Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Burying 3:16

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 21, 2011

Planet Pollock

Yesterday's session of 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars went rather well, despite some big interruptions (relatives calling in the middle of the game), and a patently absurd Alien Power.

Planet Name: Pollock
Planet Description: Forest
Alien Description: Sentient Planet
Alien Power: Stop Technology

Some tough choices on the planet description, based on what little is left to me on the charts. Pretty much all that's left are the things I'd intentionally put off.

Sentient Planet was avoided until now because it didn't particularly mesh well with the kills system, and what they represent in game. Since PCs gain medals and level-ups based on number of kills, exactly what counts as an "alien" and what counts as a "kill" is important. If literally the whole planet is out to get you, then every tree, blade of grass, or songbird could be a kill. That was a can of worms I didn't want to mess with when the campaign was just getting going. At this stage in the game, though, we have no illusions about the mechanics. They don't particularly represent any sort of reality you can apply logic too, and we all know it. As a result, I didn't have to worry much. Everybody took it in stride that they were getting the normal kill counts despite such a target-rich environment. Man, this game is weird.

Stop Technology is an alien special ability that I specifically held off using till late in the campaign. I figured the ability to shut-down TPK Bombs, Kinetic Energy Fields and Drop Ships used by high-rank late-game PCs was a lot better than just knocking out the meager arms of early-campaign Troopers. In retrospect, I'm not sure that was the right decision. For one thing, the point of going up in rank is that it unlocks all these cool "toys", so taking them away (even for a session) is more frustrating than fun. Plus, it wasn't as effective as I'd imagined it to be. This deep into the campaign, the PCs have really high FA and NFA stats. So, taking their guns away didn't do much. The PCs won the dominance rolls, and would set the fights at Close where they could use Hand-To-Hand. They then succeeded with nearly every attack roll, so the fights were short and favored the PCs just as much as normal.  Had I sprung "Stop Technology" back when the PCs stats were lower, they would have had to retreat or expend a lot of flashbacks. Using it late in the campaign, the only real impact was on the kill-count.

 Like "Sentient Planet", "Stop Technology" also reminds us clearly how the game rules don't represent reality well. There's dozens of questions that one needs the answers to in regards to this ability, but the game doesn't offer any answers. If my power-armor is shut down, am I immobilized? If a drop ship is "stopped", does it crash and kill everyone?  If our technology is stopped, can we still call an Evac or Orbital Bombardment? It gets even weirder when you try to apply logic to how or what is stopping the tech. EMP effects seem likely to shut down computers and vehicles, but probably wouldn't stop a slug-rifle (we decided it must have an electrochemical solenoid trigger). Some sort of air pollution or environmental effect shouldn't stop air-tight items that worked just fine on atmosphere-less asteroid belt or beneath the surface of the water planet a few sessions back. There's a lot of hand-waving in your typical 3:16 session, and this power just amplifies that. Suspension of disbelief takes some effort.

Which is why I've been putting in sub-threads and hints (sometimes really overt hints) that the PCs are actually insane. This session was tied for the most overt and unsubtle I've ever been. The PCs now have reason to believe they might actually be in an mental institution. Various "PTSD hallucinations" they've been having suggest they are actually being interrogated by FBI and DHS heavies. I gave them the Jack Bauer treatment, as a gaggle of officials at the insane asylum tried electroshock therapy, drugs, and torture to get the PCs to reveal where they put the dirty bomb that endangers 10 million residents of LA. At this point, I slide back and forth between these two realities, with the PCs either fighting aliens on a distant planet, or being interrogated in the looney bin. The clock is ticking in both realities. At the institution, the Homeland Security guys worry that the bomb will irradiate the city if they can't get some useful info out of these insane terrorists. Out in space, two PCs are now Colonels, and have access to Starkillers.

For example, while fighting the wildlife of the Sentient Planet, one of the PCs climbed out of his disabled power-armor, and went hand-to-hand with a flock of birds. Meanwhile, another PC was talking to the Brigadier. But then the brigadier was replaced by an FBI special agent, who grilled her about the bomb. An orderly entered the room (wasn't this a forest a moment ago?) and interrupted the interrogation with the news that one of the other inmates was naked in the courtyard attacking the pigeons again.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Bad Habits in the Vineyard

Last night I ran Dogs In The Vineyard for the weekly one-shot group. Actually, this was part two of what looks to be a three-shot. I'm finding I really like the system, but it has some awkwardness. There's specifically three bad habits I'd like to "break" my players (and myself) of, if I were to run something longer than a single scenario.
  1. Bad Habit #1: Spending too long agonizing over how to total up your See.
    I'm guilty of this one as well, and I figure if I'm going to be hypocritical, I might as well put it up front and label it as such. I had one See in particular that I really just should have Gave on, because I was taking too long to calculate all my strategic options.
    I think this one would sort itself out over time. As you become more familiar with the system, the decisions will become more intuitive.
    Seriously, if you're agonizing over whether to take the blow on four dice, or take it on five dice but leave a higher die for your Raise, you've already failed to assess the situation properly. Unless the stakes are "do I die?" (or maybe if the conflict hasn't escalated beyond talking) you should really be Giving in once it tips past the third die on your See.

