Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The SUE Files: Doing Things Right

This is one of the reasons I wanted to build this thing in full view of everybody: not only do my readers generally have excellent ideas, they're also good at pointing out when I've failed to excise my personal biases from my work. Like here, where I kind of assumed everyone's as sullenly misotheist as I am and probably made some folks uncomfortable. Apologies, and I think I can fix it thematically before we start nailing down mechanics, so well done baeraad.

Admittedly, if I completely excise the keep-the-gods-in-line element, the game gets rather different, but I can at least shove it into a dark corner and mark them as Radicals or something and essentially render it irrelevant. Come to think of it, it's rather cleaner in execution to have us focus on SUE-stomping as opposed to more generic tyrant-stomping; we can parody Authyrs in other ways. We can also solve two problems at once here: it's been pointed out that certain realizations of the dream-within-a-dream topology require impractical amounts of computing power at the non-leaf nodes. So let's set up impractical amounts of computing power; you can skip the next paragraph if you accept me energetically waving my hands.

As a sort of zero option handwave, let's just say all of this is actually occurring in a Tipler oracle of unknown construction and purpose. We have the computronium to make our worlds tree arbitrarily large; we therefore have the nodes to extend it upward higher than the PCs could reasonably want to reach, unless somehow we feel like defining a root, “real” world. I certainly don't. Let's go further and say that, somehow, the people instantiating these worlds are automatically offloading the actual instant-to-instant number-crunching to the simulator itself, which lowers the bar on world-dreaming from “impossibly good at multitasking” to “can semi-accidentally use a level editor” and vastly improves our collective familiarity with our pool of potential creators.

However we define it though, the important thing is this: something else is driving all this, and it's turtles all the way up and down, so to speak. Given that, I'm fairly confident in saying that cases of Blue and Orange Morality are going to be fairly common; hopefully individual GMs are going to have the sense not to put anything in that squicks out their players, then proceed to defend it by saying it's ok in [wherever they are]. I mention this because we're probably going to be operating on the assumption that the PCs are intervening in cases of rampant SUEdom not because they're being horrible, but because they're doing it in someone else's sandbox/dreamscape. Essentially the players are defending people's right to think whatever they want, free from external meddling...by meddling in people's thoughts.

As has been rightfully pointed out, our heroes and our villains use very similar methods; neither of them are natives to whatever mind they're running around in, and they're both changing things that “should not”, assuming consistent physics, be changed. The fact that we fight for the users doesn't necessarily change that the fighting itself is terribly invasive, and I like the moral ambiguity that brings. It also suggests a rather stealthy modus operandi, as per the original plan; any immune system already in place to prevent this kind of thing will pick up PC agents just as well as the SUEs. Of course, by immune system I mean Lovecraftian horrors.

It's not (quite) as incongruous as it probably sounds; assuming that people's perceptions have drifted over the successive generations of dreamers, the original rectifiers of reality probably aren't something anyone local can parse, for a very large set of values for “local”. At a guess, the PC/SUEs are the only ones whose minds are sufficiently accustomed to accepting unusual things to even perceive them as entities; the unreal geometries and so forth are necessary sacrifices to maintain visual awareness of the locus of points it occupies. At any rate it's not like it clashes with any one thing more than anything else.

Besides, people have been asking after motivations; part of my bias was in conflating an opportunity to do this kind of thing with a mandate to do it. Instead, let's go with something less insufferable: unless stopped, rampant dreamjacking (sorry, but it's the best word I can come up with right now) trips some kind of mental/computational flag and subjects everything connected to the problem to “analysis” in a way that, at this point, is probably destructive. At the very least, the dreamer's now a Cthulhu cultist; more likely some part of the source world is being analyzed, and who knows where that will lead. That, I think, works nicely as a motive: if we don't do it, the alternative is much more destructive and follows unknowable rules concerning when to stop, going up and down and sideways across the tree until it corrects all memetically similar worlds and finds all the distal causes – according to completely alien concepts of causality. Also, because I have to say it: No one expects the Cthuvian Inquisition.

