Monday, January 31, 2011

The Orbital Bombardment of Planet Rubens

Yesterday's session of 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars was the biggest challenge the PCs have faced yet. They actually had to rely on orbital bombardment, whereas on all previous planets, mere Strengths and Weaknesses were enough to get out of the trouble.

Now, before we could get to the planet in question, there were some amusing hijinks involving ol' Sarge Harrington (a PC) and the captured alien stealth ship. This was the ship that the deserter Watkins (an NPC) had been using to shadow the fleet. In the final scenes of the last session, two of the PCs had captured Watkins and his alien vessel. But no one could figure out how to turn off the ship's stealth tech. It was invisible, and cloaked, even from the inside, and self-cleaning. Poor sarge was sent aboard it to try to figure out how it worked, and had a heck of a time trying to get back out of it again. He was actually listed as MIA, and rescue teams sent back to his last known coordinates, a few lightyears behind the fleet. Very amusing, since he was never more than 20 feet from where they'd last seen him. Got him so nervous about that, though, he did a lot of damage to the interior and hatches of the stealth ship trying to get out of it.

After much hilarity, I eventually moved the plot along to the Company being deployed planet-side.

Since Captain DeMolay (a PC) had last session been promoted to Major, I now had more Threat Tokens in play, and fluff-wise the PCs were sent on a more important mission. Their troop ship would approach the next system powered-down, and well in advance of the rest of the fleet. Their objective was to capture the alien tower complex that was believed to be the control site for the planetary defenses.

Planet Name: Rubens
Planet Description: Pleasure Planet
Alien Description: Advanced Humanoids
Alien Power: Ambush

I went with the old Star Trek trope of the super-advanced race or planet that looks primitive, and remains peaceful unless really provoked. The system was defended by kill-satellites that implied a powerful culture once resided here. However, aside from three very tall (I compared them to the Tower of Babel, but in triplicate) high-tech towers in a tight cluster at one location, there were no signs of industry or technology on the planet itself. Medieval agricultural communities, populated by peaceful and primitive people. The aliens stood 7 to 8 feet tall, but weighed only 90 to 120 lbs. Graceful, elfin, feminine, and dressed in quaint pre-industrial clothing.

The PCs arrive by drop ship, and just slaughter the alien village near the tower complex. No resistance, just chaos and xenocide. A few aliens flee inside the towers, and once the players figured out how to use the local door tech, they pursued them. But again, the "second wave" of aliens inside were likewise slaughtered without raising arms. The only weapons the PCs had seen was one farmer with a pitchfork, and he died before he could even threaten with it.

The Company starts moving up the tower. As they progress further, they see more and more signs that the towers just aren't used. Other than the bottom floor, the rooms are mostly empty, and most of the work stations and computers are covered with dust. The locals are just poor dumb peasant folk. The players all start talking about how it feels bad to slaughter aliens that have no defenses, even if it's exactly what their characters would do.

And do so they did. An alien appears in the room with the bulk of the PCs unit.  Arms out, he tries to talk to them in a musical voice, and they blow him apart with a Machine Gun at point-blank. Down at ground level, more aliens arrive on pack animals and with wagons. They too try to talk to the Troopers, and are mowed down.

The terrain around the towers changes color a few times. I was going for the "mood planet" approach to pleasure planet. I also threw in a couple subtle references to that episode of Star Trek where the planet manufactures everything you imagine. There was a rabbit (with a stop watch) sighting that hinted at it, and reinforced the surrealist elements I've been bringing into the campaign. It worked reasonably well, though I don't think any of my players caught the references overtly (other than to Alice in Wonderland, which was only one level of it). Real combat was about to break out, and when it did, all curiosity about the properties of the planet became secondary to just surviving.

Again, aliens appear in the room. They just "sparkle in" to the midst of the unit, touch one NPC, and "sparkle out" taking the unprepared Trooper with them.

I gave the PCs a few moments to worry about it, and then came the next wave. I activated the Ambush power, and aliens teleported in. They're still dressed as peasants, but clearly possess powerful transporter tech, and a few of them have some sort of energy weapon seemingly built-in to the fingers. Just point and burn. The Ambush does 1 "kill" to each PC, and messes up the NPCs in the unit pretty good. Like aliens teleporting away with people's limbs. The PCs counter-attack in the second round wipes them out without further harm, but it was clearly unnerving.

No way to track where the aliens teleported from, so there was little choice but to continue searching the towers. Room by room, level by level.

After several more floors of emptiness and dust, suddenly the first NPC trooper I'd abducted is returned via teleport. Except there's some sort of tattoo or tracery on his face now, like celtic knotwork in blue and green all over his skin.
He speaks: "People of Earth. Your aggression will not be tolerated. You do not wish to awaken a slumbering giant. You have four hours to vacate our planet peacefully, or your species will be eradicated from the galaxy." Immediate attempts a further parlay when south, and ended with most of the party being damaged by the grenade that killed the brainwashed/tattooed NPC trooper.

Clearly, medieval farmers these guys are not.

So now the PCs are nervous, and start debating whether or not to call in an orbital bombardment and bug out off-world. They're almost out of Strengths, and I've still got a ton of Threat Tokens, enough to pull about 4 more ambushes easily. So, the last-ditch bombardment starts looking pretty good.

Problem is, orbital bombardment does 1 damage to each PC, and armor is useless against it. So if they call down the nastiness, a couple of them will have to either use Weaknesses or die. They call the ship, and tell it to risk coming closer to the kill-satellites so that it can bombard and/or extract, as needed.  They bring in the Platoon Medic (Doc Bubba, an NPC that has been in every session thus far), and line up for healing. I choose to hit them with the next ambush in the middle of it.

Given their wound status, and the recent out-of-character discussion about how armor can't stop an Orbital Bombardment, they all choose to take the Ambush wounds on their armor, and leave their health-boxes for the bombarment. So, aliens teleport in, touch people, and span off with large portions of their Mandelbrite Power Armor. Half the platoon is now half-naked.

Doc Bubba, sadly enough, loses not just her gloves and sleeves, but both hands and forearms. The PC she was treating grabs the stumps and tries to save her with an NFA roll (he had an 80% chance of success) but fails.

The Company returns fire, and gets a lot of successes, so the PCs narrate that they're figuring out how to predict the teleport targets by the shimmering just before the aliens arrive. The Major intends to call down the bombardment in the midst of this, but his player forgets its an NFA roll instead of FA, and declares the wrong skill at the start of the round. Too busy shooting, and dodging, he can't call in his coordinates. That leaves the aliens fighting long enough for one of the PCs to get hit for his last health box, and has to invoke a Weakness to live. Old Sarge Harrington has a weak ticker, and collapses from a heart attack. He survives, but is left for dead.

The next round, the Major gets the right skill selected, and rains down holy hell on the tower complex. This eliminates all the remaining threat tokens from the planet, and scores him d1000 kills. He rolls the d10s in sequence: 0, 1, and 3. So, massive destruction and terrain devastation, but only 13 enemies killed!