  2. Bad Habit #2: Trying to use all your available stats and items in every conflict. 
    For example, one player wanted to call on his d6 in "Exorcist" during a conflict with just a shady character trying to talk them out of poking around in his silver mine. I told him he could roll it, but only if he publicly declared that the man was clearly possessed. 
    There's a strong impetus to call on everything to get the extra dice every conflict, but it's often not appropriate to do so. I imagine that over a long campaign, always calling on everything would make conflicts repetitive.
    It also makes conflicts much longer, where Giving more often would speed things up. The problem is that no one wants to Give because it means you sit around with nothing to do while the conflict rages on. Given the choice between sitting around idle, or grasping and stretching to invoke the trait that will score you another die, people will almost always make the "non-boring" choice even if it drags out the fight. After the fact you might realize that you were sacrificing the group's enjoyment for the sake of your own, but in the heat of the moment such clarity is unlikely.

  3. Bad Habit #3: Picking the same fallout again and again.
    The game tries to counter this by letting anyone veto a proposed fall-out effect, but the issue I keep seeing isn't about people choosing something narratively lame.
    The problem is mechanical, not conceptual. Most bad things that could happen to you could be represented in several different ways (adding d4, downgrading to d4, subtracting other dice, reducing a stat, losing an item, etc), but one of those options is clearly better than the others.
    The rule system's insistence that +d4 is actually a bad thing is a little odd. I've seen how it can be bad, because a big pile of dice fools you into getting cocky and taking the blow when you shouldn't. But from the point-of-view of a player who's new to the game, adding a die looks like it's always a good thing. Perception becomes reality.  Mathematically, it's certainly better to add +1d4 to your sheet than to downgrade an existing 2d8 down to 2d4 or 1d8. The fallout system treats them like they're identical, but clearly they aren't. Plus 1d4 is just better than  minus 1d8, anyone can see that. Even losing just a d6 is arguably more than twice as bad as gaining a d4.
    Let's face it, you'd rather add "Blind as a Bat" at d4 than downgrade "I'm a handy with a rifle" from d6 to d4. Ironically, being blind would make you a better shot. The system is a little weird.
None of these three problems with the system (or players) are insurmountable.  Bad habit #1 will work itself out naturally over time, and #2 will be easy to solve over the same stretch of time with just a tiny bit of intentional effort.  I could see myself running this game system as a campaign, and it'd be a lot of fun.

Issue #3 is the only one that presents a real long-term problem, worthy of a house-rule.

UPDATE: My first proposed house-rules to "fix" issue #3 were far too draconian, and as was pointed out in the comments to this post, would result in a spiral of death over the course of a few sessions as PCs were forced to burn through their good traits. A better rule would b: The first time in any session that you get a fall-out total of 12+, you're required to pick something other than +d4 for at least one of the two long-term effects. 

Invoking this just once per session per player will prevent abuse, mandate some variation in results, and most likely not result in an undesirable death-spiral. Plus, by linking it to taking Injury, you further motivate players to sometimes Give in challenges instead of taking the blow.

Such a rule may also help address another problem I've noticed with system, namely that since Body is used for the "Do I die?" roll, it's more important than the other three stats. With this house-rule in place, having a really high Body score doesn't take all the danger out of being injured.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Marine to Bug Ratio

A bit of a follow-up to my post a few weeks ago on the Space Hulk: Death Angel cooperative card game. Upon getting the rules right*, the game has indeed proven to be a little more difficult than our first impression had it. However, we still haven't found it to be nearly as tough as some reviews made it out to be. Since I've been over the rules repeatedly to make sure we aren't still doing something wrong, I can probably rule out user error. In the process of double-checking everything, I think I figured out why some folks are so much trouble winning the game.

Death Angel is MUCH harder for 3 players than for 2 or 4. If the majority of your plays have been with 3 or 6 players, you're bound to walk away thinking the game is pretty nasty. The one time I played it 3-player, we got our shiny armored butts handed to us.

The source of the difference is the 3-player version of the Void Lock location. It's a distinction that's really easy to miss if you always sit down with the same number of players. Each Void Lock card has two triangles on the bottom that set how large of clusters the genestealers arrive for the duration of the game.

