in general there are two classifications for a Stalker to put a person into -- either he respects the individual or he thinks of him as prey. Now, that doesn't mean that you will run off and kill everyone you don't respect, but you will act superior to the prey and won't take too much from them. Of course, the line varies for each Stalker, but your line should be thought of before you start, although it will change a lot between your first few levels.

A key point to remember is that unlike, say, a Klingon, you are not acting like this out of honor. No indeed. Your instincts cry for you to fulfill the hunt and there are just certain ways of doing things and some things you never do. If someone calls you a funny name, it's probably because they are jealous. If someone calls you a bad hunter, show him your trophies. If he keeps calling you a bad hunter, make him a trophy. Remember, two classes, respected people and prey. You will not take a lot of crap from those in the prey category, but those who have demonstrated strength, guile, tactics, and respect are those you can learn from and should listen to, although they can go too far too.

Another thing to remember is that more than other characters, Stalkers need to interact with life. Even the so-called loner Stalkers often spend lots of time with animals. This stems from the rather obvious fact that as a hunter society they cannot be acclaimed if they never have anyone to tell their feats to. Having never been truly accepted anywhere except in their own kind, they have a sort of racial insecurity going that can only be soothed by their own kind or bonding with other (non-prey) individuals, such as the blood brother/sister thing. It is important to them that those they respect in turn respect them back, and the disapproval of one respected friend is very hurtful to the Stalkers, who see friendship in a very simple and white light.

Let's talk appearance for a moment. It's often easy to forget that all Stalkers are six foot+ powder-white skinned absolutely hairless individuals. They make up for that lack of hair with decorations, usually in the form of tattoos, paintings, or whatnot. They are a very intimidating sight to those who are not familiar with them, but to those who know them, it can be a very scary experience seeing one, especially if you are the supernatural creature he is looking to use as his next notch on his belt. There is little racial variation in the template for some reason, with their eyes being typically blue or gray of varying shades, so it is left to each individual Stalker to distinguish themselves in other ways, which is why the trophies came into being. I'd hope that as a player you would come up with distinguishing marks for your Stalker before play started so your fellow teammates don't shoot you by accident. Hee hee. :)

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