The teleporting aliens vanish. The kill-satellites all power down. Long range scanners reveal no life signs on the planet save what's left of the PCs company, most of who are buried under the collapsed towers. No clue where the enemy went.

In 3:16, if you use any of the really big weapons, such as the Orbital Bombardment or the Star-Killers, you have to make an NFA roll after the session to avoid being demoted. Early in the campaign, I made a point of this by giving them an NPC commander who was busted down from Colonel to Lieutenant for blowing up yet another habitable world.

DeMolay has NFA of 9 this late in the campaign. Even better odds for his NFA roll than Sarge had when he was trying to save Bubba. So, of course, DeMolay's die comes up a "10". The brass busts him down from Major to Captain for what they see as cowardice and a gross misappropriation of resources, as giving a plasma-bath to an entire continent only resulted in 13 confirmed kills.  Them's the breaks.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Huge Space Hulk, Tiny Rule

My wife and I have been playing a lot of Space Hulk: Death Angel in the past week or two. It's an awesome version of the classic Space Hulk board game / miniatures game, but in a portable semi-cardgame edition. (It's clearly a card game, but doesn't feel or play like one.) Best of all, it's cooperative. My wife and I play the Space Marines together, and the game itself controls the vile genestealers. Good times.

I was going to write a detailed review, but in the middle of writing it, I noticed a rule we were doing wrong. So, now I need to play a few more games with that rule correct before I can weigh in with my final thoughts. Normally, I'd just blame FFG, their rulebooks are always so poorly written. But in this case, the rulebook is actually really good and simple, I just somehow missed a critical sentence. A tiny little innocuous sentence, which no doubt completely skewed game balance. My bad.

Friday, January 28, 2011

House-Rules for Yesterday's Tomorrow

As mentioned in my previous post, I liked the core of Yesterday's Tomorrow, but various mathematical inconsistencies and a few vague passages in the rules really bothered me. I hate to be the guy that just whines and gripes, and never does anything to solve the problem, so here's what I would do to make Yesterday's Tomorrow work better...

Standardize the benefits of an advantage: Talents and Reputations would give +1 die each. Specials of any stripe would either give +3 dice each, or +1 die and open up a possibility like a power.  So a gadget could give +3 dice, or open up new narrative possibilities such as "rocket powered jetpack". The distinction is "can an unskilled person do this?". If it's something anyone can attempt, but you're just really good at it, the special gives +3 dice. If it's something normal people just couldn't attempt then it lets you do so, but only gives +1 die. Mysticism would be broken out into separate advantages so you'll get a larger advantage specializing in just one or two powers than grabbing them all for the bonus dice. You could still take multiple levels in a single "power", with the first level giving you the power +1 die, and subsequent levels being +3 dice each. Romantic Interest gives +3 dice to your rolls (only) if the Interest is an NPC. It gives +1 die to each players rolls if the Interest is a PC. Action Example: Fighting Styles would add +3 dice, but Piloting would be +1 die and the ability to fly and land airplanes, autogyros, and airships (which certainly opens up new narrative avenues).  So if you wanted to be a really good pilot, you'd take two levels of Piloting for the ability to fly all sorts of aircraft and a total of +4 dice on piloting rolls. You could conceivably come up with a special fighting style that gives a power and +1 die, such as martial art that gives the ability to run across the surface of still water.

Companions as a second (minor) PC: As per the rules, each PC can have a maximum of one companion. The companion is a second minor character you get to build. They have Styles of 3/2/1(0) as in the main rules, but you actually make them a character sheet with advantages. The get a maximum of 1 rank in one special of their highest Style, and are otherwise mundane. They cannot themselves take further Companions. Your Companion can be active in other scenes where your main PC is not present, and if so you play them, and they have their own pool of Peril. Be advised that they'll frequently end up over their heads and need rescuing by a proper PC. If your Companion and your main PC are in the same location or scene, then you combine their Peril and make rolls only for your main character. In such situations, the Companion counts as a normal (+1 die) advantage that applies to all your rolls in the three Styles they have. (As an optional rule, giving all Companions Styles of 3/2/1/1 and +1 to all your main character rolls when present probably wouldn't break anything.)

Divy up the Style wedges: We change the style ratings and access to specials based on the number of players. With one player, we use the normal 5/4/3/2 rules from the main game, with Specials available in your best two areas. With two players, we'd do the same, but strongly encourage them to not overlap strengths or weaknesses. With three or four players, we scale back to 5/3/2/2, still allowing specials on your best two Styles (even though one is rated at a "3"), but reducing the points available within it, so there's a more pronounced gap between your primary and secondary specialties. Again we strongly encourage the PCs to not overlap their primary Style (so just one PC gets a "5" in Science, for example). With five or more players, we stick with 5/3/2/2, but now only make specials available for your primary style. In general, the larger the group, the narrower the PCs should be so that you don't end up with characters that specialize in the exact same things.

One calamity = one Peril: This is a clarification stemming from last night's play experience with a very large group. Let's say the whole party is on an airplane, and someone narrates that it's on fire and going down. That does not mean the entire group each get a Peril. Sure, they're all in trouble, but any one of them can solve the entire dilemma with a single good die roll. If there's one PC that seems more endangered than the others, the GM gives them the Peril. If all things are equal, the GM gives the Peril to the PC who proposed the danger, to reward them for enhancing the drama. If this danger came about because of GM narration, you give the Peril to whoever hasn't had one in a while.

Mysticism clarification: Several of the example Mysticism powers seem like a poor fit for the stealth-and-detective theme of the Mystery style. This is okay, you just use their bonus dice on rolling whatever other Style makes sense. It works in the same way that a Jet Pack bought with Science could add to an action roll. So, if you have Mysticism: Invisibility, you'd roll it with Mystery to sneak without being noticed, but you'd roll it with Action to make a sneak attack. Clearly, in the main game rules (where Mysticism gave +3 dice and the power but Fighting Style gave just +2 dice) that was broken. But given the house rules above, it would be in balance. Yes, you could spend two (out of 5 maximum) Mystery points in Invisibility to get +4 dice on all your Action attacks. If you'd instead spent 2 points of Action towards a fighting style, you'd get +6 dice on those attacks. That's still not perfectly balanced, but it's much closer and probably not worth quibbling over.

Optional Rule if +3 seems too good: From my limited experience with the system, I think the game is at its best when the GM is cruel. The pace should be unrelenting, with something bad happening every time the GM gets narrative power (which they do constantly). Peril. Peril. Peril. Nothing ever goes right for the PCs unless they're spending a success from a die roll. Given that pacing, having all Specials give +3 dice (or +1 and a power) is the right call. PCs get a few really big dice pools, allowing them some narrative breathing room when their specialties come in to play. But some GMs just aren't comfortable constantly beating the players down. If you think you're going to be nice to your players, you might compensate for it by dropping the bonus for a special down to +2 dice, and maybe even having specials taken to gain a power give only the power  (no automatic die to go with it). If you're not planning to beat and torture the PCs at every opportunity, then there's no need for them to have such large dice pools. Personally, I think the +3 dice and unrelenting pacing would work better to make it feel cinematic and help differentiate between PCs, but some folks might feel that's over-the-top. I can't argue that it's not, I merely argue that I think over-the-top catches the spirit of the game a little better. Alternately, you could keep the +3 per level, but limit how many points can be put into Specials. Say, no more than 2 or 3 points of specials per Style.

