Cardboard Children: Deathwatch RPG

By Robert Florence on January 22nd, 2011 at 5:28 pm.


Hello youse.

Today I want to talk about Warhammer 40K roleplaying, of the type being pushed by Fantasy Flight right now. Fantasy Flight has three different RPGs on the market under the Warhammer 40K banner. The oldest of the three is Dark Heresy, a game that lets you play as one of the Imperium of Man’s Inquisitors. The middle kid is Rogue Trader, a game that sets you loose as a crewmember on a Rogue Trader’s ship, flying missions into uncharted space to increase the Emperor’s influence and make some serious money on the side. The newest game is Deathwatch, which has you roleplaying a Space Marine. A genetic monster.

Deathwatch is the most interesting of the three for me, and not only because I was sent the big collector’s edition of the game you can see in the video above. UH! It’s interesting because it shouldn’t work. It’s interesting because, as an RPG, it goes against everything I believe a good RPG needs. Deathwatch is a game about heading out on missions as part of a Space Marine kill-team, eradicating problems, and coming home. Space Marines don’t form relationships beyond their chapter. They don’t marry. They don’t fuck around. They don’t have kids. They don’t have the goals that characters in other RPGs might have. Space Marines live for war. Only War. That can’t work as an RPG, can it?

I’ve never played Dark Heresy, but I have played Rogue Trader, and it’s a fine RPG. The rules that Fantasy Flight have based their Warhammer 40K RPGs on are clean, and strong, and put an emphasis on roleplay. Deathwatch uses pretty much the same rules, with some small changes. Where Rogue Trader gives you some sweet rules for abstracting mass land battles between armies, Deathwatch gives you elegant ways of abstracting a Space Marine’s mass slaughter of a horde of less-civilised alien creatures. The guys at Fantasy Flight have thought these games through. Most impressively, each of the RPGs feel right. They feel like Warhammer. Some credit, I’m sure, has to go to Games Workshop on that front. GW are the masters of game backstory. The Warhammer and Warhammer 40K “fluff” is of a ridiculously high quality, particularly when you consider that all it does is lend context to pushing some miniatures around a green flocked table. With GW being highly protective of their IP, they wouldn’t let any other company fuck up that world they’ve created, and you can feel those GW eyes all over these Fantasy Flight products. They are respectful, beautiful big books.

But Deathwatch, yeah, Space Marines, yeah, kill-teams, yeah. That can’t work.

I’ll let you know where I stand on RPGs. Call of Cthulhu, that Chaosium RPG, is the greatest RPG ever created. You can learn the rules in fifteen minutes, and your character will be dead or insane within a month. Set in H.P. Lovecraft’s world of eldritch horror, combat is pushed right into the background (because you can’t headbutt Azathoth), and the focus is shifted onto roleplay. That means talking and storytelling. And storytelling is always the key to a great RPG. Call of Cthulhu uses investigation as its route into the deeper areas of its roleplay. Clue-collecting, conversations with characters, the study of research materials – the Call of Cthulhu gamesmaster uses all of this to steer his players down a terrible path. Always that same road, to insanity or death, but a million ways to get there. Vitally, Call of Cthulhu never lets the ruleset get in the way of the story. Sometimes you might go an hour without rolling a dice. And even when you do roll a dice, it’s simple percentile stuff. There are no power cards or rule conflicts, no min/maxing of character loadouts, no levelling strategy bullshit. If your character springs into life as a middle-aged professor, that’s what he’ll be when he dies. Same guy. But maybe armed with more knowledge. Knowledge of the spaces between, and the noises within those spaces.

Deathwatch, though. Okay, we know that those FF Warhammer 40K rules are clean and simple. So that’s a start. But you can’t seriously roleplay a Space Marine, can you? I mean, a SPACE MARINE?

