Monday, February 7, 2011

45 minutes on Planet Monet

My latest "3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars" session was very light on actual combat. In fact, I didn't even send the PCs to the alien planet until the last hour of the session.

Planet Name: Monet
Planet Description: Heavy Atmosphere
Alien Description: Birds
Alien Special Ability: Impair

We're more than half way through the charts at this point, so if I roll up a planet or alien description that doesn't move me, there's not a lot to do about it. The same can be said about the alien's powers, many of which in the main game are terribly anemic.  Since I'd done flying aliens before, birds didn't really thrill me, and it didn't combine well conceptually with Impair. So I went with feathered jellyfish, which sounded weird enough to move me. I had the impair be represented as thick clouds of drifting flower-like lifeforms also native to the planet. Non-threatening flowery things, so the system didn't score them on the kill count, but still capable of blocking fire and vision, jamming up vents and joints on the armor, etc.

Impair is a weird ability. Frankly, I don't like it at all, and if I were editing the 3:16 rulebook, I'd axe it and ask the writer to submit something else. Impair allows the GM to spend X threat tokens to reduce all the PCs FA and NFA by X for the rest of the encounter. The math on it is a little wonky. I rolled it up late in the campaign, when most PCs are sporting an FA of 7 or 8. So, taking one off the top means dropping their hit chance from 80% to 70%. It's not a huge decrease, and honestly, if the in-character alien goal is to do more damage to the PCs, you're better off keeping that one chip as one more threat token for the PCs to have to kill. Given that the typical 3:16 session has 5 fights, it's pretty weak. If you spend 1 token per fight in a 4-player session, you're gonna expend 25% of your threat tokens to reduce the PCs effectiveness by maybe as much as 14%. That's a losing proposition. However, if you spend multiple tokens in just one or two fights, it's a huge power. Taking -3 off the characters stats probably cuts their effectiveness by 40% or more. In fact, it's possible to hose players to the extent that some of them literally cannot succeed. Such characters will score zero kills, and have to invoke a Flashback to survive. If you then do the same in the following fight...

I just think this is a bad design for a power. So weak it's mostly a detriment to use it, unless you abuse it and sink every chip you can in to it. If you do abuse it, it mostly hoses the weakest PC, which the system already does plenty of by virtue of it's competitive nature. So now you've just dumped on the person who's been having the most frustrating experiences all campaign anyway. As a further side effect, the big threat-token investment and general mechanical impetus of it pushes you in the direction of having fewer encounters with larger stacks of chips. Large chip stacks are a more tempting target for the PCs to invoke strengths against, especially the PCs who got lucky early on in the campaign, leveled up the big guns and stats, and thus have strengths to burn. It's just a "dump on the little guy" power.

The point of that rant about Impair is that I knew wasn't going to want to spend much time or energy on planet Monet. Conveniently, the platoon rosters were really low (most of the NPCs bought it on the last two planets) and the PCs troopship took some heavy hits from alien kill-satellites in the previous session. So it was a perfect time to pull the Company off the front line and give them some colony furloughs while the old ship was getting repaired and refitted. Significant role-playing followed...

All the actual play reports I've read on RPGnet and other parts of the internet have involved soldiers getting some sexual action, as soldiers deployed far from home are want to do. Sometimes it's hitting the brothels on colony worlds between deployments, and in other campaigns it's VR orgy-tanks aboard the troop ships to keep morale up.

Our game has been completely chaste and sexless by comparison. Possibly because 3 of our 6 participants are female, we early on settled on the notion that the characters must be chemically neutered or something. There's talk in the rulebook about extreme population control back on the crowded Terra, and about how Combat Drugs can wreck your libido, so it seemed perfectly in keeping with the setting.

