Monday, March 10, 2014

The SUE Files: Theorycrafting takes A Hundred Skill Checks

Really looking forward to being able to quit flying around the country. For now, though, have some more meta-setting drivel.

I don't think it ever really came across in the SUE Files, but Marty and I are actually agree, to a certain extent, on the dramatic value of unambiguous good and evil: neither of us like it. Marty hamstrung his implementation of moral relativism though his NPCs' utter stubbornness, but done right, I vastly prefer worlds where everyone thinks they're doing good, or at least doing what they must, to worlds with bright shiny pretty paladins duel dark and ugly blackguards for the fate of the world, or some such. PCs tend to act in interesting ways if the option exists to convert or subvert or otherwise adjust their villains away from whatever troublesome thing they're doing, and they're much more aware of the option if it's built in thematically.

Meta-ethical moral relativism, with sufficient self-awareness, also opens something of a design loophole. Ordinarily, building one giant central conflict into a setting is, as most of my readers will know, a bad idea; the players are either irrelevant or they win the world and there's your campaign over. Similarly, endless conflicts usually eliminate only the latter option. Sometimes it's fun to fight for the chance to keep fighting, but it can feel rather grim. Instead, let's make our sides both recognize that it's the conflict, rather than the victory, that matters; there are plenty of ways to lose sight of that and thus become a problem for everyone else, including several that allow a perfectly seamless transitions, so we'll have a nice big stable of redeemable, complicated, nicely varied antagonists. Now we just need a conflict that can hold up to that. Let's run with order vs. chaos, with a shared goal of maximizing freedom for as many people as possible. Now we have people building systems to protect people from each other and people subverting those systems to work around the unintended consequences, each of which ticks the other off but both of which can easily cooperate when faced with either extreme of the continuum.

So with all that in mind, let's look at Marty's original premise again. We're playing in and around the worlds of people's dreams. Now let's generalize that logically into the central idea of the setting: Every dream everywhere actually exists somewhere. So now someone can go find them and mess with them.

I think you see where this is going. By some arguments, the universe we all live in is very probably a simulation; that goes double for this setting. Most of us are capable of lucid dreaming some pretty intricate things; with sufficient processing power, one could dream a universe, and suddenly we have a big tree of universes with normal dreams as the leaf nodes; we will temporarily set aside the problem of waking up. Each one sort of speciates as the sophonts within it begin dreaming themselves until we have a weird parody of molecular phylogeny. To further extend the metaphor, if  dreams are accessible we now have an analogue to horizontal gene transfer in the form of the PCs and their fellows hopping around. Now they need a reason to jump, or at least a reason to jump together and do foolish and dangerous things. Enter order and chaos.

See, when you're omnipotent, it's tempting to cheat. To pick what you want to happen, first for impeccable reasons and then for merely good ones and eventually for bad ones. You start confusing people and things, and wanting to force people into predictable, thing-like patterns. You think it will never happen to you, you promise yourself it won't...and then it does, in little ways, and there's no one to hold you accountable, and it's all just so easy.

Now we have a setting with a potentially infinite hierarchy of omnipotent people of all sorts, so the PCs exist because someone needs to hunt down the absolute tyrants who can destroy them with a thought, look them dead in the mind's eye, and say: "I can't be having with that kind of thing."  And live to tell about it. That part's harder.

Still. We have the kinds of gods that want god-fearing people; let's make the PCs sort to create people-fearing gods. Gadflies to the omnipotent, if you will.  At the same time, more cynical readers might have picked up, as I have, that if all dreams are real, everyone in on the secret is under a terrible temptation, those at the bottom of the chain all the more so: dream yourself perfect and go rule the "real" world. We'll call those people the Sues; they're the thing everyone has to guard against becoming, the self-congratulatory little closed ideological loops carving the worlds up and ruining it for everyone.

Now how do the good little nightmares-of-the-gods guard against Suedom? Why, by being real of course; by knowing real people who can slap them upside the head when they're being silly. In short, by not charging forth and solving everyone's problems for them but rather equipping them to solve their own problems, especially those relating to troublesome godlings. If they're honestly happy where they are, they won't change anything, but if they're being hurt they'll work to change that. Having the humility to accept the decisions informed people make is a very good guard against being a tyrannical pissant, and anyway most of the people I know find it more fun to play kingmaker than king. It's also a transparent excuse to put a rather fun mana recovery mechanism into it, but I haven't finished that yet.

