Saturday, I played my first-ever session of Gregor Hutton's space marines RPG 3:16 -- Carnage among the Stars. It was a blast. The game delivered everything I had hoped for.
There were four of us. I was the only one with extensive experience of different RPGs, including indie narrativist RPGs. Partly for that reason, I chose to GM the game. There were three other players: Michiel, Erik and Annet. All of them had role played before, but only Dungeons & Dragons. (With the exception of Michiel, who once played a single session game of My Life with Master with me, and took to that quite naturally.)
The fact that most of them had only played D&D was exactly why 3:16 seemed a good choice to me. Just like D&D, it is built around combat scenes in which trying to be effective -- either for the good of the party or for that of yourself, which in this case is not always the same thing -- is the expected behaviour. Death is always a possibility, and the reward of fighting well is surviving and getting stronger.
Of course, 3:16 uses this for very different purposes than D&D does. The combat system isn't complicated enough to be truly interesting as a tactical game. But combat, the reward system, the special abilities, and so on, are all designed to create tensions between the players and the army, and also between the players themselves; and then to give the players the tools to play out these tensions in an interesting way.
I read the manual about 3 times, asked some rules questions online, read through a few Actual Play reports, and created a four-page summary of the things that are most important for the players to understand (the combat rules, a list of all weapons and requestables). I also prepared two planets in some detail, and a third in almost no detail, which turned out to be great, since we only played two.
Ooze creatures with "stop technology"
AA = 5
A world of blue and purple stone, where the arid landscape is filled with large rocks and lakes of tar. Thick clouds hang over the world at all times, and electrical storms rage continuously. The only living creatures are slimes the size of bulls. They come from the lakes and attack with caustic matter. When they use their special ability, electricity strikes all the troopers' weapons, rendering them useless for a single round.
The mission is to find lieutenant Frederiks. She has been sent out to test experimental weapons that (unfortunately) explode when the oozes use their special ability. Even when most of her troopers have died from these explosions, she insists that they continue using the new technology; finally, her men see no other option but to kill her.
Suggested scenes: Are dropped near the drop pods of Frederiks and her troops, where they find one of the experimental energy cartridges. (Can be put into any weapon, dealing +1 kills, but exploding and dealing 1 kill to the trooper when aliens use their special ability.) Find dead bodies of troops with exploded weapons. Find Frederiks, evidently killed by Terran weapons. Find the remaining troopers, weaponless, being assaulted by oozes.
Artificial life forms with "exploding bodies"
AA = (average of highest and lowest NFA) + 1, which turned out to be 6
A dead, lifeless planet; nothing but brown desert. Huge metal doors in the surface lead to underground complexes filled with combative spheroid robots that explode when killed. Long, dark corridors; halls full of weird machinery, lots of copper spheres and coloured glass circles. The machines can be meddled with, and may activate and do something useful on a successful NFA check, but will explode when a 10 is rolled.
Deep within the complex is a chamber full of aliens in stasis vats. These are the real aliens, which the artificial lifeforms have been designed to protect. They are in a deep comatose sleep, and can be killed one-by-one, or all at once if their life support machine is destroyed. (This is worth approximately 200 kills.)
I explained the setting and some of the rules to the players, and then we went straight to character creation. We discussed names and reputations openly, then assigned FA/NFA scores in secret so that it would be a surprise who got which rank. The results were:
1. Annet plays 'Dolle' Mina ("mad Mina," which was a Dutch feminist group in the 70s), with reputation "recalcitrant," FA of 4 and NFA of 6. She is the Sergeant of the group, and takes the heavy MG.
2. Michiel plays 'Iron' Sue, with reputation "Rambo," FA of 7 and NFA of 3. She gets the rank of Private, and chooses the energy rifle.
3. Erik plays Sektor, with reputation "by the book," FA of 4 and NFA of 6. He is the Corporal of the team, and chooses the E-cannon.
Erik changed his reputation at the last moment (from something like "gambling addict") to make sure that there were more potential conflicts between the characters -- "recalcitrant" and "by the book" obviously being near antonyms.
I started the game by having the PCs come together with about a hundred other fresh soldiers to listen to Lieutenant Jansen. "We are the elite 16th brigade!" he said. "Some people think we are an elite unit because only the best are allowed to join. Well, just look around you: that is false. No, we are the best because any soldier who isn't one of the best will die on their first mission! It's called natural selection. Welcome, men. Today is going to be your first mission."
