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Author Topic: [3:16] the betrayal of planet Girlfriend  (Read 13499 times)
Paul Czege
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« on: December 17, 2008, 06:07:09 PM »

I recently manufactured myself an opportunity to run 3:16, by prepping three planets prior to the December monthly open-house at a private boardgaming club, arranging to borrow some badass painted and pimped out WH40K space marine figures, and letting it be known that I was bringing hot marine action to the open house.

And I got five players.

In my prep I did diverge from the rules in one minor detail: I didn't use the painter names for the planets. Oh, I totally love that the game has a naming scheme. But in fact, I love naming schemes so much that I really needed to have my own. So for this game I pulled planet names and names for NPCs from the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy's list of illegal drug trade street terms.

So I had planets named Girlfriend, Yellow Bam, and Nickelonia, and NPCs with names like Capt. Bag, Lt. Finajet ("I am Lieutenant Finajet. You can call me Lieutenant Jet."), Lt. Super C, Sgt. Tardust, and troopers Bambalacha, Birdhead, Halfgee, Nile, Roche, and Worm. And I enjoyed the hell out of doing the prep.

It's the actual running of the game where I foundered (and failed). It was a flat flat flat play experience. The one female player, who's a big fan of PtA, likened it (in post-game conversation) to the tedium of her years of combat-based D&D3e experiences.

So okay, a confession before I get into the details. I've read Starship Troopers, Bill the Galactic Hero, and The Forever War. They're awesome. They're the main reason I find 3:16 such a compelling game. I've seen military and space military films, Aliens, and Platoon, and Black Hawk Down. And I was a player for one planet in a game of 3:16 John Harper ran at Gen Con. But I've never internalized the interpersonal dynamic of the cinematic military. John and Eero and the crew in the 3:16 game at Gen Con were all solidly awesome at being cinematic military personalities. My dysfunctional posse back in high school could all quote probably the entirety of the dialogue from Full Metal Jacket. Not me. So I went into the game expecting to rely on everyone else's character immersion to inspire my own efforts.

And they didn't.

Not a one of their characters actually ever did anything socially interesting. From past experience I'd figured it was a safe bet players would be good at military personalities. And I was wrong. So I actually wasn't very good at being Lt. Jet and the other NPC officers and troopers.

I don't, however, think this is why the game was flat. But in the interests of disclosure I bring it up, in case someone wants to contend that it was.

Okay, first was Planet Girlfriend. AA: lowest NFA+1, which turned out to be 4. A gorgeous, sun drenched water world, with towering coral reefs, and arches, and twisty white sand bars. The mission to retrieve a data probe. The aliens: artificial life forms (they're snails, basically, that have built tiny pale silicone anthropoid bodies for themselves that have long double-forked, muscular stinger tails). Special ability: Ambush.

I'm not a dumb guy. It was obvious I needed to provoke the players to use their Strengths, or preferably, their Weaknesses, if I wanted to see them develop. And I tried mightily. I used the recommended Threat Token breakdown from p. 29 in the book for four encounters. But the players quickly figured out the logic of the highest rolling successful marines taking their kills and the marine immediately preceding the aliens choosing to cancel all subsequent successes. Ambush did let me chip at their health levels, but with judicious use of Armor by a couple of them, and the strategy of cancelling my successes, the aliens never really had them on the ropes. With five players it was like they were getting five chances to roll better than me. And even when they chose an action that was an NFA roll, rather than a roll that could produce kills, they never wanted the outcome so bad they wouldn't instead choose to cancel my success if their roll was greater than mine.

Next was Planet Yellow Bam. AA: Highest NFA-2, which also turned out to be 4. And it was the same story. The aliens were shadow beasts with the force weakness ability. They haunted an ancient, abandoned, sandstone city under a low sun that cast long shadows. And there was a unit of NPC marines who'd determined there weren't any aliens, had stopped wearing their MandelBrite suits, and who were encouraging of the player marines to join their relaxed bivouac on a long colonnade.

