Monday, May 27, 2013

Theoretically Optimal DMing

Been a while. But I have a degree now. Anyway, we’re still waiting on one of our writers to sober up, so in lieu of our SUE fare, have a totally unrelated story.
Our DM here was not the SUEthor. In some ways, that might have been at least a departure from the monotony. Rather, we had an expert in D&D 3.5 theoretical optimization for our DM, and we were running through a first-level D&D 3.5 module.
One other player was really of note here. He’s a great guy, really, but he has a habit of playing absolutely ludicrous character concepts and really playing them to the hilt, which can get a bit disruptive. Here, for example, he played a low-Int Darfellan Paladin who carried two shields, because he chose to Bite Evil rather than Smite it, and being a Paladin of Orcas had Detect Evil Sonar rather than the normal version—and was all too happy to RP this. Loudly.
Our other players were a complete newbie who was handed a Crusader as “the most optimal martial class” and someone who, given it was Level 1, felt justified in playing a Truenamer. It wasn’t like it made him any less effective. I played a Cleric, because Cleric is my go-to 3.5 class for when I really don’t have a good idea for a one-shot and nobody else really wants to dispense hit points. Crusader can apparently heal everyone infinitely “by punching a wall” by RAW, though.
As I said, we were level 1. I know low-level play can be fun, but I’ve always found it to be much more so when there were things like a story and intriguing NPCs to distract from the mechanics. Here, we had none of these; there were kobolds in a mine and we got hired to turn kobolds into dead kobolds for literally dozens of gold pieces. Darfellan Man was hugely annoying during this part, shouting his way through talking to the widow of the mine supervisor and getting the guards down on us.
Now, the DM here has this thing he does where, on anything sufficiently technical, he’ll just start…talking, as rapidly and monotonously as possible in this perfectly regular singsong voice until everyone else shuts up. He usually does this about either computer science minutae or the finer, more agonizingly pedantic points of finance, regardless of what anyone else is talking about. Just…imagine a trial like that. He insisted on RPing through the entire thing; I, representing the defense, tried for a plea bargain: throw us into the kobold-infested mine, we all die, and you get out of court early today. The judge (who was also the mayor, the bailiff, the sole witness, the sheriff, and the prosecutor) was blathering on about how he’s decided to raise interest rates by 400000% so maybe he’ll make the one-day sentence a  4000 day sentence who really knows, and he did this for a real-time hour while no one else paid attention. I think we missed learning something about a burning plague, maybe with a priest? It didn’t matter. Plot, for this guy, was just that thing before the killing started.
We eventually got shanghaied into the mine, and we got ambushed by kobolds. I nearly died, and spent literally the entire fight taking two damage, dropping unconscious, being healed for two, and missing a nearby kobold, before the process repeated. The Truenamer actually got one of his not-spells off, which was the highlight of the “fight”. Eventually the DM decided the kobolds just got bored, called the fight off, and pointed us in the direction of “the person you’re here to kill”. Plot Arrows, for your convenience.
We saw some more stuff, but I was still unconscious for all of it and no one checked, so I didn’t really pay attention. Then there were zombies, I turned them, and “a random guardsman comes in and kills them all to spare me rolling more dice.” Thanks, GM!
That was most of the dungeon. There was a boss…I think… we bull rushed him off a pillar and the Darfellan held him underwater until he died. Then we went home and got paid.
Sort of. We got paid 10% of what was promised to us on the grounds our employer had decided to hire the kobolds to mine instead of clearing them out. This caused the GM to launch into another long lecture about some financial trickery or other related to wages, and me to mutter “well, yeah, you’d have to be stupid NOT to hire the awesome miners living in your mine.”
And of course the GM mishears this, decides I called the rich NPC stupid, and declares my name will be blackened throughout the land, I will be barred from all cities ever, etc. Naturally, I figure I have nothing to lose (and the adventure is over anyway) so I start whaling on him.
At which point the GM decides that, rather than a 6th level Expert, he is a 6th level Sorcerer. With PC-level wealth, already distributed in custom magic items. The rest of the party got in on the act before he Mage Handed us a book full of Explosive Runes, told us what they said, and we all nearly died. We fled as pariahs, while the GM explained how the new Sorcerer was hanging around purely to manipulate ore prices with something to do with trading of stock. In total, about half of what he said during the whole adventure was unrelated, disjointed, esoteric financial blather. Immersion? What’s that?
So that’s my story. It sucked, and in a way worse than the SUEthor’s idiocy; just a boring march of numbers until no one cared. There’s really nothing to say about it, except that this is the kind of thing people were willing to play with the SUEthor to avoid.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The SUE System: Reprimand

