Sunday, November 21, 2010

Planet Warhol

I'm very pleased with tonight's session of "3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars", and I should be because I provoked my players into fragging a superior officer. You know you're doing something right as GM when your players decide to take a dangerous and unnecessary action with possible consequences, just because the NPC was so vile.

In the first couple sessions, I saddled them with an incompetent but well-intentioned rookie Lt (Lt Courson) in charge of their platoon. They handled him pretty well, with the PC NCO's pretty much calling the shots and placating him as needed. They did eventually get him shot up a bit, but it was by accident. 

While that soft and incompetent officer was off recovering aboard the Hospital Frigate, I decided to give them a taste of a hardnose bastard commanding officer. Lt Tertius was a fun little role-playing challenge, as he insulted, badgered, overworked, threatened, and endangered the men and women under his command.  It only took about three hours of harsh taskmaster (with a side of reckless kill-stealing psychopath) to push them past insubordination and on to murder. Three of the five PCs worked together to smuggle a bomb into his kit bag, and the other two probably would have contributed to the cause if the opportunity had provided itself. So long Lt Tertius.

The officer-icide (and the events leading up to it) was the biggest portion of the night. There were aliens, too, of course, because it's 3:16. Planetside stats were:
  • Planet Name: Warhol (Badly mispronounced as always, in this case it was War-Hole)
  • Planet Type: Desert 
  • Alien Concept: Ooze (Black oily goo with eyeballs. In small clusters it could fly.)
  • Alien Ability: Highest PC FA-1 (which put them in at a "6")
  • Alien Special Power: Lasting Wounds
"Lasting Wounds" means that PCs don't get opportunities to heal between battles. Per the rules, the GM is free to narrate whatever he or she feels is an appropriate explanation for why they can't heal: Could be poison, acid, or flesh-eating infection, or it could be the aliens cut your supply lines and leave you stranded without medical support. I decided to think outside the box. Since the new Lt was so dreadful, I figured some conflict between him and High Command could result in the Platoon not having the proper supplies. So, technically, the alien's special attack was actually Lt Tertius' special attack.  I don't think that was actually a factor in them killing him, though, they just really didn't like him.
An aside about the evil Lt:
Tertius was inspired mostly by Lt Spiers of Band of Brothers, with the arrogance of Capt Sobel (from the same show).  The former made the men fear him, the later just made them hate him. Combining those two characters gave me some real easy handles on how to play the Lt when in tough situations, which the platoon was in plenty of before they decided to frag him. I was able to riff and improv pretty well, including an awesomely explosive dressing down aimed at Trooper Hur (Laura's PC) for not yet starting on the task that the other NCO PCs had failed to order her to do. I was very proud of the sheer in-character unfairness of that situation, and my ability to seize the opportunity and unload on her. My goal with this game is to keep my GM prep down to next to nothing and improvise wildly (which is the conceptual opposite of my ongoing Continuum game), so it's not like I had a clue before that scene that the "eyeball argument" was going to happen.

I'm a little sad to Lt Tertius go, since he was fun to play and quite a good antagonist. If those players hadn't worked together like that, I probably could have justified keeping him around for a while, but when 3 PCs make multiple rolls each to betray an NPC, they should be rewarded for taking such a strong stance and a big risk. If just one of those rolls had failed... they'd have been in for the fight of their lives. The Lt had some pretty ridiculous armament and medals (he'd been demoted for insubordination himself, because he fired a Starkiller in the previous system against orders), and had nearly killed one of the PC sergeants before.
The final conflict with the aliens went down in less than 1 round. I put my last 10 tokens on the table for a big confrontation, and while most of the players were still declaring "FA" or "NFA" one of them blew a Strength to end the fight before it could start. That was certainly a sensible decision (that PC was Crippled and had burned his Armor defense) at the time, but it was a little surprising. Previously, flashbacks haven't been brought in to play until fights were almost over, as everyone wants to avoid using them if they don't have to. If not for the Lt murder yet-to-come, this one-flashback-takes-all preemptive strike would have been anticlimactic. Let that serve as a warning to other 3:16 GMs, if you put all your eggs in one basket, the players will upend and smash it. There's a reason why they strongly suggest never putting more chips into a single fight than 2x the # of PCs.

