Playtesy review: 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars

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I’ve been peripherally aware of this game for a little while now but had never had the chance to play. When I saw it on the list at this years Furnace I grabbed the chance to give it a go. My preconceptions were that the game was indie, it’s focus is on fighting as a space marine against a horde of aliens, that success is measured in kills, and that’s about it. Turns out I was right.

My game was  one of those ‘lets make it up as we go along’ type sessions that normally makes my heart sink. For once though, the promise of being able to generate your character in 5 minutes was true. We had six players, the GM brought 5 sheets, a rookie error. Pretty much your only choice is where to divide up your ten points across two stats, fighting ability, and non-fighting ability. The minimum is 2 (making the maximum 8). Two players needed reminding of this rule, which just goes to show how difficult it can be to pitch the simplest of explanations to a group! I plumped for a 6/4 split, concentrating on fighting. Our numbers then generated a few other stats such as previous kill total and ranking. Our group had a sarge and a corporal, everyone else was a trooper. We got kit cards and orders (mine said ‘kill all aliens’). With a name and a tagline we were off to our first battlefield.

Group dynamics fascinate me, and gaming gives me prime opportunities to indulge that fascination. In any team a leader will push their way through. In 3:16, this leadership role is handed out prior to play. If your natural personality wants to follow and join in, this is a tough gig. If you’re the sort of person who likes to be in charge, then your role as a trooper can be excruciating. So it was in our game. Our leaders were decision-phobic, and the rest of us were too polite to make a fuss about it. That made the simplest of scenes become awkward. Our GM was happy to stay silent on the issue and when he did get involved it was to ask for skill checks. This included rolling to see if we could turn on lights. Oh good.

The mechanics are brutally straight forward, you roll a d10 hoping to get your skill level or less, with high rolls better than low. With 2 stats, there’s not a whole lot of tactics, which is odd given the game’s premise. Combat is at the heart of the game, and the rules don’t appear to get any more complex at that point. There’s a little chart with range bands on it, and you have a mini on there to represent yourself. The aliens are (loosely) represented by tokens and you each blast away at each other until there’s one force standing. I hesitate to say it’s board-gamey because that does a disservice to board games. It reminded me of Kill Dr Lucky, with it’s home made components. There’s things called Strengths and Weaknesses on your sheet, but I didn’t fully understand their use. It seemed you could use them to indulge in a little PVP if you wanted.

The scenario was ultra generic sci fi bug hunting. I can absolutely see how this could do 40K very well indeed, or Starship Troopers or Aliens. The thing is (and this is not exclusive to 3:16) you can’t let the rules do the heavy lifting when it comes to presenting a good game. All those IPs I just mentioned are backed up by big budget visuals and huge sourcebooks full of canon. If the GM and players in 3:16 don’t put in the effort to bring the world to life, even if only temporarily, then the game is doomed to mediocrity. Some games will let you coast along with zero input, but 3:16 doesn’t have enough bulk to do that. The fun part of the game seems to be in between the missions, with promotions and new equipment to ‘roll up’. In game, it soon became samey and pointless. Attempts to add flavour to the proceedings were brought crashing down to earth with ‘just roll non fighting ability’.

Finally, I got the impression that the game got more involved when you’d been playing it for a while. If that’s so, why couldn’t we start like that? Many, many games make ‘zero to hero’ a feature of play, I love those games. In a 4 hour con slot, why on earth would you play at level 1, unless level 1 has the ability to display the game at it’s best? This didn’t. 6 players and 7 deaths just made us care less about our characters and served to turn the scenario into a light comedy.I have a sneaking suspicion we weren’t shown the game in all it’s glory, and that there are potential good times held within. A GM who really loved the game (and really knew how it worked) could have shown us a cracking 4 hours. I’m an easy target, I’ll buy nearly anything if I can see so much as a nugget of potential. I didn’t buy 3:16, and that’s very, very telling indeed.

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9 thoughts on “Playtesy review: 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars

  1. Ouch.

    Your report echoes play experiences that I’ve had of 3:16. I’ve only played one-shots to be fair, but while others revel in being shouted at by their COs for the duration of a slot, I find it grating. Rolling to turn on a light sounds like proper arse-gravy though. Blowing tokens – however colourfully narrated – off a board is just not engaging past the first encounter.

    “There’s things called Strengths and Weaknesses on your sheet, but I didn’t fully understand their use. It seemed you could use them to indulge in a little PVP if you wanted.”

    Strengths and Weaknesses are vital to having any sort of rich play experience. It’s a shame you weren’t told how you can use them to leaven the relentless barrage of kill-happy machismo scenes with scenes of actual drama. Then again, there are no rolls made during Strength and Flashback scenes, so it’s a bit too hippie for even my tastes there.