Now, someone might note that, if this keeps happening and we know it keeps happening, only an idiot would try this, and I expect they're right. We do have a surfeit of idiots (“I have plenty of abomination-punching genes!”) and it's certainly a mode of existence that favors hubris, but we also have a nice, clean continuum from functional agents to problems. Like I said, both our heroes and our villains are going where they aren't wanted and doing invasive things unasked – and, as baeraad noted, to remove an omnipotent entity takes some fairly scary levels of power. Somehow, PCs get away with it, over and over, and eventually someone's going to get overly attached to something, or crazy, or dead, and it doesn't have to be that way...

The PCs organization probably has at least some kind of internal subdivision based on what their safety valve is, if you will; if the process of trading everything you've ever experienced for a completely new normal all at once is as traumatic as I expect it is, there's probably a strong impetus to keep agents functional as long as possible. It's related to the question of how a crazy person knows they're crazy. Some of them might do what I originally suggested and confer with the natives concerning the “realism” of their plans; routing the actual execution through people who think natively (ha!) in local terms is also a good way to avoid blatantly blowing one's cover. At a guess, some of the others have a sort of internal tactica/scripture to follow (The Codex Henderson?) and refer back to in cases of dubious sanity or something – or perhaps a democratically elected captain and Articles and all the rest of the trappings of classical buccaneering. Like hats. Probably says something about me that I set out to come up with a loose analogue to VtM clans and end up with rebels, cultists and thought-pirates; hopefully some differently-minded folks out there can come up with alternative methods of organizing the agents into task forces.

Then again maybe we want the whole Army of Thieves and Whores aspect to it. It kind of reminds me of Shadowrun. To my mind, it's a useful narrative tool for muddying the waters between legitimate activity, legitimate activity complicated by vast stylistic differences, and becoming the very thing they're trying to stop, while also making some nicely sympathetic villains. For example, look at my own folly in lumping SUEs and excessively dictatorial creators together. Sure, meddling in the latter's head is reducing sapient suffering and all...but it's exactly what the PCs are nominally trying to stop. Between moralizing, variably legitimate difficulties in communication, and a high turnover rate from agent to target, we can spend all days putting intrigues together. Or avoid them entirely. It's even possible that avoiding them entirely is the default; it's not like the PCs couldn't just wander around the multiverse and break whatever's fixed (ha) independent of any kind of network. That's less fun, though, than trying to put together some kind of overarching agency out of the kind of people who, approached with the above prospect, are actually on board with it. At a guess, the phrase “Loose Cannon of the Month award” comes up a lot. Especially in worlds with sentient cannons.
Anyway: Much as I want to avoid mandating a particular playstyle, a thought did occur to me for a way to moderate the magic system somewhat, which it needs conceptually. Really, once we have characters who know everything's a mutable dream, all they're really doing is enforcing their will on it; for all intents and purposes everyone's as powerful as they want to be from day one. If you've ever panicked in a dream, you might be aware that they tend to change under pressure; it seems logical to me for the characters to become very good at applying that pressure. They know they can stop breathing, for example, since there's no air anyway. If we take “total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face “ as the source of controlled super-locally-natural phenomena then a mana gauge doesn't make sense. Setting aside that you can be as stubborn as you want to be, you could always just magic the gauge full again. In that vein, I'd suggest not making dreamjacker (working on the name) magic drain any kind of reserve. Instead, it literally strains credulity; insisting the world is something else makes it feel less real.

And really, it has to feel real, even if only on a subconscious level; even if the player characters know intellectually that everything around them is fake, if they see a tiger coming at them they need to jump a bit. I don't see any problem with actually having a game-mechanical gauge for that, calling it Immersion, and saying that magic damages everyone's acceptance of the reality of their surroundings, making it harder and harder to doublethink their way out of becoming snacks for Lovecraftian diagnostic tools. Heck, let's give everyone such a gauge, even if only the PC types know it's a problem to be avoided – and that includes the creator whose poor world is being broken. Seeing weirdness lowers it, creating weirdness lowers it more, breaking Immersion is really not a healthy idea...so how do we refill the reserve?

