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.

Monday, February 7, 2011

45 minutes on Planet Monet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 4, 2011

Splitting Up The Party (in 3:16)

In most RPGs, if the party splits up, it's a detriment to the PCs. Resources are spread thin, they can be overwhelmed and ganged up on, etc. What's more, several players sit around twiddling their thumbs while 20 minutes (or more) of combat drag by. But that's just not the case in 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars. It's not like D&D where 6 ogres is a much biggger challenge for one player than for the whole party assembled. The fights are fast and really abstract, and if the isolated troopers have a Strength to spend, they can take out as large a pile of Threat Tokens as the GM deems to put before them. Splitting up, going out alone, etc, is all a huge benefit to the PCs that engage in such antics - as they'll get the most kills and rarely get punished for it.

As GM, you want to reward such behavior when the PC takes some big risk (night watch, recon patrol, searching a tunnel complex, or other situations of significant peril or isolation) or is enhancing the game in a meaningful way (figuring out a complicated situation, developing character by storming or goofing off, cleverly setting up a trap, etc), but not for just every-day "I go through the door first" antics.

Or so I think.

But I could see the other side of the argument. It's a competitive game, and thus anyone whose willing to take a risk (no matter how small) should be rewarded. I'd be in that other camp, if the scope and scale of the system were a little less expansive. "I'm first through the door of the hut, so I get to kill d100 baddies before anyone else follows me" is a bit extreme.

It would be really nice if the GM's section of 3:16 had covered in any way the notion of splitting the party. It seems to assume this will never come up, which strikes me as a little odd, given that it's relatively easy via the advancement system for a party of 4 PCs to be a Trooper, a Sergeant, a Lieutenant and a Captain. Four characters of such a diverse spread of ranks shouldn't necessarily always be at the same post. Late in the campaign, when all the PCs are likely to be Officers leading their own units, it becomes even harder to justify all the PCs being at the same battle. Not a major flaw, but more than a tiny bit annoying.