This one’s short, and it’s not a fitting conclusion to the prequel campaign, but there you go. AF1 and 2 are hopefully going to continue the story, since they played through it. I didn’t past this point, and here’s why.
Shortly after the session in which last post’s mission came to a generally successful conclusion, our GM taps me on the shoulder and asks if I can hang around.
Now, I’ve done this as a GM, and I never like doing it, because I can never make it about anything good, but at least I try to make it fast – and if at all possible I do it in a private addendum to the post-session IM, since at least then they can get to it at their convenience. The GM, on the other hand, has never said anything of any consequence by IM (or at all), but he usually finds them insufficiently personal. He sits down behind his formidable DM screen, steeples his fingers, and looks at me in what he’s always thought of as an intimidating way.  The neckbeard rather spoils the effect, though.
I start, actually, with “Okay, clearly something’s happened here to piss you off. What do I need to change to make the game fun for you to GM again?”
After about a full minute of staring at me, he opens with “[your character] is dragged out of his room in the middle of the night and thrown into psychiatric prison.” Insert self-satisfied smirk.
Well. That escalated quickly. I ask if I get, say, a trial or something similar, and this is met with derisive laughter. Yeah, sure I get a trial. I’m dragged in chains before a “military court-martial”( as opposed to the vastly more common civilian types), and they’re very efficient: they open by finding me guilty. Apparently I’m guilty of high treason as well as criminal insanity and “countless lesser crimes”.
Me: “Oh, okay, so I’m overqualified. Jeez, guys, if you want me to take over just say so.”
This gets his blood up with impressive speed, and causes him, in the guise of whatever official is heading this thing, to launch into a tirade that took several minutes. Apparently I went badly off-mission, I have no respect for proper operating procedures, and I “made excessive use of excessive force”. My brain hurts. Now, quite which part is the treason and which part is the insanity, I was not at all sure, and the DM was happy to clarify.
Apparently, doing more than your mission brief is going off mission, and it shows a lack of respect for the M.I.C. hierarchy not to make use of your backup. I didn’t even know we had Blackhawk for backup, but apparently wasting that much of a senior agent’s time is bad; he was supposed to come in once we’d engaged all of our adversaries at once in a fair fight. The GM hadn’t even thought of the shield generators, but apparently he was going to take care of them too. “Moreover, it has a detrimental effect on morale to have such junior agents subvert the organizational hierarchy.” I love the logic here: how dare we do things! Our rank isn’t cleared for anything but massively sucking!
He goes on and on about this, with this weird mix of sanctimony and rage; the phrase “how dare you” shows up a lot. This was around the point where I lost the capacity to do anything but listen and be amused.
In the end, he wound down, and I asked what he intended to have happen now, exactly, since he’s gone to so much effort to educate me on what, exactly, I did wrong by inventively succeeding beyond our mission parameters and making everyone have fun.
Apparently my character is gone permanently; he’s in “crazy jail” for the rest of his life. “And you aren’t making another one like him. I can tell you that right now.” If I’m to come back into the campaign, I had to promise to quit the shenanigans and apologize for messing up his plot.
His face as I walked out was priceless. 
It would be a year until I’d join another campaign of his, and only after I’d heard great things about it – mostly from people with rather different standards than mine. In the intervening time, I leave you in the capable storytelling hands of AF1 and AF2, whenever they may see fit to post ; I’ve got a short backlog of things to get out before we get to the CT-like campaign that spawned this site.
And that’s the end of the Prologue.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The SUE System: Mission