John Wick could use an editor

Last night I played Yesterday's Tomorrow (a retro-pulp RPG, sometimes abbreviated "Yes. Tom." below, because it amuses me to do so) by John Wick. Between it, and my experiences running Wilderness of Mirrors half a dozen times in the past year, I've come to an inescapable conclusion. John Wick needs to get himself a number of assistants:  a friend who is really good with numbers, a blind playtest group, and a cold-blooded editor who is not afraid to hurt his feelings.

Don't get me wrong, I love John Wick's games. I subscribe to his YouTube channel. 7th Sea remains my favorite setting in all of gaming. I really admire the core idea of Wilderness of Mirrors, putting the "planning stage" of caper and spy movies front-and-center in RPGs. Yesterday's Tomorrow had some awesome concepts (Peril) and a great sense of genre. On an abstract theory level, all of these are incredible games. However, all of these games share one or two common flaws that really get under my skin and detract from the experience at the table. I love them, but I'm never completely happy with them.

Off Balance: 

In Yesterday's Tomorrow, character creation makes no mathematical sense. There's four Attributes ("Styles"), and each rating point in them unlocks corresponding advantages: so far, so good. But the advantages make no attempt at either balance nor coherence. Most advantages boil down to just +1 die. The exceptions are the "Special" advantages, for which there are basically one per Style, and you can only get them for your best Styles. All this works well in theory, but the actual power-level of the Specials vary wildly. Fighting Styles and Titles give +2 dice per level of advantage, making them twice as good as normal advantages. They're "Special" and somewhat limited, so that's fine. But for each point put in Mysticism, you get +3 dice and a special power. There's no trade-off, nothing to balance it. The Specials for Mystery are just plain better than for the other three Styles, with no rationale or explanation of why. Plus, given that the rules specifically allow you to use Advantages from one Style on rolls of completely different Style, those bonus dice in Mysticism are really flexible. If you want to be the best fighter, don't waste your points on Kung Fu or Marksmanship, take Mysticism: Invisibility and attack people from surprise. If you want to social your way through situations, don't worry about Titles and Romance, just take Mysticism: Command and Mysticism: Hypnosis. Sure, it's a "high trust" game that's not really about success or failure, but when one of four attributes is so obviously more powerful than the others, the rules really shouldn't pretend that it isn't.

Then there's all sorts of other weird little blips to character creation, like the Athletics Talent that gets +2 dice for no specified reason (all other Talents are +1 die), several instances where "Imagination" is accidentally substituted for "Science!" without explanation, and the weird phrasing of the Romantic Interest special. Then there's the bit where it tells you further information on Gadgets can be found in the Risks section, but when you go to look it up, there's nothing there on the topic. There's a really simple and elegant character creation system hiding beneath these layers of unexplained and arbitrary wonkiness. The game comes very close to greatness, but ultimately fails to live up to it's potential. It falls victim due to balance issues, poor editing and lack of examples for some of the less obvious things you can put on a character sheet.

The weirdest bit has to do with NPC Companions - each PC can have one, but the rules don't really explain how they work. If they add to your pools, they're way over-powered, giving +6 dice (split across three Styles) for 1 advantage rank. If instead you have to spend your PC's Peril to activate them, you'll almost never do it, because your heroes pool will almost always be larger. If they're a second character you get to play even when your main PC is not in the scene... well that's just not ever stated and is only vaguely implied at best.

Wilderness of Mirrors had similar lack of balance at character creation. 5 attributes, one of which ("Saturn", the team-leader power) was a completely useless dump stat for every PC except the actual Team Leader, because it literally can't be rolled for any useful purpose during the game. So while there's no single ultimate stat like in Yes. Tom., there's one stat that's just obviously worse than all the others.

In 7th Sea, the best stat was clearly Panache, as each level of it gave you another action per round to use the rest of your stats. Every campaign I've played or GM'd of it had all the players openly envious of the PC(s) that had more Panache then them. A low Panache could make combat deathly boring for you, waiting your turn while everyone else took two to three times as many actions each round.  Likewise, Attributes were far better than Skills and Knacks, and the costs at character creation were completely different ratios than the costs later with XP. The player who put the bulk of his or her points in Attributes (especially Panache) would be at a great advantage over the player who wasted points on skills. Let's say you wanted to be a great swordsman - the way to do so was not to invest character points in Attack: Fencing or Parry. Putting those points in other areas (Panache and Finesse) would get far greater results for your investment. That's really counter-intuitive, and thus far from ideal.

Second-best is too darned good:

This is also related to character creation, and is a recurring theme in John Wick's recent games. Essentially it boils down to lack of character niche or specialization. By default, every character ends up being really good at everything. There's no "I'm our breaking & entering specialist" or "she's the tank", or "he's the smooth talker", because everyone is almost equally good at everything.

In Yes. Tom. there's four attributes ("Styles") and each PC is really good at two of them. But even when rolling the one's you're supposedly not good at, you're still likely to get enough advantages affecting the roll that success is guaranteed. At four dice, you're looking at a 93% chance of getting the single success needed to narrate "I kill them" or "I jump out the window to safety" or "I convince them that I'm trustworthy". But four dice is about the lowest you should ever be rolling. Sure, I'll prefer to roll my best stat with the 10 dice it could generate for me, but effectively the characters have no weaknesses (especially if they took Mysticism). If the big lumbering thug with murder on her mind has to finesse her way through covert diplomatic negotiations at an upper-class soiree, she probably pulls it off. The only thing that could stop her is if she chooses not to roll, or intentionally narrates her own failure. So there's no risk of failure in your worst stats, it's just that you'll get to narrate more bells and whistles and flavor text in your best stats.

On one hand, I applaud the power-realization that the game enables. Certainly it's a fresh new way to approach the core concepts of fantasy gaming, and it definitely captures the dashing larger-than-life heroes of the pulp genre. It should appeal to narrativists, method actors, and monty haulers alike - I have to acknowledge that that is pretty cool in the abstract.

At the same time, it makes all the PCs very cookie-cutter. Your top two (out of four) styles are mechanically augmented, they get the specials, and just more advantages in general. There's no distinction between those top two, however. Action primary and Romance secondary will play and feel almost exactly the same as Romance primary and Action secondary.  Which means that there are exactly 6 character builds (Action & Mystery highest, Action & Romance highest, Action & Science highest, Mystery & Romance highest, Mystery & Science highest, Romance & Science highest). The mysticism powers should in theory expand that somewhat, but in practice there's strong mathematical incentives to spend most of your Mystery advantages on getting most of the mysticism powers, so two characters with Mystery as a high stat will mostly duplicate powers. With really good roleplayers and a small enough group, this will be a non-issue, but a game that only works within certain constraints should probably at least mention that fact in passing. Some advice for GMs in group size, or advice for PCs in character creation goals would be well worth adding a page to the short pdf.

