War no more

We’ve been playing 3:16 for a while at Spelens Hus, meaning, the group of young people who’ve previously played Tunnels & Trolls, Villains & Vigilantes, and Mörk Borg among others. The membership has shifted around a little throughout its 18-month history but has always been characterized by enthusiasm and intellectual connections.

Those latter features led me to this game because, bluntly, I’ve decided not to play it with nearly anyone but these particular people. Generally and culturally, I think the youngest among us have the best chops for anti-war as a concept. If you disagree, it’s no big deal, because there’s a more specific, role-playing-specific reason for the difficulties I’ve seen in playing this game, and we can focus on that instead.

Realizing the need for the Situation and Story course, and teaching it a couple of times, have finally given me the ability to talk about it clearly. A situation is not merely prepared encounters and an implied plot (“scenario”), in fact, it doesn’t even necessarily include those things. It is instead the larger set of actionable content which encloses any and all so-far actually-played content. Some of it may be front-and-played within scenes, some may affect scenes withou being seen, some may appear in later scenes, but all of it is “in play” in the broadest sense, no matter who introduces it or directs its activity in a particular set of rules.

And that’s the problem with playing 3:16. People treat its GM-based encounter preparation as the whole of any given play-situation, whereas those are merely some of the content which (i) happens to be dice-constrained and (ii) happens to be played by the GM among everything else the GM plays. That “everything else,” in combination with the other “everything elses” provided by what the players say their characters do, is the real situation. It includes any and all between-mission, shipboard play as instigated by anyone. It includes the whole Brigade, of which this little group of scabby low-rankers (at the start) is a part. Some of it, in fact a lot in this particular game, is created during play and as an ongoing effect between sessions, but that is an unimportant feature relative to understanding the concept.

My experiences with the game are unequivocal. Play without this in mind (for everyone and anyone involved), and the game will sputter out in pointlessness and boredom. Play with it in mind, and you have an authentic statement on war unique to this group of people – a rare and valuable phenomenon in this day and age, as I see it.

Session 1: Reubens

Here are my preparation notes and recorded play for the first session, all the way back in November or December last year.

My rules errors during this and later sessions are rife, based on misunderstandings during teaching, minor understandable goofs, or occasional genuine stupidity on my part. Throughout this entire run and probably continuing, we have never correctly implemented the hashmark system for Strengths and Weaknesses; I somehow convinced myself there’s a set maximum number of Threat Tokens per encounter (there isn’t); I mess up or forget Alien Abilities; and we too often bypass significant details like changing-up weapons during a fight.

Session 2: Matisse

The second session failed to record, so I’ll summarize it briefly here.

There’s important content in this one, as “corrupt troopers” is the most important listed target as far as I’m concerned: the player-characters must face facts that at least one other brigade has chosen not to continue Terra’s genocidal policies, and that their own command is determined to treat fellow humans as an alien threat. As preparation, I included a special mission for Sergeant Sims to capture their leader, named Ward, which he managed to do without his own troopers knowing he did it.

It was notable for some adjustments to reputations: Neo settled on “The baby-sitter” for Sergeant Sims, and Theo decided “Unpredictable” worked better for Van der Linde – interestingly, now that Cooper was the only Crazy one, Filip started playing him extra-crazy. Van der Linde is also notable in his streak, ongoing to this day, of showing tons of Strengths without ever getting promoted from Trooper.

As of this writing, we’ve played eight sessions:

  • Reptiles on Reubens, the rain planet (audio above)
  • Corrupt troopers on Matisse, the gas planet (described above; audio below)
  • Scorpion people on Monet, the desert planet (two sessions)
  • Humanoids on Michelangelo, the radioactive planet
  • Ooze in the brigade itself
  • Giants on Pollock, the forest planet
  • Mineral people on Kandinsky, the humid planet

I’ve recorded most of it, and I”ll include them here as I continued to finish editing, as well as discussing them in the comments to keep the post tidy.

The situational content is now off the charts. Here’s “Crazy Cooper” to give you an idea of what the characters look like now … and he’s one of the least disturbing, considering that Arvid’s character Morgan has been revealed, via Strengths and Flashbacks, to have been neurologically reconditioned into a trustworthy nice guy after a terrifying adolescence as a dissident terrorist … and his conditioning is wearing off under fire.

There’s a lot more in the whole context: power shenanigans among the upper ranks, including that the very same Ward that Sims captured is now somehow the Brigadier (!!), and tons of proactive between-mission play. We’ve learned mainly through proactive player efforts that there’s an extensive shady underworld and black market throughout the brigade, including cage fights in which Van der Linde has become a popular champion. I don’t even want to think about the bootlegged medical supplies, the dangerous alien drugs, and the radioactive substances that Morgan has been stockpiling.

