Monday 17th December 2012
If there's one iconic element of the Warhammer 40,000 game line it's arguably the space marine in his suit of power armour, looking moody and badass. Most people who play tabletop end up with a space marine army at one point or another, they're released as part of every 40k boxed set after all, and space
marines are one of the few things recognisable even to people who don't know anything else about the 40k world.
So Deathwatch, in many ways, was the 40k game a lot of roleplayers were waiting for; finally you could actually play as a member of the Adeptus Astartes in all their power armoured, xeno-crushing, posthuman glory. Not only that, but you could play as a member of the Deathwatch; the black armoured special forces of the space marines, selected to serve the Inquisitors of the Ordo Xeno as specialist shock troops. Talk about extra badass.
So when it was finally released 2 years after Dark Heresy, a lot of fans were pretty excited. I have to admit, I was one of them, and it was worth waiting for.
System-wise, Deathwatch is near identical to Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader, continuing the trend of taking the existing rules system from the previous game (in this case Rogue Trader) and adding a few extra setting-specific skills and talents. The updated psyker rules from Rogue Trader have been kept and new (or rather old, if you played tabletop) powers for space marine Librarian pyskers were added. Yup, even space marine bookworms are dangerous.
One great benefit of Deathwatch using the same system as DH and RT is that it gives us a measuring stick by which to gauge the space marine's legendary skills and, I have to say, Deathwatch does a pretty good job of making you feel like you're playing a superhuman warrior from the 41st
All space marines begin the game with the Unnatural Strength and Unnatural Toughness traits that, in Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader, were reserved for the horrifying monsters you came across. There are rules for a large majority of the weird organs that have always been a part of space marine lore and even
the weapon rules have been modified so that your Astartes-issue boltgun is orders of magnitude more dangerous than the weapons found in Dark Heresy. Once you've played a session as your space marine, you begin to realise how much more powerful these guys are than a run of the mill human. It certainly encourages a slightly different style of play to previous games, at least where combat is concerned. Deathwatch characters can literally mow through hordes of enemies and as such the enemy rules have been upgrades so that gamesmasters can pit entire squads of lower-rank enemies against the space marines, allowing for some pretty cinematic combat sequences.
Adding to these combat sequences, and the 'kill-team' squad-based feel of the game in general, are the 'Squad Mode', 'Solo Mode' and 'Cohesion' rules. Specific to Deathwatch, these abilities reflect how the Deathwatch is made up of multiple different space marine chapters, each with their own abilities and combat doctrines. When a kill team is first formed each marine has his own fighting style, reflected in their Solo Mode ability, which grants them certain personal abilities in combat. As the kill-team slowly bonds and learns to fight as a unit they unlock the Squad Mode abilities, granting them team-based abilities but only when they work together. The Squad Mode abilities are powered by Cohesion Points, which are generated when the party perform certain actions and are lost if they mess up. Having a good leader increases the rate at which Cohesion is generated.
Altogether it's a nice mechanic that enhances the game style and encourages players to work together.
As with Rogue Trader, Deathwatch continues with the tradition of laying out games in a setting-specific format. Rogue Trader had Endeavours; Deathwatch has Missions. Missions can be short one-off adventures, or long-running campaigns built around a series of smaller objectives.
As with Rogue Trader Endeavours, Mission provide a framework for organising objectives and awarding experience that is a big help to first-time or inexperienced gamesmasters.
Now for the negative.
The biggest possible flaw that Deathwatch has is the very nature of it's subject matter. Space marines can be seen as very single-purposed characters; they are biogenically-enhanced warrior-monks that exist to defend the Imperium and the most obvious way they do that is by punching the face off anything that doesn't salute the Aquilla (and even some that do).
Because of the way many gamers see space marines, Deathwatch games run the risk of degenerating into mindless hack-and-slash adventures, where the players are set against waves of enemies until they kill a 'boss' and then hurtle away in a waiting Thunderhawk gunship.
While this kind of game would be fun as a one-off or a short-run campaign, it's not the kind of thing you'd want to spend any length of time doing.
The Deathwatch rulebook does try to present other ways in which the game can be played, but a large majority of the rules centre on combat, weapons, combat tactics, weapons, aliens and weapons. Did I mention weapons?
I have a feeling many inexperienced players and gamesmasters, lead by the book, will fall into the trap of running games that are nothing but an exercise in seeing how many dice you can roll while blasting your way through an ork Waaagh!
I've not played or run Deathwatch nearly as much as I'd like to, but I'm hoping to address that in the next year. However, when I do run Deathwatch I'm careful to try to give the players more than one way out of any situation and that at least one option will involve their brains rather than their brawn.
Space marines are warrior-monks, and I like to emphasise the monk part. None of them are stupid by any means and many space marines are pretty sharp guys; I like the idea of a Deathwatch game that goes beyond the battlefield and sees the players guiding their space marines through hazards such as diplomatic envoys, underhive espionage and stealth (yeah, stealthy space marines; it can happen. Just ask Night Haunter), as well as the traditional alien face-punching.