Wilderness of Mirrors has the same problem. There's five attributes, and each PC has enough points to get themselves the maximum score in 3 out of 5 if they take the minimum score in the remaining two. Given that one stat ("Saturn") is an under-used dump stat for all but one of the PCs, it's not a hard sacrifice to make, at least for everyone but the Team Leader.   Your three high-rated attributes are flexible enough to cover most situations, and the typical character employing this "hat trick" build will almost never be forced to roll their one genuinely bad stat. If it does come up, they'll probably have a few spare Mission Points to cover it. End result: every PC is equally good at everything that matters (with the possible ironic exception of the team leader, who gets shafted).

Now here's where John Wick's recent creations have problems that his earlier works didn't always exhibit.  7th Sea did not have this problem at all. It featured half a dozen different types of Sorcery, each of which oozed flavor (literally, in the case of Porté), and had completely different mechanical engines and effect types. There were half a dozen (and five or six times that with all the sourcebooks in play) Swordsman Schools, each of which had it's own special moves and most employed functionally different weapons. There were enough attributes and skills that know one character could master them all. A large palette of Advantages, Arcana, and Backgrounds rounded out the options at character creation and gave each PC their own theme. It was a little fiddly as a result, but you could have a large party of 8 PCs with very distinct specialties and no overlap.

So why was 7th Sea better in that regard? Was it just a function of being more crunchy? Are his recent designs too rules-light to have room for play balance or character niche? Is it impossible to make a story game that is fair and mathematically sound, and also gives each PC something special? Is character niche only achievable in a crunchy, option-loaded system?

I don't think that's the answer or the cause. I suspect that explanation is that 7th Sea was a team effort. I've never met the man, but my take on this is that John Wick is an "ideas guy". The sort of person who brainstorms and dreams really well, comes up with cool ideas and isn't afraid to put even the wildest of them to paper. I am moved by his artistry, even as I criticize and decry the rough edges. I'm hoping that someday soon John Wick gets himself a really top-notch support team to help put the final polish on his games and fix mathematical awkwardness. I invariably love his core concepts, yet often end up frustrated over the presentation and finer details.

 A few simple fixes:

I hate to be the guy that just bitches and gripes, and never does anything to solve the problem. So here's some links to possible solutions to the complaints I've raised.

House-rules and fixes for Wilderness of Mirrors.

House-rules used to reduce the excessive combat math in 7th Sea.
For those new to 7th Sea, or just making characters for the first time, following these short rules. (Delivered from memory, it's been a few years since I last made a character)
  • Buy Sorcery and/or a Swordsman School, they make your character more interesting. Don't waste points upgrading their knacks just yet, you'll be fine with the basics for a while, and they're easy to raise with XP later.
  • If you have not read your Sorcery thoroughly, only take it Full-Blooded. Some of the Half-Blooded sorceries are crippled in non-obvious and unsolvable ways.
  • Panache is the king of Attributes. A Panache of at least 3 is a must have, or you'll regret it.
  • Attributes are better than Skills, and a broad base of Skills is far more important than raising individual Knacks. Though it doesn't read like this should be true, Basic Knacks are far better than Advanced Knacks. Advanced Knacks only cost more at character creation, and are cheap with XP later. At character creation, there's no need to raise any Knack above 1.
In just a moment I'll adress the rules to "Yes. Tom." In my very next post, I'll provide a set of House-Rules that I think would bring out the best Yesterday's Tomorrow has to offer.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Post-Gamma World

I recently played two sessions of the new Gamma World. You know, the edition to which my kneejerk reaction was pretty unfavorable. A friend of mine ran it at the weekly one-shot group. Let's see if actual play experience improves or worsens my perceptions of it...

One of the first steps in character creation was rolling up what type of character you're playing.
A quick aside: Some folks really don't like random character generation, and I can only conclude that said individuals will hate the new Gamma World. If memory serves correctly, previous editions character creation also had strong random elements as well. So I was okay with it, especially for a one-shot.
To give you an idea what I mean when I say "type of character", in these two sessions I was playing a Felinoid Hawkoid. You roll up two mutant categories, so I got cat-man and bird-man. Which was a little tricky trying to envision, but not too bad.

Overall, I actually really enjoyed this whole concept. You got powers based on your types as I expected, but type also determined your two-thirds of your starting skills and even gave you an automatic high score in your two most important attributes for your types. From a mechanical perspective, this was genius. I was really pleased with how it gave you stats that worked well together, and gave you an instant handle on your character. Especially for a one-shot or other short campaign, this was excellent.

But it didn't feel like Gamma World to me. One of the PCs was a Telekinetic Speedster. One of the other characters was constantly on fire. This sounds and feels like a Super-Hero game. Gamma World is over-the-top Post-Apocalyptic, not super-hero. Stylistically, at least in my opinion, those are worlds apart. I could see this char gen system working great for Supers (you'd have to elminate certain options from the chart, like Rat Swarm and Cockroach), but it failed to capture the Gamma World essence for me. It was too neat and tidy, too prefabricated, and it left the real weird themeless mutations to only appear in the card decks.

So, let's talk about the decks. In my kneejerk post from back in October, I railed against the CCG element even whilst I liked the idea of powers on cards. Mostly the complaint was about cost and the inevitable duplicates from random packs. The idea of having your powers at your fingertips (instead of in a rulebook) appeals to me. I also really like the concept of niche-protection where no two players have the same card / power. Unfortunately, my two sessions of play showed me that the new Gamma World completely failed to capitalize on the aspects I found appealing about the notion of cards.

For starters, things that logically should be on cards, weren't. Those character types, along with their resultant powers, were not on cards. This meant there was no niche preservation. 4 of the 6 members of our party were: a telekinetic speedster, a radioactive speedster,  a radioactive swarm, and a cockroach swarm. This was, of course, just the luck of the dice. But if they'd been on cards there'd be no duplication, our party would have been comprised of 12 of the 20 options (instead of 9 of 20), and each PC would have had their own distinct identity. Also, since the powers associated with the character types weren't on cards, we had to frequently refer to the rulebook. (We could have just written them down ourselves, but the character sheets for the game lack room to do so. That is another fair gripe, but completely beside the point.).

