Sunday, July 4, 2021

Sufficiently Advanced, Second Edition

Where to Get it: drivethrurpg

Whoa, this came out of nowhere. I guess I'd heard tell of it, over the years, mostly getting name dropped in various forum posts, and so it was on the edge of my consciousness - "have you heard of Sufficiently Advanced?" someone might hypothetically ask, and I'd say, equally hypothetically, "Yeah, I think it's an indie sci-fi rpg." However, having read a review copy, generously provided by the author himself, my gut reaction is that this definitely feels like something I should have been obnoxiously shilling to my friends for years. Like, I barely knew it existed two weeks ago, and now I can easily imagine my Thurston Howell voice say, "oh, you're definitely going to want to use Sufficiently Advanced for a game like that."

(I only use the Thurston Howell voice when I'm being 100% sincere, but want to give myself a cushion of ironic distance in case someone calls me out on having overly sophisticated preferences)

So what is it about Sufficiently Advanced that merits these convoluted layers of emotional artifice? Well, with profuse apologies to Mr Colin Fredericks for the overly reductive analogy - it's like a science fiction Nobilis. Now, this is a comparison that was anticipated and persuasively refuted in the design notes section.

The system for Nobilis is driven by effort. You have a certain base (godly) level of ability, and if you want to do more you put in the blood, sweat, and tears for it. . .

In SA2, the philosophy is freedom of information and difficult choices. You typically know your opponent's ability levels. You know your own very well. Almost every conflict results in a Complication.
And it's an apt distinction, even if I didn't pick up on it until it was pointed out (don't fall into the trap of thinking I'm good at this game criticism thing). Sufficiently Advanced does have a very deterministic resolution system, powered by very specific and literal character traits . . . which then gets subverted by a player-level dramatic editing system that allows you to spend a meta resource (Twists) to change the context of scenes to fit those rigid abilities.

It's actually quite clever.  Characters have "themes" like Romance or Terror or Wonder and each theme gives you a way to spend Twists to affect the course of the game.  One of the examples from the book is a character with the Intrigue (stumble upon) theme who isn't skilled enough to eavesdrop on a particular target, but spends Twists to stumble upon a rival surveillance setup that was already in place, so they could eavesdrop on them.

If I have a nitpick with this system, it's with the way that Themes are subdivided and attached to characters. You never have access to the Action theme, for example, but you can make a character with the Action (One Man Army) subtype. In which case you can always nudge events to make your character's one man army shenanigans more plausible.

And this works fine for establishing a toolkit of character-defining tropes for individual PCs, but it also means you can have dramatically clashing parties - the person who chose Romance (lovable goof), Empathy (too naive to judge) and Wonder (aw shucks, that's neat) is going to be in the same group as Action (grizzled survivor), Terror (no way out), and Intrigue (it's not paranoia) and the game will be all over the place as a result.

Now, obviously, that's an issue that can only be solved by table talk, and no mere game design is going to be able to preemptively solve an problem as fundamental as "conflicting genre expectations," but I do feel like negotiating the campaign's allowable themes is going to be an inevitable part of the setup phase for any Sufficiently Advanced game.

I also think there's a niche for "campaign themes," i.e. themes that embody world or story tropes that any player can use. One of the book's example themes is Wonder (big, dumb objects) and that lets you play a guy who's always finding big, dumb objects, but I really don't see why that has to be a particular character's shtick. If you're telling the sort of story where wasteful megaengineering is a major part of the aesthetic, why not just say that it's always appropriate for a player to spend twists to find a Dyson Sphere or geothermal borehole cluster or what have you?

I could also take issue with the lack of fluidity amongst themes. Like maybe the supercategories aren't entirely necessary or helpful. Take that Intrigue (stumble upon) character from the book, add Magnetism (mistaken identity) and Comprehension (forced monologuing) and you've got a recipe for someone whose life is total chaos, but is surprising effective anyways. So why not just extend that into other arena's like action? Maybe they get in a firefight and suddenly their missed shots are rupturing pipes and short-circuiting consoles in ways that quite implausibly advance their tactical interests. Perhaps it could require some kind of Twist surcharge or backlash Complication.

Anyway, don't take my nitpicks as indicative of any general shortcoming. Honestly, the only reason I'm pitching house rules in a review is because the system's potential was so obvious that it inspired me to find other ways to use it. What I like most about it is the way it gives structure to the players' dramatic editing abilities. 