Frankly, the players are much better 3:16 players than I am a 3:16 GM. In addition to the various rules errors, all of which have softened mortal threat to the characters, I’ve generally failed to play NPCs enough as persons, or to apply gratuitous cruelty based planetary conditions, i.e., many more arbitrary kills should have been descending upon them all the time. I wish I’d been reviewing the recordings steadily since the beginning so I could see myself set up for both of these and then sort of fail out as I’m managing tokens and getting too automated.

Session 2: Matisse

I found the recording after all!

Discuss this session in the appropriate comment below this post

Session 3: Monet

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Session 4: Monet continued

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Session 5: Michelangelo

This session didn’t record, so see the Session 5 comment below for my little video summarizing what happened. Discuss this session in that comment.

Session 6: post-Michelangelo, on-board the brigade

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Session 7: Pollock

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Session 8: Kandinksy

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Session 9: Picasso

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Session 10: Picasso continued

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Session 11: after Picasso

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Session 12: the fate of the 3:16

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16 responses to “War no more”

  1. What you describe here is what I’ve long suspected is one of the problems with Blades in the Dark. People get very caught up in the Job -> Downtime -> Job -> Downtime cycle without spending sufficient time in the Freeplay step addressing things not related Jobs or Downtime. Much like 3:16 I don’t think the text helps with this problem at all.

    It’s funny that you said these people are the only people you would be interested in playing 3:16 with. I just said to someone the other day, “I’m only interested in playing Blades in the Dark with people who aren’t excited to play Blades in the Dark” simply meaning I don’t want to play with people who are already hyped about how they think the game works.

    Whether the system actually adequately supports a broader situational context in Freeplay, I don’t know. But it’s really the only way I’m interested in playing the game. I want to know who these scoundrels are as people outside of the context of working as a crew.

    • There’s a subtle point at work here, which I have found to be unsubtle and overwhelming once I understood it

      Heist – Free Play – Heist – Free Play … meaning that the heists are the “thing” and free play is “in between things.”

      Whereas in 3:16, play is play. Missions someimes happen during play – perhaps regularly and routinely, but not necessarily so, and even if so, a mission is shaped and conceived inside the more general situation of being these particular (shit out of luck) soldiers in this brigade with its particular circumstances and backstory. And that situation evolves due to both changes in the soldiers and changes in the brigade’s circumstances.

      Therefore there are no “between missions” phases or sequences. Being on a mission is merely a certain formalized sub-situation, i.e. a particular category of scenes, within play. And significantly, the resolution procedures operate at all times; the group doesn’t have to invent anything or interpret anything in order to play as I’m describing.

      Regarding the texts, I’ve decided to step away from the grad student comfort zone for debating their meanings and intentions. I want to focus myself instead on considering play to be our default condition, with its situational procedures firing hard. If a book doesn’t say it, perhaps instead of complaining that it doesn’t, we acknowledge that it doesn’t have to – because that’s what we came to do no matter what.

      That said, I think the question remains open of whether that means anything or does anything for playing Blades in the Dark. I say this because the procedures inside heists don’t mean anything or do anything, so I have little hope that anything is available between them either, and that playing situationally would mean going hard into original game design, to make something when presented with nothing.

    • I think this is a really good lesson for how I would play Bushido too. Instead of playing ‘”adventure – downtime”, starting with downtime and organically expend to adventures & downtime, without downtime being some kind of “in between adventures”.

  2. SESSION 2
    I found the recording after all! See them above, added to the post.

    It might not be evident from them that we’re using each person’s d4 as their counters in the range map for play, as every player has at least one set of very distinctive dice.

    I started using terrain and geographic maps in this session in conjunction with the range map, which proved very useful and important, and I included them for many later sessions, although not all. I also think the combat choregraphy started to kick in nicely, especially with contextual narration before the rolls and specific effects and outcomes based on the order of the results.

    In listening to this, I like the way they are completely acclimated to “anything can go wrong,” so there’s no need to call for a roll or explain why even for such things as turning on their infrared sensors. They know the world is against them, especially their own equipment. Van der Linde continues his losing streak on trying to read the field manual – I think Theo failed six times before finally succeeding, and that moment is probably more triumphant than any of his successful attacks in combat.

    They also instantly pick up on the mission being directed toward fellow earthmen. As I mentioned in the post, at this point they are not yet habitually dismissive or disruptive toward their own chain of command; if the Corrupt Troopers had appeared later, I think there may have been quite a lot more fact-finding and subversion during the mission.

    Pay attention to Ward, though. He isn’t forgotten.

    Please reply to this comment (small “Reply” at the bottom left) to discuss session 2.

