Sunday, November 10, 2013

[3:16] Weak sauce aliens on Rubens and Rembrandt

Introduction

The first session of my 3:16 campaign was stellar. The second session wasn't as good. It wasn't bad, and fun was had, but in some respects it was quite problematic.

All the previous players attended, plus one new player, Lenny. I had her make a character as if an old character had died: start from scratch with weapons, but start with slightly higher abilities than a true starting character. Our team thus consisted of Lieutenant Sektor ("by the book"), Sergeant "Mad" Mina ("recalcitrant"), Corporal "Iron" Sue ("Rambo") and the new character Soldier Fabio ("man in the mirror," i.e., very vain).

Last time, I had prepared the planets in some detail. This time, I wanted to make room for more player input, so I rolled the planets on the random tables right in front of their eyes; except for AA, which I chose by hand.


Overview of play

Rubens

The first planet was planet Rubens, a radioactive planet with leaping plant life and an AA of 7. (During play, we forgot about the radioactivity.) Since our very first mission had featured a squad of soldiers sent out to test experimental weapons which unfortunately exploded, I decided to start the mission by an  R&D guy called Captain De Vries telling Sektor that his squad had been selected to test some new experimental weapons. Sektor asked whether they were really safe this time, and was assured that yes, of course they were. Also, that he shouldn't use them himself, because there's no use in risking the lives of the higher officers. Unable -- or rather, unwilling -- to believe that the army would contradict itself, Sektor accepted the orders as given.

The planet featured vast trees, and we had fights with explosive fruits in the canopy, with huge roots coming out of the forest ground, and finally with a super-massive root in a rain-soaked clearing. It turned out that the new experimental cartridges exploded when they came in contact with water ... ah, well. Mina used a strength to take out the gigantic root.

This strength was mostly used so that Michiel's character Sue -- an ally of Mina -- could get the level up for most kills. Sue was carrying a fully-upgraded 3d10 weapon, whereas Sektor was carrying a d100 one (the only one in the party). By a combination of luck and having a higher combat ability, Sue had scored far more hits than Sektor, and had exactly 1 more kill when the final encounter began. Annet had Mina use her strength precisely to ensure that Sue would remain in the lead.

The most interesting event in the mission was Sektor -- who had once again been wounded by Sue's grenades -- ordering her to hand over her grenades. She flat-out refused, and they got into a conflict that Sektor had to walk out from, but not after threatening her with a court-martial.

This did feel a bit like a re-hash of the previous session, where something similar happened. There wasn't much drama coming from the rules this time, mostly because I rolled rather badly for the aliens. Nobody had to use strengths or weaknesses (Mina's use of one was entirely tactical), and nobody had the opportunity to kill or save another trooper. The mission never felt dangerous, and without the pressure of an external threat, the rules do not kick in to suggest fruitful development of the intra-party relations.

Between Rubens and Rembrandt

Sektor did ask for a court-martial, and quite reasonably so. As a GM I had to improvise some plausible way of keeping Sue and Sektor together in a single party. I had Sue arrested, but then visited in her cell by a Captain McAulife, who turned out to be a sworn enemy of R&D guy Captain De Vries, and "his friends, like that ass-kissing Lieutenant Sektor". McAulife is very interested in the story about the exploding energy cartridge, and promises to free Sue. Which happens.

The next mission briefing is given by McAulife. De Vries is nowhere to be seen.

Also, Mina gained a rank and became Lieutenant. I tried to create an interesting romantic sub-plot for Fabio, but that didn't really go anywhere.

Rembrandt

This time I rolled a reefs & coral world populated by rays, sharks and fishes, with the special ability Lasting Wounds. I was like: yes! Lasting Wounds! That is one of the nastiest special abilities in the book! Finally, the difficulty will be ramped up. In order to give the players a chance of surviving, I chose an option that brought the AA to 6.

And then, during the mission, I went on to roll a 10 about 50% of the times (true), and a 7 most of the rest. The aliens literally never did any damage. Never! No wounds, so no lasting wound either. Thus the problem of having too little external pressure was not solved, but only exacerbated. Again, it gave the mission a bland feel; there was some bickering between the PCs, but with nothing on the line, little really happened between the characters.

The mission -- finding a sunken human spacecraft -- was fine, and I used it to establish that some of the higher-ups had illegal (?) business (?) interests here that they needed the party to cover up. Because of the utter lack of external pressure, I decided to fall back on an old GM trick: secret messages that only some of the characters received. Fabio got messages from an unknown person that he would be rewarded if he destroyed some crates that the team had been tasked with salvaging. (Which he promptly did.) Sektor was asked, probably by the same person, to kill the intelligent alien they met inside the sunken space ship.

Actually, that was a nice scene. The party enters the sunken space ship. There are three crew members: two human skeletons, and an alien -- purple, with tentacles, but also clearly humanoid and intelligent. The try to kill him, but he suggests that they listen to what he has to say, because boy are they going to be surprised if they find out what has been really happening here! So they all lower their weapons to listen and find out what their superiors are up to ... and then Sektor shoots the alien. The rest of the party looks at him aghast.

So, that was nice scene, but the rest of the planet wasn't too memorable. No strengths or weaknesses were used; and, as remarked, the aliens didn't ever do any damage.


Diagnosing problems -- and solving them

First problem: not enough opposition. The aliens need to be a real threat. I'm going to choose higher AA's next time. At least 8 for the next planet. (We'll assume I'm not going to roll 10 all the time again.)