Here’s how the Warhammer 40K Wiki describes a Space Marine:

“The Space Marines or Adeptus Astartes are foremost amongst the defenders of humanity, the greatest of the Emperor of Mankind’s warriors. They are barely human at all anymore, but superhuman; having been made superior in all respects to a normal man by a harsh regime of genetic modification, psycho-conditioning and rigorous training. Space Marines are untouched by plague or any natural disease and can suffer wounds that would kill a lesser being several times over, and live to fight again. Clad in ancient Power Armour and wielding the most potent weapons known to man, the Space Marines are terrifying foes and their devotion to the Emperor and the Imperium of Man is unbreakable. They are the God-Emperor’s Angels of Death, and they know no fear.”

Roleplay that. Roleplay a non-man with no fear. Roleplay a being with a photographic memory and lightning fast reflexes. Sure, you can write an RPG about a Space Marine, but can you actually play one?

Here’s what’s beautiful about Deathwatch. Purity.

I spoke about how Call of Cthulhu keeps things rules-light, so everyone can get on with telling a story. Deathwatch keeps everything light. Rules are straightforward, and the stories and motivations are straightforward too.

As a gamesmaster, I often worry far too much about surprising my players. I can be guilty of layering twist upon twist, and narrative upon narrative, until there’s a danger that the players get lost in the story. With Deathwatch, there’s no real opportunity for me to get itchy writer’s fingers. We’re dealing with Space Marines. Fiercely loyal, brainwashed, single-minded killers. The conspiracies can be saved for Dark Heresy. The backstabbing can be saved for Rogue Trader. Deathwatch is about the front line, the trusted few, the Emperor-loving supermen.

Preparing a Deathwatch adventure is a pleasure. Here’s the thing, even if you’re not tight with the Warhammer universe, you’ve probably seen Aliens. You’re probably clear on that notion of a marine strikeforce landing in a dangerous environment. Rapid insertion, dropships, then left alone to fight and win or fail and die. A Deathwatch adventure sees your players thrown into a situation with some foreknowledge, some mission objectives, and maybe a time limit. They can choose the weapons that they’ll take into battle, they can tool up and set out with a clear set of goals. Kill the aliens. Kill the enemy. Rescue the downed Marine. Defend the dignitary. Destroy the generator. In. Out. Survive. For the Emperor.

Within that structure, that clean structure, away from questions like “Is there a town nearby? Can I buy arrows at this inn? What religion is preached here?”, your players can bond with each other as soldiers might. Brother with brother. Interaction is in. Tight interaction.

Here’s something. “How do I know this to be true?” It’s a question that every RPG player has bouncing around inside their skull. If an NPC says “The dragon is threatening to destroy the village!” then each player will, at some point, ask themselves “How do I know this to be true?” If an NPC says “Thank you my friend. My daughter will now meet you tomorrow with the jewels!” that same question will be hanging there in the air above the players. “How do I know this to be true?” It’s a question that hangs around like a bad smell purely because RPG players expect the GM to pull a bullshit move on them at some point. A GM always does. Because that’s how storytelling works. The GM is trying to craft an unforgettable, surprising story. And a great betrayal, or some great reveal that no player expected, is exactly what makes RPGing so much fun. But there’s that constant understanding that everyone at the table is waiting for it to happen, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Deathwatch rejects this. Suddenly, the Space Marine is the perfect character to roleplay to offer some respite from the standard RPG behaviour model. “How do I know this to be true?” becomes “For the Emperor!” and all is right at the table. Space Marines don’t care about right or wrong. They make decisions based purely on Imperial philosophy. They don’t need to trust a villager, or have faith that a dragon will unseal a magic door. They’ll kill that villager and blow the door off its hinges, for the Emperor. They are pure, just like the Emperor had hoped, and the game is pure as a result. A change. A breath of fresh air.

Go beyond a Deathwatch adventure, into a full campaign, and you can start to introduce elements like Insanity. Your men can start to fall deeper into their indoctrination, until they hear the Emperor’s voice with every spit of a plasma round. You can introduce interaction between chapters, and throw some politics into the mix. But I say this – try to play Deathwatch as the pure thing it is. Like a roleplay Space Hulk. Dispense with the bad GM habits of mass conspiracy and labyrinthine plotting. Embrace the purity, and keep things clean. It’s a brilliant addition to the Warhammer 40K RPG line, and a small victory for the designers.