When last we left off, our three intrepid adventurers had been sent through a portal to the HALO ‘verse in order to stop the illicit trading of shield technology for ludicrous amounts of gold. I did not have a straight face the entire time, by the by.Incidentally, Igor’s player wasn’t here for this session. With his consent, we controlled her by party consensus so she’d get XP, and used her more or less as a lookout. If it seems a bit odd that a melee character would be so far from the baddies, that’s why: we really did not want Igor to die.
Okay. The three of us come out the other side of the portal into an enormous pile of assorted garbage in a dingy, cruddy alleyway. The GM, by the by, took great pleasure in describing how filthy we immediately got, but Rick was more focused on positioning and I was more focused on hiding. Once we were all in tactically significant rubbish heaps, I decided to mess around with my telekinesis and spill a paint can of used oil over the ground in front of the soon-to-be portal. The exertion from this took me down a step on the fatigue track. Literally tipping over a can – and missing with it, mind you -- was enough to tire me halfway to exhaustion.
I should mention here that I tried my hardest to build my character around psionics, in order to test the system, and the only things I ever succeeded in moving were the goalposts. First it wasn’t precise enough; I buy skills to stop this. Then it wasn’t powerful enough, so I needed feats. Then it was too hard to focus; more skills and feats were needed. Then it wasn’t capable of doing anything I wanted it to do for a number of reasons specific to use cases, and we never solved that slew of problems. I asked him, once, if he wanted me to just not play a psionic character, if he’s so hell-bent on nerfing psionics to uselessness.
“Psionics is not useless, dude. At twentieth level with the right build you can throw cars around. It’s powerful, so it needs to be balanced, one way or the other.”
So, because a highly optimized hypothetical build relying on things not in the game yet can do something scary, I pass out from throwing a mid-sized rock (for 1d2 damage) five times in the same day. I asked, once, when he’s putting in these wonderful talents that will let me play my character to spec, and I got told it will happen “when I feel you’re high enough level to be able to take them” – which was never any level I cared to guess.  Jam tomorrow, of course, has the inestimable advantage of never requiring jam.
And so, as we sat amidst jam and other things, we waited for fifteen minutes for our adversary to show up—and lo and behold, we have a surfeit of them. Coming through first is some idiot I can only describe as Snidely Whiplash down to the hat, not that the GM was so concise. Rick wanted to shoot then; I advised him to wait. Moments later, six “absolutely huge dudes” come through, pushing an enormous crate with a tarp over it. They’ve got it on platform trucks, you see, and apparently a lot of them; the crate is around two meters by two meters by three. I ask why they’re moving something so huge by hand, and apparently “it’s more inconspicuous” that way. Of course a bunch of guys pushing a minivan-sized  box along a sidewalk (I don’t even know anymore) is totally inconspicuous; they have a tarp! Upon seeing the size of the guns they have strapped to their backs, we decide to let them get on with their business for now, and stalk them through the streets. Yes, we had to stalk seven guys with a giant box. We almost lost them three times, given the difficulty of the rolls to track them.
Evenually we get to see them enter a warehouse, because it is always a warehouse in the bad part of town. Rick and I stand at the front gate after they’ve gone in, listening to muffled conversation, while Igor slinks around back. Slinking was the only form of motion her species was physically capable of, apparently.
Anyway, Rick is going through his pre-asskicking routine, planning his tactics and checking his guns and so forth, while I frantically roll Intelligence checks to figure out how my rifle works. Remember, we were neither briefed nor trained on this. I fail repeatedly; this is clearly not a good start. Having resigned myself to making no meaningful contribution to this fight, I decide to go out in the goofiest way possible. Just before we kick down the door in synch and run in, I shout the following:
Me: “HALO MPs-“
Rick: “UNSC MPs, you idiot!”
Me: “Yes, Them! Us! Anyway! Everyone on the ground; these men have been selling you counterfeit gold!”
It was wrong on so many levels. It shouldn’t have worked; I never meant it to work, just to distract them. The uniforms were wrong (and covered in garbage at that), and I’m not entirely clear on whose jurisdiction this would be or why the UNSC would particularly care that they’ve successfully scammed a bunch of smugglers out of who knows how much money. If they did, they wouldn’t send three guys, and anyway the idea of counterfeit gold is ludicrous when they have handheld scanners of insane capabilities. Or, you know, scales and rulers. None of this occurred to the GM. None of it. Instead, he has me roll Deception.
Natural 20.
We enter to find Snidely and his goons having drawn on two fellows in UNSC uniforms who are looking scared as hell, while one set of platform trucks holds the shield and another holds a 1.75 by 1.5 by 3 meter brick of solid gold. Now, doing the math, that’s a hundred and fifty metric tons of this stuff; given that these guys have been transporting “enough hardware to outfit a third of the fleet with tenfold redundant shields”, that comes out to around a million metric tons of solid gold. They carted it by hand over a few kilometers of densely populated urban area, in 6670 trips (they move these things one at a time), apparently totally uncontested. Meanwhile, the UNSC didn’t notice a cube of gold 37 meters on a side go missing over the course of a few years while these guys made trillions of credits and kept risking their lives doing this.
I begin to have the sneaking suspicion that everyone but Igor, Rick, and possibly me is an idiot, so I ask the GM as much.
“What? No. This was a brilliant plan, dude; these guys are geniuses.”
Having had it confirmed that they’re idiots, I go into the bullshit version of free fire mode and order my compatriot to “book ‘em, Danno.” The reference is lost. They consider running, and then Igor steps through the back door, so they’re led off at gunpoint by the only guy that can fire a gun. I instruct him to put them someplace soundproof, and wipe the more obvious trash from the faceplate of my helmet. Then I start lying my ass off, deliberately being as ludicrous as possible.
“Sorry about that; they can’t know who we really are: Special Agents Johnson, Johnson, and Johnson of the UNSC Special Operations Group, at your service. Now, listen: we’ve all got a good thing going here and no one in the know wants it to stop, but y’all have been going about it all wrong, dealing with these chumps. I mean, face-to-face meetings? Shipping one at a time? Conducting your business in full view of everyone? I apologize on their behalf for their lack of professionalism; this whole thing has been embarrassingly detectable. We need a much better arrangement if we’re going to keep Internal Security off our backs. Look: SOG has a station in Neptunian orbit we aren’t using at the moment. What say we just fill it with gold, biometrically lock it, and you guys dead-drop the shields for the gold at your leisure? No one has to see, you can move all the volume you want whenever you want, and we all come away from this safer and richer. Heck, SOG can afford to pay you guys 25% more per unit for your trouble.”
He doesn’t even bother with a Deception check; he’s in full on negotiator mode, now that I’ve mentioned a number. Snidely and I settle on an extra fifty percent.
“Great, great. If you’ll give us a moment, my people will get your brainwave patterns scanned for the bio locks, and this whole messy business can never have happened.”
And then I hop on our cranial radio.
“Ops, get me a memory wipe team in here NOW; dress ‘em up in armor with medic symbols on it first.”
And, lo and behold, after much sputtering, they actually do what I ask, and we get M.I.C. neuralyzer limpets on their temples. Idiots, I’m telling you; they actually let us stick little metal discs on their heads without protest. We memory-wiped them without much fuss. Pleasure never having done business with you, gentlemen.
This leaves us with the two on the UNSC end of the bargain, and having built up momentum and recognized just how stupid my lies can be, I’m swaggering in to see that Rick’s got them on their knees, hands behind their heads, a pistol pointed at the head of each. The GM advises we just knock them out and get them neuralyzed, but my ambitions run rather farther.
“Hello, gentlemen. Agent Smith of UNSC Internal Security; my compatriot here is also Agent Smith. You boys are in a heap of trouble.”
One of them: “But the gold was legitimate!”
“We know, damnit; the ‘shields’ weren’t, and we’re making every effort to keep your associates from knowing we know that. They’re actually a Covenant radiation weapon; the ‘shield’ is just the tamper for a neutron bomb linked to an ansible trigger. Set one off, and it sterilizes several thousand cubic kilometers down to the microbes.
And thanks to you boys, the Covenant have ten of them on the Pillar of Autumn alone. We have to invent whole new kinds of treason just to describe the magnitude of the shit you’ve pulled.
So here’s what we going to do. You’re going to get on your communicator, you’re going to call whoever you have up there, and you’re going to tell them to eject every shield on the Autumn, untouched, into the nearest star, as discreetly as possible; they’re to claim the technology was proven unsuitable for use, should anyone ask. Then you’re going to do the same for every ship, station, and storehouse you’ve handed to the Covenant on a silver platter, and you’re going to have whoever you have masking the records erase all trace of these ‘shields’ from the system as completely as possible. When we have confirmation our navy isn’t constantly at risk of annihilation, we all walk out of here, and you pray you never see us again.”
Another natural 20 on the Deception check, somehow; this was lucky as anything. I order him to make the call and try to emphasize my point with the rifle. The GM points out that I have no idea what part to point at him, or indeed where at him to point, so I start vaguely waving it at him until he looks scared; the GM decides this happens when the it’s pointed at his groin. Okay, fine, whatever.
The guy refuses, even with two guns trained on him, so I tell the GM “I hit him”, by which I meant I intended to poke him with the rifle muzzle as an inducement to get on with it. The GM interpreted it rather differently, and decided to go with his interpretation, over my protestations, as “I already rolled dice”.
Dear Diary: today I shredded some guy’s iliac arteries and learned the value of unambiguous communication.
The other guy made the call, though, and we were informed by the M.I.C. that all the shields were being destroyed. I was so happy I danced a bit, then remembered to call a medic for the guy twitching on the floor. Also a neuralyzer for the guy sobbing in bemused terror at the guy singing “My Way” in an armor-adjusted basso profundo, using the butt of the still-smoking assault rifle as a stand-in for a microphone. Once that’s taken care of, we leave the gold and shield there for the cleanup team and walk back arm-in-arm through the portal, me singing and Rick complaining he didn’t get to shoot anybody while I did. We got back in, got XP, and got to sleep—although the GM informs me, as we close session, that my character gets a knock on his door in the middle of the night.
What happened after that is for the next post.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The SUE System: Briefing

