Friday, 14 March 2014

Terror & Gunfire: Playing Dread and 3:16

I assure you, this picture is relevant to this post.

Right now we're playing short one or two sessions games in my RPG group.  I find these very enjoyable periodically to break up long campaigns - a sort of sherbert between courses to cleanse the pallete, and a way to scratch different genre itches without abandoning long-running games.  You can give horror, science fiction, police procedural or whatever a go for just a night or two, then go back to your long-running Fantasy or Steampunk or whatever game. The last two games have been a chance to try a little touch of modern-day horror and of military science fiction.

That and, as you may recall, I own rather a lot of RPGs so it's nice to get a chance to use some of the more obscure games in my collection.  Some one-off games are regular events for us - Ghostbusters has been ran several times - but I like to play at least one game per one-off block that's brand new to the group.

Not visible on screen: that red mark continues onto the back cover and is a bloody hand print.

Last week's game was Dread, a horror game with a rather unusual set of rules - rather than roll dice or draw cards to determine who succeeds or fails, a Jenga tower is erected and people who wish to achieve anything difficult must pull a block from the tower and place it on top of the tower to succeed.   If the tower collapses, the person trying to do anything will find themselves killed, seriously injured, running away screaming, possessed by the ghost or otherwise taken out of the story.  One can always choose not to pull when asked, in which case the action is failed but in a non-fatal fashion.

Told you it was relevant!

The end result is that, like a horror film, tension builds up and up as the tower becomes more and more rickety with every pull and every subsequent action becomes a bigger risk.  There are no casual rolls: every player around the table becomes quiet when someone stands up, walks to the table where the Jenga tower is erected, and starts prodding at it searching for a safe block.  When the tower finally does collapse then the tension clears back up again and the tower resets... with a few compulsary pulls handed out, meaning that it's possible for one person's failure to knock-on through the rest of the group.

Should have used this Jenga set instead, but it's just a bit harder than normal Jenga.

This is the fourth time we've played Dread.  The first time was a science-fiction game which seemed  a bit spotty - at least partly, I think, because several players weren't really "getting it" and that can drag everyone out of enjoyment.  (I got suggestions from said game about how to "improve it" by making it less fatal.)  Every other time since then I've gone for a present day American horror film vibe instead - and although this time wasn't quite as strong as the last two, there was still some fun had.  Some sort of alien/monster/demon creature was used without a huge amount of explanation of motive, instead it just came on screen shooting lightning, swinging scythed claws and eating brains of drug-taking Gap-Year-adventuring American teens in Africa.  This helps us follow the genre rules.


One thing interesting about Dread is that rather than a character sheet with numbers, each character is given a questionnaire.... but the only question they have in common is the final one, "What is your name?".  Every questionnaire is different, and the questions can be somnewhat leading.  Charles played the character whose questions included "You've got a sports scholarship to pay your way through university - what sport do you play?" so that immediately says he's a sporty character while allowing him to choose a sport and theme his character appropriately.  Raj, meanwhile, played the more party girl whose questions included "Shouldn't you be laying off the drugs?" and "Aren't those shoes a bit impractical for Mali?"  Players can still make interesting choices that take their characters in different directions than you might expect.

The 3:16s assault fleet prepares for a full-on assault on Hornel

Wednesday's game meanwhile was 3:16 Carnage Amongst The Stars, a Starship Troopers like game of heavily armed interstellar soldiers travelling the galaxy killing any filthy alien that moves.  Produced by Edinburgh game designer (and friend-of-a-friend) Gregor Hutton, the rules are quite simple compared to some of our crunchier games - characters have two main statistics of Fighting Ability and Non-Fighting Ability, and the second lumps everything together from climbing to engineering to intimidation to medicine

Not a game for playing pacifists.

3:16 is on the one hand pretty brainless - the players were part of the eponymous 3:16 (Third Army, Sixteenth Batallion, Terran Expeditionary Force) and deployed down to the planet Carvaggio to rescue missing troops from Able Company and ended up battling weird wolf-like aliens, screaming obscenities as they laid down the fire and racked up their kills.  The simple mechanics back that up, with combat being a quick but brutal affair in which range is abstrraced to Close/Near/Far and deaths rain down thick and fast.

"...That's impossible, that's inside the room"

Where the game is lacking, though, is tactics.  Combat is just an exercise in rolling a single dice, hoping you hit, then counting up kills.  Close/Near/Far is perhaps an abstraction too far for me and the end result is a very random, arbitrary sort of fighting.  Most combat-heavy games make battle maps, variable combat actions, teamwork and finite a resources a more important part of the game - anyone who has played a D&D 4E combat will know how much each individual choice you make matters.  Here, Ailsa basically couldn't miss with her heavy machine gun and her only viable combat choice was just to point and fire, possibly moving back from Close Range so she could maximise her kill scoring.

The combat map.  All alien threat tokens go in the middle: the Troopers position themselves in the range brackers.

But there is a strange smart edge to 3:16 as well - it's a game with a sort of political agenda and while that's more evident in campaign play touches of it come up in single session as well.  The Terran Expeditionary Force are like Roman armies; banned from returning to the solar system, they can bring their ships anywhere except Terra.  Standing orders from the Terran Council are to kill basically any alien, with a clear xenophobic bent.  Terra is supposedly a paradise, yet the players are the kind of people who would take a job at the arse end of the galaxy with the risk of getting their bowels removed by a Vettrianan Eel-Beast.  The end result is that the players seem aware that they may not in fact be heroes, that their job might be stupid and were questioning OOC quite what the deal was back home.  (I suspect if you continue to play that would come up IC - indeed, all characters in play slowly aquire a Hatred of Home as play progresses, so tension is more or less guaranteed.)

...Except the 3:16 don't have to serve to get a vote.
 Like the horror game we very much played up to the genre tropes.  PC soldiers played up to stereotypes like unhinged private, suicidal scot or cigar-chomping sergeant.  Their platoon commander, Lieutenant Frink, was an arse who hadn't pulled a trigger in his life and attended to by a sycophantic batman.  The aliens weren't human-level intelligence yet had Aliens-style glimmers of animal cunning, managing to ambush Bravo Squad on several occasions.

I'm a little divided on 3:16 - I really enjoy the fluff and the tone, but I'm not sure the mechanics were terribly interesting.  A single D10 on a single target number produces very random results - the Aliens and Molly's character went whole fights not killing a goddamn thing.  For a combat heavy game, combat was perhaps the weakest part of the package for me.  I would like to play it again but I dunno if I might need to change the combat system up a bit - or perhaps move the game system, say to Traveller or Deathwatch.

...and we're back to Warhammer 40,000 again.

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