Oh, and full disclosure on that Collectors Edition I was sent. I also bought a normal edition of the core rulebook too, because the game’s that good. When you get something free, and you pay for it anyway, you know something’s gone right.

See youse next week!

.

97 Comments »

  1. malkav11 says:

    Games Workshop deserves credit not only for the high quality fluff, but also for much of the core work on Dark Heresy – it was, after all, originally created and published as an internal project at GW before the company made the slightly baffling but ultimately exciting choice to focus on the core miniatures business and pass off their licenses for other forms of gaming to another company – Fantasy Flight, in this case. I say ultimately exciting because GW was doing an excellent job of sitting like a brooding, malevolent spider on top of their various non-Warhammer licenses and never doing anything with them or letting anyone else do anything either. In Fantasy Flight’s hands, those licenses are revived, active, and making money for both companies. This is a clear and distinct improvement, imho.

    There’s also some personal satisfaction in that decision, as Fantasy Flight is located right here in the city where I live, and their acquisition of the GW licenses caused them to tap a friend of mine to be in charge of development on Talisman and similar games, which is pretty much a dream job for him, as a long time fan of Talisman who actually put together his own unlicensed expansion for it at one point.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      I just woke up thinking “Waitasec – alkav11′s statement was slightly erroneous”. Which says something, though what I just don’t know.

      The internal group was the Black Library, wasn’t it? In which case, it’s not as if they’ve decided to concentrate on the miniature games, because Black Library doesn’t make miniatures. What it seems is that they think their best efforts would be to concentrate upon the novels and art-books they’ve always made. As in, while profitable, for the same amount of effort, they could make more by just publishing books.

      (Which is where Dark Heresy is a little different from the other licences they were just sitting on)

      I agree that Fantasy Flight are nailing everything they’re getting their hands on though. Awesome stuff.

      KG

    • Ergates_Antius says:

      “alkav11′s statement was slightly erroneous”
      Erroneous like getting Malkav11′s name wrong?

    • malkav11 says:

      It looks like it was first Green Ronin and then a group at Black Library. But I’m still pretty sure it wasn’t a Black Library-level decision because BL never, to my knowledge, had anything to do with the boardgames, card games or similar, and FFG got the licenses to all of the above in the same deal.

      Ah, here we go:
      On 28th January, 2008, Games Workshop announced that it would close Black Industries – thereby discontinuing Dark Heresy and all the other games published the subsidiary – to allow them to focus on the commercial success of their novels and core business. [7]
      On 22nd February, 2008, Black Industries announced that all Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000 RPG, CCG, and select board game rights were being transferred to Fantasy Flight Games, who would continue to publish Dark Heresy. [8]
      (from Wikipedia)

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Oh, had no idea if it was a Black Library level decision – but as a subsidiary of Games Workshop, that’s kinda irrelevant. Just noting it was a bit more complicated than that. I suspect as a streamlining decision it makes a lot of sense both ways for them.

      rgates_Antius: edant.

      KG

  2. jackflash says:

    Will probably pick this up after I finally get a Rogue Trader campaign going. Would love to hear some more about your RT experiences, by the way. My impression was that you enjoyed it quite a lot.

  3. Reapy says:

    That is one badass collectors edition, slightly marred by the Velcro belt buckle, but that be some good presentation for sure.

    • bob_d says:

      Yeah, my first response was, “Oh nice, but d’oh – velcro!” Practically speaking, however, a buckle would be a big pain and make the case less usable, I suppose.

    • Sassenach says:

      But it is velcro that has been sanctified by the tech-priests of mars, so that it might secure things in the name of The Emperor.

  4. deimos says:

    I encourage a podcast of a gaming session! pls! :D

    • Duffin says:

      Yes please, I’ve always been curious how RPG’s play out and actually work. Given that my favourite pc games are all RPG’s I owe it to myself to find out. As nice a read as this article is, seeing the thing in action would be brilliant.