This is probably the part that people might not like; consider it wide open to suggestions. I'd make it refillable via engrossing activities; just let players define what their characters find so interesting it distracts them from everything else and damps their inner solipsist. Something they can lose themselves in, so nothing else can find them either. Maybe it's martial arts; maybe it's music or coffee or raconteurism or any of a thousand other hobbies people have. Now, insightful readers might notice that if, say, your thing is zero-gee parkour, you're up a creek in low fantasy settings. Too right; so maybe settings have things too. Whatever is interesting, be it floating islands or psychic butterflies or the Basilica of Infinite Camembert, probably helps drag the PCs back from the bring of ennui. This can go one of two ways. Either it's a big, transparently obvious cudgel to force the players to admire the glory of your setting (no), or it's a way to encourage them to go to interesting (read: dangerous) places and do entertaining things. From a functional standpoint I'm probably going to make the basal Immersion return rate high enough to sustain most parties on their own resources and treat local Immersion returns as more of a bonus, but giving crafty PCs more mana for arranging their operations around cool bits of setting might strike a lot of GMs' fancy.

Of course, the entire system rewards players for selecting powers that are subtle in their effects and using them discreetly, perhaps with some thought to local standards of plausibility. It also rewards selective myopia. That might or might not be a bad thing. As for mechanical effects, I'd probably give low Immersion bonuses to power use, as well as a sort of constant reshaping of the area around them. Essentially, just before they bottom out, a character is fantastically powerful and everything seems absolutely perfect. And then they, or someone else, hits zero, breaks, and something incomprehensibly bad gets an error message. Om nom nom.

Okay. This is getting a bit long (three pages!?!) so I thought I'd sum up with what we apparently know so far in the form of an FAQ:

  1. What cool stuff will the PCs get to do?
    Hop from world to world fighting nearly omnipotent folks who keep hijacking whole worlds for their own purposes and generally instantiating bad fanfic all over them. We call them SUEs.
  2. Why do they risk their necks doing it?
    Because if left unchecked, the SUEs rip up local reality until Lovecraftian horrors show up to sort things out – and they tend to continue sorting until everything in the memetic vicinity is a fraying patch of nothingness.
  3. No, I mean why the PCs specifically?
    No one else can go toe-to-toe with them – and anyway, few enough people take to world-hopping that if they refuse, there's no one else.
  4. Okay, let's assume they want to. How?
    My guess is stealth, since the PCs are as much strangers in a strange land as their opponents. One could also employ speed, or in extremis overwhelming firepower, or even lethally persuasive arguments. It probably depends on the exact nature of the foe.
  5. And this works how exactly?
    I'm going with the assumption that breaking local physics is an act of supreme will; magic is simply rejecting existing reality and substituting their own by being insufferably competent that it will work. Robbing a SUE of that is probably enough to remove the threat.
  6. Wait, magic works by wishing?
    More like insisting on something really hard. It works in everyone's own dreams; it seemed apropos to make it work here. So flight works by jumping and refusing to land. Don't try it at home.
  7. So why not just wish the SUEs away?
    A few reasons. In the first place, it's simply unlikely to work; they want to stay more than you want them to go. In the second place, just deleting them is likely to break Immersion for everyone in the area.
  8. Immersion? What nonsense is this?
    Mechanical representation for how well a given entity is subconsciously accepting the simulation as real. It gets eroded by witnessing/causing things that don't make sense; it gets restored by doing absorbing or interesting things. When it breaks, bad things notice.
  9. So sanity is mana now?
    Yes, with the caveat that you can be made to spend it just by observing magic things happening where they aren't supposed to. So everyone's sanity is mana, including the dreamer behind the world. If their Immersion breaks, really bad things notice.
  10. So, stop arrogant idiots from overusing their magic to break the world so hard it dies, and do this with more magic?
    Yep. Also, since it's HERO, everything at all unusual is some kind of magic.

    I trust the wider gaps in our concept are apparent to everyone; any ideas to help fill them are desperately welcome. If nothing else, if anyone has an alternative to "dreamjacker", please share it. I don't know if we want to call the PCs some variant on Hendersons, as well, but I suppose it's an option. In specific, though, if I could get opinions on Cthuvian exception handling and casting from/to solipsism, that'd be great.


  1. This seems like it would work as a Dr.Who like setting(s?), which is awesome if that's not obvious. Where the PCs travel through realities/time/space/other trying to prevent catastrophic events from destroying the universe (or causing a change that they object to). Trying to minimize the common knowledge about one and occasionally bringing others into the loop (to varying degrees) in order to get their assistance, further your own goals.

