I'm pleased to report that I had a much better session of "3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars" this week. Not that the previous week's session was bad, per se, but it had left a weird aftertaste.
Problem Solving, mafia-style
I solved the dilemma of how to "punish" the PCs for their recent failure (and repeated officer-icide) without punishing the players, without boringly locking them all up in the brig, without lining them up with blindfolds and cigarettes, without invalidating the promotion rules, and without making a Lieutenant scrub latrines beside the enlisted men. I simply reminded myself (and the players) that this is a setting with an implied Fascist government, great personal power and latitude to the upper military ranks, a high rate of battlefield promotion due to death of superior officers, and (most importantly) severe overpopulation back home. They have been warned that if any more high-ranking officers die in the vicinity of the PCs platoon, family back home will go missing. The awesomeness of this is that it shows the total corruption and evilness of high command, and if and when the PCs eventually kill another officer, all their loved ones can be abducted in the dead of night or possibly just executed... thereby contributing directly to the "Hatred of Home" Weakness that is guaranteed for your final level-up.
On to the planet:
• Planet Name: Titian
• Planet Type: Low Gravity
• Alien Type: Dinosaurs
• Alien Ability: Regeneration
Physics is not 3:16's friend, nor vice-versa. 40 foot dinosaur people in a giant jungle seem perfectly fine for a low-gravity world, but to have them exist in the large quantities that are needed for 3:16's kill counts would require a lot of surface area, which means large planet, which probably means high gravity is more realistic... and I shut down the science talk at that point, because a couple players were starting to debate whether the atmosphere could be breathable and whether it would be thicker or thinner than our own. It's military fantasy with ray guns, not science-fiction.
The dinosaurs had lots of peanut-sized nerve clusters instead of a centralized brain, and so you couldn't be certain that even blowing off their heads would keep the entirety of their body from getting back up and smashing you again... and that was how I explained Regeneration.
Kill counts were high, but would have been much higher if one of the PCs hadn't chose to pre-empt my big climactic final battle (which was going to be modeled on the Little Big Horn) with a Strength Flashback on the first action of the very first round. Bizarrely, the group had just spent 5 minutes debating whether or not to call in an orbital bombardment on the massed aliens they'd spotted in the distance. They decided unanimously not to do so, to give them all a chance to rack up some kills and only fall back on the bombardment solution if things got dire. One die roll later, someone decided to end the fight prematurely purely for their own benefit. Thankfully, said player did not end up with most kills, so his attempt to hog the glory was a little wasted.
3:16 with 5 PCs
It appears the level-up mechanic in the rulebook is balanced for smaller parties. With 3 or 4 PCs, you get a level-up every session to the person with the most kills, and those with fewer kills have a 50% or 33% chance of getting the "bonus" level up. With five players, that chance of the extra level up drops to merely 25%, which seems a little low.
(When you think about it, the default rules seem to assume you're going to be leveling up at least half the sessions, but with 5 players that just wasn't happening. In fact, one PC had yet to level up as of the end of our 4th session. The dice just hate her. She started with FA 7, and yet has never gotten the most kills in a session.)
So, as I've decided that since I don't want this to be a really long campaign, I'm going to compensate for that extra player. I will now be handing out level-ups for the highest kill count, and the second highest kill count, and one random amongst the remaining players.
More on the E-Cannon:
Hopefully this extra level-up will also help compensate somewhat for the lone E-Cannon at d100 in our group. He only fired three times last session, and got 163 kills. I'm tempted to house-rule that as well, down from d100 to 3d20 or 5d10 or something along those lines. Maybe keep it at d100 but you always read the percentile dice in their least favorable order (so a "2" and "7" could only be "27"), but I'd have to analyze what the curve on that is. For the moment, I'm going to leave it at the normal d100 and just see if the level-up for second-highest kills is compensation enough.
The jump from 3d10 kills to d100 kills on the E-Cannon and Rocket Pod is excessive, but at least I was able to mitigate it a bit this time by some clever NPC maneuvering. Aliens hit the PCs, and pulled back to Far Range. Nearly all the PCs closed the gap to get back to Near Range, some forgoing shooting at all to make that happen. So then the Aliens swung it the other way and rushed to Close range. This was all possible because I had my highest Alien Ability rating thus far (7) which made them far more likely to succeed in consecutive rounds and get to manipulate range after their attack. I imagine that as the campaign progresses and the Alien's ability rating continues to rise, this sort of thing will happen a lot more often.
There's this delicate balancing act where you try to keep the E-Cannon from totally dominating every fight, yet still leave it useful enough that the player who purchased it feels it was worth it. Seems like a lot of hoops to jump through. Definitely the most annoying part of an otherwise recommendable system.