Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The SUE System: Moonballs Tower

I might be back. We’ll see.
It’s time for the next stage of the plot. I’m skipping over about a page of notes, just because the campaign itself was operating mostly on inertia here. In essence, the knife-wielding maniac lab experiment from before is replaced by a crafter/enchantress ice mage. I have been asked to call her Lily. She’s based off of the backstory of a character from a good campaign. As far as I can tell, it’s a classic story: boy future PC meets girl in magic high school, they like each other, they eventually marry/research collaboratively, demons murder girl and imprison her soul in Double Super-Secret Hell, boy becomes borderline evil arch-necromancer in order to invade Hell with an army of zombies and free her soul for resurrection over the course of the campaign. I’ll cut the player some slack; he wrote the backstory when he was ten, I believe.
So apparently now Lily’s freed by Deus Ex Marty, and of course other things have to change, because GM!Marty is the Nurgle of interactive storytelling and has to putrefy everything he touches. She’s a spy, now, for the same lich group that shot down the group’s space fighter. As an aside, I have no idea why so many GMs do this, because for once it’s not just GM!Marty pulling this. I’ve seen campaigns where every single party member has some dirty secret that will make half the party murder them, artificially inserted by the GM for reasons of…I have no idea. Spite, I suppose. The one campaign I GMed collaboratively needed weeks to detangle all the pre-ordained fights between PCs, and I’ve never heard a good reason for wasting that kind of time or fostering that kind of distrust. PCs invariably fight anyway; disruptive secrets are better given to bureaucratically important NPCs, so the players can have fun with the nonlethal damage rules and nobody’s sore about it later.
So anyway, Lily the Spy also has retrograde amnesia, weakened magic, and a ring, and she and Rick finally stumble upon the plot. There are two towers, and the party needs to clear out both.
One is subterranean, being the Tomb of Horrors. I was always under the impression it was written not as a serious module, but as a satire of a module – at its best, it’s a one-shot for disposable characters and masochistic players. For whatever reason, though, GM!Marty absolutely loves it. He will run it as written, he will run it embellished or converted for every system under the sun, he will run it multiple times in a row, and he will defend it in every particular with all the irate fervor of the fanboy. For this run, though, he let Rick use his grenades and blaster rifle, while Lily marched an army of ice minions through before them. I’m not going to spoil the Tomb for those who haven’t seen it, but I will say that thermal detonators and endless minions do a lot to lower the body count, so it was just grueling, boring, and stupidly arbitrary.
The other tower was much, much worse. He made it specially.
They were sent there to retrieve the Orb of Moonlight, because everything Marty does oozes pretension from every fetid orifice. The wizard who owned both tower and orb was definitely long dead, according to the order of liches sending them on the quest. Yes, a magocracy of liches honestly believed this. Same liches as before, by the way; they sent them on the quest instead of killing them, because Marty hands out plots with a closed fist. Once there was no plot, and now there is a mandatory plot, as delivered by yet another Marty Stu: the immortal, nigh-omnipotent lich named Arn’gyr Ravenscroft, because Marty has the subtlety of a fifteen-year-old Goth who’s just discovered solipsism. As they say, this is gonna suck.
Now, he’s not so industrious as to make his own maps, so Moonballs Tower (he never named it) was made according to online maps—and given this, I’m amazed how badly it turned out. We usually gamed in rooms with blackboards, and we used these for sketching battle maps and so forth. I loved it for Deadlands; a map on a table can get bits covered up by all the cards, chips, and herds o’ dice, and everyone could see a vertical board better anyway. Unfortunately, it didn’t have a grid, and this meant Marty had to draw his own, because the SUE system depended utterly on the almighty five-foot square.
I wish I could say he drew quickly, but that would have been too loud. Marty, for whatever reason, was convinced he had supernaturally acute senses of smell, taste, and hearing. Not in any testable or useful way, of course—he mostly just got ticked off at innocuous or nonexistent stimuli because “they’re much worse to [him]”. Incidentally, he got fervently offended at the implication that his senses were in any way “sensitive”; no downsides here! This made him a pain to be around in any case, but it was worse by an order of magnitude when chalk on a blackboard was involved, since he drew at a glacial pace and would cartoonishly wince and hiss in pain if anyone wrote at normal speed. This was also his justification for keeping all the blinds drawn and the lights low, by the way; he hated bright light. Maybe it was vampire practice.
Now, that many lines drawn slowly is a problem in any case, but not an insurmountable one: sensible people might draw the floor ahead of time and cover up the unknown bits. Not Marty; he didn’t want his players to know where they were relative to the rest of the dungeon, so everything had to be drawn out whenever his players entered a new room. He also chose a dungeon map that had many, many transitions between floors, which of course meant the map needed re-drawing—and, of course, bits not currently illuminated needed to be erased. Without any monsters at all, just strolling through a bare dungeon, two-thirds of the players’ time was spent waiting on maps, and I know this because they did it going out.
Naturally, we did all this in any of a series of identical conference rooms, where the door was right by the chalkboard and the conference table was ludicrously long. It’s a moot point, but he would throw a hissy fit whenever anyone walked “behind the DM screen”, meaning anywhere near the quickest route out of the room. Anyone sitting on the useful side of the room had to walk around the entire table or he’d start whining. So while he’s spending all this wasted time drawing parallel lines, don’t get up…
And don’t be the person in charge of mapping, either. For someone so particular about grids, he changed his frequently, especially where walls were curved. And, too, the total lack of reference means usually you end up going off the page, and don’t you dare ask to see anything of his maps.
As for the actual map…there are five labyrinthine levels, most of them effectively toroidal because there’s a hemispherical conservatory in the bottom. I have to give him credit: he wanted a wizard’s tower, and he did add arcane pseudoscientific apparatus in random places. “Glass things and so forth.” There was no rhyme or reason to their placement, no records of any kind, and no reagents, but he made a token effort to disguise the monster gauntlet.