  3. SESSION 3

    See the recordings I’ve added to the post.

    Here’s the session which jumped hard into ship play, which established it as the primary “setting.” Neo is still working on Sims’ reputation, currently as “lazy,” which becomes “the baby-sitter” later, after his promotion.

    I repurposed a fantasy-type archipelago map for the terrain this time, interpreting the water as especially loose sand. Some of the events of play were derived directly from map-based location considerations.

    In all cases, I’m clipping out some rules discussion at the beginning of a session, which is too bad as it loses some of the naturalism of the recording as well as the realities and steps of learning a system, but it’s also so “real” as to be unlistenable, like an Altman film gone all the way around the bend.

    Also, sometimes I’m terribly wrong, as in this session, confusing the Drop Pod (which you cannot fight from) and the All Planetary Vehicle (which you can). I also somehow managed to mix up Colonel Drake (ship captain, whom we don’t see in play) with Lt. Sanders, calling the latter by the former’s name during the lieutenants’ meeting.

    We did get something important quite right: when Trooper Morgan wanted to keep his ill-gotten alien organ harvest, Sergeant Sims wanted to collect them from him by force, and Arvid chose to Force Weakness. The text says to use the combat/encounter rules for inter-player conflicts, so I had them roll Dominance to see who actually landed their action first. Sims won but failed his attack, so Morgan actually made him run off in a huff and kept the contraband.

    The mission itself is worthy of note in that Nils stated outright how heinous and evil the whole 3:16 brigade is, and indeed the whole Terran way of life: “We’re not the good guys! We’ve been tricked! This is like the Fifties!”

    the rest of this mission is played in session 4

    Please reply to this comment (small “Reply” at the bottom left) to discuss session 3.

  4. SESSION 4

    This continues the mission from session 3, on the planet Monet. It might be hard to tell from the recording, but at the transition between sessions, Neo’s character Sims had been isolated from the group due to another player’s use of Force Weakness, and Nils wasn’t present at the session, so we had to account for Buck’s absence (Nils told us later that his name is straightforwardly Buck, not Bucko).

    Arvid’s apparently odd obsession with chemistry is more than we realized at the time. Keep an eye on Morgan; Arvid’s playing him with some depth and is perfectly justified in not explaining himself.

    I didn’t have the book with me for this session and walked into some unfortunate mistakes. Here’s where I somehow convinced myself that I was limited to five Threat Tokens for an encounter, which is definitely not the case, and doing this threw off the math for the game throughout the eighth session, arguably messing up the whole thing. I wasn’t making this mistake in the first couple of sessions (I made others), and only now I’m realizing that I inadvertently imported the Budget rule from Primetime Adventures. And I forgot to nail Van der Linde with a Kill when the scorpion-people ambushed him in the pod.

    With all of that, they were still in a lot of danger, except that I kept rolling fails for the aliens’ attacks. I think the amphibians in session 1, with an Alien Ability of 2, hit more often than these guys with their 7!

    You’ve probably spotted it by now, but I use the nature of the world and anything else, including any detail that has cropped up, as a way to inflict arbitrary kills whenever, usually defensible via Non-Fighting Ability, but not always.

    Please reply to this comment (small “Reply” at the bottom left) to discuss session 4.

  5. SESSION 5

    This is the one that I didn’t successfully record or messed up the filenames and deleted it, or something. It turned out to alter the circumstances of the whole brigade, which becomes evident in the sixth session, so I thought I’d summarize a few things about it in a video, here.

    I also decided, during preparation for this session, that I had been screwing up the rules way too much, so this time I was careful about all sorts of things. I didn’t mention it in the video, but they did have their drop pod, which this time I played correctly … and which happened to negate the Alien Special Ability: Ambush, but only once. They swiftly felt the sting of being constantly ambushed and taking kills to start any encounter, and that’s why Flashbacks started cropping up this time, and continue to do so. So those rules went a lot better. However, I was still laboring under the incorrect notion that the Threat Tokens were limited to 5 per encounter, which stands high on my Dumb-Ass Wrong GMng Things Life-list.

  6. SESSION 6

    I mis-remembered a couple of things in the Session 5 summary, especially that Arvid hadn’t been present – everything I said in the video about him and his character Morgan applies to this one instead.

    During play, I pulled out one of several battle-mat books on the shelf in our playing area, which provided the interior maps for the ship. It went a long way toward establishing sense of place for us, so that non-mission play felt grounded. I think I’ll keep that in mind and bring a map for the ship every time I play this game.

  7. SESSION 7

    Ah-ha! This is the session in which Morgan’s backstory took shape. It also marks the transition after the “ooze incident,” so that the brigade ship which houses our squad is physically kind of crap from now on, as well as the brigade power structure as a whole becoming more obviously fractured.

