The Alexandrian

3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars - Gregory Hutton

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.

SHALLOW EXPLORATION

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.

NON-FIGHTING ABILITY

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.

CONCLUSION

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.)

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12 Responses to “3:16 – Mechanical Failure”

  1. Faoladh says:

    This illustrates my problems with story games. The designers do not seem interested in the “game” part, only in the “story” part. That’s cool, but it leads to a bad play experience. For instance, I love the setting and ideas of Dogs in the Vineyard (pace Zak – but it’s only fair, since I hate Dread, which for me invariably develops into just a game of “how many turns of Jenga can I take?”), but I never feel like any decisions I make in that game matter, since no matter what I choose for my character to do it still comes down to pushing a couple of dice forward, with no mechanical relation to whatever choice I made. The game could just as easily be played without making hardly any character decisions at all, and just pushing dice around. The only choices you’d have are how quickly to escalate an encounter.

    Similarly, here it seems as though the designer never considered that players would want to optimize their game strategy as well as engage with the fiction. That, in fact, optimizing game strategy would help shape their experience of the fiction. This makes me sad, since, when I was more deeply involved with story gaming, I’d heard many good things (from story gamers, natch) about 3:16.

  2. Andreas Davour says:

    I think some of this disconnect is because so many “Story Games” are very crunch heavy. While there’s a lot of talk about story, and the game mechanic is there to drive story, it’s often very focused on crunch. It becomes “just pushing dice forward”. I have no solution to that conundrum, but maybe a change of mindset.

    Secondly, I’m not sure I agree that NFA is all useless. I’d let players use it to reinforce their position, make tactical evaluations or do “stunts” which give a bonus in combat and FA rolls. I’m not sure it’s implied in the rules, or just inferred by me.

  3. KarlM says:

    I wonder, did you get a chance to play this? Because in my experience the game works a heck of a lot better than a ‘broken promise’, and certainly not ‘mechanics don’t matter’. I think the FA/NFA balance has some very interesting emergent properties.

    If you search for actual play accounts it’s not hard to find people discussing the issue. Eg
    + http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?442320-3-16-My-First-Experiences
    arguing NFA is over powered

    + http://indie-rpgs.com/archive/index.php?topic=29757.0
    some details on using NFA in combat

    + This thread comparing several different plays has quite a lot of depth on the use of the mechanics
    http://indie-rpgs.com/archive/index.php?topic=26920.0

    + some interesting discussion of the level of PC death over the course of a campaign
    http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forge/index.php?topic=26568.0

  4. Justin Alexander says:

    Faoladh: The designers do not seem interested in the “game” part, only in the “story” part.

    The irony is that 3:16 actually features some very clever mechanics that are very effective at emergently shaping story. And its big problem actually derives from having a fairly robust game structure… but then not really thinking through the mechanical consequences of that game structure.

    Andreas: I’m not sure it’s implied in the rules, or just inferred by me.

    You’re inferring that. But I’d agree: Those are some good ideas to explore in trying to fix the problem.

    One of the problems you’ll potentially run into is action economy: If you follow the guidelines in the rulebook, most PCs will only get 1-2 actions per “encounter”. So most actions used to set up another action will go to waste. You can increase the length of an encounter by increasing threat tokens, but this has tack-on effects (including high lethality).

    If you allow the NFA check to be made in immediate conjunction with the FA check it boosts, things might work out better. But what will happen is that everyone will want to use their NFA skill all the time for the boost, so you’ll probably want to crunch some numbers on how to make it all balance out correctly.

  5. P Armstrong says:

    Andreas: I’m not sure it’s implied in the rules, or just inferred by me.

    Justin: You’re inferring that. But I’d agree: Those are some good ideas to explore in trying to fix the problem.

    Actually, it is implied in the section titled “Making Use of Your Gear” on page 87.