In other noteworthy scenes, there was a possible minor contact with Pvt Watkins (an NPC who went AWOL on the last planet and was presumed dead) flying an alien shuttlecraft from the previous planet  - at least one PC thought that's what happened, and took measures to leave a message for him. More on that down the road... and there might also be some fall-out on killing an officer.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Planet Matisse

This is a summary of my second session of 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars, which I ran just over a week ago. I would have written this sooner, but I've been really sick.
  • Planet Name: Matisse
  • Planet Description: Mountainous Terrain
  • Basic Creature Form: I think they were supposed to be "Mineral-based forms" but somehow I made them humanoids with weird ears. It made sense at the time, but I can't put my finger on the logic just now. Not sure which I should cross off the list.
  • Alien Special Ability: Swarm (After each alien attack, the range is set to Close)

The PC's platoon set down in a hot LZ on an agricultural terrace just outside a fairly primitive alien mining city. The aliens tech was mostly about WWII level, except that had various digging and tunneling machines that greatly exceeded that - though with sort a pulp idiom, big screws and drills. The aliens they were fighting weren't an organized force, but rather more militia-like with very irregular armament.

There were tunnels, so I figured I'd hit the Viet Nam trope of the by-the-books Lt who insists all tunnels must be searched. I got clever with this, splitting the party into 3 sections, and running a simultaneous battle amongst them all with three piles of 2 Alien Tokens each. It was a nice idea, and allowed me to split the party without making anyone sit out for long. Given the free and abstract mechanics of the game,  though, I'm not convinced 3 piles of tokens was actually a better choice than just 1 pile of 6 tokens. It worked well, but I think I could have accomplished the same thing via narration without the mechanical twist. That's an important lesson for next time the party splits up.

After that diversion, the PCs were supposed to fight there way into town and meet up with Bravo Company, which had been deployed by drop-ships into the heart of the town to capture the hospital. An ambush stalled out the platoons advance, so an NPC runner (Trooper Watkins, who'd been clowning around and served as comic relief on the previous planet) was sent to communicate with Bravo and tell them of the delay.

Watkins comes back with several dozen alien children - whom he'd said Bravo company had been killing for fun at the Children's Hospital. I was trying to create an opportunity for a moral quagmire, something akin to the burned village that defines the characters and allegiances in the movie Platoon. Instead, my players found it really easy to kill children as long as doing so seemed to be in line with their orders. Not nearly so much pathos and agony as I'd been hoping for.

In the midst of it all, Watkins goes AWOL, and the incompetent Lt gets shot up pretty bad by another alien ambush. The PCs give chase to Watkins, who leads them into the bowels of the planet. As the session progressed, it was revealed that the surface culture was actually the alien's slums, that the wealthy lived below the surface, and may have more or better tech than was encountered up topside. They found some "F"s shaped out of tape on tunnel walls. The PCs are in Foxtrot company, and there was a scene earlier were Watkins was taping a weapon to his armor - so they concluded that this meant Watkins wanted them to follow him. This was an attempt to riff on "Going After Cacciato", where the platoon's goof-of leads the main characters on a chase that takes them away from the war.

Just as I was starting to explore that, though, I realized I had less than 45 minutes left to the session, and was on my last pile of Tokens for the Aliens. I didn't know how to really wrap up the conquest of the planet in that time, but I didn't want to stop to think. The point of an improvised game like this is to keep the plot movie. If you start to stall out, start the shooting instead. It is a War game, after all. So I threw the final battle at them... without really thinking that this made the F's now seem like the bait of a trap, like Watkins had turned traitor. So much for Cacciato...

It was all just happening too fast, the need to wrap up a planet per session seems to conflict with the otherwise totally loose and improvisational nature of the game. I think it's intended to be a framework to hang your improvisations off of, the type of limitation that breeds creativity. For me, though, it's actually the biggest sticking point with 3:16. The system plays very fluid and intuitive, and the action is certainly rapid-fire enough, but trying to cram an entire alien world into just 4 hours and 25 tokens is really hard. The final battle resolved, which meant the last PC to take out a Token gets a medal, and the planet is supposed to be pacified. Narratively speaking, though, we weren't really at a point where the enemies surrender would make any sense.

So I blew up the planet.

I sounded a retreat, and reported that High Command was going to use a star killer missile. Due to the PCs driving so deep into the undercity, they'd uncovered that the enemies were more technologically advanced than initial reports had indicated. Those above them decided that exploring the subterranean expanses of the planet would produce unacceptable casualties, and long-term occupation was unfeasible. Imploding the enemy star was the best option. Or at least the best way, off the top of my head, to end that adventure right there.

I really like 3:16, but it's gonna take some getting used to this whole "each session is a new planet" concept. The mechanics of the game are really built around it, so I don't want to just toss the idea, I'd like to figure out how to get the most out of it as a GM. I'm choosing to step up to this challenge. I'll let you know how it goes.