There were, I grant, short offshoots from the main path, but in reality there was only one path winding from a secret door on the ground floor to the fifth-level platform. There was, by the way, no obvious door; they had to search the whole exterior in five-foot segments, one by one. Once inside, they had a bunch of five-foot corridors and ten-foot rooms, and every room had at least one encounter. They were themed by floor; alchemical stuff, oozes, golems, undead, and the fifth was whatever he felt like. Observant readers might note that all of these things are immune to crits, which very much pissed off the incipient sniper in Rick. Moreover, the oozes and various sorts of animate alchemical slop have very, very high racial Grapple bonuses, and most of the undead were the tentacle-covered kind. Lily spent most of the dungeon being hugged by something nasty. As for the minions…well, apparently an ice fist punching acidic slop is several orders of magnitude more energetic than one would expect, and the ones that didn’t die to that were punched out fairly quickly.
So that’s the party scuppered or nearly so; while they had enough of an ice wall between them and their foes to avoid dying outright, every fight took several times longer than it ought to and they just…kept…coming. When they were done with a fight in one room, secret doors opened and they had an ambush; when they finished an ambush, something would get back up and try to kill them again. Every week for months, this went on, carving a trail of blood by inches and meeting every crit-immune, grapply thing in the Monster Manuals.
The only vaguely original thing was the conservatory. It was “its own self-contained ecosystem” (other than some fish tanks) made of acid; everything in that room was nonmagically “made of superacid”, biochemistry be damned. There was a fringe of trees, a lake, and an intelligent acid Kraken somewhere inside it.  They scared it off with eight gallons of Create Water into the lake, but the room itself took quite a bit off of the remaining minions. Eventually they’d come back, Enlarge Creature on some of the fish in the feeder tanks, and win its trust against a backdrop of Lily’s player’s snarky Darths and Droids references.
Then they left and came back, which meant the lich had time to “prepare”. Remember all those ambushes? Second epic, same as the first. The alchemy and ooze levels were cleared, so instead of goo, they had golems; above them, undead packed into the floor like cordwood and some kind of tentacle-torsoed zombies dropping on them from the ceiling. A few phased through the walls, and more came from secret doors that already had other rooms behind them. By the end, they had a triple-digit body count in exhumans alone, although exact numbers depend on how mid-combat reanimation affects the total. That doesn’t sound awful, but when they’re all killed one at a time using the SUE system’s insane combat mechanics, this represents a very, very long slog—much of it spent running and Passwalling backwards while they hit and ran. At some point, Rick got hold of a katana that shot little energy blades when swung, which used fatigue rather than irreplaceable power cells as ammo. He went in a sniper, but leveled so often inside that he took more levels of Knight than he had Soldier just so he could more effectively use it. In true GM!Marty, what-is-a-cleverness fashion, it was called the Windblade.
Now, given all that buildup, one might expect the lich fight to be suitably impressive. Of course it wasn’t; he gated in infernal help, but the fight followed the pattern: grapple, absorb crit, wait, repeat. Unfortunately, the lich was not a particularly effective spellcaster when compared to the damage output of a huge demon punching Rick repeatedly in the face while another one tried to rip apart Lily. It’s a minor point, I know, but I always feel like something is lost when a boss is less impressive than his or her henchbeings. If you’re going to have, for example, a spellcaster, let them fight him at a distance or something; if the campaign’s big bad is primarily a legal or bureaucratic threat, let them defeat him legally. Obviously they can beat the crap out of him afterwards, but it just seems so much more satisfying to let them best the BBEG in some arena where his strengths come into play.
But no, we have to stab the lich to death after covering him in an antimagic field. The field might count, but it was generated by an artifact the quest-giver gave them with instructions to use it on the lich, so I’m disinclined. That’s not even a MacGuffin, it’s a damned Fedex quest.
Now, once the lich drops, there is of course the problem of the lich’s phylactery, and the party is on it immediately. They scan everything for necromantic auras, but of course that doesn’t help, because the lich put a Magic Aura on his phylactery so it has a faint illusion aura. This is at the end of a ten-hour session. His players are exhausted and cranky and really just want to wrap this up and go home, which obviously knocks his trollier plans into a cocked hat—even he knew his players were going to leave if he pushed them. So, in a burst of quick thinking, he improvised.
“Okay, guys, we’re playing Hangman!”
Out of character, game stopped, playing Hangman at 2 AM, with the words being “dispel” and “Nystul’s” – and proper nouns, especially trademarked proper nouns, are very bad form for Hangman. No attempt to rationalize it in game, either. I like to think if it had failed, he would have resorted to writing the words on a note and holding it above their heads. Come on boy, jump. That’s a good dogg- I mean player.
It did not go over well, by the way. They asked if they could just make a Knowledge: arcana roll. Nope, “that’s too easy”. There isn’t even a game left, at this point, just one guy holding out a hoop and two other guys jumping through it. Finally, after half an hour of individually adding articles of clothing and extremities to the poor Hangmen, they got the apostrophe in “Nystul’s”…and didn’t get the hint, because the damn disguise spell isn’t called Nystul’s Magic Aura on the d20SRD we usually use for d20 reference, nor in the SUE system. Heads were hitting walls at this point.
Anyway, eventually they found it; it was the left of a pair of +1 gauntlets sitting in a treasure heap. “Because it’s hidden in plain sight, see?”
Now, I’ve played liches and had liches as characters. You don’t do this; it violates narrative causality and is just plain dumb. You make it indestructible and hide it somewhere ludicrously safe – Sigil, if you’re in Planescape, so those pesky gods can’t interfere. Heck, for one slightly weird d20 Modern-ish game I made my phylactery the golden record on Voyager II before it launched, banking on researching a rangeless Teleport before I needed it. It’s supposed to be special, something people want to protect, maybe something that no one wants destroyed… it’s not supposed to be a rock picked at random. It’s just not a good story. One could say it’s a very vulgar, nouveau liche thing to do, if one was inclined to stupid puns.