  6. Astra4000 says:

    I’m running a session of this game at an upcoming con, mostly because it takes little time to learn and I can pretend to be Michael Ironside. Just like a spell user in D&D may appreciate a test using INT/WIS, I will be aware of how well the challenges integrate NFA. In the rules the pc with high NFA begins at a higher rank. This means he gets better/optional weapon choices (kinda like the fps player that goes shotgun over base rifle). I’m also considering team robots/turrets that would require NFA, with a percentage of kills going to the operator.

  7. Ashardalon says:

    NFA is great.

    You can use NFA to:
    – gain +1 to future NFA or FA rolls (p87)
    – increase rank (p32)
    – gain new gear (p32)
    – increase a weapon by one step (p32)
    – change weapons in combat (p19)
    – acquire vehicles (p82)
    – control vehicles (p82)
    – fire vehicle weapons (p82)
    – evacuate troopers from combat (p89)
    – orbital bombardments, D1000 kills (p88)
    – avoid demotion (p88)
    – force other troopers to use weakness (p89)
    – and more!

    While the most kills allows you to gain a level:

    – NFA rolls let you increase rank, which gives you access to:
    — 1. vehicles, which lets you fire vehicle weapons with NFA rolls (p82)
    — 2. special weapons, which are fired with NFA rolls
    – NFA based weapons can inflict 100s-1,000s of kills
    – and a random person also gains a level regardless of FA/NFA/kills (p32)

    What makes me sad is more people will read the original blog post than this comment.

    If I was to fault 3:16 for anything, it would not be the rules… it would be the game text that doesn’t include a concise reference of everything NFA can do.

  8. Justin Alexander says:

    @P Armstrong: Thanks for the correction. It’s been awhile since I actually played.

    @Ashardalon: Unfortunately, as mentioned in the original post, none of the things you mention there are supported by the mechanical structure of the game. Yes, it’s true, if you don’t actually care about playing the game, then there are all kinds of things you can do with NFA. But that doesn’t solve the mechanical flaws in the system.

    Rank, unfortunately, doesn’t actually fix the problem. It’s not like characters with a high FA aren’t allowed to make NFA rolls and improve their rank, too. And part of the explicit balance problem is that FA allows you to add levels: So you start with a high FA, use the high FA to boost your NFA, and can then rapidly and easily end up with an NFA at least equal to the guy who used to be the NFA expert.

    Furthermore, you can only gain a rank through an NFA roll if you use a Strength; you can only use a Strength if you’ve gained a Strength through leveling up; and FA gives you a huge advantage when it comes to leveling up. (There are two ways to level up each session: One person randomly levels up and the person with the highest kill count levels up. Since NFA can’t compete on kills, it means that FA specialists are twice as likely to level up each session.)

    3:16 does a great job of linking its reward structure into its mechanical game structure. Unfortunately, this only makes the fundamental flaws in its mechanical design worse.

    To put it another way: High NFA characters do have a slight advantage on development rolls, probably about 30% on average. But because of the broken feedback loops high FA characters benefit from, this advantage rapidly disappears. By contrast, the 30% advantage FA characters have on all the rolls that actually matter to the game structure and reward system rapidly compound because the system requires multiple FA rolls per session but only one development roll (which is the only NFA roll which has a significant impact on the game structure and reward system).

  9. Ashardalon says:

    I played a campaign of 3:16 with a high NFA and what you’re saying doesn’t match my experiences or anyone’s experience who I know personally (and I know quite a few people who play 3:16 regularly).

    For example, you say:

    “Rank, unfortunately, doesn’t actually fix the problem. It’s not like characters with a high FA aren’t allowed to make NFA rolls and improve their rank, too. And part of the explicit balance problem is that FA allows you to add levels: So you start with a high FA, use the high FA to boost your NFA, and can then rapidly and easily end up with an NFA at least equal to the guy who used to be the NFA expert.”

    But only one person levels up because of a high kill score!

    And a second person levels up randomly (regardless of their FA/NFA score). Are you more likely to level up faster because of a high FA score? One person at a time is.