    • Warth0g says:

      Damn that’s a good idea.. yes, podcast of a games night please ?

    • luckystriker says:

      What a good idea, seconded (or indeed, thirded).

  5. Hugehead says:

    This looks really interesting, but sadly I don’t have the money for it, and if I did I don’t really have anyone to play it with. Guess I’ll have to pirate it and maybe play it online or something.

  6. McDan says:

    I see you managed to boast about you Deathwatch collectors edition, well played.

    • bill says:

      NOTE: DON’T BOAST ABOUT THE DEATHWATCH COLLECTOR’S EDITION.

  7. mandrill says:

    Wow. this sounds intriguing. how much is it and where can I get it?

  8. Chunga says:

    There is some great WH40K wibes in here! Really cool stuff. And as said above, GW has done some serious work on the fluff. I would love (i.e. I’d give my right arm) to do serious work within such a creative setting.

  9. Bhazor says:

    So a question to Rab and any other players.
    Would this have worked better or worse if you were playing as an Imperial Guard or other kind of “everyman”?

    • Cradok says:

      You can use the rules from the prior two games, Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader, to do that, with DH probably being a bit better suited to it. This game is for stepping on things with a ceramite boot.

    • Snidesworth says:

      Dark Heresy is the everyman game. You start of as a low rank and mostly unremarkable sort who has been recruited by an Inquisitor to be a disposable asset. If you survive long enough you can become an elite agent, but the odds certainly aren’t in your favour.

      Rogue Trader, meanwhile, makes you an exceptional individual from the start. You’re more able, have more skills and far, far better equipment. You also have unimaginable wealth and a several kilometer long starship. You’re still human, however (unless you’re playing one of the alien species/careers) and will die quite promptly if someone shoots you in the face with a plasma gun.

    • Mr_Hands says:

      I imagine playing as a grunt in the IG would make for stupendously shorter sessions.

      Battle #1: We were sent to our doom.

      *cue reroll of characters*

      Battle #2: We were sent to our doom.

      *cue reroll of characters*

      Battle #3: We were deployed to a fortified position and held it for a time, before we were sent to our doom.

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    Arathain says:

    Oo, this does sounds like a lot of fun. I thought one of the surprising ways Dawn of War 2 was successful was in making simple, kill them all for the Emperor brainwashed Space Marines actually kind of interesting people, and I could see how that would actually work pretty well for actual roleplaying.

    There was one conversation in particular that stuck with me, and really gave an insight into how to make these simple creations fun and interesting characters. Young Sergeant Thaddeus is expressing that he’s feeling kind of strange after battles- sort of stripped clean- and he isn’t sure he likes it. The other, older, more experienced Sergeants all chime in with these perfect expressions of familiarity with what he’s going through. It’s just the last of his humanity being eroded away, they assure him, and he’ll feel much better about it once it’s gone, and he can be purely Space Marine, a killing machine for the Emperor and his Chapter. It’s a great moment, disturbing and touching at the same time.

    I hear people talk about Space Marines with bored disparaging familiarity, which I understand. I think they’re fascinating, and surprisingly subtle.

    • Lightbulb says:

      The thing is that they are warrior monks. Or were any way. For me its a real shame that they have been made into such a 1 dimensional character. Dawn of War doesn’t really capture any thing of what Space Marine used to be – now they are merely a genetically engineered totally loyal super soldier.

      In the earlier fluff (back ground story to non-GW aficionados) they were more like monks, dedicated to the arts as well as war. Kind of a sci-fi Samurai/Monk/European crusader. When they say “For the Emperor” this is because they are dedicated to a religion where their progenitor is a saint who they worship first and foremost and the Emperor is the creator of their father (as opposed to the orthodox faith followed by the rest of humanity who accept only the Emperor as worthy of such devotion and who view the Primarch’s merely as great generals who served their deity).