    I’ve not had good play experiences of vanilla 3:16, but there really is stuff to like in the system and theme. A “Left 4 Dead” hack has provided a few sessions of pick-up-and-play fun – the “rules” are dead easy to pick up which is good – that featured some actual drama and story.

    3:16 is a huge success and plenty of my gaming mates love it. Maybe you just had a bad session, which happens to us all. A follow-up game called AD 316 is in the works which features more tactical options on the range map that evidently are easily back-ported to 3:16.

    For tactical play I’ll stick to… well, now’t really. Gaz is soon going to school me on the tactical merits and Fast Furious Fun that is Savage Worlds.

    Cheers
    Pete

  2. Man, that sounds like it sucks. Tough break.

    Did you get to leaf through the book at all? Or did all the stuff come from the GM? I find that players absorb different things from the books themselves so I like to hand them the book rather than have me tell that what I think is cool.

    I think the book itself, as an object, is a good teaching tool and quite rich in imparting a background and bigger “world” — the finer detail of which comes organically from players using Flashbacks (without them having to think that this is what they are doing).

    And I can’t believe that you didn’t get told about Flashbacks. They are 100% the way that you get through the first mission very fast and on to the second — and crucially move from having a nobody with a name to a character with a history and some heroism. They also fill in so much of the tone and are a vital part of teaching the game.

    One problem might be that the GM was being too “indie” and wanting to have all this group consensus bullshit. Screw that. And rolling a die to switch on lights? Man, that’s terrible.

    In 3:16, as written, the GM absolutely acts like a GM in a trad game and gets a nice pacing mechanic for the opposition to the PCs. If you don’t like being a grunt then get promoted (or die trying). Don’t like the Sarge? Force a Weakness on him and get him demoted.

    The combat tactics are also much more subtle than they first appear. Certainly if the GM is sharp and using the Special Abilities well.

    Having said all that I’d agree 100% that it’s not a game for everyone. And many thanks for your post about it.

  3. Mik

    Wasn’t particularly enamoured with the idea of AD316 but if there are extras that could be used in 3:16 then that’s a lot more tempting. It would be nice to be able to look for more than the 4 or 5 options (of which only 2 or 3 are ever used) that are currently available during combat.

    I’m not sure I’ve run a serious game of 3:16 (the players just never seem to want it that way, there’s no reason it couldn’t go dark) but the actual combat bit is never really the point of it, and definitely not the meat.

    While there’s no randomness to the Strengths and Weaknesses, they are a really important bit of the game. Mechanically they are your ‘get out alive’ options when in combat while thematically they are your chance to breath extra life in to your character and build them up in to something more. They really ought to be stressed during the brief rules spiel the game requires.

  4. Hi Gregor,

    Thanks for stopping by to make your comment. I’ve posted this review in a couple of different places and the overwhelming response has been to say that my game was atypical and that I should give it another go. My GM perhaps didn’t have the passion, or even the skills, that he needed in order make the game all it could be.

    In the spirit of fairness I’ll be ponying up for a copy and when I’ve given it a good read through, I’ll come back and expand on my first impressions.

    That said, your reply still causes me to hesitate a little. If I have questions about the game – in the middle of playing – the last thing I want is for the GM to hand me the book! That’s for afterwards. If the person running the game can’t pitch it’s good points, or explain it’s muddy areas, then they’re either playing the wrong game, or it’s just not a good game. I think I know what happened in this instance.

    Secondly, flashbacks. I think these did get used, in a very vague way in game. I’m not certain of the effect, except that they ended the scene? I’d love a quick explanation! And the whole ‘bust down the sarge’ element is what I meant when I said PvP in the original review, IMO very dangerous territory for a trad game.

    Again, I really appreciate your comment, and I will try again, but no promises.

  5. Mik,

    You said:

    “I’m not sure I’ve run a serious game of 3:16 (the players just never seem to want it that way, there’s no reason it couldn’t go dark) but the actual combat bit is never really the point of it, and definitely not the meat.

    …and that makes me very nervous! Really? it’s not about combat? Is that one of those things that only becomes apparent after 20 sessions?

  6. I think the best thing for me to do is to _not_ try and explain it in a blog post. The book (or PDF) is the best way for you to get an answer to those questions. Read it from the start and see what you think of the game (browsing in a FLGS is a good idea!). And don’t worry (I’m sure you won’t) about being convinced it’s a game good for you: it might be, or it might not.

    My hope is that the text either (a) excites you to play, and in a way that you and your group will be happy with, or (b) it won’t excite you to play but you will at least understand how the game works.