One day after being recruited, we get told we're meeting with the Imperator in half an hour for a mission of "no particular urgency", so we get our first encounter with an Extremely Important NPC.

Capitalized because they're a class, really. Every NPC in charge of anything Marty thinks is cool or classy has exactly the same personality, down to the speech patterns. They like to...lace their speech with...pregnant pauses, and will even type frequent...ellipses; most of their speech is in an oily...condescending tone to match.. This is intended to make them sound...sophisticated, even...refined, and they'll usually supplement this by speaking in...euphemisms about how everything is...under control when they aren't...musing idiotically about pseudo-philosophical nonsense or making vaguely threatening...allusions to their power with the most...forced, obfuscatorily sesquidipalian locquaciousness and...needlessly circumlocutious sentence structure known to man. This would be almost...bearable if not so...ineptly and randomly done, except the GM likes to...go way off script at random, and it takes them so long to...say anything that the GM will...forget what they were saying halfway through, but ardently refuse to...shut up until he...runs out of things to say, which...usually means he ends on a topic completely different from the one he...started with, having effectively...filibustered his own...short-term memory. Then he...returns to the next sentence of his original...point and this goes on for...pages and pages while we're all...forbidden to do anything other than listen. The end effect is reminiscent of... William Shatner reading...The Eye of Argon while...high off his ass on morphine.