It was, without the Ambush ability, even less of health threat than Girlfriend. I burned through tokens trying to use the force weakness ability, but got cancelled every single time. I roleplayed the fuck out of lovely Trooper Nile, in her gauzy dress, inviting the player marines to sit and enjoy the afternoon. But failed to provoke any character play, anything socially interesting, anything but one-dimensional focus on clearing the level.

The final mission, Planet Nickelonia, was my favorite of the three I'd prepped for evening. It was Lowest FA+1, which turned out to be 5. A forested volcanic world. The aliens were furry creatures I'd decided were three eyed apes. Their special ability was boost. I delivered a mission briefing:

"They're savages. They tore a well guarded survey crew limb from limb." Finajet shows photo of snarling ape, with bared teeth, and three eyes. Plan is to use an orbital laser bombardment to open up a lava flow. Unit is to slay all survivors forced forward by the lava flow. Cpl. Bluelip and troopers Halfgee and Roche (all NPCs) will establish rocketpod emplacement. "The rest of you will enter the forest."

And I played it as powerfully to the hilt as I could. The burning forest. The smoke. The terrified apes fleeing wildly from the destruction of their village. I blew tokens aggressively on boost. With the first use of boost, I described the apes as walking more upright. With the second, they spoke the human language. "Why are you doing this? Our home." The penultimate encounter was a baby three-eyed ape who'd fallen into a sinkhole. His mother clinging to exposed roots, stretching and trying to reach down to her still infant. And troopers Halfgee and Roche, having abandoned their post, also trying to help. The player marines, just as non-dimensional as they'd been the whole evening, slew them all.

Across all three planets I'd provoked a grand total of one use of a Strength, one or two uses of Armor, and not a single Weakness.

And you know what? I'd misread the rules. When I did manage to inflict a kill on the players I imposed it on those with lower value successes, as well as those with failures. If I'd not missed the rule that the kills only apply to marines who rolled failures, it would have been even more of a blowout.

To a man the players thought it was meh. They wanted more character play.

What the hell should I do differently? I'm inclined to think much of the problem was the number of players, and argue the AA calculations should take the number of players into account. Also, I'm thinking maybe NFA rolls between missions should have some mechanical footprint. As it stands, they're just color; they felt frivolous, and I never managed to do anything interesting with them.

The starting characters are sketchy. I wanted to see them develop by provoking their Weaknesses (or Strengths), or by provoking divisions in their ranks, or soul searching in response to the missions. And I failed on all fronts.

Advice?

Paul
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #1 on: December 17, 2008, 08:04:23 PM »

Your experience mirrors other groups I've known to have played 3:16. The game is quite vanilla in its mechanical approach, so much so that I could characterize it as "doing nothing" when it comes to structuring and provoking interesting character interaction. All interactive color and character development I've witnessed in my 3:16 play has, without exception, happened because the players (GM included) have started and encouraged a cycle of character-full banter on top of the rather character-neutral mission structure.

To wit, did you run between-missions scenes and provoke choices from the players in regards to their relationships? All 3:16 GMs I've known, myself included, do a lot of NFA-based scenes that give the character in-fiction perks and an opportunity for characterization, not to speak of giving a more complete picture of the various NPCs the PCs work with in the army. Once we've established that the sarge is a jerk, this guy doesn't take war seriously and this one is a bumbling incompetent (all very naturally occurring conclusions when you let the team compete on the firing range, clean equipment, try to hack the food processor or whatnot), the rest falls into place if the players are interested in coloring their mission play with character personality. If not, the game goes nowhere.

So basically 3:16 is just not very aggressive in directing players around. If you're going to continue with the game, chances are that the players will start to grow into this largely non-mechanical "freeform" component of the experience out of frustration with the process; ideally, of course, you'd get there more naturally, and most groups seem to do so relatively quickly. In that regard I'd perhaps like to point a little bit towards the first culprit you dismissed, the lack of military genre characterization - if nobody is interested in these color elements and into nurturing the personalities of their characters into something that has a separate existence from the military machine they're part of, then the game isn't going anywhere.
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Thor
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« Reply #2 on: December 17, 2008, 08:13:15 PM »

