Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Planet Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni

Sunday's session of "3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars" was our longest yet. We usually wrap up around 4 hours, but this ran 6. We're reaching the end stages of the campaign, as the charts are mostly crossed off, and one of the PCs will have to take the "Hatred for Home" Weakness the next time he levels up (it's the only flashback left for him). So,  I wanted to wrap up plot threads and reinforce themes. That meant more time in the ship. I nearly skipped the planet-side encounters entirely, but as a group we decided to play late instead.

I can't go into a lot of detail on the ship-side plots and themes. Mostly that's because there's so much back story it would go over most casual reader's heads ("you kinda had to be there", but for the past dozen sessions or so).  I'll hit the highlights as fast as I can:

The PCs killed yet another superior officer, Colonel Shook, this time because they caught him in the act of sabotaging their vessel to eliminate any "corruption" caused by their repeated interactions with the aliens. I let the players know that Einstein's Twin Paradox is in effect, despite the warp drive, and that more than 100 years had passed back on Terra. Shook, by the way, was the officer who'd threatened to kill their families back home. Now that they knew this was a hollow threat, they had no problems cutting off his arm and pushing him out an airlock (though I did get one hit away from killing a PC in the process).

After that encounter, they handed over Watkins (an NPC deserter and alien-lover who'd been trying to lead them away from the fleet) to High Command, but first used technology to drive him insane so he wouldn't be able to rat on them, and they didn't hand over his invisible alien spaceship, either.

A number of possible hallucinations and other surrealist stuff went down, as well. I was on thematic overdrive. We'll skip the rest of these sideline embellishments and move on to the planet...

Planet Name: Michelangelo
Planet Description: Volcanic World
Alien Description: Lizards or Reptiles
Alien Special Ability: Armor

The two PC Captains had orders to bring their green companies full of fresh-faced replacements to a lava planet, pacify a few villages, establish a landing zone and a forward command post. Later, they had to assault an alien palace, which mostly went down to Strength-fueled Lynch/Herbert "family atomics vs shield wall" montage.

I made the aliens primitive. Flame-resistant salamander-men wielding pointy sticks and lava globs. They made structures of volcanic glass and hardened lava rock, which they could safely mold and sculpt while it was still hot. Sadly, the game has no fire-proof special ability, so per the rules you could do them in equally well with a energy blaster or flamethrower as you could with a knife or slug-rifle. We tried not to dwell on it, and they did have a bit of armor to protect them so it more-or-less worked out without too many worries.

Armor is yet another 3:16 power that looks so simple, yet is tragically presented in a way that lacks critical clarifications and advice. Once per encounter, the GM gets to declare that all hits against the aliens for a round are invalid because they all have armor.  There's two mechanical grey areas with this, as I see it.
  • First, there's a timing issue there. They don't clearly state when you declare it. Is it before the PCs declare FA or NFA? If so, it buys you one extra attack round for the NPCs, but all the PCs will use that round to NFA into better positions. If it's after they declare, or sometime even later in the round such as after everyone's rolled, it's significantly more powerful. I chose after declarations, but before rolling, as a good compromise.
  • Does armor prevent Strengths? This didn't even occur to me during the game, but I wish it had. If all kills for the round are prevented, you probably shouldn't be able to use a Strength, either. By missing that, I probably let the players off way too easy - the last two battles were both won by Strengths. As general philosophy, I tend to assume "Strengths trump all", but in retrospect I think the point of the ability might be that it can stop them. Rules holes so big you could drive an APC through them.
Ultimately, the armor and the lack of fire-resistance both fall afoul of one of the game's flaws. Namely, the rules are so abstract, that you can't always apply common-sense to them. When one attack roll kills anywhere from d6 to d100 aliens, there's not a fine enough grain to apply logic. A party can include one PC who hits 40% of the time, and another who hits 90%, so you have to be very careful about ad hoc penalties, especially since the semi-competitive nature of the game already tends to mean who ever pulls out into the lead stays in the lead, and the GM can't target individual PCs.

Normally, in an RPG, I apply common sense as a higher authority than mechanics, but 3:16 actively encourages the opposite.

The armor ability, in particular, is an example of a mechanic that doesn't do a very good job of emulating or simulating anything. The PCs might well kill 200 or more NPCs in this battle, and presumably they all have armor, but mechanically that's represented by making all the PCs miss in a single round of combat? There's this single instant where everyone is foiled by the armor, but for the rest of the battle it has no effect? There's really no way to justify that mechanic, it follows no in-character logic. Hand-wave and move on.

While that logic hole could be a game-wrecker and disbelief-eroder in a more serious or "normal" campaign,  I've been running this one surreal enough that it was just one more spastic moment of weirdness. Like when a PC was given a pocketwatch by a rabbit, or when they set foot inside the invisible ship that invisible from the inside as well, or Poodagooluk saw his ex-girlfriend on the back of a dinosaur, or when the traitor Watkins was handed over to Lt. Colonel Schwimmer and then another tech-specialist Watkins got assigned to the same outfit 4 days earlier? Or that time when the PCs killed Colonel Shook, but then another NPC reported getting orders from him after he died. Anyhow, I'd go into detail about more of this, but I don't want to spoil the "big reveal" I have planned for a session or two down the road. I assure you, there is a method to my madness.

1 comment:

kedamono@mac.com said...

Oh, interesting. I was going to ask you about another twist, but I'd rather see what you have up your sleeves than derail your storyline Rolfe.

One thing about FTL travel: It's always time travel as well. If you can go faster than light, you can arrive at your destination before you left. So what it's a 100 years in the future? With a FTL drive you can find a time-like loop and end up a year or 20 after you have left Terra. That's freaky.

My twist would do your time travel game proud:

Sarge's dad, Brigadier General Harold Harrington II (Ret.) is on Terra. He's also currently serving in the 2nd Expeditionary forces as General Harrington. Sarge has a picture of himself as a corporal and of his dad as a Colonel, with only a 10 years difference of age. :-)

But you can kill that idea if you want to.