Secondly, the notion of mutations randomly coming and going every twenty minutes is terrible. Even given the "worlds colliding" backstory of the current edition, it was still hard to conceptualize. I'll break this one out into sub-complaints:
  • The notion that at frequent intervals the entire party mutates (or is replaced by the parallel selves) is weird enough.
  • That these mutations always take place right after a combat is a little wonky, but could be tied in to adrenalin wearing off or something, so I can kind of dismiss my disbelief on that.
  • Even stranger is the fact that, despite how I mutate (or however many parallel selves I'm replaced by, if that's how you choose to interpret it), nothing ever impacts or replaces my being a Felinoid Hawkoid. I may be an invisible Felinoid Hawkoid at the moment, and later I'll be a Felinoid Hawkoid that is literally made of steel, and an hour down the road I'm gonna be a Felinoid Hawkoid with really big feet. But my "real" mutations, of being a bird-man and a cat-man simultaneously, that sticks around.
  • The NPCs don't experience any of this. The Badders and Porkers we were fighting back in the first combat of the adventure are identical to the Badders and Porkers we fought in the second, third and fifth encounter. Despite being mutant badger-men and hog-men, they apparently don't mutate hourly like the PCs do.
  • All of this, though, I could perhaps manage to overlook, provided it enhanced the flavor and themes of the game. The rule of cool could win out, if I were immersed enough in the character or setting, (or even the tactical situation) to stay focused. This is where the cards really fail. They are informationally dense.  The main power text of the card is often quite complicated, and gives no clues how to visualize it. Then at the bottom there's the "overcharge" information, which tells you how the power can flare up beneficially if you push your luck, and the side-effects it generates if you get a bad roll. Very crunchy. Instead of everyone around the table describing how they've mutated or changed this time, we all just read our cards to ourselves. There's almost never any flavor text, so you often don't know how to visualize what you must look like now, let alone what anyone else does. Good-bye role-playing.

Those cards would be much better if they had simpler rules (get rid of overcharge) and used that space for more flavor text (or better yet, a picture).

Third, everything I just griped about in regards to the Alpha Mutations can also be said about the Omega Technology cards. When the enemy is blood-sucking birds that don't have a ranged attack, and you loot their body to discover a potent energy rifle on them, all suspension of disbelief goes away. More of the items gave clues to how they'd look than the mutation cards did, but it's still pretty bizarre to discover in the middle of combat that your buddy is wearing suped-up power armor he apparently got off the unarmored muties you wasted in the previous room.

My fourth and final complaint about the cards is just: "both decks have an identical back". Now that would be a minor and petty gripe, if the fronts weren't also extremely similar, and if you didn't have to discard and draw again and again during each session. GM + six players around a long table meant we were passing cards around a lot and you couldn't count on the decks staying put during our two sessions of play. Different color card backs sure would have cut down on the confusion.

Other than those very central complaints, I mostly enjoyed the system. D&D 4th Ed is a very solid tactical combat system, and the rules are themselves pretty straight forward and consistent. Gamma World's only real tweaks on that involve character creation, adding Level to literally every die roll (simple enough) and the ever-so-fiddly cards I just spewed venom about. So for me, once I'd figured out how my latest card worked, the rest of it was familiar and easy.

Some of my fellow players had trouble figuring their actions and powers out.  I think that was a failing of the GM, who didn't explain any of the base combat and skill-resolution rules until we were in the middle of our first real fight, and never really explained any of the keywords of rule system. (Oh well, we all make mistakes. I can certainly forgive this small oversight.)  4th Ed looks more complicated than it actually is, and I'm confident all that confusion would have shaken itself out given another session or two.

Leveling up seemed to come a smidge too quickly. We achieved the XP for second level early in the second session. I was glad to get to see the leveling process, but have some concerns about the game's legs. It only goes to level 10. At the pace we were earning XP, that we'd hit level 10 in 13 or 14 sessions. In retrospect, maybe that's not a problem.

As for the setting, well, the intro adventure from the boxed set (which is what we played) was _not_ a good introduction to it. The adventure plot was linear, felt arbitrarily slapped together, and didn't show off any of the things that made the previous editions so cool. Old-school Gamma World is an esoteric and byzantine take on the typical nuclear Post-Apocalypse setting. It's bizarre on the surface, but has an internal logic that you can eventually figure out and enjoy, and has a lot of depth beneath the surface. Instead, the intro adventure was a random dungeon romp. I know I only played the latest edition for two sessions, but it felt like the depth had been gutted and replaced with random card draws.

I'm glad to have had the opportunity to try it out, but it's definitely not something I'll be rushing out to buy. I'm about where I was in October, I can tell it's not my cup of tea. Just as upset, but the exact nature of my complaints has shifted. The biggest complaint is the way the steady influx of complicated new cards mid-session distracts everyone from the role-playing.

In the end, this version of Gamma World is a lot like recent Hollywood "remakes" of old TV shows from the 70s and 80s.  Instead of updating it to modern sensibilities and lovingly fixing the original's flaws, they aren't taking the subject matter seriously.  The title is the same, but clearly the studio doesn't "get it". They don't seem to understand what made the original so cool despite the bad acting and dated haircuts. They made something that's bordering on parody, but with the same name as the original.

I don't like being that guy who just complains and hates, and never contributes anything useful.   Let's say I got this game, and wanted to get my money's worth out of it, and run it for more than a session or two. How I would fix this?

I'd get rid of the random card draws after every encounter. Instead, I'd have each PC draw two alpha mutations at character creation, and discard the one they were least interested in. Whenever they leveled up, I'd have them draw another mutation, and decide to keep it or the one they already had. That'd be a little more believable then mutating every 20 minutes. Maybe around 5th level or so, I'd have them draw two cards, and keep a total of two mutations. The deck may need some customization as well, removing the most potent cards till later. (Maybe I'd pull out the weakest, too. I'd feel real sorry for a PC having to choose between Anti-Life-Leach and Footus Giganticus at first level.)

Tech cards would no longer be random draws, either. Instead, I'd use them as treasure and plot devices, and sometimes have badguys actually using the treasure until the PCs beat them and took it. The salvage rules might need to be re-written then, too. I didn't see enough of that (nor use enough Tech myself) to say for certain how to proceed in that regards. Guns that do 7d8 damage wouldn't show up until much later in the campaign.

At character creation, I'd either reroll duplicate results, or make a deck of the character types, to preserve character niche and individuality. I'd grudgingly leave in the super-hero flavored stuff like Speedster and (ever-flaming) Pyrokinetic, simply because coming up with my own balanced and in-genre replacements would take a lot more effort than I'm willing to do for this thought experiment.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"I wish I could say the same"

Yesterday, in my Continuum game, I had an amusing little situation, where someone said something without realizing the way it would be taken by the NPC they're talking too. Kinda like that famous exchange between Merlin and Julia in the Amber novels, where context tells us that the two characters will walk away from a conversation without realizing they completely misunderstood each other. It's a sick, evil GM like me that lets that sort of thing happen to his players.

First, some backstory...

Way back when the campaign started, I had all the players make me short lists of defining moments from their characters lives. It's a time-travel game, and as such there's reasonable chance a PC might be tempted to revisit their past.

One of the players included in his past a note about his character Ron's last romantic relationship. On the list of defining events in his life, he put the date they broke up, and made it clear that in the years between that break-up and his learning to time-travel, he'd avoided relationships and romance entirely. Maybe the player is saying they don't want romance to be in the game at all, their character will go through life single and unattached, just keep that sort of stuff away from them. On the other hand, the player may be saying that being cold and broken-hearted is part of the character concept, and they're looking to the GM for opportunities to let them play that. Asking the GM to challenge them, in a way. (If he is trying to signal that romance should not be in the game at all, it would be a vast change from the last campaign I'd gamed with that player in it, where he fell for a known enemy NPC and betrayed the party to her.) So my inclination is to dangle some minor romantic plot-thread out there to at least give them an opportunity to role-play that character element once. The plan is to then gauge based on their reaction whether or not to sweep the plot thread under the rug.