He then took all the Sergeants apart, and told Mina that her job was to find and rescue Lieutenant Frederiks, who had disappeared. "I'm not sending you because I think you will succeed. I'm sending you because I have no one else. Make sure you find Frederiks. She is a better soldier than any of you." Mina ungracefully accepted, and the squad was on its way.
I took a lot of control of external events, so the overall story of the planet played out much as I had laid it down in my preparation. After a rocky flight to the planet, the team found the missing Lieutenant's drop pods near a tar lake. Investigating them, Sektor came across a weird energy cartridge, which he dutifully showed to his Sergeant. At that moment, the oozes attacked, and the players had some fun with the combat system. I used the "stop technology" trait almost immediately, but Sue got some hand-to-hand kills and the fight was over soon. Sue then volunteered to try out the experimental cartridge, and the team confidently followed the tracks leading away from the drop pods.
The next group of oozes used stop technology twice to make things difficult for the characters. Sue's energy rifle exploded immediately, and she had to run forward and make do with hand-to-hand. Meanwhile, Sektor scored some good kills, while Mina was singularly ineffective -- the highest ranking PC would get exactly one kill on this entire planet.
They soon found dead troopers with exploded rifles, and then they saw, in the distance, the corpse of Lieutenant Frederiks. The officers decided that one of the soldiers should go and check it out, and they naturally chose Sue; who thought this was the natural choice, since she was, after all, the ablest fighter. When she saw the dead officer, shot with bullets and with an energy cartridge stuffed in her mouth, she immediately understood what had happened. She reported back, and her superiors took rather different views of the matter.
"We must report this to the ship immediately!" Sektor announced.
"No, we'll go and finish our mission first," said Mina.
"But Sergeant, we already finished our mission."
"No, we must find the survivors, if there are any."
"Are you sure that was part of the mission briefing?"
"Yes corporal, I'm sure. Let's go."
So they went, and soon enough found the surviving soldiers, weaponless and trapped by a bunch of oozes. Mina tried to shoot them from a distance, with little success. Sue heroically sprinted forward, and interposed herself between the oozes and the survivors. But it was Sektor who carried the day, using a Strength and telling us about his life as a rodeo on the ranch --
-- which allowed him to jump on a big ooze as if it were a rodeo bull, and ride it towards the other oozes, waving his guns, yelling, and killing them all. Those were the final threat tokens of the planet.
As soon as the fight was over, one of the soldiers from Frederiks's squad approached Sergeant Mina. "We didn't do it. The aliens shot her. Right?"
"Right." said Mina.
But Sektor disagreed. "Surely, you don't believe that story?"
"Yes, Corporal, I do believe that Lieutenant Frederiks was killed by the oozes."
"But she was killed by bullets."
"The aliens used their weird power to take control of these soldiers' guns. So I'm sure we can all agree that Lieutenant Frederiks was killed by the oozes."
"Serge, I'm sure these sons of bitches did it themselves! They should be court-martialled!"
"Corporal, I'm telling you that the aliens did it. And that's an order."
"Yeah," Sue broke in, trying to intimidate Sektor with her imposing physique, "I'm sure you don't want to suggest that our brothers and sisters would kill one of their own. Would you?"
Sektor remained silent.
So that was the story that Mina told to Lieutenant Jansen when they got back on the ship. But when she was gone, sneaky little Sektor went to tell Jansen the real story; which Mina and Sue found out about soon after. Thus we ended the first planet with Mina and Sue hating Sektor's guts.
But Sektor was promoted to Sergeant! He also got most kills, and Sue won the roll between her and Mina, so the two of them went level up. Both increased FA. Sue and Mina both tried to get a rocket pod; Mina succeeded.
Lieutenant Jansen sent two squads of soldiers, one under Sektor and one under Mina, down to Titiaan to investigate some very weak life signals. "It's gonna be easy," he claimed. "We detect almost no life signals. Oh, and they're probably underground." He then gave overall command of the mission to Sektor. "But I am the more experienced officer," Mina complained. "I believe Sektor has a bright future ahead of him," countered Jansen.
Sektor took his new command very seriously, and made his men bring a lot of flares for use in the underground tunnels. But Mina was perhaps a bit smarter, and took a life scanner that would allow her to find life forms.
