Thursday, April 10, 2014

The SUE Files: Beyond the Katanas

Why are SUEs bad?

It sounds like a trivial question, but we've split so many hairs that it's helpful to define exactly what they're doing that needs to be stopped. Clearly their methods are not at fault, since agents do the same thing; equally clearly, it's not being mean about it, since plenty of worlds are hellish dystopias 'naturally'. I'd be tempted to say that it's just breaking rules, but that has shades of Marty's M.I.C.

I think, if we wanted a simple distinction, we could say that SUEs break rules to break tropes, where agents break rules to fix tropes. Worlds, after all, are primarily places for stories to take place, and human pareidolia means tropes will always be a thing. Physics merely defines the cognitive space the story can run through; the important thing will always be the story itself, with whatever balance of logic, narrative causality and the Rules of Cool, Funny, and Awesome is necessary to drive it. So why have I so consistently referred to physics in the preceding post on Immersion? Partly because I'm a fool, of course, but partly because I wanted the tropes not to be explicitly the focus of the game. They lose something when the story focuses on itself so closely. That's what that giant 1-10 multiplier for “significance” is for: it's a way of rolling tropes and plot and local significance together into something a DM can throw around quickly. I'm aiming for a very fine distinction here: there are rules, and even when broken the story still follows them backwards, but it's possible to follow all the rules and still end up in a completely different place than you'd think. This is the best, handiest way I can think of to let players be adaptably genre savvy, and to materially reward that genre savvy, without forcing them to enforce “how the story is supposed to go” if they happen not to like it.

At least it affords us a relatively straightforward way of identifying SUEs-as-hijackers-of-stories. It's not just that they aren't local; it's entirely possible for non-natives to do whatever locals can without breaking Immersion, so long as they follow the tone. Non-natives can just cheat very easily, which is where agents come in; if the SUEs were only working in-world, the world could deal with them. Cheating is usually the difference between a weird event and an Immersion-breaking event.

As I see it, we have two basic kinds of SUEs: the ones who want to be something they aren't, and the ones who want the world to be something it isn't. The first resemble the classical Mary Sues, the kaleidoscope-eyed conventionally perfect cardboard cutouts. They might have katanas and trenchcoats, they might be goffik, or they might just really not want to die. In the end, though, they need people only as an audience, whatever form that audience might take. The second type need people as statistics: they want some change to the world, some new social system or physical reality or who knows what else, and they think people will be different for it (usually, but not always, happier.) These can hide better but generally aren't as resilient, since they rely much more on the active engagement of the locals.

This doesn't necessarily imply malice; it's entirely possible for them not to even realize they're doing it, or to knowingly do it in pursuit of a morally laudable goal. The least knowledgeable ones are ironically the most urgent threats, since without knowing about Immersion they can break it accidentally. Thankfully, without conscious shaping of their will they aren't capable of truly world-shattering feats, at least not directly; in any event backlash claims a lot of the ones the Agency can't intervene to save.

The knowing, benevolent ones are in their way even harder: it's hard to ask someone to give that kind of thing up, the locals generally like and protect them, and their effect on Immersion is harder to guess because people so want to believe what they're doing is real. The miracle healers and rebel leaders and so on are always tough. They are, however, promising candidates for recruitment.

If individual SUEs are a headache, their organizations are a leading cause of agent migraines; something about their hierarchies lets the crazily egocentric rise to the top. Some examples to get us started:

The Justice Poets: in essence, they believe poetic justice is a fundamental universal constant; anything exceptionally good or bad happening to anyone is ultimately some sort of karmic response to some vice or virtue they possess. Unhappy with the degree to which the universe validates their beliefs, they pick people they believe to be undeservedly happy and hurt them in some way “ironically” related to their perceived failings – indeed, they consider themselves sculptors of fate. Their sense of proportionality has somewhat degraded as of late, though; they're down to the level of kidnapping people who waste printer paper and feeding them feet-first into woodchippers, then claiming they were “hoist by their own petard” and perhaps leaving a eulogistic limerick on their graves. The old guard are slightly more restrained, still cleaving to the old custom of leaving their targets alive to despair over their fate.

The Chiaroscuro Cowboys apply the idea of justice slightly differently: everything has to have a hero and a villain, if only you dig deep enough. They see it as their job to find the villains and bring them to justice. Naturally, anyone doing this job is heroic, and therefore anyone disagreeing or inhibiting them is the evillest sort of fiend. Somewhere along the way they found a Western to their liking, what with all the lynching, and the name stuck. The newer members are actually almost reasonable, so long as they're operating in a world with sufficiently black and white morality. Just don't ask them about mercy.