It being a time-travel game, there's a great deal of flexibility, and plots need not always be presented in a linear fashion. So, more than a year ago, I introduced an NPC that could potentially be a way to illustrate exactly whatever it was that the player was getting at. This NPC is a female time-traveller from Tibet named Penuri Pemba. Depending on the era and society she's encountered in, sometimes she's dressed as a well-manicured pulpy femme fatale with long beautiful hair, and other times she's been in the robes and shaved head of a Buddhist Nun.

I've had a lot of fun implying that she knows the PCs well, in particular Ron, the relationship-shy PC I was describing above. She calls him by a pet name that clearly indicates she knows a lot about his pre-time-travel life, and she plays coy little information games not exactly explaining how she knows him. Her past is his future, for the most part. I've kept it in a narrative quantum state, where depending on how the PC proceeds, they could turn out to be good friends, or another badly failed relationship. Could be an unrequited love, a predestined future betrayal, or she could even be stalking him. I know what my preferred default interpretation of their past & future is, but it being a time-travel game, I have to be prepared to scrap my ideas on a moments notice if Ron chooses a course of action that conflicts with my plans. The true nature of how she knows him will eventually  be defined by Ron's player's decisions and actions. The options are all over the emotional map, and could be dialed to any degree.

For the most part I've been gentle and subtle with it... except for one session several months back when another NPC who was clearly a friend of hers walked up to Ron, shouted something in an Asian language that included Penuri Pemba's name, and punched Ron in the face. Clearly, it's not all garden of happiness... but whether that guy was being protective of a friend whose heart Ron broke, or is a romantic rival, remains to be scene and will be defined by what Ron does. The punch definitely dialed things up a notch, but could still be interpreted in any of several directions.

Lately, I hadn't used Penuri Pemba much, just left things simmering off-camera. Seemed like Ron's player was avoiding the whole situation, and I didn't want to force anything if he wasn't enjoying it. But shortly after the start of Monday's session, he brought up the idea of seeking her out as a possible source of information on a mystery he was trying to solve (relating to possible murder/kidnapping of yet another NPC, and completely unrelated to Ron and Penuri's possible stormy past/future). He made the connection to her, it wasn't suggested by plot or clues, so I figured that's an indication that he's okay with what's been put out there so far.

So, they meet up. She's dressed as a Bhikkhuni (Buddhist Nun) with her long locks shaved away, and a sort of serene sadness about her. They talk for a while, and she's able to help him with things she knows about his mystery. After getting the plot-and-clue stuff out of the way, she says "It's very good to see you again after all these years,"

His response: "I wish I could say the same."

Just an absent-minded turn of phrase. From the objective GM viewpoint, it was clear at the moment (and later he confirmed it at the end of the session when I asked about it) that he meant that it has not been years for him, and that he still doesn't really know her as well as she knows him. But from the point-of-view of this person who might be his long lost future love, or his future bitter stalker, that sentence just couldn't be good. Either an insult or a let down, possibly both. She's clearly testing the waters, and he clearly hurt her, even though he didn't mean to. End of conversation, and she makes her exit ASAP.

While Ron didn't take a particularly strong stance or intentional action towards resolving what their connection is, I can clearly cross a few things off my list just the same. Sometimes it's good to be the dirty evil no-good rotten GM.

Planet Bosch

Exciting session of 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars this week. Here's a summary:

Planet Name: Bosch
Planet Description: Heavy Gravity
Alien Description: Felines
Alien Special Ability: Flee

I ended up with a really low AA for this planet, and knew the aliens were gonna be creamed. Especially since "Flee" is a really wimpy special power. Once the PCs were aware of it, they just started every combat at Close Range. Since you get to adjust your range after a successful FA roll, as long as they succeeded at one roll in the first two rounds of combat, they'd never fall out of the combat. It may have slightly reduced their kill count, but not by much.

So, given the wimpiness of my aliens, I made them sympathetic. Cute little cat-guys, who'd be receiving transmissions of old b&w shows from Terra. "Humans!" their village elder exclaimed ecstatically upon seeing them. "We've been looking forward to meeting you." Then he was chopped apart with a power blade. Others quoted I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, and old game shows at them, before being blown apart.

The aliens went down fast, though not without twinges of guilt along the way. (Very brief twinges of guilt. Like, "I felt bad... until one of them mentioned The Price Is Right. It's a mercy killing.") Knowing there'd be little planetary resistance, I decided to move along various other sub-plots.

Captain DeMolay (a PC) has treated several of his NPC Lt's with contempt and scorn, and really not done anything to convince them he has any power to back it up. So, there was a bit of friendly fire, and an avalanche that he refuses to believe was caused by the High Gravity.

But the real show-stopper was the visit by Major Schwimmer.

Now, the real Schwimmer, Captain Schwimmer, was found by the PCs tied up in an air duct in the previous session. They'd been hunting through the ventilation system and jeffries tubes in search of possible infiltration by one or more shape-shifting aliens. Capt. Schwimmer says he's been replaced by said aliens, and that Major Schwimmer who'd recently been promoted was a fake. So they tried to lure fake Schwimmer to pay them an inspection, and since their efforts were good ones (and the aliens pushovers) I decided to give them their opportunity. What surprised me was the gusto with which they approached it. They lured him into an APC, dropped a TPK bomb in a hatch, and the blew up the APC from outside, just to be safe. I was thrilled to death with this.

Their cleverness didn't end there, either. They also managed to track down Watkins (an NPC who'd gone AWOL back in session 2, and been helping the aliens ever since) and capture him and his invisible alien ship. Victories all around.

...unless they killed the wrong damn Schwimmer. But what's the odds of that?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Planet Hans Holbein the Younger

Summary of my most recent session of 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars...

Planet Name: Holbein
Planet Description: High Humidity
Alien Description: Rays, Sharks, or Fish
Alien Special Ability: Reduced Visibility

We started the session thinking we were going to be down a player. Mark, who plays Captain DeMolay, had a prior engagement in the real world at his Mason's Lodge - or as close to the real world as one can consider a Mason's Lodge to be. :)   Anyhow, he wasn't going to be at the game, so I didn't need to come up with a detailed dossier of the planet. He was off taking an officer's training course (since he started the campaign as a Corporal)... and Major Schwimmer at the Battalion HQ had ordered the troops onto the planet.  With Mark at the game, as a Captain, it's all about the whole Company. But with him absent, and the next highest-ranked PC merely a Sergeant, we were back on a Platoon-level dynamic.

They were deployed with Lt. Courson, a timid, largely incompetent junior officer who seemed much less interested in fighting the enemy than in illuminating the platoon with art-history factoids about Hans Holbein the Younger. (My wife and I had recently watched the Tudors, which had jogged my memory of Hans "Photographer of Henry VIII" Holbein from art school all those years ago, so this was a decidely simple and wicked improvisation on my part.)

