A Game Per Year: 3:16 (Bonus 2009)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of 3:16

A lot of roleplaying games draw their inspiration from movies or books. It makes sense: If the players already know the world, the style, the thrust of the game from other things they’ve seen before, there’s less information to impart as the game starts. From a commercial standpoint of course it’s: “You liked X, now you can live it!”

There are two ways to do this: You can make an officially licensed game or you can file the serial numbers and do something that just riffs on a movie.

Sometimes the reliance on pop culture benchmarks makes the roleplaying game landscape seem stunted. Are we incapable of coming up with original ideas for games? Does everything have to be “movie X but as a roleplaying game”?

In some sense, 3:16 is basically the Starship Troopers roleplaying game. However, it connects so deeply to the creative and historical substrata of roleplaying games that it feels unfair to reduce it to just a movie reference.

Killing people of other races and taking their stuff is the original core activity of roleplaying games the same way jumping is the core of platformer videogames. Your characters go to their homes, murder them and take their stuff.

I’m not saying this as a moral critique. There’s been plenty of discussion on this topic. To me it’s just a fact.

Perhaps because murdering people from the wrong race sounds bad when you say it like this these adventures often have a narrative framework that seeks to make the core activity look like something else. The orcs are bandits who threaten local farmers. An army of Greenskins is amassing in the north, as per Warhammer. This framing makes it noble and just to go out and kill.

What’s interesting about 3:16 is that it replicates this primordial core activity but absolutely refuses to justify it in any way. You play soldiers in an expeditionary force sent out from Earth to other star systems with the express goal of murdering all non-human life. This is done to protect humanity from the threat these alien life forms might one day pose.

It is an alien genocide simulator, in other words. It’s built on the fact that killing and murdering loads of enemies in a fictional framework is great fun, as whole genres of videogames attest, but doesn’t seek to assuage our moral sensibilities in doing so.

There’s a brutality to the mechanics of the game. You have just two stars, Fighting Ability and Non-Fighting Ability. As to which you roll and when, they’re pretty self-explanatory. Enemies are abstracted into Threat tokens the GM uses to build encounters and the player characters success is measured in kills. When you fight, you roll how many enemies you murder in a given round.

It’s naked macho military violence. It invites you to have fun with it, but only if you have the stomach to accept what it is that you’re enjoying.

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