Animancers represent the opposite end of the spectrum: they have no real moral views other than a firm belief in the rightness of the customer. Somewhere between soul merchants, chess grandmasters, and sculptors, they simply make minds to order. They might be in the employ of natives, might be filling out some transreal menagerie, or might simply be playing one of their Games. Autonomy, as they call it with some amusement, is played like so: events are engineered such that one preordained person (the Pawn) will, at some future time, have to make a choice of great input, one with a finite number of options. Each team is assigned one of those options and the goal is to manipulate the Pawn into choosing it. Generally speaking, direct effects are not allowed within some considerable radius of the Pawn's person, simply to make the game more intriguing. The death of the Pawn before the appointed time or similar failure to get them to the choice is considered a loss all round; taking a third option, so to speak, is scored as a draw. Variants include Fatalis, in which the Pawn's choice is always fatal; Brotherhood, in which there are multiple Pawns; and World-in-the-Balance, using a dreamer as the Pawn and manipulating only things within their dreamscape. Animancers with high-end Elo ratings get better-paying and more interesting commissions, so the Autonomous Games are played for very high stakes. Rumors of Autonomy variants using dreamjackers, or even the Agency, as the Pawn are of course totally unfounded.

I had been worried that we'd be restricted to cackling “for-the-evuls” villains, but there are apparently alternatives within easy reach, particularly when combined with the corrosive effect of localized omnipotence described several posts ago. I'll come back and add more groups and types and things later, and I'd very much like to see what other people come up with. Next time I'll sketch out Agency procedure.


  1. Regarding the Justice Poets: Their sense of proportionality has "somewhat degraded"? "Feet first into a woodchipper" strikes me as less "somewhat degraded" and more "extremely insane troll logic". I'm sensing a slippery slope/what do you mean it's not heinous vibe from them, but what's written seems over the top. They're coming off as more like total psychopaths using karma as an excuse to murder people.

    1. ZeroRoller has a talent for understatement.

    2. I'm pretty sure that term was intended to be understatement, yes, that you point it out, I think it would be more interesting if, for the vast majority of the Justice Poets, the problem was their focus on punishing the "undeservedly happy" rather than trying to help the undeservedly suffering.

      Fundamentally, anyone whose sense of justice is offended by there not being enough suffering in the world is already pretty firmly in villain territory, without needing to also be axe crazy.

    3. They're supposed to run the gamut from total psychopaths to people who are, as Beroli says, firmly villains without being ultra-violent. I ran with the most extreme example to try to get it across that their basic operating premise is deranged and evil, so it's not that far a jump to total psychopathy "justified" by a misguided sense of justice.

      Incidentally, they were inspired by a trend I've noticed on the Internet to try to claim everything bad that happens was somehow "deserved" rather than come to terms with schadenfreude or, heavens forfend, feel sympathy. Naturally they've been significantly Flanderized, but even then, I perhaps over-stressed their most violently insane extreme to illustrate how they can be made sufficiently villainous for even the darkest games.

    4. Ah, I see. I had misunderstood it as there being only the old-guard and the psychopaths. Thank you for clarifying.

  2. ... I've actively read several incredibly poorly written, sue filled stories, and I've never seen one try to 'break' tropes. They just apply them poorly. In point of fact, it's kind of impossible to 'break' a trope. What does that even mean? Subverting tropes is a trope in and of itself, and actively ignoring them just means not using them(and not all tropes need to be in every story, obviously). The only possible explanation of that description that could possibly make sense is, well, misusing tropes in a way that strips them of their importance. Using rule of perception in a way that doesn't give shorthands and actively takes advantage of a lack of viewer awareness to hide a lack of skill, for example(cough cough Twilight COUGH). Other than that, the rule of X are the only ones that make sense- I'm reminded of fanfics where characters who take advantage of "Rule of Funny" are treated as just being 'magic', or worse still, try to define it.

    1. Not tropes as a general construct. I mean they violate the tropes already operating as conventions of the setting/tone in order to shoehorn in something new. Sorry if that was unclear; it's trying to express how sue-filled stories tend to just throw out everything but the names in order to fit the author's idea of what should happen.

    2. Ah, so they enter a pre-existing story, screw up the pre-existing tropes and rules already established, just to make things go they want it to. ... Yeah, there's some shit things like this.

    3. Hopefully it is not as shit to make them villains.