And now the chronology gets confused. See, we didn't play for a period of about a month; Marty kept cancelling at the last minute. To be fair, spring break happened right in the middle, but we used to use spring break as an excuse to run a longer-than-usual session. Not so this time. He offered a lot of excuses, but on reflection, I think the real reason was the obvious one:
He desperately needed to shut us down, and he couldn't do it to us all at once. We were too quick and worked together too well. In actual play, we could take anything. He'd try to break our latest plan, someone would turn it into a joke, and we'd all laugh and come back even more enthusiastic. We'd bounce ideas off each other, cover for each other...he could stop us succeeding, but he couldn't stop us trying, and there was a lot we could do with failures.
Given that, I'm going to be splitting this bit up into each of us four, and how Marty labored diligently during the interim to make sure we could do nothing.
He started with Ian, since he could do that purely by rules. Marty had already nerfed Ian beyond belief with the nonsense about an enchanter's thurible. (Crucible, Marty. It's a crucible.) Without it, all magical research and enchantent are at a -10 penalty. In a d20 system. Making one was around a DC 35 check (at first)...that also took the -10 penalty. It's like asking for the origin of the first anvil in Dwarf Fortress, except we don't have strange moods. He also refused to admit the near-certain existence of less effective, less impossibly advanced hardware with which previous mages presumably developed thuribles. So he's got a -50% penalty already, but that isn't nearly enough. We need the spell treadmill, too.
In theory, there are spell levels in SUE System casting, just as there are in D&D, and the idea was that they were roughly equivalent. Magic Missile should be a first-level spell, for example. In practice, anything first- level he actually wanted was "more a second-level spell, really." Marty, apparently, had "always felt that particular spell was overpowered for a first-level spell" whatever spell it might be. He never wanted to simply admit he didn't want Ian casting spells, oh no; it was always just bad luck that he kept wanting the broken spells. We asked, once, what spells were at the correct level. Apparently it varies on a "case-by-case basis." Meaning, of course,Sephiroth Cullen!Marty gets everything and the PCs can humbly beg to be allowed to cast something as game-breaking as Light.
Incidentally, his phrasing was carefully calculated to piss us right the hell off. He didn't veer into euphemism too much on magic, but he loved corporate jargon almost as much as legalese, since it let him say less with more words and felt official. I know I've harped on this before, but it got so much worse where Ian was concerned. His magic system was totally arbitrary, and that let him pad everything with vagueness. Things were "closer to" spell levels; effects were "more in line with" one skill or another. Not only was this obfuscatory, it just took too damn long. I'm used to DMing being a hectic, rapid process; four people are talking to you at once and expecting simultaneous answers. Conciseness is important, as is clarity of expression. Obviously I don't hold to this in my handouts, but at least for actual DMing I try to answer questions as quickly and completely as possible so people aren't waiting on me. Marty, on the other hand, delighted in pauses to think and long, convoluted caveats. He had a phobia of certainty; he would do well in public office.
Even so, Ian persevered, and sometimes he could make even the level+1 spell work. Then came stage two: the lesser-greater shell game. If the original spell was level N, level N+1 was the Lesser version. Lesser could mean many things, but it usually meant that whatever he wanted it for wasn't something it could do. In a dark parody of many point-buy systems, "a limitation that doesn't limit you doesn't count." Rather than implement that intelligently, Marty would just nerf-bat everything: Lesser spells got a reverse Empower, knocking all the numbers down 50%, and then ad hoc penalties on top of that. The normal versions got some random array of nerfs, and finally "Greater" whatever was like D&D. Now, on top of that, you had the adjustment for the setting. Ian had arcane magic; it worked "just like any other." But the setting didn't support arcane magic, so we had a penalty of Whatever the Hell Marty Feels Like. I asked, once, why he had all the penalties spread out, instead of just one sum total, while he was trying to teach me how to DM.
"I learned it from banks. See, if you just have one big penalty, people have sticker shock and don't want to try. If you keep adding up little bits, they won't notice and you can make the penalty as high as you want."
Marty, if you haven't grasped it yet, is pure evil. Emulating banks...some things you just don't do! But seriously, any plan that hinges on a bunch of engineers not comprehending basic arithmetic is indicative of a fatal lack of pattern recognition.
At any rate, he could get a few actual spells. Attack spells were more favorably recieved than noncombat magic -- but they "really just did damage" as soon as we applied creativity. Gamma ray hand lasers yes, VACIS no. Fireball couldn't even light fires. Power tricks, Marty, you insufferable sleazebag: let us have them! Spells dealing with information were even more heavily restricted. We considered, for example, magic RSA (Mostly for MRSA jokes) in order to protect our communications: Instant, vociferous denial as soon as he learned what public key encryption is. I will get to how Marty thinks encryption works later, though.
So that was spells. Enchantments suffered even more from the lack of a thurible, and even the most basic things would have taken months. A +1-only-to-hit reflex sight for Darya, for example, was months away; all we asked for was something that automagically computed wind effects and bullet drop to the target and skewed its dot accordingly. Sadly, we could not take Bigby's Windage.
Actually, the scope fell prey to the other sword of Damocles: technology. "Magic wasn't made with technology in mind so it's less effective in dealing with it." Invisibility, for example, might not work on cameras; stone to flesh might fail on concrete. I have no earthly idea why. You'd think it would make some kind of hamburger, come to think of it. There's no logical sense to it, of course. Invisibility explicitly bent photons around the target. That was itself weird (especially since it didn't make the target blind), but if it's what we're going with nothing based on electromagnetic radiation should detect us. Of course, that deficiency could always be repaired...with more spell research and a bigger penalty.
Ian was, if I recall correctly, never happy with any of his spells. He couldn't be; all improvement was asymptotic with respect to standard. Marty "believed strongly in meeting [his players] halfway": halfway to whatever they wanted, and then half again, and then half of that, et cetera. Always with that smile of his, like he's just doing you such a big favor to even get you this much. The costs, though, those didn't go halfway. Those just went up and up and up. It's the tenth time he's let you work on the spell, after all.
So that was Ian. He had a magic gun that fired spells, but no way to reload it. He had the ability to invent spells, but astronomical penalties to trying. He could remove those penalties if he could soak them and had time. And through it all, Marty was there, condescending to dangle some new tidbit of effectiveness in return for ever more XP and time. Pavlov would have appreciated the method. Keep the mage jumping for smaller and smaller treats, and eventually he'll jump for nothing at all.
If you were wondering why I never bothered being a better parapsychic, this was why. Marty's magic sucked so hard you could levitate by casting upwards. Of course, he never admitted it; according to him, magic was potent and impressive "when used properly and without constantly trying to bend the rules." Fireball, you see, bends the rules of magic beyond what they're intended to do. Fun Marty trivia: We never got told what we SHOULD do, or what properly meant. "That would be gamist and unrealistic. You don't just arbitrarily know what to do."
Without the magic he was promised, Ian was mostly our cleric; healing he could do, sometimes, without dying, and so he tended to patch us up. It was that and waiting on spell research. It really sucked, too, given how much more of a help he wanted to be, but at least he was invaluable in tactical planning. He's a good sounding board, and I think he enjoyed running through the plans for flaws.