And that's how we get our mission briefings, folks! This one comes with a bonus explanation of how the organization works, a lecture on chaos theory, and another lecture on the nature of time and space.

Over two freaking hours of exposition, we learn that, as Green-level agents, we're only going to be assigned to canon-insignificant missions without much chance of armed resistance. In short, we're to take down tourists, merchants, and refugees. I blanched at the thought of killing defenseless, harmless people to preserve some author's canon, but I was (of course) wrong on two counts. First, we don't necessarily need to kill them; nonviolent perpetrators can simply be memory-wiped by what's effectively a neuralyzer limpet mine, then dumped back into their home universe. There's no real prohibition against killing, though, and we're promised that we can totally turn our mission areas into an abbatoir as long as we don't touch anyone canon-important. The phrase "by any means you may see fit to...employ" sees frequent use. Almost as frequent are assurances that our mission is utterly unimportant. As level is used to stop us doing anything potent, so is our rank used to stop us doing anything significant. Now, I don't mind the PCs starting low and working their way up. That's one of the most common kinds of growth in an RPG. What I do mind is being constantly told how insignificant the PCs' actions are, totally unprompted, over and over. We're literally greeted with "so obviously this won't be an...important mission" when we step into his office. It's hard to care more about the adventure than the GM. Then, too, when we object later, we get the following:

Us: "We're tired of being stuck at low level doing insignificant things."

GM: "This is a story-driven game with more measures of the significance of your actions than just level. Quit powergaming."

Us: "Well, we'd like some way to do more significant things, then."

GM: "You're too low level to do anything significant. Quit overreaching."

Us: "Then we'd like more XP per session so we can level, please."

GM: [repeat statement 2]

The GM is just so good at logic.

The second way I'm wrong is far more irksome than that, though: we aren't preserving the canonicity of anything. See, there's no link back from a universe to its creator. Their universe can diverge from what they write all they want, and they'll never be bothered one whit about it. Furthermore, once someone or something has moved through a portal, she,he,or it is forever immune to whatever their creator should see fit to write about them. The MIC only ever detects people by tracking travel through those portals.

This is futility on a level previously unknown to man. We aren't in charge of beating dead horses, we're in charge of beating cubist paintings: the problem is impossible and our solution has nothing to do with it.  Except we don't beat them, we shoot them. I can hear our battle cry now: "For no concievable reason!" There's just nothing whatsoever to be gained here, and no matter what we do everyone we apprehend is never going to go back into the system. They have nothing to do but reoffend, over and over.

It won't matter, though. Time is inevitable. "The butterfly effect is not only false, it's the exact opposite of what happens." Now, an exceptionally credulous mathematician might read that and presume complex systems will somehow change to conform to mathematical models of them. Instead, what he means is that you can't fight fate as defined as 'whatever is written for your universe'. No matter what happens, no matter who leaves or arrives, the plot of the fiction will happen. If it's written that today the Death Star blows up and you sneak in and tape a screen door over the thermal exhaust port, it will still blow up, just for some other reason. Kill the protagonists and the rest of the plot will happen in their absence as a series of increasingly improbable events. As the GM put it, "if you slaughtered the crew of the Enterprise, the ship would fly itself from planet to planet, where diplomacy and exploration would happen on their own. If you destroyed the ship a new one would spontaneously assemble." Just...remember that inevitability for later when Marty takes over and 'fixes' everything.

In the meantime, though, the sheer futility at work here is staggering. The MIC, and therefore the PCs, could all retire and nothing would change; everyone they stop could do whatever they want and the remnants of the story would happen anyway, pushed around by the omnipotent hand of Canon. We're at the bottom of a heap of people all valiantly trying to ensure that as many people as possible are trapped in a canon that doesn't matter to anyone but us. Our actions don't matter. The problems we solve with our actions don't matter. The universes that have these problems don't matter. Psyched for your mission yet?

A mission, by the way, which is incredibly stupid. Someone from Star Wars has been selling shield generators to the United Nations Space Command of HALO in return for wagonloads of gold, and we have to go stop them. What. So not only are the shield generators perfectly compatible with UNSC spaceship design and repairable but not replicable by their engineers, but gold is also so rare in Star Wars it's a valid means of exchange. By my calculations it's worth around a tenth of a credit per gram, assuming the prices in Starships of the Galaxy are being used; they trade one military-grade capital ship scale shield generator for seven and a half cubic meters of gold, and then proceed to wheel 145 metric tons of metal back home. By hand. In a cart with tiny little wheels on it rolling over concrete sidewalks.

I wish we had recorded our sessions. The GM was describing this so enthusiastically like it's such a brilliant plan, and we're working through the math mentally and just facepalming over and over.

GM: "Yes...despite what the elegance of their scheme would indicate about their...intellect, their brazenness in thinking we wouldn't track them down would...indicate otherwise. Even you should be capable of...dealing with them."

