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
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.
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:
- The unfairness of the system represents the unfairness of the army.
- 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.
- The system rewards those who exploit and keep down their team mates.
- 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.
- 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.
- If the game treats you unfairly, that is only because your fellow players allow it to treat you unfairly.
- But they always have a choice not to.
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.