Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The SUE System: The Summer of “Science”



When last we left off, our party of one Krieger expatriate and one Alex Mercer expy were sitting slightly dazed on a fairly sizeable prairie in the middle of nowhere, having just had Marty rip them out of everything they’ve ever known and kick them into exile on…wherever this is.
In truth, it’s one of GM!Marty’s “original” settings. If you thought the SUE System was Yet Another Fantasy Heartbreaker, this will sound like some sort of horrible D&D closed beta; it’s later revealed that most if not all races work exactly according to stereotype. We’ve got ambitious humans (the “best” of whom are a horribly inept aping of feudal Japan), eccentric gnomes, treehugging elves, dwarves played exactly to type. The gang, so to speak, is all here; we’ve even got a couple of dragons guarding the macGuffin, in this case the portal home. The prophecy they’re working on is that the portal home is “on the mountain of despair guarded by the dragons of eternity, past the river of fire”, which is funny, because that’s an awfully long time to be guarding something before Marty in Vampiric Leather Pants (on his Head) shows up with his magical portal pyramid/squirrel and gives you something to guard. I like to think they were originally guarding a large digital timer labelled “ETA to Deus Ex Marty”.
Skipping forward in time, these dragons turn out to be one of his favorite things in the whole setting, which means he will shoehorn them in whenever a dragon is even mentioned. I…may have made joking references to certain TVTropes pages before figuring this out. From what I can tell from his long exposition to me on how to create settings, they’re “the best kind of dragon”: tortured, angsty, and utterly unbeatable except by special ritual, so “they have a built-in quest”. Silly me, I’ve been operating on RPG logic this entire time: when you see an unfriendly dragon, the built-in quest is to fight and kill the dragon. But no, no, we have to go find whatever wise old bastard is championing Marty’s views today, listen to an hour-long speech about the essential nature of existence, and THEN get the Instructable to jailbreak the palantir or whatever the hell jumps the party through the next plot hoop to drop the dragon’s unbreakable shield. It’s like playing Bureaucracy by tapdancing in Morse code: what you’re actually doing has so little relevance to what you’re trying to achieve it’s very easy to get lost, and what you’re trying to achieve makes no sense anyway.
But I digress. The party hasn’t been sufficiently informed to reach that stage yet; they’re still on the “plains” with nothing at all useful, no clue where they are, and no idea what to do.
Without really knowing it, though, the guy playing the Krieger is RPing almost perfectly. He is, to GM!Marty’s mind, insultingly unfazed by the latest turn of events. From a logical perspective, his situation has not much changed: he’s still being outmaneuvered by a better-equipped, worse-led foe in unknown terrain with insufficient supplies and poorly trained troops. The terrain’s just more solid now.
I come in shortly thereafter, as he’s working through the summer on a reasonably logical short/mid-term survival scheme. Apparently I’m a good sounding board for ideas for some reason—in my defense, until a few weeks into on-and-off questioning, I assumed it was for one of his military fanfics, and then the “suppose you can’t” chains started.
For example, suppose you’re stuck on a steppe (closest to the terrain I can get based on “flat, coldish, and full of grass”), forest in the distance, and need to build shelters with relatively simple tools, ideally something that can move.
Fine, I say, how about a yurt or a ger?
No animals, wrong kind of grasses, not one of 150 engineers knows what a yurt is.
Wattle and daub panels, maybe?
Nope. Wrong kind of dirt.
Lean-to?
Wrong kind of branches, no one knows how to make it.
And so it went, until I finally asked who the hell these incompetents were that couldn’t figure out a lean-to, and I was brought up to speed. And I was intrigued; it looked to me like an interesting challenge, assuming there was some underlying logic to no one knowing anything.
Naturally, Marty refused to tell me anything, so I contented myself with answering Krieger player’s questions and trying to follow along with his general strategy, which seemed to be to establish a defensive position and then use the fighters for reconnaissance, assuming I recall his priority order correctly. Elements of it changed frequently.
At any rate, eventually a city was spotted in the distance, so they went to investigate that, and from there began the wandering. No one I talk to remembers this part very well; it was more or less an uneventful hemorrhaging of people and resources as they trudged through nothingness to nowhere, stopping to talk to people who don’t say anything important. The Mercer expy got bored of this and would make unauthorized excursions to hunt things for fun. Sentient things, like hobgoblins. This comes to a head when a couple of gnolls bar the party’s passage over some border or other. Reasonable tolls are paid, and then the expy goes and bloodily reclaims them (citing a perceived insult), and this leads to much inter-party conflict.
I think most GMs would have recognized that this isn’t actually players disagreeing over anything material. It’s one guy goofing off because he’s bored and another guy taking it too seriously; the problem is external to the conflict. Just give them something to do that isn’t random goofiness. But no, GM!Marty has to deal with it by suggesting that the expy’s personality “isn’t suited to the adventure” or something. So the party is temporarily down to one. In everyone’s defense, the player wasn’t having fun either, so it was time to switch characters. It just seems needlessly punitive.
Then again, so is the whole thing. Once they actually got to whatever port they were heading for, the question arose of what to do with themselves, and here Marty took a firm, unbending, ludicrously whiny stance: his setting is perfect and there’s no room for meddling players.