We were just finishing up the first fight when there was a knock at the door. Mark's Lodge event ended early. So, a drop-pod lands as the fight is petering out, and the Captain and his APC roll out of it.

Suddenly I'm looking at having to morph back to the Company level, but I've got nothing prepped about what the other Platoons are doing. Keeping in Trope, I described it as your typical military SNAFU. Their sticks were scattered, and High Command hadn't given anyone the whole picture of what was going on. Boy was the Captain pissed. The plot just created itself, I barely needed to do a thing.

The aliens were big three-tailed flying manta rays with tubular mouths that could swallow a man's head. Their tails had electrical / plasma discharge capabilities.

There were also tall alien plants that grew in triple-clusters and had similar fronds to the tail-ends of the mantas. I intentionally used similar terminology in describing the plants and the mantas. I was prepping to reveal that the plants were actually super-large mantas half-submerged and hibernating. As is the nature of improvised games, however, sometimes you don't get to follow up on the trails you blaze. My bread-crumbs turned out to be red herrings, largely by virtue of the fact the PCs never followed up on the hints.

Players did ask about what the mantas ate when they weren't trying to suck the helmets off of Troopers in the 3:16th. So, I improvised some large three-legged gilled bunny rabbits. Gills (and mantas) because the atmosphere here was thick and watery. So thick and watery, you couldn't hit a target at far range.

The Special Ability of "Reduced Visibility" was next-to-worthless. It's not like PCs ever want to be at Far Range anyhow. It's total affect was to deprive one PC of one possible roll from her Rocket Pod once. Lame. Only one PC ever took any serious injuries, and I handed out fewer purple hearts than ever before.

Planet-side, the aliens went down super-fast.  That did leave us with time to work out some plot elements back on the ship, though.

In previous sessions, the PCs had been almost haunted by a fellow Trooper named Watkins. Watkins was an NPC goof-off in the first session, who went AWOL in the second and had tried to lead the PCs away from their platoon a la //Going After Cacciato//. It didn't really work, and the PCs ended up leaving him to his fate. There'd been sightings of him ever since. He stole an alien ship with cloaking technology, and tries contacting his old unit from time to time. When the PCs struggled against shape-shifting aliens ("Sirens" with "Induce Weakness" from "Planet Klimt"), Watkins ended up falling in with the shape-shifting survivor(s). And recently, on planet Caravaggio, he'd sent them a message indicating that these shape-shifters had replaced Major Schwimmer (their own former Company Commander, who'd given the orders this session that scattered the Company and pissed off PC Captain DeMolay). If this was true, then the real Major Schwimmer would be hidden, starving, in the air ducts or engineering bowels of their own troop ship.

So they get back to the ship, and DeMolay orders a couple of his closest Non-Coms into the air ducts to hunt for the real Schwimmer. An amusing set of failed NFA rolls followed, and I eventually narrated that 24 hours had passed since the NCOs had been sent on their task, and they still hadn't checked back in. So MPs were sent into the ducts to find them, but they didn't immediately succeed, either. Must be a real maze in the old girl. Eventually, the PCs find Schwimmer, and the MPs find the PCs and Schwimmer. They all get back out with only a little bit of engine radiation poisoning, and only a few instances of having to defecate inside a jeffries tube. Guess you had to be there.

They've tested his DNA and are certain that this Schwimmer is the genuine article. So, I expect my next session will start a little differently than normal. It'll play out like a "Caper" film, with the PCs kidnapping and executing the shape-shifter so the real Schwimmer can take his rightful place. It'll take some stealth and cleverness to set things right without exposing the fact that they've all been playing kinda loose with that whole "no fraternizing with the enemy" rule. Should be fun.

Planet Caravaggio

Quick summaries of a recent (not the most recent) session of my 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars campaign.

Planet Name: Caravaggio
Planet Type: Gas Giant
Alien Type: Mineral-Based Forms (Silicon Centipedes)
Alien Special Ability: Exploding Bodies

Caravaggio was our first session with Captain DeMolay, a PC, leading the entire Company. So, things were very different. Instead of the usual piss-poor briefing by a distant commanding officer, I gave the ranking PC a full-page write up on the planet, the aliens, and a list of possible targets within the area his Company was being detailed to. I let him choose the targets and their priority/order, assign the platoons as appropriate, etc. Overall, I was very pleased with the way that worked out, and the impact it had on the feel of the game. It more than doubled my prep time for the session, but seemed well worth it (and that still meant that it took about 30 minutes GM prep time total, so it's still the easiest campaign I've ever had as a GM).

The inter-personal conflict rose to it's highest levels in this session, both within and without the party.  The new Captain made a few enemies. He got yelled at by an NPC Major for questioning orders, and an NPC officer below him accused him of racism. He side-stepped the senior NPC NCO for promotion to Company Sergeant, giving that post to PC instead (which was great). Later, he demoted that PC from the post, and gave it to another PC. Enemies everywhere. They even discovered that there was a very good chance that their former CO (the Major that chewed out the PC Captain) had been kidnapped and replaced by shape-shifting aliens from a few sessions back. The plot was on overdrive this session.

The aliens were silicon centipedes, crawling around on floating cities hovering within a gas-giant. They had exploding bodies, which was foreshadowed by these sacs on their backs expanding. All together, it made for a wealth of striking imagery. I was quite pleased with that.

I must say the Exploding Bodies power is huge. Most of the Alien Special Abilities have struck me as anemic or under-powered. This one, however, coupled really well with a low AA rating. I twice threatened a TPK, both times immediately following rounds where the PCs just chewed the monsters up. Players had to invoke Strengths to avoid me wiping out the entire party. I suspect that this is one of the best Special Abilities in the game.

On a related note, there is a question of timing. Can exploding bodies be invoked at any point during the combat round? Just on the alien's action? As a response to a successful attack by the players? At the end of the round? If you can activate it more than once per round (like each time the PCs kill an alien) that'd be a sure-fire TPK and a guaranteed failed planet. I didn't abuse it that way, but in retrospect, in the late campaign such abuse might be necessary to make the PCs ever choose to use a Starkiller or Orbital bombardment. The most broken interpretation of the power might not actually be broken, but since the rules were vague and didn't weigh in on the topic, I made a point of not testing it at my PCs expense. I wish the rules had covered it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Danger of Improvisation

Yesterday, we had a guest player at my 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars campaign. Naturally, people tried to bring him up to speed with what had happened in previous sessions. The resulting summary was unbelievably bizarre.
There's next to zero planning going in to these sessions, which is a big part of it. 10 to 15 minutes GM prep per session tops, and at least once it didn't even get that (as a player once showed up half an hour early and arrived before I'd put any thought into the session at all). Week after week, it's all almost entirely improvised.

Plus, I've made a few attempts to emulate bits out of Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato. Cacciato has served as my primary inspiration. Like 60% Cacciato,  30% Band of Brothers, and 10% all other war movies I've seen. Going After Cacciato, for those unfamiliar with it, is sort of a surrealist take on the Vietnam War, told from the point of view of an unreliable imagination-prone narrator.

