Monday, December 19, 2011

3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars: Player-side Review

This past weekend, Stands-in-Fire ran a session of 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars, a rules-light game written to be about space marines killing bugs on the Planet of the Week. Our GM reworked the game's assumed setting, so instead we fought zombies in various Left 4 Dead configurations as the zombie apocalypse descended upon a local office park.

For starters, 3:16 is a very strange game, and I can't help but be glad that the GM's reframing of the game allowed us to ignore a number of the game's assumptions. In 3:16, a character has two numerical stats, plus some descriptive phrases attached to their Flashbacks (on which more later). These numerical stats are Fighting Ability and Non-Fighting Ability. If you're making an attack, you roll FA. If you're doing anything else at all, including shifting from one range of combat to another, you roll NFA. Stats range from 2 to 8, and you want to roll under your stat number on a d10. I played Eddie Mackenzie, a loudmouthed gun nut who was a pretty good shot, but was otherwise seriously lacking in competence (7 FA, 3 NFA). My dice completely supporting my willingness to have Eddie be a braggart rather than a hero - this led to a lot of jokes about how my dice thought we were playing Mage, because I rolled more 8s, 9s, and 10s than I could shake a stick at.

The stats of your weapon are also a relevant concern, and explaining weapon stats reveals one of the game's strangest conceits. We started the game with very few weapons, surprising given that we were part of the Security division for that building. (My character, for example, left his gun in his car because "if I have my gun on me, I'm just too dangerous. I might... snap." ) So we had a couple of fire axes, some heavy bludgeoning toolboxes, and a handgun. All of these weapons were rated at 1 damage; the melee weapons could only deal damage at Close range, while the handgun could deal damage out to Near range. (A later acquisition, a hunting rifle, could deal damage out to Far range.) This one point of damage means that, on a success, the Threat Token that is removed (because all successful attacks, regardless of the weapon's damage rating, defeat one Threat Token) had a value of one (1) zombie, rather than being a larger pack of zombies.

So the GM actually can't tell you how many enemies are attacking, if weapons have variable damage ratings, because he won't know how many zombies there were in that group until a successful attack kills them. I'm pretty sure it's the first time I've seen someone try to manifest the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in survival horror. Because the GM can't tell you how many zombies there are before the end of the fight, you as a player obviously can't really care at the time; what you care about instead (at least as far as survival goes) is the number of Threat Tokens that the GM places.

Right, well, why even have variable damage on weapons, if players aren't really able to care about it until after the weapon has been fired? Because the number of zombies you kill (one in the case of our starting weapons; 1d10 in the case of an explosive that Eddie jury-rigged) increases your kill total, which is to say your score. In the assumed space-marine setting, you need to keep score because that's how you increase in level between missions. You can also increase in rank, either from field promotions resulting from Tragic Accidents Befalling One's Sergeant, or from using a Strength Flashback during the session, or you can juice up your gear. Promotions, including commissions as officers, are key to the continuing play of a 3:16 campaign. Ranks above Corporal carry increasingly complex priorities and orders, written to generate a certain degree of conflict between players (since lower-ranking characters are likely to be marked as Acceptable Losses).

Since we were playing Zombie Apocalypse Survival Horror, though, we don't have military hierarchy to worry about. We had... a Project Manager (the character with the highest NFA). After that point, as we all know, performance does not contribute to promotion... But the idea of competing within the team, rather than cooperating for maximum survival chances, neither appealed to us nor made any sense in the scenario. It's also a lot easier to care about protagonists when it's clear how and why the antagonists are a threat that must be defeated (because they'll eat me and everyone I care about!), as opposed to the casual fascism of the space marine setting (this isn't my planet, this isn't anywhere near my planet, and I can't imagine how hard the enemy would have to work to even find out where my planet is, much less go there). The rules of 3:16 strongly and repeatedly encourage players and the GM to revel in the unbridled machismo of slaughtering the local lifeforms. I guess I'm a bad gamer, because the whole idea bores the hell out of me. If I'm going to kill something in a game, I'd like to have at least a slight effort to show me how the bad guys are bad.

So you're going along, fighting various numbers and power-sets of aliens or zombies with weapons that determine how many aliens or zombies there used to be on the field, and the only point of better weapons is to rack up a higher score once all is said and done. Is that all there is to the game? Well, not quite.

First of all, survival is a major challenge, because you really have only two "hit points" (wound levels, really) before you reach Dead, as well as one armor level. We spent a considerable amount of injury moving our most wounded characters (who were incidentally also our best combatants) to Near or Far range from the zombies, just so they'd be less likely to take another hit.

If that had been all we had to work with, though, the various First Aid kits we found over the course of the game would not have been nearly enough, and we would have lost at least two characters, maybe more. (The GM had us hunting for First Aid kits rather than automatically recovering one wound after each encounter.) The other tool in our collective arsenal, to which I referred earlier, was Flashbacks. The session was approaching its climax by the time we started spending our Flashbacks - we didn't bother using them when we felt we could still just soak up the damage and keep going. This also meant that our Flashbacks were clearing more dangerous versions of the zombies - Hunters, Smokers, and so on, so I think we made a solid group decision there.

Flashbacks can either let a player dictate a victory on her own terms (this is called a Strength), or narrate a defeat on her own terms (this is called a Weakness). Without going into too much detail, I don't think the rules do a great job of explaining why you'd ever use a Weakness instead of a Strength if you had the choice; it's implied to some degree that you're using a Weakness because it can counter another player using a Strength against you. That level of PvP is sufficiently distant from the playstyle of the gamers I spend any time around that it just isn't a concern. In the assumed setting, using a Weakness also causes demotion between missions, so your character survives the encounter and may receive punishment later, while spending a Strength instead makes you eligible for promotion.

In conclusion, we found the rules engine of 3:16 to be light and fast-paced enough to let us fight zombies and have a very good time. A lot of our fun came from the GM's complete willingness to roll with whatever we wanted to do and his ability to keep the pressure high, since we ignored the portions of the rules that didn't fit what we already wanted to do. According to the GM, the rules did a great job of supporting what he wanted to do with each of the different L4D-style zombies. My interest in playing again has nothing whatsoever to do with 3:16's advancement and promotion rules, which put a lot of emphasis on competition between players. I freely recommend modified approaches to 3:16, but deep down in my gamer soul I just don't understand the glorification of fascist jingoism-cum-nihilism (seriously, that's the Brigadier's objective) that the system-as-written trumpets and encourages players to embrace. All told, the system did a fine job of getting out of our way and keeping our focus firmly on playing our characters and thinking our way through the challenges, and I appreciated it for that.
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