Monday, December 6, 2010

Planet Klimt (and mechanical observations on 3:16)

Yesterday I ran my fourth session of 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars. It was an interesting, but oddly paced session. Let's look at the planet/mission stats:
  • Planet Name: Klimt
  • Planet Terrain: Ocean World
  • Alien Type: Sirens
  • Alien Ability: Invoke Weakness
The remains of the platoon, after having suffered heavy losses in the past three sessions, was given the "easy" job of providing security to a detachment of officers and science corp personnel taking R&R on a colony world in a rear area.

So I set up a bit of a mystery scenario, with mind-altering skin-swapping deep ones. They could somehow read your memories and make themselves look like your relatives. Early in the session, before we ever got planetside, I had an NPC Trooper in the platoon get a Dear John letter. This not only hit a war movie trope we hadn't touched on yet, it also worked as both a red herring and foreshadowing. A few scenes later, when the NPC cried out the name of his unfaithful girlfriend and tried to kill himself, no one stopped to consider that maybe he did so because an alien shapeshifter was impersonating his girlfriend. (And really, why would they?) One of the players played straight into my hands by offering that her character's cousin, an deep-space colonist, might be on the planet. So I said sure, and later had the "cousin" try to kill her. At the start of the session, none of the PCs had ever used a Weakness, but by the end of the session, 3 of them had.

Setting up the mystery scenario was kinda neat, but it ran afoul of 3:16's mechanics a few times. In a game where the emphasis is on the carnage, and each attack roll could kill dozens of enemies, it's hard to do a slow simmering mystery scenario where there aren't massed enemy troops. As GM, you feel bad telling the PCs that it doesn't matter that their E-Cannon could kill d100 baddies this round, as there's only one target available. After all, the PC got his E-Cannon to that level of bad-assitude by spending several sessions advances on it, and here I am essentially stealing (or at least disarming) his thunder. Plus, taking too much of the focus away from the fighting starts to over-emphasize the NFA stat (see below) which is already over-emphasized (see below).

