3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars is a truly fascinating game which is also heartbreaking in its broken promise.
The game is set around a science fiction military force: Something of a cross between Starship Troopers, Aliens, and Warhammer 40k. To quote from the rulebook:
Their whole mission was to fight, and defeat, anything in the Universe that they could find. Alien civilizations, intelligences, and life of any kind were to be wiped out to protect the future safety of the people home on Terra. Threats were to be neutralized at their source.
Terra is a prosperous place. (…) Paradise is a reality. When the Council formed the Expeditionary Forces they found it easy to recruit. After all they offered a life of excitement and adventure. See the cosmos, travel and live life to the full. Don’t drop yourself in a suicide booth, serve your fellow Terrans by joining the Force.
I want to emphasize the stuff that this game gets right: It positively drips with atmosphere. Its simple mechanics work hard to reinforce that atmosphere and to encourage creative character development. It even includes strong procedural content generators to keep the game fresh and easy to prep. Even more impressively, the mechanics and content generators are structurally subtle: There is a “hidden” game that lies behind what appears, at first glance, to be a simplistic game of “blow up the aliens”. As that game emerges, 3:16 will naturally (and unexpectedly) grow in depth and detail. What the players choose to do with those revelations remains up to them.
I want to emphasize all this stuff, because I’m now going to talk almost exclusively about the fatal flaws that, ultimately, cripple the game.
A 3:16 campaign is broken down into planetary expeditions: For each alien planet, the GM is given a budget of threat tokens. These threat tokens are spent to create encounters.
Mechanically speaking, however, any encounter with fewer threat tokens than players seems completely anemic (not necessarily pointless, but certainly not any kind of credible threat). Assume that you nevertheless use three of these anemic encounters and then follow the rulebook’s guideline of having the final encounter on a planet use threat tokens equal to twice the number of players: The way the math works out, this means that you only get 6 encounters per planet, half of which will be speed bumps.
This pacing results in the game being a lot more shallow than the rulebook implies: If you create an interesting planet and an interesting alien, you basically have no time to actually explore the dramatic possibilities of either one.
The core stats of the game are Fighting Ability and Non-Fighting Ability.
The character choosing to take a high NFA, however, is basically screwed. NFA is only used for three things:
(1) Dominance checks
(2) Changing range in combat
(3) Development rolls
Changing range is almost meaningless because you can also change your range with a successful FA check if you also beat the aliens. And because encounters don’t last that many rounds, it’s simply a suboptimal choice.
The other two options are slightly more useful, but don’t contribute kills. This causes two problems:
First, the NFA characters can’t compete with the FA characters for kills. Because advancement is primarily based on kills, this means that the FA characters keep getting better and better at kills… while the NFA characters keep lagging further and further behind. It’s like being stuck in a death spiral.
Second, the NFA characters have little narrative impact. While reading the rulebook I felt that NFA would give characters some out-of-combat spotlight time, but there’s no structure for that: Expeditions are based entirely around removing threat tokens, and the only way to remove a threat token is to rack up the kills.
At the most basic level, this just means that the game becomes uni-dimensional: Everybody specializes in FA; nobody specializes in NFA.
But it’s not that simple, because someone in the group needs to have a high NFA so that the group can score at least one success on Dominance checks. (Because if at least one player doesn’t succeed, the aliens will likely ambush them. During an ambush, every single PC takes 1 “kill”. After suffering 3-4 kills, on average, a PC will simply be dead. Healing during an expedition rarely happens, which means that if you can’t succeed on at least 50% of the dominance checks on a planet, the result is a TPK.)
This means that someone needs to fall on the NFA grenade and take one for the team, otherwise everybody gets fragged. This becomes the old “cleric conundrum”: Someone needs to pick this unfun chore because otherwise nobody has any fun.
The designer’s response to this is that, basically, mechanics don’t matter: If the GM includes all kinds of activities that have absolutely nothing to do with the game and have the PCs make NFA checks that don’t actually do anything, then somehow that non-mechanical pseudo-use of the mechanics will solve the mechanical shortcomings of the game.
Unfortunately, I just can’t agree. A broken game is a broken game, no matter how much you improvise around the broken mechanics.
A few untested thoughts on how some of these problems might be addressed:
LIMIT RANGE CHANGES: Make it so that the only way to change your range in combat is with an NFA check. Now characters at a sub-optimal range with their favored weapon have a more meaningful choice: Stay at their current range with the chance to remove a threat token (but taking fewer kills while doing so); or move to a better range while risking that other players will suck up the threat tokens or that the aliens will start landing frags.
MISSION OBJECTIVE TOKENS: MOTs are like threat tokens, but they can only be removed with NFA checks. They’re added to encounters to represent objectives (such as hacking a computer system or triaging injured troopers). Maybe have a number of MOTs per planet equal to the number of players.
(This is only a partial fix, however: I think it would be necessary to find a way to tie the MOTs into the advancement mechanic.)
FLEXIBLE NFA USE: Allow NFA checks to achieve kills and remove threat tokens. For example, in our session we had situations where NFA checks could have been used to commandeer the enemy’s holographic soldiers or to take control of an automated factory and turn it against the bugs. But there was never any mechanical advantage to doing so because it could never actually contribute to ending the encounter or racking up kills, so it never happened. (Double penalty: NFA sucks and awesome is discouraged.)