  2. Personally, if it were up to me, I'd do two (three?) things...

    Immersion comes in both personal and global varieties. Personal Immersion is how synchronized the character is with the world, and can go both too low and too high. It is, as said, gained by interacting with the world in a 'real' way, and lost by using dreamjacker abilities, which are distinct from 'supernatural' abilities. A character can use special abilities as much as they want, as long as they fit in the setting. A character in a D&D-type setting casting a spell wouldn't lower Immersion. A character in the same setting building an assault rifle *would*, while the opposite would be true in a 'modern' setting. Immersion is kinda used like Fate Points/Action Points/Edge in that it allows the characters to break the rules... whatever rules they're following at the moment. I suppose it could be questioned whether breaking the *canon* damages Immersion... if the world is supposed to be a zombie apocalypse and you set up a functioning settlement, does that lower Immersion? I'd personally go with *no*, as long as you change things within the world's rules, you're fine. But, of course, that means you can't use your incredible god powers.

    1. If too low, the character starts becoming more and more *off*, semi-consciously imposing their own rules on the surrounding world. At first, they just seem innately out-of-place. Then, the rules of the world they're in don't work as well for them. They need to spend Immersion to use any of their powers, maybe even to maintain their form, until, eventually they become a SUE-tastic menace, unraveling the fabric of the world by their mere presence. It is *possible* to get so low you spontaneously crash yourself out of existence (or perhaps ascend to become something more terrible than can be imagined, it depends on the teller) because you are so wrapped up in yourself the multiverse rejects you, but mainly, it just breaks down Global Immersion
      It can also go too *high*, as the character fits in with the world around them. For dreamjackers, this means that they become vulnerable to other 'jackers manipulation, start to lose their abilities... and even, if it gets high enough, they simply blip out of reality: they no longer recognize themselves as existing, and, as such, don't.
      Obviously going too low would be the main *threat* for PCs, but the higher levels are important for NPCs, particularly the failed dreamjackers mentioned in the next post. It also means that you can't just build up a silly high reserve and go hog wild - if your Immersion is high, you *lose* power. Ultra-high immersion would also be seen in characters in the domain of a SUE, as they don't have a proper independent existence. If you can find some way to lower it, and you can weaken the SUE's hold... but also risk (possibly) making them a threat in their own right.

    2. So. Global Immersion then. 'Immersion' may not be the right word, but it's a measure of a world's own force of existence. First of all, we don't need a 'the game is actually set in a matryoshka sphere' or some such, that's just how the metaphysics work. When someone dreams something intently enough, especially when *several* someones dream something intently enough, they transfer their own Immersion into the new world. (Just casually thinking of something isn't enough) Eventually, this gains a kind of critical mass, and the new world begins dreaming *itself*. Paradoxical? Yes, but that's how it works, as far anyone can tell.

    3. ... and then SUE comes along, and takes over, giving themselves ridiculous god powers, running things the way they see fit, lowering their Immersion on a near-constant basis, and generally being a menace. They bend the rules, they bend the denizen's will, they bend logic... all this takes a toll on the world's internal consistency, or Immersion. And eventually... it *breaks*.

      There are no monsters from beyond the multiverse, or error-catching system, or anything with a sort of intent, but if you wreck metaphysics hard enough, eventually it just stops working. The world, its reality (i.e. Immersion) drained to fuel the SUE's ego, simply crumbles, no longer having any means to maintain its existence. Nothing makes sense, so it becomes nothing. Needless to say, this is extremely unfortunate for anyone in the area. Sometimes the SUE will go down with the world, the last scraps of their own Immersion spent to maintain their dominion, becoming an aimless mass of arrogance lost to the eddies of the multiverse, beyond the reach of any world... but disturbingly often, they escape... and almost inevitably, begin the process again...

    4. That's more in line with what I would prefer instead of an immune system, basically an out of control sue has the potential to become a reality eating Galactus, and it's much easier to stop them before that happens. I figure the organization IS the immune system and has been around in different iterations for a very long time (possibly redundant/different factions of the organizations with different ways of dealing with things just in case a rogue agent or a SUE manages to destroy a branch somehow)

  3. @BaseDeltaZero

    I think a better word for "global immersion" would be "verisimilitude." It means the appearance of being real, but is generally used to describe the self-consistency of a thing.

    1. Perhaps, but I was just maintaining a sort of consistence with the naming. Having 'Personal Immersion' and 'Global Immersion' is both consistent with the above, and points out that the concepts are two sides of the same coin.