I was one of the players in the game (Hi Paul) and it has occurred to me that there were two things that went wrong.  One I think we could fix through practice and the other was the make up of the group. The first was that the cool power on planet girlfriend was the ambush, which you went to all the time; that made us feel powerless in a system which we weren't comfortable with. Taking damage at the start of every encounter led to the initial action of the second problem. When Melanie's character blew her armor we fell into the joke about her being topless, and that humor was easier to keep up than the serious pretense of the game. We were a bunch of people who more or less didn't know each other and had no expectations about the game other than bug hunting. You really did try to keep it serious but the jokes just out numbered you. That we weren't taking it very seriously didn't make the pathos you brought to the table as strong as you wanted it. The base absurdity that the setting has requires a lot of shared desire to disbelieve together.

Jet who obviously didn't know what was going, and wasobviously on sending us into a deathtrap. That didn't make it easy to take the game seriously.  If we went into the first planet feeling that the mission was serious and we felt in capable and the play re-enforced that feeling then we would have reached farther when stuff went south in other missions. But, after the first planet it was too easy to hide our disapointment in the humor rather than  thinking the game was broken.
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Moreno R.
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« Reply #3 on: December 17, 2008, 10:38:25 PM »

Your experience mirrors other groups I've known to have played 3:16. The game is quite vanilla in its mechanical approach, so much so that I could characterize it as "doing nothing" when it comes to structuring and provoking interesting character interaction. All interactive color and character development I've witnessed in my 3:16 play has, without exception, happened because the players (GM included) have started and encouraged a cycle of character-full banter on top of the rather character-neutral mission structure.

My experience with the game confirm - in negative - what Eero say here. Every single successful actual play of 3:16 that I read was based on a lot of "freeform roleplaying" from the players and the GM that masked the simplicity of the system underneath, a roleplaying fueled by a lot of military color.

When I did try to GM the game, I wasn't able to use the military color (every single player at that game, including me, was a civil objector. Or a woman, exempt from draft), and I really dislike the role of the GM as the "entertainer" that show off to entertain the players, so it was a remarkably "flat" experience.

It's something I experienced before in other systems where the role-playing is "on top" of a system , but independent from it (like Contenders, for example). Even if we usually are a group that really enjoy roleplaying the barter and the relationship between characters, that disconnection with the rules make it seems almost "not important" and useless, even if we rationally know that it's instead the only way to enjoy the game.  Did you feel something similar, Paul, or you are talking about a different problem?
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Lance D. Allen
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« Reply #4 on: December 17, 2008, 11:15:11 PM »

Hey Paul,

First, you didn't misread the rules. When the Aliens succeed on their AA, damage is inflicted on all characters who rolled equal to or under their roll, and all players who fail. Only those who succeed with a roll higher than the Aliens' roll are exempt from damage.

Secondly, if your players are always canceling before the aliens, then just ouch! You can't do much for that. I think probably they weren't getting into the competitive spirit of the game. Letting your fellow players get injured, or possibly killed, is a valid tactic in the game. As is canceling to avoid letting them get kills. As is canceling to save them from dying. Cohesive team play works fine in the game, but you'll lose a lot of the mechanical threat if your players are willing to sacrifice getting their kills. Also, if they're constantly canceling to save each other's asses, then obviously you're not going to be able to force them to use Strengths or Weaknesses to save their own asses.

Third, if your highest AA was a 5, then doubly ouch. 5 and lower makes it hard to present much of a threat. Get a 6 and things tip in your favor, giving you a 50% chance of succeeding. Get an 8 or higher, and you'll be hurting them, badly and often.

Fourth, going back to that competitive spirit: PvP is where it's fucking AT in this game. In the two missions I played at GenCon, we didn't have any real PvP, but there were building tensions that would definitely have ended up with it if we'd continued to play with that group. In the three sessions I ran in Kuwait, there wasn't a mission that didn't go by without troopers shooting at or in some other way confronting other troopers.