I think I’m just going to leave it there. Hangman. Random gauntlet phylactery. Next post: Fantasy Japan!


  1. -For the record the character was supposed to be a villain for the first (second technically) time I was GMing) but I decided not to GM and played him as a character instead.
    -Ironically I have had several HORRIBLE experiences with the tomb of horrors which the GM knew, and wasn't allowed to help with the dungeon since that would be metagaming. So rick basically did the whole thing himself.
    -I actually do have a sensitive nose, he has selective smelling of certain things like my deoderant at full strength that he doesn't like and claims as proof of his sensitive smell.
    -I still think summon bigger fish would be a great luck based spell.
    -actually iirc when he told us about the magic aura we kindof assumed it was a random brick in the huge magic tower.

  2. "You don’t do this; it violates narrative causality and is just plain dumb. You make it indestructible and hide it somewhere ludicrously safe – Sigil, if you’re in Planescape, so those pesky gods can’t interfere. Heck, for one slightly weird d20 Modern-ish game I made my phylactery the golden record on Voyager II before it launched, banking on researching a rangeless Teleport before I needed it. It’s supposed to be special, something people want to protect, maybe something that no one wants destroyed… it’s not supposed to be a rock picked at random. It’s just not a good story. One could say it’s a very vulgar, nouveau liche thing to do, if one was inclined to stupid puns."

    The Voyager II thing happened in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

    If a phylactery *can* just be any old object, I'd expect at least someone to just use any old object. Of course, it's easily fixable by saying that, say, the phylactery is actually a special and somewhat recognizable magic item, or it *has* to be something significant.

  3. Near as I can remember, you cannot use an indestructible Item as a Phylectery.

    Also, you respawn wherever you leave your Phlyectery so, putting it on a rocket is kind of dooming you to a "Cars stopped thinking." Bad End.

    1. Hence the rangeless teleport.

    2. Good way to get rid off the annoyingly well protected against any damage phylactery. Just get it in a space where the lich cannot get back from. In classic DnD. Dump it at the positive energy plane. Respawn *poof dead lich* Respawn *poof dead lich* repeat.

  4. Making it a seemingly mundane item most might not think about checking? I can see it. The object would still be hidden, but in such a way the item doesn't look out of place, but I could still see it. Making it a piece of equipment someone is going to actually use? This has a number of flaws:
    1: Assuming someone kills you and takes your treasure, presumably, you're going to reform right next to the guy who just killed you a couple days ago, and not only is he going to just kill you second time, he's now going to put it together immediately that the object he picked up from your place and put on is your phylactery and destroy it.
    2: A piece of equipment that goes on a person has any number of horrible fates. Incinerated in dragon fire, falling into lava, being exposed to an anti-magic field, being dispelled by hostile spellcasters, the list of ways the gauntlets could be destroyed or rendered mundane is miles long. You never want to tie your phylactery to some suicidal murder-hobo, spin him around, and let him go, which is essentially what that is.

    Ideally if you are a lich with a keen sense of pragmatism, your phylactery is some object whose destiny, mundane or not, is to just sit on a shelf somewhere not looking valuable enough to steal, while still looking valuable enough to not casually destroy.