Thursday, April 18, 2013

The SUE System: Classes

Been a while. So here’s classes.
The selling point of the class system is “every class is gestalt”. This will be spouted at you from the moment you sit down to make a character until the moment you burn your character sheet in front of the GM while chanting it backwards, because it’s supposed to be a positive point. It’s of course at best an irrelevant complication, since power in RPGs is generally relative; if everyone’s rolls and all the DCs are doubled, nothing’s changed, and this gestalting works on a similar principle. It’s also an outright lie.

Normal D&D gestalt works by combining two classes’ skill lists, then taking the greater of their BAB, skill points, HP, et cetera, to make a composite class that’s about half again more powerful than usual. I haven’t known many people who’ve liked running gestalt campaigns for very long, just because the bookkeeping is so much more annoying and you lose something of the unity of effect present in classic D&D classes. This system avoids that by restricting you to combining two classes from mutually exclusive sets of classes, each of which is designed to be about half a class. “Therefore, it’s gestalt”…but not really in any appreciable way.

The theory goes that every character has a trained class, this being the role they’re ostensibly intended to play. Wizard, rogue, fighter, and so forth would be trained classes if ripped from a sensible system. These are all nerfed in ways intended to “encourage teamwork and party complementarity”, which is another way of saying that yes, the shirts with the giant flashing target signs on the chests are mandatory. I had not seen a class with no base attack bonus until I saw this system, but what do casters need with that, right?

Trained classes, though, make a modicum of sense, which is why we absolutely need racial classes. They’re “either your race, for nonhumans, or your upbringing, for humans”, because this system is universal and therefore needs a healthy dose of xenophobia. Whatever you pick is locked and utterly immutable from the word ‘go’, which makes some of the choices all the sillier. Why, yes, I’d love to be a monk and get loads of unusable knowledge skills, and even after we flip genres to survival horror I’m still going to want to level in a class that gives me K: Physics and nothing else. Thanks, SUE System! And, of course, should I want to play a character that’s just a regular guy, the system throws a 404 error, because it’s not like people don’t fit into neat little boxes in real life. 

Now, the above sounds annoying and gamist and utterly lethal to immersion, and it is. It needs something more to project that gut-wrenching feel of visceral, basic wrongness associated with the System. Meet acquired racial classes. You get them by going vampire or lich or otherwise doing something that changes you, at which point a few things happen:
1.       1. You immediately level and acquire an XP debt equal to the XP you needed to level, so you can properly represent being a [whatever].
       2. You get a grab bag of unplayably crippling nerfs to “balance” your “new power”. Lich, for example, renders you almost completely insensate because you instantly mummify.
3.       3. Your racial class is now locked inexorably on this new one, which will over time repair your new crippling deficiencies and replace them with nonsensical benefits. Vampires, for example, start out needing food and blood, then just need blood, then need nothing at all by the end.

I’d like to pause for a moment to reflect on that. Sufficiently powerful vampires do not need blood. I dare you to find me a popular portrayal of vampires that does not center on their need for blood. White Wolf’s Vampire, for example, does this perfectly, and mutates it over time into this constant reminder that you are playing something that must prey on man at the cost of your soul. Even Twilight got this right: the point of vampires is that they drink the vital fluids of other human beings against their will. Here? Just level up a few times and watch the dramatic tension melt away. SUE System Dracula would have been a superhero Batman expy with laser eyes, because that’s more fun than vampirism. Do I even need to say one of the high-level perks is sunlight immunity? This goes beyond that, though. It resonates through the entire class system. Power is measured in levels and expressed in immunities; get enough of the former and nothing can take you down. It doesn’t matter how you get there. Sell your soul for power, and you’ll become so powerful you’ll be given it back. Go vampire. Go lich. Heck, do all three, nothing says you can’t, and you’ll level up three times.