Fifth and finally, not having real investment in the military mindset hurt you at least a little. It's that sense of entitlement (deserved or not) of ranking officers and the willfulness of subordinates that drives much of the tension in the game. If your SGTs and CPLs don't feel the need to impose their will on their idiot TPRs, and the TPRs don't feel some pressure to tell their leaders to go fuck themselves, whether or not they do, the game loses a lot. It might end up that the SGT has his squad's best interests at heart, and the imposition of his will is for their own good, and it may be that the TPRs swallow their rebellion because they respect their leaders, but the tension has to be there.
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Gregor Hutton
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« Reply #5 on: December 18, 2008, 02:42:06 AM »

Thanks for posting this AP and the detailed notes on it, Paul.

I'll have to think about this one.

The first thing that leaps into my mind is that you seem to want one thing (the group to jump in and be militaristic) while the rest of the group seems very defensive in their mode of play (maybe in reaction to the unknown?) and are unwilling to do that. From reading above I think you are doing a fine job of playing NPCs and making planets and interesting aliens, but the players don't seem to be engaging in "revelling in the kill-happy machismo" of the setting. Would that be fair? It seems like risk-aversive play.

Oh, Lance is right about the Aliens killing rule, and you did it right in the game.

I'd suggest grabbing a really high AA (just picking 10) or only the highest choices from the list so that you have a good chance of beating the rolls of the PCs. But I'm worried that the group would just be defensive to that too, and feel you were being unfair to them or something.

Anyway, thanks for posting and I'll have a think about it. I'm happy to read any other thoughts people have about this.
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Pelgrane
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« Reply #6 on: December 18, 2008, 06:28:55 AM »

My suggestions:

1. Make the Lt come down on the Sarge with arbitrary orders which make the Trooper PCs want to disobey. Initiate NFA emotional conflicts. For example, order them not to use grenades, order them to close to zero range and use grenades, tell them to go onto the planet without armour, demand they split up, or test new combat drugs. Split the corporal from the Sarge. Make them want to frag the lieutentant.
2. If the creatures aren't a threat just boost em up. Add more tokens, boost the AA, make it very hard to win without Strengths or Weaknesses. Don't be afraid to kill them.
3. Reward NFA rolls with FA bonuses.
4. Give them missions which require NFA rolls in addition to killing the aliens.
5. Use the conflicting orders to bring intra-party conflict.
6. Even have the Lt try to kill one of them for disobeying orders.
7. Make one of them the Lt's pet. That really works.

You can do almost every conflict with NFA - push to difficult choices.
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Paul Czege
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« Reply #7 on: December 18, 2008, 06:55:19 AM »

Hey Simon,

6. Even have the Lt try to kill one of them for disobeying orders.

Not possible between missions without an AA for me to be rolling against, right?

Paul

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"[My Life with Master] is anything but a safe game to have designed. It has balls, and then some. It is as bold, as fresh, and as incisive  now as it was when it came out." -- Gregor Hutton
Pelgrane
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« Reply #8 on: December 18, 2008, 07:02:02 AM »

Hey Simon,

6. Even have the Lt try to kill one of them for disobeying orders.

Not possible between missions without an AA for me to be rolling against, right?

Paul



Someone more knowledgeable than me can confirm this, but I'm pretty sure you can do this at any time.

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Gregor Hutton
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« Reply #9 on: December 18, 2008, 11:20:21 AM »

Hi Paul

I've had a think today and partly the problem is that 4, 4 and 5 as AA, one after the other, is simply not challenging enough to shake up the party into being forced to use Flashbacks. These are planets where the odds are very strong that the players will cause carnage in relative safety. But those low choices are ticked off the list now.

I would pick high numbers from the list, say 10, or the highest FA (7, 8 or 9 by now?). I would also pick things like Lasting Wounds or Ignore Armour. They will be tough, tough planets. Page 47 talks about picking AA and which choices will be tough early or late in a campaign.

I tend to ask for NFA rolls to see if anyone is sick on dropping to the planet, for working out where they are on the world and so on. Rolling with how the dice go, and irritating the party over the intercom from orbit (a bit like the example at the back of the book).

