Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Planet Degas

On Sunday, I started a campaign of 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars. It's a military sci-fi RPG with very abstract mechanics. The primary influence is of course Starship Troopers (the book more than movie), but I'll be throwing in hefty doses of Platoon, Band of Brothers, and Going After Cacciato. Yes, there's big alien menaces to be dealt with in every session, but the plot is more about the moral dilemmas and the social dynamic between the soldiers.

It's extremely rules-lite with a single attack roll killing half a dozen aliens (or more - after just 1 session's advancement, one of our PCs can kill 3d10 per round). On similar lines, the GM rolls just once per round, regardless of how many aliens are attacking - but that one roll has potential to do damage to the entire party. With the wrong group, this level of abstraction could get boring real fast, but we were all narrating details and developments as we went, so the game flowed smoothly and colorfully. I was pleased with the system, it seemed to be living up to it's potential right out of the gates.

I ran a smaller pool of threat tokens than is "standard" for the first session, and never activated the alien's special ability. This wasn't to go easy on the PCs - it was because we'd killed about an hour and a half gabbing, explaining rules, and making characters before the first scene, and I didn't want to have to skip on characterization and description in our first session for the sake of slogging through the tokens. I went with just two combat encounters, but the second one was quite large. By the end of the session, I had a couple of well established NPCs to kill off later, so I'm pleased.

Going Planetside

Beyond a doubt, what I like best about this system is how little prep there is for the GM. The rules are so simple, there's plenty of space to improvise. You roll on a series of 4 or 5 charts, and make something from that. Here's what I selected for our first session:
  • Planet Name: Degas
  • Planet Description: High Humidity
  • Basic Creature Form: Dogs
I decided to have the PCs get deployed to the planet late, as reserves, because of some trouble with their new LT that just arrived fresh from the academy.  So they nosed around before deployment to try to learn what the planet was like. "Wet. F-ing Wet. Wet falling from the sky. Wet coming up from the ground. Wet inside your armor. Everywhere F-ing Wet. Can't see anything for the Wet. Wet. Wet. Wet. Then something bit my F-ing foot off." Said one of the wounded who'd been evaced.

They head down planetside, and there's a bit of snafu about having the wrong coordinates. This landing pad has been abandoned because the moist ground beneath it gave way, and one side sank beneath the muck. The rain is coming down mercilessly. Improvising, I'd described the clouds as being blue. So now I said there's some blue blobs in with the rain. I had no idea what they were at this point, I just wanted to spice it up and make it more alien. Of course the players assume there's some big mystery about it, and start taking precautions not to let the blue touch them. They fret overly when the new LT gets some blue right on the face. Somewhere along the way I improv that the sound of the blue striking their armor is like an eggshell cracking. I was intending that it might damage their armor, but their minds went to it being the eggs of the as-yet-unseen aliens. I kept that in mind for use later.

It was time for a fight. My aliens were supposed to be "dogs", so I'd been planning to use some wet shaggy werewolves. But, given that the PCs had commented that the blue gunk on the LT's face was going to turn him into a zombie, I decided werewolves was not the way to go. That'd be too predictable, too much of the campy B-horror vibe, and I wanted this game to be something else, something more alien. So, the when the enemy attacks, they're "Drogs": large furry clawed frog-like things. They howl, then ribbit. It felt sufficiently alien, despite being a very simple blend of terrestrial animals, so it seemed to work. There were these pitcher plants on the surface, which the Drogs used like grenades, with a (somewhat unreliable) electrical discharge when they hit. I left my descriptions kind of sparse, so each player could fill in to their own heads whatever blend of frog and dog they could imagine, but in retrospect a little more detail probably would have been better.

Climactic Geyser
After that quick intro combat, and some shenanigans during the night involving a memorable NPC and his grenades, we went on to the bulk of the mission. They were supposed to go locate missing elements of D and E companies, along with the egghead science team that were guarding. They'd gone missing while exploring the region near a geyser. It was 45 minutes from our scheduled quit time, so I put nine threat tokens into the encounter and called that my limit.
Technically, I had 10 more counters available than I used, but the GMing advice says to never go above double the number of players in any one fight, so I figured 9 for 5 players would be hard enough. I knew there wouldn't be time for another combat scene, but given the late start and the colorful non-combat bits, I was fine with having 10 chips that would never hit the table.) It was a pretty grueling fight, with all the PCs getting ripped up quite a bit. One player nearly invoked a strength, then got talked out of it. On the next round, a different player invoked a strength, because it was either that or die.

They were on the last threat token, so as they finished the narration I chimed in that they'd also "killed the geyser" - which turned out to be a giant Drog spewing it's eggs into the air. They yanked most of D & E companies out sinkholes, and managed to save one of the scientists. It was a little forced, and may have gone better with an extra hour to play and another fight leading up to it, but it certainly wasn't bad. The one mistake I regret was my insistence that half an hour after the big frog died, they all saw the first tiny patch of clear sky. I thought I was being poetic, but one player made a disgusted-sounding comment about "magical weather-control frogs", so I think I may have offended their suspension of disbelief. Everyone else seemed pleased, and next week is a different world, and I won't make the same mistake twice.

Experience and Promotions

Then came the post-mission section of the game. This is a few die rolls and related things that are pretty unique to 3:16, and also part of why 3:16 needs to be run as a campaign and not just a one-shot. Medals were awarded. One of the troopers was promoted to corporal. New equipment was requisitioned. Two characters "leveled up". Everyone got something, which was great for our first session. Eventually, there'll be a session where the successful dice aren't so evenly distributed, and someone gets a huge boost while the others get nothing. I'll be sure to blog here when that happens.

The "experience" system is a little lopsided and random, but it's not unfair per se. If your character is focused on FA you'll get a certain type of reward quite frequently, but if you went with NFA as your primary stat, you'll get the other reward types more often. Over the long term, it'll even out across the group, but there's a chance someone could get next to nothing for a couple sessions in a row. It's clearly an intentional feature, not a bug or hole in the rules. It's intended to reinforce thematic elements (life isn't fair, battlefields are chaotic, sometimes the least competent get promoted, etc) and encourage some competition between the players. I'm a tiny bit worried it could lead to hard feelings if the dice are cruel. I have one or two players in the group that I could see getting miffed if the system slights them too often. We'll just have to see how it plays out.


Overall, I was very pleased with the game, especially for a first session with next to no prep. I spent more time printing the character sheets than I did actually contemplating the plot, yet the simple mechanics and a couple war movie tropes were inspiration enough to keep the action flowing. It's light and flexible enough to let improvisation be the heart of the game, which is a good thing for me since it's the fourth weekly game on my schedule right now, three of which I GM.

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