Someone once suggested a game based on the film The Name of the Rose, but replacing Franciscan friars with space marines and setting the mystery in a space marine chapter house. Now that's a game I'd be interested in playing!
At the end of the day, Deathwatch is what you make of it. I think it's a great set of rules that can make for some brilliant one-off run-and-gun games or some gripping long-term campaigns if you make sure to occasionally spend some time away from the battlefield.
A short respite
Sunday 9th December 2012
Due to the usual pre-Christmas craziness coupled with a bout of illness over the last few days I've not been able to work on a strip or my Deathwatch review this week. I'll have them up next weekend.
In the meantime, I'm glad to see everyone responding so well to my Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader reviews! I've had lots of feedback from you about them, glad you seem to be enjoying them!
Rogue Trader Review
Sunday 2nd December 2012
Rogue Trader was the first incarnation of the game we now know as Warhammer 40,000 and it still has a rather cult following even today. It was the birth of the 40k universe and even now there are elements that gamers who have never read the original setting would recognise in modern 40k lore.
However , I'm not reviewing that game. I'm reviewing the FFG re-release that came out in 2009 following the success of Dark Heresy.
Now, before I get into this, I must admit something to you all.
I've not actually played Rogue Trader.
For various reasons I will explain in a bit it has never really appealed to me as a game; I possess the core rulebook, and have read through it a number of times, but have never felt compelled to either play a game nor run one for my friends.
So that might make this review a little lop-sided. Sorry.
System-wise Rogue Trader is very close to Dark Heresy; the same skills; the same mechanics and a few more talents appropriate to the different setting. What is very different are the classes; in Rogue Trader you take on the role of the various important members of a Rogue Trader house and, rather than
playing scummers and guardsmen as you do in Dark Heresy, you instead play noble captains, arch-militants and Astropaths.
Characters in Rogue Trader start off on an entirely different echelon of imperial life to those in Dark Heresy; in Rogue Trader you have money, power and influence, as well as control over a ship or even a fleet of ships. As such the characters start with a lot more skills and abilities, as well as access to
weapons and equipment most Dark Heresy characters won't see until late in a campaign.
I think this is one of the main reasons I'm not a fan of Rogue Trader; I like my characters -whether I'm playing or running a game- to have to work to for their success. In Rogue Trader everything feels (at least to me) given to you straight off the bat, with no need to try to better yourself. Maybe I'm missing the point, but I much prefer characters to earn their shiny trinkets during play, rather than start with them; a power sword feels much more important when you've pried it from the cold, dead hands of an enemy rather than just been given it.
As well as new character classes, there is a new 'Origin Path' generator which adds some nice background to your characters and gives them their reason for being part of the Rogue Trader crew. There is also a requisitions system, rather than using cash to buy equipment, that allows characters to gain equipment based on their success as traders, rather than the cold hard cash in their pocket.
The biggest change to the Dark Heresy rules base are the complete revision of the Psyker rules, which now grants psykers the ability to choose how hard they push when unleashing their powers. It's a nice addition to the rules but part of me preferred the quick and easy method in Dark Heresy. Then again, I'm not know for playing psykers and all my friends who do and have used the rules seem to be fans. It does mean psykers are less likely to turn their minds inside out, or summon a daemon while trying to invoke a minor power, which is nice. Nothing like setting your brain to 'stun' rather than 'kill', eh Lyle?
The whole idea behind a game of Rogue Trader is that your characters are off on an adventure at the limits of Imperial space, seeking trade and treasure on uncharted world and getting into all kinds of scrapes in the process. There are some nice rules for creating 'Endeavours'; a structured mission plan for
the players to work through to achieve their goal, whether it's establishing a mining colony, finding a rare artefact or similar.
Both Deathwatch and Black Crusade would go on to use a similar format to help gamesmasters lay out a game, and it's a nice touch to help inexperienced gamers get their heads around how to structure a campaign. There's also a built-in experience and reward mechanic.
My second problem with Rogue Trader is what I like to call 'Star Trek Syndrome', and it kind of follows on from this. The character you play are all important members of the ship's command staff, in command of at least 10,000 crewmen or more (the Imperium don't believe in small crews). Why, I always ask myself, do the characters need to be the ones who head down to strange new planets and explore, or meet with the potentially hostile aliens? They could -and should- delegate the jobs to some of their near-limitless crew. And don't say they're the only ones capable of the job; when you command the
population of a small city, there have to be a few suitable individuals capable of filling in for them.
As with Star Trek, it never really sits right with me that the characters are the ones involved in the action. I can see why they are, from a gameplay point of view, but realistically (in as much as you can say that when talking about a roleplay game) it always ruins my immersion slightly.
This review is probably sounding rather negative, and that's not what I intended. Rogue Trader is a brilliant game; well thought out and it adds another fantastic game to the FFG Warhammer 40,000 roleplay series.
I think, at the heart of it, I'm not the kind of person who should play Rogue Trader; my kind of games revolve around small, personal struggles and visceral horror stories, rather than large space epics. Maybe one day someone will run a game of RT for me that will change my mind.
As I've not played Rogue Trader, next week I'll launch straight into my review of Deathwatch.
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