Second problem: the missions themselves were a bit weak. I think I underestimated preparation, and will spend some time preparing good plot elements next time. Since the main plot is about the army, not about the aliens, those elements should fit any planet I randomly come up with.

Third problem: there was some evident player frustration about the unfairness of the system. With some of the players now having 1d100 weapons, and others being very far from getting those; and with the players having the better weapons also having higher abilities; and with everyone having a lot of Strengths and Weaknesses left -- well, let's just say that some people felt rather powerless and outclassed. They were experiencing the obvious and deliberate unfairness of the system in a negative way, which is of course a problem.

The solution to this only became clear to me when I thought about it after the session. It consists of two parts.

First, you need to realise that getting better weapons, and even getting higher scores, isn't very important. Your character can still be a protagonist, even a heroic protagonist, if she never gets a better weapon and consistently has the lowest amount of kills. Heroic, because you get to describe all successes and failures yourself, and can make them as heroic (or mean-spirited) as you want. A protagonist, because being unfairly treated by the army and your squad members is a great start for Story Now.

But the second things I realised is more important, because it showed me some possibilities for using the rules that we hadn't even thought of exploring. The key insights are these:
  1. The unfairness of the system represents the unfairness of the army.
  2. Thus, the system doesn't care about giving your character a fair chance of remaining as competent as the other characters. Quite the opposite, in fact.
  3. The system rewards those who exploit and keep down their team mates.
  4. This represents the higher officers being only to happy to use the friction in your team for their own gain. Divide and conquer is their motto ... and they'll make it worth it for some people in your squad, while leaving the rest of you in the mud.
  5. But that doesn't mean any of you have to go along with them. There is one way to combat unfairness: loyalty to your squad. Working together. Helping each other out. You've got to stand up for each other, because otherwise, you'll get screwed.
  6. If the game treats you unfairly, that is only because your fellow players allow it to treat you unfairly.
  7. But they always have a choice not to.
So, yeah, there is basically no way that Sue, with her 3d10 weapon, no weapon that she could ever get to d100, and very low NFA, is ever going to get most kills in a mission again any time soon. Unless her team mates help her out. They can lend or give their weapons to her. They can use their between-mission NFA rolls to request better weapons for her. Hell, the team could even come together at the start of the mission and give their best weapons to the player with the lowest abilities, agreeing to have their weakest member go level up.

That's possible! And if your team mates don't want to help you out ... well, that's a great opportunity for Story Now. And for grenades. And for sabotaging their weapons. And, who knows, maybe even for shooting them in the back in a crucial fight with the aliens. Because, you know what? They'll have deserved it.

4 comments:

  1. Oh, and next time Sue rolls NFA to request a rcoket pod? I'm totaly going to have a scene where she gets grilled by a bureaucratic committee ... (roll the die) ... and then gets told that she can't have it because her Lieutenant has reported her as unreliable.

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  2. Wow, for me, this really represents what a brilliant game 3:14 is... The fact that it is unbalanced as hell simply means there are more possibilities for forbidden alliances, backstabbing etc. I do think it requires players to be able to accept the fact that a great game isn't about having great characters and that is quite difficult when you are having players who are generally playing Gamist RPGs (i.e. D&D), since protecting your character there is so much encouraged. Furthermore, but I am sure you've experienced that sometimes also, some players seem to experience that an in-game assault is an assault on themselves, due to the win-loss condition in D&D, especially if that is done by their own fellow PC's.

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    Replies
    1. Remko, I think what was going on was a little more subtle than that. The player wasn't interested in having a great character, and wasn't experiencing assault on the character as assaults on himself. The problem was more that a situation loomed where his character would be much less effective than the characters of some other players, while at the same time conflicts between those characters would be the most important scenes storywise. That would mean that his character would have less chance to influence the story, and therefore would be deprotagonised. A bit like playing Dogs in the Vineyard but you get to roll fewer dice then the other players -- not necessarily fun, even if you're into Narrativism.

      That said, my insight was that it's not the system doing this to you, it's your fellow players. And if they choose to do that, then that is your story, you're a protagonist because of your central role in it, and you can influence it in many, many ways -- not necessarily by winning conflicts.

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  3. I have had a few missions like that, where you get a power that depends on certain rolls for the aliens to be able to use them, and it never happens. Statistically, the game works better when the aliens have a high AA: you only get 1 alien roll per turn, the players get 3-4 rolls to beat that. A an average or low AA cripples the aliens.

    Regarding the insight you made about the dysfunctional military:

    There are other elements that encourage infighting, so I think the chances of the players working together to help each other out is slim - but that's fine, because 3:16 is best when the players are in healthy competition with each other, and the characters appear to be a dysfunctional team. As long as the players can buy into that, and not all can.

    Some fun elements: Only the lowest ranking characters have Force Weakness; higher rank characters get access to powers that if they use them, they will cause injury to everyone else (and if their rank gets high enough, the number threat counters increase, but the leader can be immune to the hardest encounter per mission).
    So players are incentivised to use force weakness to make the high ranking characters fail, or to find ways to make them die. And if the high ranking character dies, someone else is bumped up to take his place, which creates a new target for the grunts ire.
    3:16 is a lot of fun (it's up there with trollbabe as one of my favourite games - in the top 10 easily), but you need players who buy into the concept of dysfunctional military relationships for it to work as intended over the campaign, I think.

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