      The Primarch’s were the 20 original super powerful warriors created by genetic engineering by the Emperor. The Space Marines each carry within themselves a part of the genetic material of the original Primarch.

      http://wh40k.lexicanum.com/wiki/Primarchs

      But the main back story to 40k is the galactic civil war which followed a golden age of expansion after the Dark Age which had preceded the emperors rise to power. To say Space Marines are totally loyal when the main back story is of half of them turning traitor is to me a gross simplification.

      Space Marines are limited to chapters of ~1000 men. This is because the original 20 legions were vastly too powerful a force to place under any one man (there are certain exceptions to this rule).

      Space Marines are supposed to be viewed with as much fear and suspicion as they are awe and respect. Yes they are the most powerful force at the disposal of the High Lords of Terra but they are also one of the most terrible.

      ————-

      The modern Space Marine seems to have none of this depth or complexity. He’s just a totally loyal fanatic killing in the name of the Emperor.

      Even yelling “For the Emperor!” not “For Russ!” or “For Dorn!” is a simplification and I think that a lot of the impact of the story is lost to make the games appeal to the mases who know nothinbg of the original back story.

      I suppose they could have have become more focussed on purity of thought which leads to their inherent lack of flexibility – which partly explains why they might have changed the background a bit to suit this idea.

      But it just seems a shame to lose the monk aspect I guess….

    • Snidesworth says:

      If you want to get stuck into the non-killing everything side of Deathwatch you can find room for this sort of depth. Different chapters have different philosophies (the Salamanders are quite concerned about the average citizen, for example, while the Dark Angels are consumed with secrecy and are highly insular) and individual marines will have their own take on that. There’s also the question of where each man’s loyalty lies. Is it to the Emperor, the chapter, his superiors or the Imperium as a whole? As for the religious aspect it’s still alive and well. Look at the Black Templars. Most chapters regard the Emperor as something of a paragon and a grandfather figure though, not a straight up deity. They still revere him, but how they do so varies. Chances are that performing their duty (destroying the enemies of the Emperor) will heavily factor into how they give praise, of course.

    • Lightbulb says:

      Snidesworth – I’ve not played 40k for about hmmm probably getting on for 8 years now! So my only exposure is now through second hand comments like the above article and the likes of DoW.

      Glad to hear the depth is still there then. :)

  11. Navagon says:

    Wow. Apparently that version you got was £250. I’d be pretty happy about that too.

    Oh and rather than “embrace the purity”, which sounds like hippy crap to me, I think you meant “purge the unclean”.

  12. The Great Wayne says:

    Interesting. Have they introduced chapter-specifics rules/elements ? Like the blood rage for the blood angels or the obscession of the dark angels with the pursue of the traitors to the chapter ?

    • malkav11 says:

      Yes. Your characters all belong to the Deathwatch (at least, in the base game), but they come to the Deathwatch from various chapters, so every character selects a chapter during creation and gets a specific set of bonuses (and sometimes penalties) based on that chapter, and there’s a couple pages of background for each. Obviously, there are dozens of Marine chapters and only so much space, so they focus on 6 of the best known, like the Blood Angels, Ultramarines, Dark Angels, and Space Wolves.

    • The Great Wayne says:

      Ok, thx malk

  13. pakoito says:

    So it’s an arena game. D&D skipping the town part.

    • The Great Wayne says:

      To be fair, the Deathwatch in the Wh40k is a little more than the regular marine chapter. Its troopers are more prone to finesse and exploration than their former brethren, given they’re often responsible for xeno investigation and alien artifact recovery too.

    • pakoito says:

      Nah there’s not problem with being an arena game, it makes it more strategic to think about minmaxing combats than what to do next or how to resupply :D

  14. BigJonno says:

    Dark Heresy is “Hmm, should we be doing this?”
    Rogue Trader is “Hmm, can we get away with doing this?”
    Deathwatch is “Hmm, which way of doing this will cause the highest number of deaths among the filthy alien scum?”

    • Tacroy says:

      No, Deathwatch is: “For the Emperor!”

    • Bret says:

      “Hmm” is doubt.

      A sign of impurity, heresy, uncleanness.