So when a crazy idea pops into my head mid-session, I make a point of just going with it, instead of suppressing it (or even asking myself if it's a good idea or not).

It all pretty much made sense while we were playing it, and seemed only a little over-the-top at the time each element was being introduced. I had suspected that the ridiculousness was beginning to accumulate, but trying to summarize all that went before for the benefit of a new player made me kind of cringe. What seemed "a little out there" when take by degrees, ends up being completely bonkers and really hard to swallow when dumped on you all at once.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Planets Picass0 and Cezanne

It was pointed out to me at this week's 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars game that I didn't blog about last week's 3:16 game. So, here's two birds with one wordy stone...

Last week, the platoon was sent to help the 3:15 out of a bind. Captain Schwimmer told them that their real goal should be to make the 15th look bad. "They need rescuing, and we don't want them to ever forget who had to haul their butts out of the fire."

Planet Name: Picass0
Planet Decription: Asteroid Belt
Basic Creature Form: Artificial Lifeforms
Alien Special Ability: Isolate

The asteroid belt was designated Picass0. The planets of the same system were Picass1 to Picass7. Perhaps I'm taking the mispronounciation bit a bridge too far. The Picass system was inhabited by Robots, who'd apparently detonated their own homeworld for better mining access. They had gravity-weapons, robo-factories, 7 different chassis types, and a cultural fetish for self-modification. Some of the encounter took place at the robot equivalent of tattoo parlors. At one point Lt. Demolay got pierced with a glowing neon bit... as long as it was stuck into his armor, his com channels were overloaded with a constant stream of "1100101001000111001010001001001011111010011010111...." which I shouted at a volume and rate that probably annoyed my neighbors. Because shouting a faux military briefing with a bad southern accent about a place called Pick Ass Zero wasn't annoying enough, apparently. Not sure what I was thinking...

In fact, I was in improvisational overdrive that session, managing to somehow merge every previous improvised plotpoint together as though it almost was an intentional plot. Except, had any of it been planned, it wouldn't have been quite so ridiculous. So AWOL Trooper Watkins really was hidden amongst the 3:16 fleet, in a cloaked alien vessel hanging off the side of one of the Troop Carriers, with his shape-changing alien girlfriend. Maybe when Trooper Pudaguluk saw Watkins riding on a dinosaur a few planets back that wasn't just space-madness. Maybe. Or, perhaps the one and only PC that had this talk with Watkins aboard the invisible spaceship was herself suffering from space-madness.

I thought I'd just leave it there, to be mysterious, but of course no battle plan survives contact with the PCs. At the start of this session, they insisted on searching the ducts and crawlspaces of the ship, trying to track down whether or not Watkins and his alien sweetie were actually on board.  If my players wanted to pretend this was some sort of investigative game, and not just a campaign about firing overpowered weaponry at helpless hordes of aliens, who am I to disillusion them? So today I threw them a bone. There was a traumatized MP bound and gagged and tucked away inside the duct work. This satisfied their investigative streak enough. They raised the alarm, and then passed the mystery ball across the court to other NPC MPs to run it to the endzone.

Time for the action to go planetside again.

Planet Name: Cezanne
Planet Description: Temperate World
Basic Creature Form: Furred
Alien Special Ability: Unused

3:16 takes about 10, maybe 15 minutes of prep-work on the GM's part per session. Which is especially great for the month that includes X-mas, New Years, my wife's birthday and our wedding anniversary. However, that busy schedule lead to me being quite lazy and establish some bad GMing habits. I've been starting my prep work closer and closer to the actual session every week. Today, due to a bus scheduling snafu, one of my players ended up arriving over half and hour early to the session... and I hadn't yet done any prep. My bad.

As a result, the planetary portion of the adventure was largely incoherent, and largely a pastiche of Warner Brothers cartoons. I have no one to blame but myself. I went to describe the aliens. Since I hadn't done any prep, I just rolled with the sample in the rulebook for "Furred Creatures", being large fuzzy humanoids with ammo bandoliers and shotguns. Someone said "we're fighting wookies?" and I countered with "more like that big red furry monster that sometimes chased Bugs Bunny". It was downhill from there.

They were packing shotguns. As a long-time fan of Cyberpunk 2020, Logan's Run, and any setting or system with oddball alternative weapon load-outs, I mentioned in the first round of fighting that the aliens were using these large drum-fed shotguns with each shell being a different type. One guy got hit with flechettes, the next with a slug, then a proximity-detonating explosive round, then a compressed monowire round that ripped a man apart from inside (40k fans will recognize this as a variation off the "Harlequin's Kiss"). And then I foolishly said to the PCs that I'd let them narrate what sort of round hit them any time they took damage. They nobly started with taser rounds, but the ACME catalog kicked into high gear before the second turn of the fight was over. There were micro-drills and rocket nets, chemical tracer rounds that dyed your skin, shells that unpacked into tiny robots that sat on your head and hit you in the face with a hammer, and other patently absurd ideas. Again, it was all my fault. If I'd just done my homework before the game, instead of pushing it off to the last possible minute...

I think it was still enjoyed by everyone, but there wasn't the slightest pretense of suspension of disbelief this week.

Enemy Artillery and other Big Guns
In both of these last two sessions,  I made the mistake of narrating enemy artillery. It was just for color, but both times it lead to the PCs capturing the enemies big guns, and attempting to turn it on the aliens. Good for them, but bad for the mechanics.

The first time I tried to make it hard on them, requiring several NFA rolls to load, aim and fire. As it played out, I realized this just further emphasized the existing problem that NFA is so much better than FA. So on the second planet, I just hand-waved it, and let a normal FA roll cover it. Less realistic, perhaps, but given that it was ACME artillery, I clearly wasn't letting realism get in our way.

For kills from the Artillery: on Picass0 they did 3d20. On Cezanne they did d100. I wasn't completely happy with either. Was I rewarding the players for thinking outside the box, or just reducing the earned bonuses of those who'd already invested in their own heavy weaponry? Here I am grousing one week that the d100 E-Cannon is too good, and the following weeks giving all the PCs special opportunities to roll something equivalent. Again, I blame my procrastination, if I'd put a little forethought into it, I could have at least avoided the problem in the second week (ie: today).

E-Cannon House-Rule, a related aside: For the E-Cannon and Rocket Pod we've settled on using the modified "low roll" d100. You roll two d10s and read them like percentile dice, but with the lower roll always being the 10s place. So a "7" and "1" is always "17" and never "71". 88, 89, 99, and 100 are still possible critical successes, but more reasonable rolls are going to come up more often. It's fast and easy, has memorable big power swings that encourage good stories, and yet mostly keeps these guns from completely dominating every firefight. We've used it in two sessions, and everyone loved the change.

So, of course, the PC who first got a d100 weapon again makes his Promotion roll, and becomes a Captain. Promotion to Captain rank includes the acquisition of the coveted "TPK Bomb" a nuclear hand grenade that could well do 5d100 kills in a single action. Apparently, the E-Cannon wasn't busted enough...

3:16 is a deeply unfair, highly competitive game. I must admit, that's part of the charm.