For example, one of the first ideas we came up with was some sort of shipping service. The fuel-free starfighters they had were multiple orders of magnitude faster than anything else in the setting; build a fluyt or something around one of them and start shipping perishable goods around. Maybe look into piracy, or smuggling, given your speed advantage; come to think of it, sealing over the top and operating as a u-boat might be cool.  We’d got as far as deciding that, yes, playing 20,000 leagues under the pirates of the Caribbean would be pretty fun when the answer came down.
No. The seas are full of horrible monsters and anyway no one smuggles anything because there are no tariffs. (What.) None of the engineers can figure out a submersible vessel made of wood and iron, and no they’ve never heard of the Hunley, and anyway merchant ships are very heavily armed etc. Apparently they’re also immune to having holes poked in their hulls from underwater...despite being vulnerable to sea monsters that do exactly that.
Likewise, there’s no hope of a messaging service. Yes, everyone with them has an implant that lets them communicate instantaneously over any distance and these still work, but for some reason no one cares to send messages long-distance “except for a few postcards”, and they have the mail for that. Because who needs unbreakably encrypted, absolutely reliable, instant communication when you can wait for days for some guy with a horse? And what’s military intelligence? Incidentally, no one can build a printing press, so there’s no hope of a news service.
Weirdly, that last is what made me finally snap and ask what the hell these engineers were engineers in if they couldn’t build anything. I’d understand if a chemical engineer couldn’t design a submersible boat, for example, but no, they’re from all conceivable fields. Apparently they’re just too technologically advanced, too used to working with “advanced composites” and “modern manufacturing” to work with wood and hand tools; they “focused more on what was actually their job” than “fooling around with block type and sails”. And somehow these paragons of magical and mundane engineering can’t figure out “buy winemaking press, modify for even pressure across the platen, add plates”. I’d love to find the aeronautical engineer who can’t even make a stab at a hot air balloon because (s)he’s too used to jet engines—or rather I would if he weren’t GMing this game.
(Admittedly, the metallurgy behind movable type is fairly ingenious, but it’s not like no other alloy will do.)
Pressing on, we considered all sorts of things. The gnomes pop up frequently; any time we commit the cardinal sin of trying to out-technology anyone, they’ve beaten us to it, don’t make their technology available to anyone else, and satisfy the needs of everyone in the setting handily. Quite how that works, I don’t know, but it’s something he’ll keep doing: the existence of whatever we’re trying is enough to render our efforts totally unwanted, regardless of whether it’s available to our target market. Remember that the next time you want something: you know it exists, so clearly you don’t actually want it.
I know that, normally, players trying to forge space shuttles at the local blacksmith are being both silly and disruptive. Here, though, it sounds like a perfect set-up; he’s got all the technical knowledge he could ever want (in theory), and a world stuck in heavily anachronistic sort-of-medieval high fantasy. Then, too, the GM was actively encouraging “doing whatever you want”; you’d think, given the players’ and characters’ skillset, this would have something to do with exploiting their tremendous knowledge advantage.
That, unfortunately, would involve changing the almighty status quo, and the GM’s even less willing than usual to allow it. See, not only is this setting one of his favorites, he’s going to run another campaign in continuity with this one, and he needs the setting preserved for that. He’d like to railroad the players, but railroading is of course bad, so he wants the players to freely choose to advance the plot. I can’t help but think this process would go more smoothly if he told the players how to advance the plot, but no, they have to try and fail until they stumble on the right way forward by guesswork.
This takes some time, largely because his players are stubborn: they want to use their skills and resources to change the world, and he doesn’t want to admit that they can’t do that. Eventually they find the one guy who’s heard of the one library containing the one explanation of the prophecy. One guy, in a city of millions. Not even a noticeable guy, really, just one of a horde of archivists not even known for knowing about libraries in secret magocracies composed of insular undead. I have no idea how he expected this to work, other than poorly, but it’s far from the worst instance of this sort of thing.
And yes, he’s got a civilization of peaceful undead lead by liches. Not an awful idea, but in execution it’s just another load of Mary Sues indistinguishable from any other. The PCs, of course, aren’t told they’re friendly, and they want to use one of their starfighters as a pseudo-orbital bombardment platform to clear the area around the library so they can get in, get the books, and get out.
Naturally, the omniscient demiliches detect this via unblockable divination, and rather than, say, warning the PCs off, simply flood them with invisible monsters and earthquakes until they lose their starfighter. This is in line with GM!Marty’s usual lunacy; he “[doesn’t] believe in shielding players from their own stupidity. If they want to break their valuable objects, [he] will let them do that.” This would be great if he warned the players, but he doesn’t; he just semi-randomly breaks your character’s gear in response to unknown stimuli. It’s like Peewee’s Playhouse as run by vengeful poltergeists: “You said the secret word! Your sword shatters!” This does not apply to plot trinkets, but of course their things are useful and so fair game.
That’s all I’ve got; the whole summer-and-next-few-sessions were rather dull slogging through the setting.