I'm currently GMing the Trinity Continuum Core, which also prominently uses dramatic editing as a game mechanic, and my players haven't been taking much advantage of it. A lot of that has to do with me as a GM - so far I've been tossing them the kind of softballs that don't really need luck powers to resolve, but I suspect another part is just that "dramatic editing" isn't a power that's written down on the character sheet, so it's easy to forget it exists. And when you do remember, the field is wide open - you can do whatever you imagine and the cost is based on nothing but how improbable you get. Ironically, I think limiting those possibilities might make dramatic editing use a bit more common, as you now have a framework for the effects you generate and trying to find maximum utility within that framework is a fun little roleplaying challenge.

I think there's a sweet spot that might be less permissive than Trinity Core and more permissive than Sufficiently Advanced 2e, but if I'm being honest, Sufficiently Advanced is closer to hitting the target.

The Twist economy is also a neat way of balancing characters. First, let's take a step back and talk about the thing that most reminded me Nobilis - the Capabilities system. It's actually trivially easy for Sufficiently Advanced characters to have godlike powers. There are five broadly defined branches of fictional science that are rated on a scale from 1 to 5. So, if you're a Biotech-rating 1 character, you're more or less an unenhanced human, of the sort you could see on the street today, but if you're a Biotech 5 character, you can shift your physical body into any imaginable configuration by entering a cocoon and sleeping for a few days, heal yourself incredibly fast, and have incredible physical strength on the scale of tons, and that's in addition to all the benefits from the lower levels. Stringtech 5 gives you nuclear-bomb-strength weapons and the ability to teleport through self-created wormholes. The Cognitech, Metatech, and Nanotech Capabilities are similarly impressive. 

However, the higher your Capabilities, the higher your Tech rating and Tech subtracts directly from your most common sources of Twists - the full refresh you get at the start of each session and voluntary, self-imposed Complications. If you max out your Capabilities at the start of the game, then the only way you're getting any extra Twists at all is by taking a Major Complication, like spending the whole session in the hospital. If you're a completely mundane human with all Capabilities at rating 1, then you can generate a near endless stream of Twists out of Minor Complications like being suspended from work for a week (and you'll probably start out each session maxed out on free Twists besides).

It creates an interesting dynamic - high tech Transhumans with their space-ship bodies, hand-waving replicators, and thousand years of experience vs plucky young protagonists, probably hailing from some isolated planet with 18th century technology, who always seem to figure centrally in the schemes of the technogods. You could also play somewhere in the middle, I suppose, but it honestly seems like the worst of both worlds to me (although, one of the things you can spend Twists on is "Plot Immunity," and given the math involved, it might be good to be one point away from the maximum Capability ratings so that you can pull an emergency, life-saving edit out of a single Critical Complication).

Which is as good a cue as any to talk about another remarkable thing about Sufficiently Advanced's system - by default, there's no experience points or character progression. All that stuff about the balance between mundanes and immortal cyborgs comes down to the choices you make at character creation. It's a choice that intrigues me, because there's literally nothing stopping you from starting at the ceiling. It's this unblinking commitment to player empowerment that most reminds me of Nobilis.

Now I guess it's time to talk about the setting.  And the real issue here is how much I want to talk about capitalism.

If I don't talk about capitalism at all, this section is going to be short, but glowing. There are a ton of unique sci-fi ideas, arranged in a modular fashion to allow you to build a variety of settings that conform to the Sufficiently Advanced aesthetic. Take a handful of the 14 sample civilizations, populate them with whichever societies most interest your players, and unite the whole thing by a campaign premise. Nearly every combination is going to work. My favorite campaign was "Sublight," which removes FTL technologies and casts the players as shadowy, behind the scenes manipulators who transmit their uploaded minds between far-flung stars to meddle in local politics, becoming in the process a caste of unaccountable immortals in a galaxy where humanity is an ancient presence. It's both a sweeping historical epic (space travel is over 100,000 years old!) and a melancholy meditation on the nature of time. Just an incredible premise for both setting and plot. I'd gladly read a hundred novels set in that universe (and hey, it's Creative Commons, so get on that, people).

Even outside the campaign pitches, the pieces and parts are also pretty interesting. Like the Nanori, who build super-advanced nanotech with nothing but a survival instinct and try and use artificial selection to evolve them into specialized tools with surprising undocumented features. Or the Instinct-Builders, who use genetic engineering to encode memories and skills into their children's normal development, so they can start doing algebra at two years old (and other extreme helicopter parent shit). Sufficiently Advanced is extremely good at postulating new and fascinating applications for sci-fi tech, and nearly every setting element in the book builds upon and expands on these plot seeds.

