Saturday, April 20, 2013

The SUE System: Character Generation

Okay, we've dallied with abstract mechanics long enough. To really understand the massive upraised middle finger that is the System, we need a character to subject to it. Besides, apparently this is normally the starting point for this sort of thing,

So let's make one.

Ordinarily, I would start with a concept, but I can't do that here. We have to roll stats first. Yes, roll. Randomly. In a game where development started in 2012. You might think, reading that, that I'm making a big deal over a default system. Surely somewhere in the bowels of the System there lurks point buy for people who have played an RPG before, right? Or who know what "random" means? No. Have a quote:"Point-buy systems encourage unrealistic, overly exceptional, minmaxed characters." I encourage you to try to find that stance anywhere in any system that's actually gotten published in the past decade. Maybe some of the WH40k RPGs, just looking at the ones on my shelf--but those are supposed to screw the players. Well, random stat generation is far from this game's worst sin.

Looking at the odds for our generator, we can't have the Tenacity, Intellect, and Wisdom to be a caster with any regularity, and fighting with mediocre stats is going to hurt; our Ten, Dexterity, and Strength need to be 16+, really. I would be a social character, but those don't exist. Admittedly the game is only in 'late beta', but still, not a bard-equivalent to be found, and no indication there ever will be. I guess they aren't MAD enough. Lacking any other option, we might as well try to make a skill monkey.

Which means it's time for class selection, which is also race selection. We're going to be human, because the non-human races haven't been 'finished' yet. There's a wide array of five or six horrible racial classes, just in case we want to play a Tyke Bomb of various sorts, but by far the skilliest is the Monk. See, all scholars, whether they know it or not, are born destined to study physics, and are therefore Monks from birth. Rumors of times and places in history and fiction where a church was not the repository of all knowledge are greatly exaggerated. So I suppose we're a monk. In fairness, we could also be psionic or use the alternate casting system and suck that way, but I'll crack open the mess that is magic another time.

As for our trained class, here we go, straight from the source:

"Agent:  kind of FBI or James Bond'ish character.  Focus on handguns with high skills.

Assassin:  focuses on precision damage and unusual movement.  Assassin's Creed, archetypical sniper, etc.

Employee:  focus on civilian skills, stuff for the common man

Knight:  Melee focus, focuses on armor use and melee damage

Martial Artist:  Specifically unarmed focus, though many assets help in general melee.

Scholar:  high esoteric skills, knowledge-based assets

Soldier:  modern soldier type.  Could moonlight as a designated marksman."

You'd think we should play a Scholar, right, to be a skill monkey? This is a clear example of that most pervasive logical fallacy, Argument from Common Sense around this ClusterFrell of a System. We actually want Agent, because Scholars only get knowledge skills, carefully cherry-picked to avoid actually allowing any useful Knowledge rolls. The acrobat assassin-sniper will have to wait until we have the stats to backflip while carrying a sniper rifle, sadly.

I suppose now would be a good time to give this fellow a name. I don't want to find another image, so meet Phineas T. Brick. We need a backstory too...*ahem*: Owing to an unfortunate case of Being a Brick Syndrome, Phineas was a loner growing up, preferring the company of books to being mortared into his locker by cruel monkmates. Maybe he was in a library wall. At some point he joined the SIS or something like it, presumably as part of a windowsill somewhere.

Now, in addition to his(?) stats, we have to give Phineas skills and feats, as in d20 Modern. Then we have Talents and Assets. Talents are like skills, except we used them so often they got their own category so they could be more expensive. There are six of them: Athletics, Awareness, Deception, Reflexes, Streetwise, and Toughness. For some reason, these cost several times what normal skills cost, and you get part of your level to all of them and all of your level to a variable subset of them. Everyone gets two, humans get three, and you can take a feat to get three/four. Quite why this is has only ever been very poorly explained. Apparently as one gets "more powerful", everyone  necessarily gets stronger, sharper-eyed, better at lying, quicker, more aware of how to buy black-market goods, and more resistant to injury, but everything else depends on what you actually do. Furthermore, it's nearly impossible to intentionally get better at any of these. "Lying IS a skill, but it's more of one you have just by virtue of experience than any sort of practice. You can't really get better at it other than just by being better." I have no idea how to parse that while sober, but that's what we were told.