Which is not to imply they were prompt in their efforts to intervene. The Pillar of Autumn was fully shielded, and they had "warehouses full of generators" ready to install on the rest of the fleet. We were also assured that these were the 550-point, colossal-scale-only kind of shield generator--and despite this they fit in a little wagon pushed by six guys. I just can't get over this; you don't tell your players they're playing a totally logical game where you can play with physics and then pull crap like this with no explanation. I mean, how many more convenient ways are there to move that much wealth around? Why would you integrate technology that awesome into your flagship without studying it first? How did none of the technicians and engineers and military guys involved ever question why this new wonder component works nothing like the rest of their stuff, and how are they powering it? Why didn't they put a little motor on their cart?

I know it's nitpicky, but the whole campaign hinges on this sort of stuff being believable and it's just so not; there needs to be a reason for crime to take place for criminals to exist for us to stop. I promise I'm not this grognardy about most games. If you tell me it's magic, I will try to exploit the hell out of it but I won't question it. If you tell me it doesn't work but needs to exist, fine; I can live with that. It's just the whole insistence that everything makes logical sense that breaks immersion for me, especially when it's treated like it's so obvious I'm a fool for not getting it. I react poorly to being scoffed at, I suppose, while the GM reacts poorly to having holes poked in his wish fulfilment.

Anyway, we also get our equipment. We get ODST Ballistic Battle Armor suits with military police markings on them; I'm beyond objecting to the weirdness on many levels. We also get assault rifles. Then we get kicked through the portal because we're low on time.

This conflicts significantly with our mission statement covering all of time and space; if we can time travel, we ought to be able to just leave whenever and arrive before the problem starts, yes? Apparently not, because of portal shenanigans. While a universe is left alone, all of its time occurs simultaneously, but when you link a portal to it, it's immediately "aligned to absolute time" and it's impossible to portal into any other time than the one linked. This solves absolutely none of the problems with time travel in a setting, but it does mean we can't just access useful things in other times and places later. My inquiries into the mechanics of this are basically brushed off; we have no control over our alleged time travel, and we're to accept that. Mind, these mechanics will cease to exist when they become inconvenient for Marty, but here we are for now: anything from any time can ruin our day, but we can't take advantage of that in any way.

And with that, believe it or not, in we go. We look like some bizarre kind of police paratrooper, one of our number (Igor) is extremely short, and Rick is loaded down with a bunch of grenades and backup guns because he wants to play PnP HALO. I'm just kind of there with the gear they gave me, trying to figure out how the gun works, let alone the armor. "Most of its systems are deactivated so you don't wreck anything by trying to use them untrained." You may detect a certain absence of mission-critical information, like how HALO or Star Wars works, or how we're expected to intervene, or how we'll recognize our targets, let alone where they are. The list goes on. Our mission briefing consists of repeated exclamations of how worthless we are and a basic explanation of the problem; our omnipotent organization can't muster so much as an informational pamphlet on who we're supposed to be.

This is a constant throughout Act 1. We're not given any information whatsoever about how our destination works, and we're expected to blend in perfectly to avoid errant timeline ripples ("not that anything you guys do could really mess anything up"). It's weird in-character just because this is the most ludicrous way I can imagine to run a bunch of secret agents, and out of character, this was pitched to us as a way to play in a bunch of different settings. If we know nothing about these settings, we aren't really in them; they're just pretty backdrop to a generic story rooted in nothing and a source of equipment we can't use. I wish that were unintentional.

Anyway, that was a whole session. The briefing and arming-up was its own complete session; we sat down, got talked at, and that was it. He had the gall to ask us afterward how we liked it, noting how well it ran. Why, yes, non-interactive storytelling does go faster.

In that spirit, then, (and so I can get through exams) the mission itself is coming next.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The SUE System: Orientation