I wouldn't start threatening to have them killed by NPCs. They'll find the NPCs they want to kill in play, over time, if they are engaging with the fiction and finding imaginary characters they do/don't get along with.
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agony
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« Reply #10 on: December 18, 2008, 06:56:34 PM »

This is kind of re-iterating what others have said but I've found 3:16 most enjoyable when Command dicks with the grunts.  Piss them off and then stick your ass out in the wind and let them blow it off if they dare.  The conflicting orders is good advice, I really like the combat drugs idea.  Stuff like John Harper's Alpha Protocol where he had Command order the troopers to open up their air vents and expose their lungs to the planet's atmoshpere are brilliant and where this game really shines.

Oh, and have the senior ranking Player deliver the shitty orders and be responsible for enforcing them.
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Graham W
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« Reply #11 on: December 18, 2008, 07:17:47 PM »

Paul,

My feeling is that the problem isn't mechanical. When I've played, the best bit is the player-vs-player stuff.

For example: I leave a fight early, landing everyone else in shit, and then everyone else turns on me. The mechanics are used there, of course, but what really counts is the stuff we injected: I chose to land everyone else in shit, everyone else chose to turn on me.

The question is how to foster that as a GM.

I think Simon's right. It's things like making one of them the Lieutenant's pet; giving difficult orders ("kill the civilians!") that some will follow and some won't; telling one soldier to spy on another; bribing one of the soldiers with a bigger gun. As GM, you want to provoke them into that player-vs-player stuff, not using the mechanics, but by adding things into the fiction.

In that sense, I think there's something very old-school about 3:16. The GM can lead the game and provoke the players.

Graham
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greyorm
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« Reply #12 on: December 19, 2008, 01:32:14 AM »

Ron stated in a previous 3:16 thread -- "You can't tell me you guys don't know what to do with this when you used to sit around writing eighty pages of setting material" -- regarding complaints from Seth and myself that we didn't quite know what to do with the game, particularly the later stages of the game.

I wasn't sure what to make of that response, or how precisely to put it to work as a solution--though I did see value in the statement--so I let it drop. But then Paul and Eero made a couple of statements here that clarified why I was finding that advice both difficult to implement as a solution despite agreeing with its principle, that I think might have a bearing on the overall discussion here regarding "ok, how do I make this work?"

Quote
The game is quite vanilla in its mechanical approach, so much so that I could characterize it as "doing nothing" when it comes to structuring and provoking interesting character interaction. All interactive color and character development I've witnessed in my 3:16 play has, without exception, happened because the players (GM included) have started and encouraged a cycle of character-full banter on top of the rather character-neutral mission structure.

Quote
I'm thinking maybe NFA rolls between missions should have some mechanical footprint. As it stands, they're just color; they felt frivolous, and I never managed to do anything interesting with them.

Still recognizing that that populating and detailing the setting so story and event arises and flows naturally from it, I'm going back to Ron's response and realizing "detail a setting" actually isn't the issue with "what do we do now?" The issue isn't creating or populating or imagining the setting, but specifically using the rules of this game to play in and interact with such a setting.

That's the issue I'm running headfirst into while trying to prep/understand the rules for 3:16, which leads to, "Well, ok, and...what does that do? Why would the players care to do that? How do we accomplish that?"

Paul's and Eero's experience clicked this issue together more coherently for me, leading me to describe the problem as:

Reading the text was like having a bunch of pieces of a sports car engine dumped in my lap, being told what they all did in the engine, but without being told where they all went or how they interacted or should interact (except based on what could be logically guessed and inferred from what I'm told each does).

So I have this awesome car engine sitting in my lap. This thing will make a car go! I have no clue how, but it will if I get all the pieces where they should "naturally" be. Problem being, I'm not a mechanic. I have no idea where they should naturally be, even with information like "the spark plugs drive the pistons" I end up at a loss, because: what do those things look like? And how are they supposed to do that?

It feels to me as though 3:16 is put together the same way Ron has stated Sorcerer is: it works great out-of-the-box for people who can see how this particular engine is supposed to be put together to make it go, but it doesn't seem to work or doesn't seem to make sense if you don't have that insight into the pieces and what to do with them.

So, when the cry went up: "I can't figure out what to do with the sparkplug!" And the response was: "Come on, I know you guys know sparkplugs should ignite the vaporized gas!" It was true, but it didn't show where the sparkplug went in this particular engine block configuration, how to actually set the timings, etc.