    I was still laboring under my delusion about the 5 Threat Tokens and messing up the rules for when you have Strengths and Weaknesses available. The overall currency for the game – which includes player-character deaths – was pretty much borked the whole time. I can explain it now, if anyone’s interested, although too little and too late for this game.

    I did like the giants on Pollock, who provided a nice change from the usual “hordes of foes.” You’ll note that unlike the default mission, clearing the Threat Tokens was only about succeeding in this one specialized mission, not to annihilate the planet’s population. I chose to do that to emphasize the deterioration in the brigade’s effectiveness.

    • I didn’t comment much but I’m really enjoying those sessions. You may remember my experience with Blades in the Dark and how I considered the cycle of “heist – Downtime” was flawed, and that my solution was to consider “play” as the whole and “heist” and “downtime” as subroutines of overall play instead of a cycle. I never got to do try it because I’m just done with Blades in the Dark. I think there is so much things to design for the game to be working that I’d rather design my own game – the heist mechanics seems to only cancel any bounce opportunity, while the downtime mechanic force you to play in a certain way. But anyway.

      Since I’ve read about 3:16 after that Blades experience, I want to play it. It’s on how “to play” list with a “playing at the real table” group of friends. I can see no other way to play it than how it is does here, so it’s very enjoyable to hear and read the excitation.

      I’m interested in your view on the currency of the game.

    • Currency talk!

      A couple of minor points to add about the third/biggest sphere of variables:

      – higher scores aid better survival, but higher ranks allow for staying out of missions
      – Non-Fighting Ability is well-suited to both shenanigans (including not getting caught) and policy effectiveness (for or against 3:16 ideology)
      – at this level of play, many characters feature colorful and relevant profiles of Strengths and Weaknesss – e.g., you can’t rank up without inventing/using Strengths, and you can’t use Strengths without inventing/using Weaknesses

  8. SESSION 8

    At one point, I think it’s Arvid who says, “So, we’re going down there just to shoot these meditating aliens.”

    I’d rolled humid world + mineral aliens + suicide, although the latter was better suited to hordes than to stationary targes. My adaptation made it a bit more like the exploding bodies ability. I liked the thematic effect, that the soldiers couldn’t really tell whether the aliens were even fighting back, or if the explosions were some side effect of being harme.d

  9. SESSION 9

    In the currency presentation above, when I mentioned the shenanigans among lower-rank troopers and policy problems among higher-rank ones, this was the episode I was thinking about, in addition to previous experiences in play.

    The breakdown and shaking-out of events toward end of the session (the mission, if the word even applies, continues into session 10) brought up a rules moment. The Alien Special Ability was reduced visibility, and the planet’s feature was dense atmosphere, which were easy to combine into a single feature which applied more to the planet than to the aliens specifically, who aren’t native to it. But the combat played out such that Sims, and soon the others, were not fighting the aliens but instead fellow troopers. So … I continued to apply the two features I just mentioned, as that made sense; also, conveniently, the reduced visibility is defined as applying to everyone, not just the player-characters. The mechanics for the Alien Ability had yielded 6 … so, since the actual aliens weren’t in combat with the player-characters, I used the 6 for the trooper opponents’ rolls.

  10. SESSION 10

    When I say, “playing 3:16,” this is pretty much what I mean.

    At this point, so-called missions are not only obviously cruel and meaningless, they are outright stupid, and no one assigned to them has any motive actually to carry them out. The question is when the players internalize the fact and move into thoroughly proactive play. … and which ones decide or realize that they’re playing deranged remnants of human beings, as opposed to those who hold onto what little remains, or could be.

  11. SESSION 11

    We’re into pure out-of-mission, arguably no-more-missions play. Although I can conceive of using the mission rules for some later activity, it wouldn’t be the same fictional context as for the start of play.

    Everyone has shifted, without direction to do so, into character development and new decisions. They are, at this point, essentially GMing me in terms of me playing big-scale entities like the aliens, the brigade, and, perhaps, Terra.

  12. SESSION 12, our conclusion

    Shifting entirely to out-of-mission play, including combats, should not be difficult for this game, as all the necessary procedures are there. I didn’t put in quite enough time to be sure, though, especially about Threat Tokens in non-mission circumstances. I think I cut a few too many corners regarding the ending, although Sims earned the outcome of the linchpin conflict entirely fairly by the system and by Neo’s merits as player … and the dice outcomes could have been very different.

    Consider Filip’s thoughts on Cooper’s fate carefully. He decided upon a backstory that offered some hope … but if you’re not listening carefully, you will miss what he also says is the only possible ending for Cooper if the aliens were not able to help him.

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