The 2- and 4- player Void Lock has a triangle with a "3" and a triangle with a "1". By contrast, the 3-player Void Lock has a triangle with a "5" and a triangle with a "3". Having exactly 3 players gives you 150% as many marines as you'd have in a 2- or 4-player game. However, when the red-and-yellow triangle is activated, you get 166% as many genestealers, and when the white triangle is activated, you get 300% as many.

Why the designers chose to make 3-player so much harder is unclear to me. Not only is the percentage increase huge on the white triangle, but the clusters of "5" on the other make it a double-whammy. If there's 5 or more genestealers in one swarm, that's generally an auto-kill on the nearest space marine. There's a few defensive cards that can let you squeak by it, but more often than not, they'll start killing marines before you can set up the sort of maneuver required to clean out a big cluster like that. Seems like a recipe for frustration and game loss.

Better numbers for the triangles on three-player would probably be "4" and "2" (133% and 200% of the numbers on 2-player). Your overall Marines-to-Bugs ratio would then be very similar to that of the 2-player game. Time to break out the sharpie.

P.S.: I just learned that FFG is releasing two micro-expansions for Death Angel via print-on-demand. Lightning-fast and much-needed support for an awesome game yearning to be expanded upon. I'll definitely be picking those up soon.

*: About the mistaken rule. That's my bad, I'd somehow missed it when reading, despite the rulebook being well-written and generally quite clear. What I'd missed was that each Terrain card can only be activated once per round. Since some terrain (such as the very common Doors) can eliminate genestealers with every activation, this was a huge advantage. It also made at least one of the mission objective cards ridiculously easy, as nearly every marine would try to activate the control panel in that final location. As mentioned previously, as soon as we figured out what we were doing wrong, our win ratio dropped noticeably. Still not as steep as it drops when you add a 3rd player...

Monday, March 14, 2011

Planets Whistler and Kandinsky

My 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars campaign continues full pace, but clearly working towards a conclusion. It's been a few weeks since I lasted posted about it, so I'll be condensing those sessions into a rather short summary.

I've been cranking up the zaniness as we go. The game is "meant" to be played straight - very much Band of Brothers or Platoon, but with aliens.  As we've gone, I've found it harder and harder to take seriously. Mostly this is my "fault", as I've had mad streaks of (what I imagined to be) inspirational genius that have created a convoluted and bizarre plotline (far more Going After Cacciato than Tour of Duty, but that's been on purpose). Some of it has to do with the rules of the game, though, which make some pretty hard "suspension of disbelief" demands upon the players. So what started as reasonably serious military sci-fi has become rather something else over time.

Given then that there's no choice but to go down the rabbit hole, I figured why not dive in head-first... and thus I've been cranking up the psychedelic references and "you might all be crazy" implications further with every session.

A few planets back, on Whistler, I actually asked the PCs the list of questions from Power Kill. There was a big explosion, and then for one brief scene, everyone was in straight jackets, taking part in a group therapy session. Psychiatrists who looked like former commanding officers were assuring them that no, they really weren't "in some space army", and that it was a junior high, not an alien world, that they'd assaulted. Major Sanguine strangled an orderly, and then they were magically all back on the alien planet they'd just cleansed.
A nerdly aside: Yesterday I saw a trailer for an upcoming movie called "Sucker Punch", and I blurted out "hey, that's my 3:16 campaign!" I guess next session I need to have them chase after a map, a fire, a knife, a key and something we can't reveal in the trailer...
As the sessions have passed, our PCs have pushed their way up the ranks (often into gaps left when NPC commanders were mysteriously fragged). As of the end of the most recent game, Sanguine was just promoted to Colonel... so, there's just one more NPC commander left for them to mysteriously frag. Potentially a couple good die rolls could wrap my campaign up at any moment. At this point the PCs have no love for Terra, have been threatened and mistreated as they rose through the ranks, and are half-convinced they're just psychotic sociopaths anyhow... so I expect them to turn the big guns on the homeworld at the first opportunity.

The details on Whistler and Kandinsky are immaterial at this point. We're just shy of 20 sessions, so I've got the dregs of the description and ability lists left - each week I pick between the remainder of things that didn't inspire me earlier. I may just jump ahead to the "recycling" phase of the game, where each planet gets two alien abilities and you revisit some races. Technically the rules don't let you do that till mission 21, but since the PC's will likely probably vaporize Earth by #19, I don't want to wait. I'm certainly not likely to ever run another vanilla 3:16 campaign for this long, so I'd like to see how that "doubled up" phase works while I've got the chance.

One other development worth noting... One of our players has moved across the country. It's not a permanent move, but she won't be back in Seattle till after the campaign has wrapped up. So, we lost Lt. Flowerdew. She will be missed. On her way out the door, she stole the invisible alien scout-ship the PCs had been hiding from high command, went AWOL, faked her own death, and framed another PC for it.