Assets are another matter. They're like class-specific feats. This isn't entirely awful; unsurprising, as it was plagiarised wholesale from West End's Star Wars RPG and therefore designed by reasonably competent people. They added something this system lacks, though, that made the whole thing work: the Assets themselves. The rate at which Assets are gained is theoretically a balancing factor in class selection, but no class has more than two or three; this is a problem when some gain Assets every other level. The most common Asset in play is "IOU", a placeholder for when "[the GM is] not too busy" to make his own classes playable. The other common trend is for only one heavily suboptimal Asset to be pickable, usually because the good ones have stat requirements in the high teens when the starting stat range is 3-18. More cynical readers might detect in this an attempt to force players to choose specific things while promising choice at an unspecified future time. As it happens, Phineas' assets are all IOUs; he has the class feature of accruing debts eternally owed by GM at a greatly accelerated rate, compared to casters.

In addition to others, of course; there's an endless variety of miscellaneous inanity that doesn't fit into the above categories. Racial classes have their own pools of resources to expend, to say nothing of the various action economy shenanigans combat characters end up juggling. Curiously, anything the players suggest is always "too complicated for [the GM] to want to bother with"; it may be worth keeping that in mind.

So that, in a nutshell, is character creation: it starts arbitrary and devoid of player agency and only gets worse. Endless meaningless categories of abilities are filled with blanks, because it's all so finely divided it takes a dozen or so feats and assets and miscellaneous bonuses to do what D&D does with a feat. Then, too, they multiply, and if you thought D&D stacking rules were bad, just wait for bonus interactomics that would make a collectible card game run for cover. Truth be told, I can't finish Phineas without around five hours of GM fiat to define how they work in this case. Many times, two bonuses will stack at one time or in one place but not in another, and that assumes a consistency in ruling that has never actually been observed. Phineas T. Brick might be the greatest student of architecture the world has ever known--or it might be a Thursday, or nighttime, or not in the right city, and he might be totally useless.

There is, thankfully, a sure cure for incapacity: levels. When in doubt, the problem is that the characters are not high enough level to be competent--unless that sounds ludicrous, in which case the problem becomes more specific. At some point, we'll have to look at how advancement works in this system.

For now, though, we've done all we can with Phineas. Now it's time to replicate what happened to everyone who plays and get the central idea of the system after we're already playing. I suppose that's next, then.


  1. To me, randomness in character generation can be really cool. The best example is Traveller. It works because you get to choose what your character did, but the dice determine whether or not he succeeded. It's a nice way to give your character story that you didn't expect, and there's no way to pre-build a character, only work with what life gives you.

    Of course, that has plenty of agency and strategy to it. While it has problems (balance is hard when one guy rolled a total of 6 for Energy Rifles when skill ranks of 4 are galaxy-wide famous for their skill and the other guy rolled mishaps after mishap) it's a good deal of fun, and most certainly playable.

    1. Dude, this:
      "Point-buy systems encourage unrealistic, overly exceptional, minmaxed characters."
      It's not that random characters aren't occasionally fun to play, it's the cognitive dissonance that allows the GM to Fiat his way to a fortunate polar-bear-meal benefactor of a vampire, but anybody other than the GM can't arbitrarily pick abilities that aren't randomly subpar. Deliberately giving your opponent a sticky wicket.

  2. Personally, I like random stat generation with a healthy dose of "Be freaking reasonable..."

    In other words: roll the dice for a stat pool(i.e. for a system with 6 stats roll for 6 values), adjust the values with GM's consent to ensure the total points do not stray too far into either extreme, assign final results to stats as you choose. A good mix of dice and control.