It seems to me the current rules, while mechanically complete, are not complete as a game manual, leading to repeat discussions of "How do we run the game so it does the stuff it talks about making happen in the text?" and the following stream of solutions offered of how to run play so it does work the described-outcome way, along with explanations of why the players need to behave this or that way or make certain choices or the game won't do that...none of which appear to be detailed in the book as necessary procedures of play (and should be?).

I'm not sure what recommendations might be made as a solution in the above case, or if the solution might still be argued as "just make a setting" and I am simply over-thinking the issues, or even missing some blindingly obvious resolution or explanation in the rules.

I know that isn't exactly an answer to Paul's question, but I'm throwing it up for discussion because I think it has a bearing on the primary source of the problem and various comments made about the game in this thread.

However, I do also offer Paul the following idea as concrete-and-immediate advice for making play go the intended direction: it occurred to me after a very weird dream about space-military earlier tonight, that one solution to the "players wouldn't screw with each other" problem would be to put each player's soldier in a separate attack group ("squad"?), surrounded by very different personalities you as GM can play up, and have each squad given different tasks to complete in the overall mission -- but near enough to one another to either help others' missions, or to fuck it up for everyone else.

You might get a sort of "Why can't you keep your squad under control?!" or just "Those idiots from Bravo squad really screwed everyone else over!" effect that will help drive player conflicts and competition. Especially given that it is only the choices and rolls and mechanical decisions of the player in that squad that actually matter to the combat's resolution, not the color/obstacles/choices provided by his squadmates.

The trick here is simply running combats as normal, where all players are involved (mechanically), but where each player has a soldier in a different squad in a different battle-zone of that combat. I'm thinking of something along the lines of the big fight on Coral at the end of "Old Man's War" by Scalzi, which is full of "squad A does this, but if they fuck it up, squad B is going to be screwed and their mission will fail, so squad C better make sure squad A doesn't get hosed" and various actions and attempts that are definitely non-trivial NFA rolls, etc.
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
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Pelgrane
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« Reply #13 on: December 19, 2008, 03:50:25 AM »

I
What the hell should I do differently? I'm inclined to think much of the problem was the number of players, and argue the AA calculations should take the number of players into account. Also, I'm thinking maybe NFA rolls between missions should have some mechanical footprint. As it stands, they're just color; they felt frivolous, and I never managed to do anything interesting with them.

Paul

Well, the explicit mechanical effects of NFA rolls are that:
1 If you lose an NFA conflict against a superior rank, you have to follow a particular order. This can have major effects. For example, you can order them to go into combat first, not wear their armour, give their drugs to another trooper, or allow an alien to infect them.
2. NFA roles can mechanically affect the outcome of future FA rolls, giving a bonus.
3. You might be able to use them to steal items or sabotate stuff or interfere with comms.
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #14 on: December 19, 2008, 11:03:45 AM »

Am I the only one who thinks that recommending direct mechanically impactful stakes for NFA conflics, and ones outside mission no less, is against the rules are they appear in the book? I never got an inkling that the purpose would be to creatively redesign the resource environment in the interest of getting some characters killed off. One would imagine that if ordering troopers to leave their armor and drugs home were a standard GMing technique or even an option, then there'd be some hint of this in the rules.

When I've played the game we haven't required between-missions NFA rolls to have any meaningful impact on trooper success in missions (and therefore game mechanics in general - this game only has mechanics for in-mission activity). Those rolls have been purely an oracular method for inspiring some freeform character development. I asked about this at Story Games at one point, actually, when I got to wondering how one should deal with characters who refuse to follow orders. The prevailing truth seemed to be that the game's formal structure is followed by necessity, there are no "missing rules" for figuring out how many tokens you need to kill to blast your way to the bridge and sabotage the ship before escaping to live with aliens. I can only presume that the end-game events which the rules hint at are played out with a liberal amount of free narration. Using that star-killing doomsday weapon is not a mechanical challenge, for example, but just a matter of deciding to use it.
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