      The Emperor’s chosen sons need not such things.

    • BigJonno says:

      I try and suggest that Deathwatch does involve some kind of thinking and decision-making and it gets sabotaged by the “Marines are all single-minded religio-fascist machines” brigade. ;)

  15. The Pink Ninja says:

    Hmmm, this pure simple setting makes me think of Paranoia, only with firefights instead of lols.

    I ws reading one of the books from this range, for Rogue Trader maybe, setting out the gameplay and story idea for some segment of galaxy and it struck me what an absolutely oustanding Bioware style RPG it’d make.

    • bill says:

      Wow. You got there before me.
      Paranoia needs more recognition!

    • chargen says:

      “Bioware-style RPG”
      Now you’ve got me thinking “Space Marine let loose inside of Mass Effect universe”. So many xenos and unsanctioned psykers to purge…

  16. westyfield says:

    I’m an idiot who’s never played an RPG boardgame, so this is almost certainly a stupid question, but:
    In that special edition video, I can’t see a board anywhere – only what looks like a map in that massive book – so is this a board-less boardgame, is there one that isn’t shown, or are you meant to use the little map in the book?

    • The Great Wayne says:

      It’s not rly a boardgame, cause there is no need of “board”. It’s more broadly called “pen & paper” because most of the time you only use a character sheet to keep track of your character state, the rest being left to storytelling and a few dice rolls to simulate your actions.

      Sometime people will use maps or a medium to be a little more visual about specific battles or situations, but most of the time you can do fine without.

    • Premium User Badge

      Arathain says:

      Most RPGs use no board- they are not boardgames exactly. At least, no formal board, anyway- GMs are free to draw up maps or make terrain packed gaming tables to their hearts content. These things are useful for many types of games, but most of what happens takes place in the heads of the GM and the players- the GM describes the scene for you, tells you what’s happening in it, and acts out the part of NPCs.

      So rather than having a little map of a pub and its surroundings, the GM will say something like “you open the creaking door and move into a large, smoky room with a low ceiling. There are several tables scattered around and a fireplace on the far wall. The bar is to your right- standing behind it are several ugly men with crossbows which they are raising to point at you.” And you would say “I want to kick over the nearest table to use as cover and draw my flintlocks!” and the GM will tell you how that goes. You don’t always need a map, and won’t always have one handy.

    • westyfield says:

      Ah, ok, thanks.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      There’s some podcasts (and videopodcasts) of games. Some of them are (apparently) quite entertaining, so could be worth watching to kinda get the vibe.

      KG

    • bill says:

      P&P RPGs are the text-adventures of boardgames.
      (but not really boardgames).
      (except the companies can make a lot of money by selling you board pieces and miniatures that you don’t need).

  17. protorp says:

    Great review – I just wish my few geeky-enough friends lived close enough for me to have a hope of giving this, or any kind of tabletop RPG, a go one day…

    I find your highlighting of the purity (or is it one dimensionalism?) of the setting fascinating, it tallies nicely with some thoughts I’ve had recently; I’ve been playing Dawn of War II and Chaos Rising for the first time, which has been my first full exposure to the franchise since I was an all-boys-school teenager who’d not discovered the existence of girls some many, many dozens of moons ago.

    What’s struck me is just how engaging the WH40K setting still is to me. I’d like to think that it’s not just simple nostalgia for something I loved as a kid – I’ve read pretty extensively around science fiction since my early teens, and going back to some novels I absolutely loved when I was younger makes me cringe at how dross they come across to me as an adult. 40K doesn’t do that. I still love the melodrama of the imagery, the lore, the writing, no matter how ridiculously OTT, cliched and derivative you can accuse much of it of being.