    Regarding looking at the book in play, I wrote it so that I could have it on the table as a reference for me and my friends while playing. Which is unusual for most RPGs as they are terrible at being referenced in play. Anyway, it’s written in the order that rules come up in play with reference material at the end. So it’s great to dip into when you’re playing. Also the amount of info on each page is nicely “bite sized” and the book is short enough that’s it’s not overwhelming.

    There is an awesome thread on RPG net where a poster reads the book, sight-unseen, from the start to the end. It’s very comprehensive.
    http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?t=477145

  7. Mik

    “…and that makes me very nervous! Really? it’s not about combat? Is that one of those things that only becomes apparent after 20 sessions?”

    I’ll try and be clearer with an example…

    At Consequences I ran a session of 3:16 with 7 players, a lieutenant, two sargeants, a corporal and three troopers. So 35 threat tokens. We had to end the session early because the hall was closing and it was last slot of the Con which can be an odd one.

    At the point I decided to announce a ‘cliff hanger’ ending to the game, (to be concluded at Conception) we’d played for a little under 3 hours and I’d used 15 threat tokens, so around four firefights with aliens.

    This was because the party had chosen to split up with one sargeant and two troopers trying to do the mission as given (take some macguffins and set them up using balloons that had to be filled from the air tanks in the soldiers own armoured suits to float them in to the dense unbreathable atmosphere). A trooper and the Lt were floating high above the ground on jetpacks with a third jetpack attached to a bomb on a vaguely random countdown. The remaining corporal and sargeant were on the deck watching everything through an enhanced sensor rig the sargeant had requisitioned through stores while patching it all back through the displays on everyone elses armour.

    Pretty much none of that, or the briefing, the other stores requisition, the almost failed drop pod landing and the shenanigans that had led to the bomb being attached to a faulty jetpack that was also attached to the Lt without his knowledge had involved any actual interaction with the alien threat. In fact, I’d just thrown in the odd alien attack to remind the players that they weren’t in their own little bubble.

    Now, I know as a Con slot game I ran a bit of a mare here. My pacing was out and I’d probably let things get too fragmented. I’d like to think in a different situation (not last slot of the Con when everyone is a bit tired and other things are intruding on the game) I’d have run it tighter. Fortunately the players all had a great time with what they did and will be around to finish the game off next time, but hopefully it sheds some light on what I mean by ‘it’s not about the combat’ the bit where they were blowing the aliens away was a very small part of the game. A part that had its place and did some useful things, there was a lot of damage taken, it fleshed out a number of the characters and some weaknesses had already been triggered, but really not the meat.

  8. Latecomer to the party, but I thought I’d chime in with my experiences.

    I played one night’s worth (approx 4 hours) of 3:16 as a break from our normal D&D4e campaign. Our DM, myself and one other player took part.

    3:16 is much more rules-light that D&D and I (playing a high-ish NFA character) was consistently frustrated by my inability to contribute meaningfully to combat, which does take up a significant portion of game time.

    NFA is infinitely more valuable during after-mission shenanigans such as seeking promotion and requisitioning new equipment, but as a convert to 4e’s creed (“everyone should be useful all the time”), I didn’t like that division.

    What I did LOVE about the game was the enormous storytelling opportunity it prevented. Pretty much our entire session (during which we got through 4 missions IIRC) was spent ad-libbing about actions and reactions. The game gives both the GM and the players the power to alter the terrain, positions and equipment simply through description, and that’s fertile ground for a group willing to stretch their narrative wings.

    The Strengths and Weaknesses system is brilliant. Strengths allow a PC to pre-emptorily end an encounter, immediately destroying all remaining alien tokens. Weaknesses allow a character to escape a combat, leaving his companions to fight on. Both require the player to describe something from their background that caused an event in the present.

    I’ll give an example. It was the last combat of the last mission of our session. Our squad had gotten itself pinned down in open ground between a jeep-mounted grenade-trooper and enemy troops ensconced in a reinforced bunker. Both players were down to their last wound and things seemed grim, so I elected to use my one remaining Strength.

    I called it “Bank Shot” and described how my character had spent his adolescence hanging around in pool halls back on terra, learning from the pros and sharking fools of their cash. Back in the present, my PC fired a burst at the grenade-trooper, catapulting him off the jeep. As he fell, his weapon fired, sending a high explosive grenade into the bunker and wiping out the enemy troops there. Combat over.

    None of the above required me to roll a dice. By spending the Strength, the narrative was entirely in my hands. I could describe whatever I wanted to, and it would happen. The great thing about 3:16 is that everyone gets to do things – to co-opt the narrative – like that. It’s almost like a competition to see who can tell the most awesome stories.

    I’m not sure the game makes for a great ongoing plot (the lack of granularity in the mechanics IMO gets in the way of detailed characterisation and the lethality is too high), but it’s an awesome game for beer and pizza gaming or for breaks from your regular campaign.

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