Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Burying 3:16

Friends, Terrans, Troopers... I come not to praise 3:16, but to bury it... and I say that with slightly less irony than Marc Antony.  Our campaign of 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars has come to an end this past Sunday. It was a good game, it was a crazy game. I'm a little sad to see it go, but also very happy to have played it through to a logical conclusion and gotten clear without the rules collapsing too badly. In retrospect, it went about as well as anyone could hope for.

For the first few sessions, the weirdness of the rules were a huge source of delight. The narrative freedom granted by the combat system was a nice change of pace from more crunchy systems, and the gung-ho military setting was sufficiently unlike anything any of us had played recently. It took just half a session to get the hang of it, and then everyone was having fun. I'd planned to run a short campaign of 6 to 8 sessions, but we enjoyed it enough to play 17 sessions.

Ultimately, though, the weirdness of the rules was exactly why the campaign could not be sustained any further. I find myself very skeptical of the notion that the later stages of the campaign-game had ever been playtested, as I found numerous problems that needed attention. Here's a few specific nits to pick:
  • When PCs are 90% likely to succeed at anything, kill hundreds of aliens per action, and never take any damage, the game gets a little weird.  And since you roll so few dice per session or combat, there's often 1 player that gets punished by the randomness while everyone else flies uninhibited. You just don't roll enough dice for "the Law of Averages" to ever kick in.
  • The game has just two attributes, and they are completely unbalanced. For a one-shot, FA is the be-all-end-all bomb. In campaign play, however, FA is a far distant second-place to the NFA that gets you promoted and keeps you equipped. Early gaps in stats or firepower can make someone feel useless until they fix it... which takes about 10 sessions' efforts to level the playing field.
  • Since stats can be so low at the start, you're inclined to keep the modifiers small and sparse. (-2 is pretty hefty nerfing when your stat is 3.) Due to the competitive nature of the game (kill count gets you levels and promotions), the GM has to be very careful with applying such modifiers fairly and evenly. My wife was playing, which makes fairness (and appearance of fairness) trickier, so my solution was to almost never called for modified rolls. But late in the game, that lack of modifiers means the PCs can shoot for the moon and hit it 90% of the time. 
  • The jump from 3d10 kills to d100 kills is huge. Once one player has it, everyone else will rush to catch up, but for some characters (ironically, those with the highest initial Fighting Ability) bridging that gap can take nearly a dozen frustrating sessions.
  • Most alien abilities are useless, but the few that aren't are positively devastating; Most sessions have an utter lack of tension, but then a killer power comes up in the next session and you have a pressing imminent threat of TPK in scene after scene. 
  • Planets can have raging volcanoes, toxic environments, and electrical storms that provide plenty of flavor but no mechanical effect. And they have to have no mechanical effect, because some of them would otherwise be instant killers if the PC's armor got a single crack.
  • Speaking of armor, the health levels are wonky too. Power armor protects you just once per planet, while the flesh of your body can take 2 or 3 times as much damage as the armor did and heals between fights even if you're captured or isolated. 
  • The APC and the Dropship do basically the same thing, but use none of the same rules to accomplish it. Ultimately the preference between them comes down to flavor text for everyone but the one PC who's driving, and that PC would much rather be firing their own heavy weapon.
  • Kill counts are hard to grok when the aliens are swarms, incorporeal, giants, sentient planets, etc, all of which come up pretty often. Just as bad is when the alien power is "Stop Technology" so the gun-cams and computers you'd been narrating for 15 sessions suddenly stop working, but the mechanics and medals still need an ongoing count. Down on the planet, I'm killing as many as 4d100 aliens per turn, but if I collapse a star with a missile and wipe out a civilization it only nets d10,000 kills? 
  • The math works well enough to sustain the game elements, but not to suspend the disbelief.
Despite all those complaints, we had a blast. Not just one blast, but 17 sessions of repeated blasting.  We ended on a high note, with everyone enjoying themselves (and all agreeing and intuiting this was where it had to wrap up).

So how'd I make it work in the face of all that? I just dialed the weirdness up to "11". Once it was clear that things were going to get hard to swallow, I started putting in little hints that things were not as they seemed. I made the game setting as surreal as the rules were unbalanced.  For a while, the PC's theories were that maybe they were being drugged or tested on VR by high command, or they'd been captured by aliens and put into a hallucinatory mindscape for brainwash or interrogation purposes. And then slowly they came to accept that maybe the PCs were just crazy. I structured a scene or two as if they were playing Power Kill instead / in addition to 3:16. I stole ideas from Shutter Island, Suckerpunch, and Lost Highway. I made overt references to 60's and 70's acid rock, and to the works of Lewis Carrol. That provided plenty of cover to hide the stranger properties of the game system.

Our final scenes were taking place on several different realities. They were simultaneously killing aliens, getting therapy in a 20th Century mental hospital, and being interrogated by a Jack Bauer type from the Department of Homeland Security who wanted to know where they'd hid the dirty bomb in downtown LA. The PCs faced off against the Brigadier (and each other) for a final confrontation in the launch bay of a Starkiller Missile. When one of them made an NFA roll to launch the missile into the nearby star, we all wordlessly knew this was the final combat of the game. The fight morphed into a car chase on the streets of LA with a mushroom cloud in the background.

At the end of that fight/chase (which ended with three players using Weaknesses, and one using a Strength), I let everyone narrate their own epilogue about how things resolved in whichever reality (or realities) they wanted.  A few of these epilogues strongly contradicted one-another, which we all decided was perfectly as it should be.


kedamono@mac.com said...

I really enjoyed the last session. I had talked to Rolfe about Sarge not being one of the Subjects, but one of the keepers. "Doctor" Harrington participated in the extraction of the information and subsequently ended up initiating the detonation of the dirty bomb.

The poor doctor ended up using a weakness and hiding right next to the bomb. His final words, after seeing that his breath was making the geiger counter go off, were "Damn them! Damn them all! They blew it all up!" And then he expired.

Markwalt said...

I enjoyed the game as well, and I think the ending was perfect.

r_b_bergstrom said...

Thanks guys. I'm glad you liked the campaign.

The European Historical Combat Guild said...

From my understanding of the game is most of the things you mention are meant to be part of the experience of the game... Basically a sense of futility and hopelessness.....
There is no logic beyond killing.... it is what it is... war and violence at the extreme has little or no logic to those "on the ground"

As they say war is hell! so a hellish, but playable game, seems to sum it up rather well....