Sorry about the lag in posting; exams have been brutal. When last we left off, various agents of the MIC had heaved the PCs through a portal to their Headquarters for processing.
We begin in exactly the sort of giant, sweeping, ludicrously oversized room designed almost exclusively by morons determined to waste as much space as possible; it was not dissimilar to a cathedral, really. The portal-generating machinery dominated one side; the other, about half a kilometer of bizarre art deco architecture away, had a desk and a series of doors and little else. There might have been a potted fern. It was unclear.
At the desk was Sara the (sigh) Receptionist. The GM describes Sara and every other woman in the SUE system as a “strong female character” —by which the GM means she’s a barely-contained ball of random rage and unjustified hatred. It’s like talking to a Speak n’ Spell programmed exclusively with obscenities, and then being beaten to death with said Speak n’ Spell for your trouble. Our conversation went like this:
Me: “Hi. Sorry to be a clueless rookie, but I think we’re supposed to report somewhere for processing. Do you know where that might be?”
Sara: [snapping her pen in half in anger at my approach] ”Go f*** yourselves.“  [turns away] “F***ing pigs…”
Me:”I…I’m sorry?”
Sara: “Left door, s***heads.” [she makes several rude gestures at us as we leave]
I seriously thought the GM was going to pop a vein acting her, she was so angry. Maybe she had read the Rise of Marty. At any rate, we were sent through to Medical, where an Argonian in scrubs checked us for psychic powers and latent sorcerous potential. That’s the point of Medical. Hundreds of agents pulled from thousands of realities don’t pose any epidemiological risk whatsoever, clearly. They just use Cure Disease spells (in the absence of any semblance of ‘inferior’ medical science), because what do you mean one guy’s benign gut flora is another guy’s deadly pathogen?
Anyway, we also get our implants. They work off of ‘flatspace’, which “takes the third dimension out of a volume of space”. Ow. We get just one: a universal translator linked to a multiverse-range commlink  in a flat square millimeters on a side. It has infinite battery life, too, and is utterly unjammable, undetectable, and uninteresting; just subvocalize and get a response through your auditory nerves. It will parse speech out of anything you hear, translate it perfectly even with the proper connotation, and play the result for you all in real time. I leave estimations of its processing power to you.
So ten minutes of brain surgery sans sterilization go by (again, ow) and we can finally understand everyone ever unless we have to read something. It’s time for weapons testing; we go into the next room, get handed a blaster pistol, and told to take out a bunch of training robots. I miss a lot, Igor claws through them, and Rick effortlessly aces the weapon portion. Yes, folks, live-fire exercises within half an hour of recruitment, and against real targets, too.
Eventually the GM gets tired of making us shoot things and we meet our boss the Imperator and sign our contracts. The sequence of events here is just wonderful: first give the recruits invasive brain surgery, then give them weaponry, then ask if they want to join up by wordlessly handing them a contract -- which the GM actually printed out and expected us to read. If you’ve ever read the pseudo-legalese in those “Facebook Privacy Notice” things that sometimes circulate, you’ll have some idea of what it was like to read this thing. It was around ten pages in small print, all told; I wish I’d kept it.
Then we got a tour of the facilities. First up is the cafeteria, which does away with dishes by just replicating food at will in the style of Star Trek and disintegrating the remnants. You can have anything you want, as much of it as you want, and not so much as a warning popup exists to tell you if what you’ve ordered is incompatible with your biology. It’s all voice-controlled, too. Just in case the risk of inadvertently poisoning yourself wasn’t clear enough. We get it demonstrated for us with ice cream, which I thought was a genuinely nice gesture but perhaps a bit out of place. Just imagine Igor, Rick, and my guy going through the rest of the tour of Genocidal Canon Cop Headquarters while licking at waffle cones of vanilla soft serve.
The gym was right next to the cafeteria, albeit a good deal smaller, and equipped with “basically the exercise machines you guys are used to”. Well, great; I suppose non-anthroform agents just make do. The GM didn’t bother with much exposition here.
Instead, we got shown the vehicle bay, which was just a big set of racks of vehicles of “X-wing size and smaller”. They have their own portal and their own engineering bay, and apparently they’re just sort of used as needed and left on the shelf at all other times, which bodes ill for some of the more conventional military craft. More militarily informed readers  might be able to confirm how accurate this is, but I was always under the impression that you couldn’t just leave, say, a current generation fighter jet totally untouched for months and have it run perfectly in a few minutes of refueling. Incidentally, the vehicle bay also contains all the flight simulators for some reason.
Beyond that, we see the first door of the Maximum Security Storage Facility, entry to which is totally forbidden to us. We’re told it’s used exclusively by Black-level agents, “just Blackhawk really”, to house horrible things capable of unmaking entire realities, things too bad even to destroy for fear of whatever remains of them ruining the universe.
GM: “It basically contains things more terrifyingly horrible than you could ever imagine.”
Me: “We get it, we get it, it’s Blackhawk’s porn stash. Not going to mess with it.”
I think this was when he stopped liking me.
Once the laughter died down, we got to see the dorms. They are all studio apartments with genetically coded locks, because what do you mean not all sophonts use DNA? They’re tiny and boring and nothing ever happens in them, but it is confirmed that we can have guests. In case we meet an attractive someone and want to bring said someone back through a portal between worlds in blatant violation of the MIC’s most basic rules, apparently.
Now we get to see the holographic danger rooms. They get used for “training and recreation”, and we can reserve time on them whenever there’s a free block. Inside we see that they’re incredibly realistic and capable of simulating anything, which raises the question of why we shot actual guns at actual robots in training. That question, like so many about these rooms, is never answered. Instead we beat up holographic grizzly bears for a while and get crazy amounts of XP from it. Why we can’t just level to 20 via training and thus minimize the risk of dying on an actual mission is also unknown—in fact, we’ve already had all the formal training we ever get.