There's a nice variety of stories we could assemble here. Sue hunting, sure, but also adjusting the gods one way or the other; it's a constant conflict to keep them from drifting, and sometimes they might need to give a little more guidance or a little more freedom. Of course the fun part comes in the how; how to avoid the all-seeing eyes, how to infiltrate a mind, et cetera. I've got some thoughts on that, but this post has gone on long enough. I'll throw up some potential metaphysics later, just to put some boundary conditions on what is otherwise a rather unbounded set of possible settings.

For one thing, there has to be a way of the world persisting while its creator is not dreaming, or even conscious; I want it to be possible for PCs to affect them externally in lots of ways, so one PC can get the universe drunk while the others are running around inside it and so forth. There should probably also be some intermediary between the people thinking the universe into existence and the ones actually smiting the  sophonts therein; that way we can have pantheons. Something like different deities being personified emotions or philosophical tenets of the world's creator ought to work.

Additionally, there's problems with the commonness of everyone dreaming; we might want some kind of filter on whose dreams are big enough to actually play around inside for extended periods of time, since otherwise we're going to be overwhelmed with places to hide.

Without any admittedly critical explanation of how, I think the takeaway from the above blithering is that we're building this:

1. People's dreams are real somewhere; probably not where they can go meet them, but real enough to be externally affected in intuitive ways.

2. People being people, most of the ones mentally capable of instantiating sapient minds conduct their mindscapes in a way those minds find disagreeable.

3. Occasionally people go bad the other way and just make themselves ludicrously powerful to carve out their own domains inside other dreamscapes. These are called SUEs.

4. The PCs and others like them form a loose organization that works to curb this sort of behavior through empowering a dreamscape's resident sapients and otherwise meddling with the balance of power, generally in ways sufficiently indirect to avoid SUEdom -- or annihilation, which usually means being sneaky.

This whole thing is probably riddled with inconsistencies and vagaries. If you'd like to help point them out, or if you have any other comment, I'd love to hear about it.


  1. I have only one point of possibly-constructive criticism.

    Now how do the good little nightmares-of-the-gods guard against Suedom? Why, by being real of course; by knowing real people who can slap them upside the head when they're being silly. In short, by not charging forth and solving everyone's problems for them but rather equipping them to solve their own problems, especially those relating to troublesome godlings.

    This bit? No. This is your personal political ideas showing, and that's just as annoying to people who don't agree with them as Marty's "capitalistic authoritarianism YAY!!!" shtick was to you. In fact, even if I agreed that "empowering the populace to solve their own problems" was practical and beneficial in the real world (which I don't, but that's a little beside the point here, I am aware), I would consider a game based around doing exactly that to be far too squeaky-clean and intent on selling something to be much fun as a roleplaying game.

    The idea of world-hopping agents fighting Sues is actually a lot of fun, but my advice is to... not skip the morality, exactly, but to put it one step further out. Don't make it a game about Doing Things Right, as you define right - that's boring. Make it a game about trying to find your way in a world of moral risk and no-win situations. In this case, I'd say that's pretty easy. Like this: those Sues need to be taken out, somehow, but they can't be taken out by the people in the world they infest, because they have rewritten the rules of their universe to their benefit. So who can stop them? Only other people who can rewrite the rules and grant themselves comparable powers. The only person who can stop a Sue is someone else with the power of a Sue.

    So at what point do you stop being an anti-Sue and become just a rival to the dominant Sue of the setting? That's for the players to worry about. Can you fight a Sue who's written himself a role as an omnipotent god-king by writing yourself a role as a super-charismatic rebel leader? Perhaps. What if you overthrow the god-king, but he uses some sort of pre-established loophole to flee and wait for you to leave? How long can you risk hanging around that universe and letting your assume role twist it around you?

    I'd play a game where you had to think about that question, I can tell you that right now. :D

    1. I had forgotten about this setting. I believe the idea that there is a risk of becoming a sue if you abuse the powers you can use was one of the core premises. Kind of a He who fights monsters type of thing

  2. Not to crow, but that's more what I meant than any sort of Doing It Right; I guess I just hadn't realized how much I was conflating the two. Very good point, though, and I'm glad you brought it up before I'd written mechanics around my personal politics. Blech.

    1. Further clarification: by "real" I did mean literally "real", as in "actually present and conforming to the laws of physics so far as that world is concerned, in start contrast to the demonstrably unreal PCs/SUEs." I'm not sure if we might have been quibbling over my poor choice of words more than my politics, but what the hey, I can fix both!