Okay, one thing says you can’t: the GM arbitrarily dangling them on strings in front of you and moving the goalposts away like everything else. NPCs, though, get these templates slathered on in direct proportion to how cool they seem, until the GM will gush over them like the Supreme Fanchild:
“Oh he’s so cool, he’s immune to starvation and dehydration and asphyxiation and radiation and  critical hits and bleeding damage and heat and cold and electricity and…”
Permit me to present a character with the same immunities, but arguably more personality:
And that’s the class system, right there in a nutshell. Or a brick, if you prefer. Rather than wrestle with the need to keep challenging more powerful players without becoming a DBZ-like numbers game, the SUE System runs as hard as its little heart will let it in the opposite direction. Levels are the cure for all frailty, all drama, and all source of plot, until high-level fights are just two invulnerable gods whacking each other in the face with thermonuclear warheads on sticks until one of them gets bored. Mind, I’m not saying they can set them off; the system isn’t designed to allow competence. They can, however, smash, but mostly they can sit there and crow “I’m immune to that” at each other until there’s nothing left to try. It’s the only system I’ve ever seen that avoids giving the player any agency due to their power level; all it does is take away their ability to feel threatened and their capacity to be different from others. After around level 30, everyone’s got every ability in the game that actually matters, so all the powerful NPCs look, feel, act, and are exactly the same. This, then, is the real lie of the promise of gestalt: you can’t combine two classes because there are not two classes. Just many ways to faff about on the inevitable rise to the exact same power set, so you can sit with nothing to fear and less to do.
Because that’s “cool”.   


  1. Popular portrayals of vampires that does not center on their need for blood:

    Adventure Time (all of them)
    JoJo's Bizarre Adventure (useful but unneeded)
    Mahouu Sensei Negima! (Evangeline)
    The Record of Fallen Vampire (spoilers)
    Dresden Files (white court)
    Discworld (sublimated with other addictions)
    The Elder Scrolls (all of them)
    Castlevania (all of them)

    Hmm, quite a few of those originate from Japan. Coincidence?

    1. White Court vamps don't count because they still need to devour the life of humans to survive, they just drink life force directly instead of drinking blood.

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    3. Eh, it's not totally accurate to say that The Elder Scrolls didn't focus on the need for blood. In Daggerfall and Morrowind, blood was one of the aspects of being a vampire. It's only from Oblivion onward that they got weird: Blood isn't necessary to survive, it's necessary to mitigate the side effects of vampirism... at the cost of also eliminating most of the benefits. Although even then, there are numerous instances of NPC vampires going mad due to lack of access to blood.

      However, from Morrowind onward, blood definitely took a back seat to social rejection as a central aspect of vampirism. In Morrowind, most people will refuse to speak to you, including fast travel NPCs and several people essential to the main quest, and the rejection meant that you eventually had to do the cure quest to complete the game. In Oblivion and Skyrim, the longer you go without blood, the stronger the negative reaction, until, at the highest tier of power/side effects, most NPCs will again outright refuse to speak to you.

    4. Plus White Court Vampires are basically incubi/succubbi. The "truer" vampires of the Red and Black (and Jade, maybe) Courts all need their blood.

    5. Witcher series as well. Higher Vampires can basically shrug that shit off entirely, with absolutely zero side effects. No problem with sunlight, no need for blood, no measurable weaknesses... Hell, the only thing that is accepted as being able to kill one is another higher vampire.

  2. Anne Rice vampires, much, much older than we usually see, don't seem to need blood as much as the younger ones. I vaguely remember that really old vampire who used to be a servant to Akasha while she was still human noted that he barely thought about blood and only needed to drink it once every few decades (don't quote me, though)

  3. To be fair, the whole sunlight death thing didn't show up until Nosferatu. Big D himself just lost his powers in the sun.

  4. You guys got kinda sidetracked there, the point isn´t that it is incorrect for vampires to be different, the point is that in most fiction vampires who do not need blood or are immune to sunlight tend to have other weaknesses to compensate or they usually are figures of legend that overcame those weaknesses through unconventional means or through years and years of "evolution".

    Bottom line is that it´s usually not an easy feat for a vampire to get to that level, vampirism is supposed to be a kind of bargain with the devil, giving a character a curse that gives them supernatural abilities at the cost of their humanity just to promptly remove all of the undesirable side effects of the bargain defeats the purpose of vampirism in storytelling, it reduces it to a cheap power-up