At this point, we got a vague reference to a block of around twelve offices that formed the engineering corps, and that was it. Apparently we are provided with energy and our environment maintained by incredibly efficient arcane means, in sharp contrast to the high technology we’ve been shown. I’d long ago stopped trying to ask inconvenient questions, so we all went to the cafeteria and spent quite a while getting the replicators to understand that we did not in fact want Klingon food. I also spent a good deal of time attempting to make friends with Rick, because I’ve known his player to occasionally say “I have no reason to go on this adventure”, usually when being asked to risk life and limb for strangers. He’ll find a reason if the GM asks him to please go along with the campaign for a while, but this GM won’t ever do that. He will also uncritically accept “your friends need your help” as a reason, and as I’m usually the most danger-prone member of the group, I try to get him to consider me a friend in-character to avoid it becoming a problem in the first place. It doesn’t take much, and it will propel him through the plot for the rest of the campaign. He’s just a Big Damn Hero.
Dinner concluded, we retire to our various rooms. I read fiction as rapidly as possible, Igor sleeps, and Rick slowly pulls off an environment suit he’s worn for his entire adult life, much to my guy’s schadenfreude.
At this point, we get asked if there’s any equipment we’d like to requisition. Igor doesn’t really want anything, so her player goes to get food. Rick and the GM go back and forth about weapons for a while; I’d go into more detail, but the guns will show up later. Then he asks me what I want for Omnicidally Rabid Fan Christmas.
First thing I want is an implant; this makes him sputter something about how flatspace is very tricky and they don’t like implanting normal things because they’re too noticeable, so all they really have on hand are the radio translator things. Apparently half-centimeter metal plates are invisible, though…who knows. Slightly nonplussed, I go on to clarify that I don’t want anything physically different than what they already have. What I wanted was another of those implanted computers, just linked to my optic nerves and loaded with a bunch of technical diagrams and optical recognition software. Ideally, I could look at, e.g., a tank, and my internal HUD would project over it a 3-D schematic of where all the parts are supposed to be in that kind of tank, maybe with a basic description of how each works. At least I could then make an intelligent guess as to where to shoot or how to try to hotwire it, I said, without having all the other capabilities implied by high Knowledge skills, and I wouldn’t have to bother Ops every time I wanted to pick a lock.
I’ve seen him go paler since, but at the time he was as scared as I’d ever seen him. He sputtered for a full minute before explaining that the universal translators were all “hardwired” and “mostly ROM”, the program couldn’t be changed and anyway they’d never tried uploading knowledge directly before, even though agents are usually put into all sorts of weird realities without necessarily knowing all that much about their destination.
GM: “And why would they do that when you can just call someone and they can read you the relevant part of that reality’s source fiction?”
Yes, folks, welcome to the most advanced tech support hotline in the multiverse: if you have a question, just dial the only number in your indestructible, tiny ansible, and one of our friendly operators will be on hand to guess what you mean from your description, open up the relevant book, and speed-read to the right part and try to guess what’s important about it, presumably by synthetic whale oil lamp.
So that’s a thing.
The other thing I want is slightly more outrĂ©. I point out that, as a telekinetic, my capacity for moving things is in the range of a few newtons, but I’m evidently very precise, so an extremely sharp edge would be nice.
GM: “Oh, like a knife? Because they have combat knives. They’re too heavy for you though.”
Me: “Fundamentally, yes. I’d like a much-reduced replicator that just synthesizes graphene sheets all day so I can telekinetically break off little shuriken and Ginsu things with them; the low TK force isn’t so crippling if the surface area is that small, and we don’t need to worry about rigidity or anything if I can TK it around all stretched out.”
It takes me about ten minutes to convince him that, yes, graphene can do that (not that it can, in retrospect. I was awful at materials science back then), and if there’s any reason they can’t make it, the problem is an inadequacy with their manufacturing capacity. That was what clinched it, I think: the implication that his awesome agency couldn’t make something. I was told the best I could get, instead of the Pez dispenser type thing I wanted, would be a bracelet that extruded about a centimeter an hour up perpendicular from its surface, and it would have to be permanently adhered to my skin, because he researched it and “graphene is almost absolutely unbreakable, and only graphene can stop graphene”. The GM is even worse at materials science than I am. Still, it’s better than flinging pebbles around for 1d2 damage five times a day, so I get told it will take “some time” to engineer from scratch.
All right, then. That’s day one. The first part of day 2 sees us show up to the holographic danger room, where we have twenty difficulty levels to play with. Rick rolls a d20, gets an 18, chooses that, and we pseudo-die repeatedly to hordes of Dark Troopers until we get a mission…which I will go into next time, together with how the MIC actually operates on a strategic level.
So that’s home for the time being: a massive conglomeration of ridiculous architecture and nebulously explained technology designed to be as “cool” as possible without actually doing anything, much like Marty. I wish it were more interesting, but it’s all just kind of there. The rest of the organization is like a slow, inept Weeping Angel. It only does anything when we aren’t looking at it, and the rest of the time they just engage in incredibly childish wish fulfillment. All the candy you can eat and a holodeck, and all you give up is ever being around people other than your coworkers. It says something about the GM that this is considered such a win-win that MIC agents aren’t paid.