And I can't go any farther without talking about capitalism at least a little. I'll admit, for a significant portion of my reading time, I worried that this book was trying to be extremely ideological. You've got these weird sci-fi societies like the guys who feed themselves into Replicators and cheat death by making endless copies of themselves, and they've got rich and poor and ways of making money through savvy investments and owning companies and their bank accounts pay compound interest. And socially, they're not an outlier. Very nearly every civilization has economic inequality and international trade and fiat currency.

At first, I got the impression that the author was trying to Make a Point, but then I got to the design notes and the section entitled "On Capitalism" and it's actually pretty weird. I'll just quote it: "Some people have asked why capitalism is still around in the setting. . . This is a tough one to answer, primarily because the I know very little of economics."

It definitely made some things click for me -  "oh, so when you were talking about those extreme pacifists who use biotech to hack their own immune systems to isolate, rather than kill bacteria and then you go on to say that they boycott banks that do business with arms dealers, you really were just naively speculating about what people with the power to rewrite their own physiology to survive off sunbeams would do with their money. I see."

It turns out the book is ideological, but it's just the sort of ideology that is passively absorbed from society and doesn't question fundamental assumptions. That's . . . not the best fit for science fiction.

I have to tread carefully here, because I'm kind of a political maverick - vaguely on the far left, but not really a Marxist, and I believe most people of the "capitalism is when you buy and sell stuff" persuasion probably have their hearts in the right place. So I don't necessarily want to take the critical position that a work of science fiction must be a socialist manifesto to have merit. However, this game's particular brand of capitalism by default is, indeed weak sci-fi. It would have undoubtedly been more interesting if it did have an axe to grind about the inevitable and eternal triumph of private property.

Like, one of the sample universes is called "The Patent Office" and it revolves around super AIs that can talk to themselves through time portals and use their phenomenal power to enforce international copyright protection covenants (and also manipulate humanity towards eternal peace or something like that), and it doesn't ask any of the obvious questions. What are IP terms like in a society where half the population is biologically immortal? How many cat memes do I have to make to afford the plans to a fusion reactor? If replicators are the source of most people's daily sustenance, and the only thing people buy and sell are licenses for replicator templates, wouldn't that mean that sometimes piracy could be considered a human right? What, exactly is the public domain lifestyle even like? And then, on top of that, add all the wrinkles introduced by transhuman technology and interstellar travel.

The thing that Sufficiently Advanced is most missing is the sense that money and banks and copyrights are really just forms of technology, subject to the same speculation as any other sci-fi invention. They exist to solve particular problems, and if they still exist in 20,000 years, it's because people are still having the same sort of problems even after all that time. What do those problems look like in a world where replicators are common, nuclear transmutation is a desktop app, and antimatter can be decanted out of normal matter for a net energy gain?

I'm actually pretty curious about how you would do truly capitalist science fiction in a world where technology has obsoleted mines. I have to figure that even for Brookings Institute 40k, keeping money in a bank is going to seem positively stone age, but without a clearer picture on the challenges to and pressures on private property in the far future, it's hard to imagine the alternative.

So, it's a weakness. Sufficiently Advanced is great at working out the technological implications of its sci-fi conceits, but GMs and players are going to have to be the ones putting in the work to explore the social and political implications. I'm fairly confident that this is not entirely by design, but it's also a fascinating topic, so it only barely counts as a strike on the game.

It's kind of a bummer to end on a negative note, but overall I really, really enjoyed Sufficiently Advanced (for my own mental health, I try not to write 2600 word posts on books I don't respect). It's a unique game with some solid design, and I am probably going to buy a physical copy one day. A total pleasure to have experienced.

Ukss Contribution: With Cognitech 5, your brain is such a sophisticated supercomputer that you can host thousands of ride-along AIs without much effort, simulating an entire city for them while also going about your business. That's really cool, and the perfect activity for some strange god or master sorcerer.


  1. I wish I had a city of AIs hanging out in my head *grumble*.


    1. It's an extremely over-engineered solution to the problem of loneliness.

  2. Does make me wonder if you'll read the short Chronotech supplement that does put into consideration the potential of time travel due to wormholes.