And this leads me to a few observations about 3:16s mechanical issues that weren't immediately obvious on my first (or second) read of the rules, but which have shown up in long-term play.
  • FA (Fighting Ability, used when trying to kill things) and NFA (Non-Fighting Ability, used when trying to do anything except kill things) are not balanced.  At first, I thought they were, or at least well enough for a rules-light game with just 2 attributes.  And honestly, given that it's a military game/campaign, I'd probably be okay with it if FA were a little better than NFA. But instead, it turns out that past your first or second session, NFA is much better than FA. All the advancement rules hinge on NFA rolls. So, while a high FA character starts out at a modest advantage (counter-balanced by being the lowest starting rank), they're going to be still slogging around with a Slug Rifle while the high NFA character sports a maxed out E-Cannon.  In fact, the PCs that start as Corporals in the first session seem to have a huge advantage over Privates and Sergeants alike. Corporals can start with an E-Cannon, and have high enough NFA to be able to reliably upgrade it to maximum and reliably requisition a second weapon to cover the E-Cannon's few weaknesses.
  • The progression of Kill potential of weaponry (essentially damage) seems a bit lopsided. Here's the scale: 0, 1, d6, d10, 2d6, 2d10, 3d10, d100. So the average damage roll at each band is 0, 1, 3.5, 5.5, 7, 11, 16.5,  and then it jumps to 50.5. It's that last jump that seems out-of-whack. On average, an upgrade gives you +2 damage, except for that last step which is +34. The game is very competitive, with Kill-count determining which PC advances each session. The E-Cannon is the only weapon that gets d100 at Near range, the Rocketpod is the only weapon that gets d100 at Far range. Once someone gets one of those two weapons to it's max rating, and everyone else realizes just how awesome it is, it takes the rest of the group a minimum of 3 sessions to play catch-up, and that's assuming they make their NFA roll at the end of each of those 3 sessions. I look at the PCs at the back of the pack, with NFAs of 3 or 4, and it seems like they're completely out of the running, and probably will be so for the next 5 or 6 sessions, despite supposedly having built characters that were highly-skilled bloodthirsty killers (high FA).
  • Pacing is really damn hard, mainly because of the built-in mechanism of each session takes place on a different planet. We run a 4-hour session, with a fair amount of role-playing between the big combat action pieces. As a result, in 3 of our 4 sessions, the GM (me) has decided late in the session to just "throw away" some number of enemy tokens and cut to the final battle. I'm "wasting" alien resources and effectively going easy on the PCs because of not having enough time. To solve this, I either have to cut down on roleplaying, or break the fundamental rule of "1 planet per session" and discover what ripple-effects that has.
  • Narrating the enemy actions is really taxing. On "the GM's turn" I have to narrate for a large but unspecified number of aliens. Either hundreds of foes fail, and I have to improvise what factor caused them to all screw up, or else I have to narrate hits on 3 to 5 PCs at once, and try to somehow make them unique and interesting despite everyone getting pounded on in exactly the same mechanical fashion. Which gets tricky since the PC has control of whether they take the hit as a Wound or soak it on their armor. So I need to quickly narrate 3 to 5 attacks or injuries that are vague enough the player can choose which type of wound to take. Most of the time it flows fine, but late in the session you start running out of ideas.
  • The system incorporates some number of expressly-defined Rewards, namely medals and promotions, but is considerably lacking in Punishments. So, a PC can be rewarded for heroism, or just being in the right place at the right time. They can be demoted as well, but per the rules, this can only happen if they use a Weakness (which is somewhat rare), and one of the other PCs chooses to rat them out to high command, and that rat succeeds at an NFA roll, and the person being ratted out fails an NFA roll. Meanwhile, in 2 of our 4 sessions, the PCs collectively have completely failed to achieve their in-character goals, and as GM I don't feel I have the power to punish them for it. I could demote by fiat, or strip them of equipment, but either option seems to be against the spirit of the written rules (which specifically spell out that every session ends with tightly-scripted skill rolls to advance in rank and requisition equipment). So, I'm left with the odd situation where I wanted to run this RPG because it's unique take on experience and advancement were so interesting, but now that I'm doing so I find that unique take is potentially standing in the way of compelling narrative (and eventually willing suspension of disbelief).
Don't get me wrong, I'm still really enjoying the campaign. For the first couple sessions I was very impressed with the extremely lite rules, with their unique competitive approach. Having watched several sessions of how those rules play out, I'm now finding them to be more of a hurdle than a step-ladder. The game is remaining fun, but that's mostly because I've got good players and we're improvising wildly. As I think about it, that is frequently the case with most RPG systems, and at least we're not having arguments about miniatures-positioning, attack modifiers, and such. So maybe I shouldn't be complaining?


Lee 'Spikey' Nethersole said...

After having read all of your posts about this game/system i feel the need to ask exactly why you are playing it. Given that I have no experience of it beyond (your bloody great) descriptions, it sounds like everything i detest in the hobby. Even witht he knowledge that my tastes are not to be used to assume everyones tastes, I still wonder what you are getting out of it aside from the benefits of A) the skill of your party and B) your own storyteling ability? said...

Sigh, poor Sarge had to spend this mission talking to JAG about the death of Lt. Tert-ass... Tertius.

I look at Carnage 3:16 as a story teller system, where you describe your actions and then roll to see how well they worked. It's almost Wushu in style.

Migrating the game to Wushu at this time would be very interesting. But that's up to Rolfe to decide.

SiderisAnon said...

If the PCs are failing, how about applying some military style punishments that don't involve loss of rank or equipment? Make a roleplaying point about them having to dig latrines, take the night guard duty, losing R&R time, losing access to movie night, not getting cake with dinner. The kind of hassling stuff that the military can do without officially damaging your career.

It might not have a mechanical impact, but it can both show the players that their characters are paying a price for failure and set the stage for something more mechanical in the future.