They land on the desert planet and soon find a metal door leading underground. After some shenanigans with an elevator that doesn't work, they find themselves in a huge system of underground corridors and rooms. As soon as they step out of the elevator, spheroid robots toting big guns come from the walls. Encounter at Close range -- and these aliens have exploding bodies!
Mina makes an NFA roll to get to Near range, but Sektor fails his roll. Sue chooses to throw a grenade -- killing some aliens which then blow up. That's two points of damage to Sektor: one from Sue's grenade, and one from the exploding bodies. In the second round, Sue throws another grenade, and this happens again! That's right, 1+1+1+1 = 4 damage for Sektor in two rounds, which means that even after using his armour he is about to die ...
... which Sue's player definitely saw coming, but hey, what did Sue care about Sektor ...
... so Sektor uses a weakness to escape. A childhood trauma about explosions makes him crawl away on all fours from the exploding stuff around him, crying and embarrassing himself in front of his troops. His later attempts to order Sue to hand over her grenades are met with scorn, and he silently decides to have her court-martialled later.
They explore the corridors and rooms, turning on some of the weird machinery with successful NFA rolls. Lights go on; and at one point a couple of the robotic aliens are blown up by lasers the PCs just activated. But the second encounter once again doesn't go Sektor's way: the aliens get to Close range, some get killed, and they are going to explode and kill Sektor. So he uses his last remaining way out, his second Strength. He tells us more about his time as a rodeo rider, and describes how he now grabs two guns and goes "gunzerking".
The aliens are dead, but more will be coming, and Sektor is all out of escape routes.
Finally, the band of soldiers make it into a huge room where the real, humanoid aliens are sleeping in transparent containers. Mina uses her rocket pod to blow up the machine that is connected to these containers. Before she can ascertain what effect this has on them, a final group of robotic guardians appear at Far range. Sektor and Sue run towards them, to Near Range; the robots also get closer, and so Sektor and Sue end up at Close range. Not a smart move by Sektor, because, well, he's at Close range and these guys still have exploding bodies. So, sure enough, they explode, and he dies...
... at which point I tell the other players that they can either use a Strength to save Sektor, or let him die ...
... and Michiel, who was already planning to do this, makes Sue use a Strength. He tells how one day when she was a little girl, she got into an awful and violent row with her big sister. Afterwards, she ran off into the woods, where she was surprised by a bear. At the last moment, her big sister suddenly appeared with a gun, rescuing her. From this, she learned that "You always help your family". And her fellow soldiers are her new family. So even though she dislikes Sektor -- who betrayed his fellows to higher officers -- immensely, she still won't let him die. Sue gets between him and the aliens, and kills them all off. Sektor is surprised and grateful.
By that time, Mina's kill counter is raking up the 208 kills she got from blowing up the life support machine.
Back in the ship, Sektor and Sue both get a promotion. Sektor is now Lieutenant, but he is all out of Strengths. Also, he managed to get his e-cannon to 1d100 kills at Near range, which will presumably not endear him to the other characters. Mina had most kills -- almost none through fighting -- and increases FA; while Sektor also increases FA. Mina improves her rocket pod at Far range, Sue her grenades at Close range. So they now all have a different preferred range.
A lot of good drama from the character interactions! I'm eager to see what will happen in the future. Will Sektor learn the importance of loyalty, or will he become an intolerably arrogant officer? If the latter, will his fellow soldiers let him survive the next mission? Sue seems the perfect soldier; but what will her weaknesses turn out to be? How will Mina react now that Sektor will be the one to give her orders?
And what happens when, on the third planet, Sektor will be told to have his soldiers test a new generation of experimental energy cartridges?
I'm planning to do less preparation next time. I'll print out the planet creation sheets, and roll on them where the players can see it, so that everybody knows I don't have anything planned out in advance. I'd like to get a little more shared world and scenario creation going.
I really enjoy how the system creates situations where you have to choose between your own good and that of your fellows; how it creates tensions and competition between the PCs; and how it creates situations where the life or death of your fellows is in your hands. This session also showed how easy it was for the players to see this and use it to the story's advantage.
And I also realised I really enjoy systems, like 3:16, where the GM can go all out. As a GM in 3:16, you can and should bring as much hurt to the players as the rules will allow you to do. This is completely different from a system like D&D, where the GM has to find a balance between making the game too easy and making it too difficult, and thus has the weird double role of (a) balancing the game, and (b) being the adversary. Here, you just go all out, and the limited number of Tokens ensures that it's always fair.
Looking forward to the next session!