5 comments:

  1. “The prophecy they’re working on is that the portal home is “on the mountain of despair guarded by the dragons of eternity, past the river of fire”, which is funny, because that’s an awfully long time to be guarding something before Marty in Vampiric Leather Pants (on his Head) shows up with his magical portal pyramid/squirrel and gives you something to guard. I like to think they were originally guarding a large digital timer labelled “ETA to Deus Ex Marty”.”
    -Technically they are not actually dragons or something, they just look like dragons, they are some sort of before time and space thing, that was there for all eternity and beyond, placed there by the sues power, which is basically in game sanctioned ret-coning. Also this is a reference and completely playing to the evil overlords list.

    “This comes to a head when a couple of gnolls bar the party’s passage over some border or other. Reasonable tolls are paid, and then the expy goes and bloodily reclaims them (citing a perceived insult), and this leads to much inter-party conflict.”
    -Completely unreasonably, they were prey, not things to be backed down from. -3M13A
    -And yeah, also I play mages, when I play other classes I resort to models of them I have seen, and never once have I seen a rogue archetype played in a way that wasn’t irritating or dickish.
    “I know that, normally, players trying to forge space shuttles at the local blacksmith are being both silly and disruptive. Here, though, it sounds like a perfect set-up; he’s got all the technical knowledge he could ever want (in theory), and a world stuck in heavily anachronistic sort-of-medieval high fantasy. Then, too, the GM was actively encouraging “doing whatever you want”; you’d think, given the players’ and characters’ skillset, this would have something to do with exploiting their tremendous knowledge advantage.”
    -I thought the bringing technology and using the resources to get back was what we were supposed to be doing, and it kindof was eventually, when we had given up hope of getting any use from it, which we didn’t really so I guess we were right. After a while I was relying on magic for everything and ignoring the plot completely to expand my magic capacity.

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  2. This is in line with GM!Marty’s usual lunacy; he “[doesn’t] believe in shielding players from their own stupidity."

    That privilege is NPC-only. :-P

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  3. NPC stupidity is just made into 'the only logical choice' by unlikely scenarios and situational modifiers that noone could possibly know about without omniscience.

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    1. Which, conveniently the NPCs have.

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  4. He’d like to railroad the players, but railroading is of course bad, so he wants the players to freely choose to advance the plot. I can’t help but think this process would go more smoothly if he told the players how to advance the plot, but no, they have to try and fail until they stumble on the right way forward by guesswork.
    I'd compare this to classic adventure games, but just like most comparisons of SUE games to anything else, it wouldn't be fair to the anything else.

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