    Plus having a high NFA is incredibly fun. I gave you a long list of things you can do with NFA. You mention how world exploration is anemic because of the number of viable encounters. Yet you can use NFA between encounters to set up advantages.

    You said NFA can only be used to do 3 things. I clearly proved this to be incorrect and even cited page numbers.

    You said that the NFA development roll is the only roll which has a significant impact on the game structure and reward system. This might be true in a one session game but in longer games you can use NFA rolls in combat by controlling vehicles (as well as helping combat rolls and evacuating).

    Are you open to potentially being wrong? Or are you going to automatically try to dismantle or ignore my words to win without considering the direct evidence I’m citing? Would you rather win rather than try to find out the truth together? It’s ok to be wrong, I’m wrong all the time. And in this case, it’s not your fault. It’s the fault of how the game is written.

    I apologize if that sounds harsh. I’m just frustrated that I spent so much time citing the book to help clarify the reality behind what NFA can and can’t do, and I feel a lot of that information was ignored.

    At this point hopefully whomever reads this blog post will also take the time to read these comments and decide for themselves.

  10. Andreas Davour says:

    I think I agree with Justin that the game has a slight lilt toward the FA end, but like I wrote I think there are indications in the game of NFA use, even if it sometimes has to be inferred.

    Ashardalon, I really enjoy reading your input on the matter as well! The list of things you can use NFA for was very good, and informative.

    Actually, when I have listened to interviews with Greg Hutton, I have gotten the impression that for him the game works just fine as pure FA badass fighting genocide, but that maybe the nuances might come out in a longer game, where you after a few planets begin to feel a slight disconnect between the slaughter and the characters, and then the other side of the game emerge.

    Still, for some people it seem to be a game where the simple set up make them roleplay like crazy and practically demand NFA rolls before any combat occurs.

    I have notcied in my games that the economy of the threat might feel a bit off with the recommended spread of tokens, but it’s not a big problem, I think. You are supposed to adjust things like that for your group.

    It’s a very intriguing game.

  11. Justin Alexander says:

    But only one person levels up because of a high kill score!

    You make that sound like it’s relevant. Did you not read the comment you’re replying to? Or do you just not understand how probability works?

    Are you open to potentially being wrong?

    Always. The point you make about vehicles is a good one, for example, albeit statistically irrelevant to the question at hand. (Compare the kills from vehicles to kills from weapons; compare the resources sunk into acquiring the vehicles compared to what those resources can accomplish elsewhere. And even if the vehicles were competitive, by the time you can gain access to them the FA feedback loops will have already crippled the NFA characters.)

  12. Josh W says:

    That suggests an interesting way to balance them:
    FA allows you to compete to level up, which also gives you NFA, but if you focus on NFA when other people are focusing on competing for level ups, (ie minimise FA, maximise NFA), then you can gain ranks, which will eventually allow you to win the kills competitions.

    In other words, in the degenerate state of one player being a cleric equivalent in order to handle NFA for the other players, depending on how ranking works, it could be possible for them to gain insurmountable rank advantage on the other players and start consistently winning the kills, via vehicles or other high rank equipment, thus consistently being the one to level.

    That’s not counting your ability to sabotage your team mates, which would in this case be probably best used to balance out the levelling between your other team mates, so as to minimise the maximum level among them.

    But I don’t know how the maths works out, how feasible it is to get a lock on the kills via this method so as to cancel out the effects of the levelling they’ve done in the same time. But if the maths is close, it strikes me as a strategic choice very similar to the aggro/combo division in mtg: Gain direct advantages towards victory, or spend time working on another strategy that will give you no advantages until it suddenly works.

    And in a more balanced situation, can’t you use NFA to sabotage a teammate who is likely to come ahead of you in kills, so as to be the one to level?

    The fact that competition with other players is involved in whether you level or not makes the feedback loops very odd, but it seems like if you get the numbers right you could make this structure have very complex and ambiguous incentives, thanks to the way that player actions hang off each other.

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