So this session, I dumped the PCs on leave on a recently-settled colony world that they'd originally pacified several sessions back. Planet Titian, which had only a handful of dinosaurs left on it. There was a little opportunity for hunting with officer's sidearms (I put a total of three chips out across two scenes), but mainly I was waiting for the horomone suppressants to wear off and create some problems for the platoon. They handled it pretty well, and there was surprisingly little sex at all.
  • Sergeant Harrington took efforts to make sure his Squad was still getting dosed with suppressants despite being on leave.
  • Sergeant Hurr spent all her time out fishing in a local lake by herself. Her squad got into trouble, but since she was in her rights to be on vacation, she dodged any reprimands herself.
  • Lt. Sanguine averted and shut down a potential romantic entanglement with a fellow officer. Trying to then push it the other way, I then painted that NPC (Lt. Viziario) as a serial killer. The PC kept it secret, and gave her implied approval while merely suggesting that there's more challenge and honor in hunting aliens. This series of interactions was probably the crux of the colony scenes, as the NPC tried to talk the PC into hunting a colonist or horny Trooper together. Sanguine is a bit of a psychopath, I really thought they were going to hunt someone.
  • Lt Flowerdew dragged his feet, before finally allowing himself to be seduced off-camera by the 18-year-old colonist's daughter I had fawning over them. Flowerdew's player indicated she hadn't decided if he was gay or straight yet, and still really hasn't despite this short fling.
  • Captain DeMolay's player was on a business-trip this week, so we assumed that due to his demotion at the end of last session, he was denied shore leave. Probably still attending his own Court Martial while the others were actively avoiding sex.
Really timid, tepid stuff, but I wasn't about to force anything on the PCs if the players weren't in to it. So I made sure one of the NPCs in the unit got arrested by the colony sheriff for sexual assault, and had two other NPC Troopers end up in a semi-secret relationship. Just enough background detail to sell the reality. A little buy-in would have been nice, but you can't force something like that. So I put the serial-killer-themed scenes front-and-center, and let the rest just be color. Not a great session, but not horrible either. What do you expect for a game where the GM prep is 10 minutes or less?

At the end of the night, with less than an hour to go in the session, I had the PCs get emergency deployment orders to reinforce Alpha Company on planet Monet. Alpha was holding an alien temple. Some sort of taboo kept the aliens from approaching it except at sunrise. Every day there was a huge massed attack in the early hours, and then total safety the rest of the day. Alpha had been operating with low numbers (and was nearly rolled into the PC's Company in the previous session before Major DeMolay got himself demoted). The first morning assault on the temple took Alpha by ambush, and killed all their officers.

By the time the PCs got to their position, Alpha was down to 9 men, all of whom were drugged-out and completely messed up. Their platoon medic would get them in a chemical combat frenzy just before dawn for the daily ambush, then stone them out to keep morale from shattering in the long dull gaps between days. I put in a little flavorful subplot about Alpha's acting CO (merely a Sgt) having his tech specialists continually reprogram his kill counters so he could destroy the harmless floating flowers and have it register. In the final battle, his kill counter rolled over to a Million kills, which plays the Terran Planetary Anthem. He got so excited, he grew sloppy and got himself killed.

I gave the PCs just two fights. The first they arrived in drop pods, so the -2 Impair didn't really matter. The second fight, at -3 impair, was much nastier. PCs pulled through it, but just barely.

Lt. Sanguine amazed us all by managing to get promoted again during the post-mission rolls. So I gave her command of Alpha company, and let her bring over 1 officer and 1 non-com from her old unit. She chose a PC non-com (Sgt. Hurr) and an NPC officer (Serial-Killer Lt. Viziario). Haven't decided yet whether to bring in a troopship full of Replacements next session, or force a Alpha "Company" to go into battle with only 11 soldiers.

The later idea is highly amusing, but mechanically doesn't do anything. Which is rather a failing of the system, I feel. The fact that NPCs amount to nothing mechanically, whether individually or en masse, sort of erodes the suspension of disbelief. I find that I alternately love and hate this uber-lite abstract system. Perhaps when this campaign wraps up, I'll take a stab at making a fan supplement for 3:16 with optional rules and GMing advice for the later campaign.

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