    Is it simply down to the quality of the “fluff”? I suppose there’s been such a prolonged series of developments over the years of versions of the minature rules, novelisations, niche games and so on, all produced by so many dozens of writers and artists, that it’s hard not to view individual elements of these contributions as well produced and polished examples of derivative shared world fiction writing and art hackery… but yet… something about the universe they’ve built makes it hang together in my imagination just as powerfully as the worlds of Tolkien, or Herbert, or a score of other Sci Fi / Fantasy worldbuilding individuals whom I’d rate as the best I’ve ever read. I wish I could put my finger on what that is; they may claim there’s only War in the Grim Darkness of the Far Future, but I for one think that WH40K has somehow incorporated a lot more subtlety, nuance and evocative detail into its universe building than that strapline would imply.

    • Chunga says:

      The WH40K universe has evolved during 20+ years, with a lot of writers, game designers and illustrators (John Blanche being one of my favourites) chipping away at their own little part of it – I think there is a sort of creative momentum feeding off itself. It is open-ended enough to give you the possibility to create something new within the boundaries of “Red wunz go fasta!” and “For the emperor!”

    • bob_d says:

      I’ve always found the WH40K universe to be pretty compelling as well. It may be composed of derivative elements, but the way they’ve been combined has resulted in a universe that’s pretty believable and complex. So the basic elements are immediately familiar – the crusades, first and second world war combat, “warp space,” the roman empire, etc – which allows you an immediate “in,” a fundamental understanding, and the more complex elements are more easily absorbed because you aren’t struggling to understand the broad outlines of the world.

      I was introduced to the game with the first edition, which already was a compelling universe, with all the important elements in place. So the additional material added over the years isn’t crucial to what makes it work (although as soon as the basic game was out, they had already started adding to the lore). I think the strength and familiarity of the core elements has really helped maintain the basic vision of the game-reality as it’s been expanded, which helps it feel like a coherent, single-author exercise in world building. You’re right about the strapline, too; even though it focuses on the armed conflict, the actual game background was always so broad and inclusive that it opened up all sorts of possibilities that couldn’t even be explored with the core gameplay (but which subsequent games and expansions have worked within); also, even though it’s “grimdark,” there’s a lot of humor, too. Once you get under the surface, you realize it isn’t one dimensional at all.

      There was a nice blog post that nicely explored how WH40K succeeded in creating a believable universe (and pointed out its shortcomings, too):
      http://exploringbelievability.blogspot.com/2011/01/analysis-warhammer-40000.html

    • Chunga says:

      @bob_d:

      It was an interesting blog post, thanks for linking it. I am not sure if I agree with it in all points, like on the Space Marines being nerfed compared to the Imperial Guards – I remember them as pretty tough and expensive point-wise. I don’t think the other factions lack the diversity, either. Maybe the miniature game has been streamlined and troops gone out of favour since last time I looked (about ten years ago).

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      Arathain says:

      I do think there’s a contrast between the power of the Marines in the fluff and the rules. They’re altered, physically, genetically and cybernetically to be far, far tougher than base stock human. They’re trained and conditioned in nothing but warfare, and to think and desire nothing but warfare. Then you pop them in armour that is supposed to be largely impregnable to small arms and give them an automatic armour piercing mini-rocket-launcher.

      This gets them one extra point in most stats, except Wounds (still 1), over a normal trooper, as well as an armour save that protects from a whole two thirds of small arms fire. Seriously, all that for Toughness 4 and only 1 Wound?

      I don’t mind that it is that way, as it does make the game a bit more interesting. There’s is a contrast, though.

      I also find myself wondering why I find the universe so persistently compelling, even as I get more discerning (read: boring) as I age. It’s my favourite of what I call the Kitchen Sink universes, meaning the ones with everything in; Warcraft is the other really big one. I think it’s the fantastic level of detail, commitment to theme, and a range of nice little twists on the famiiar, like the dangers of warp travel being actual demons, and the elves-in-space Eldar being so darned elfy, yet so darned callous.

    • bob_d says:

      @ Chunga: I wasn’t sure which of his criticisms were fair, because my knowledge of the ruleset is really outdated.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      As Arathain says, The Space Marines have always been infinitely too weak compared to the fluff. There’s only 1000 of them in each of their armies. That’s pretty much nothing, in any military campaign. They “should” all be on the level of heroes.

      They tend to do a bit better in actual fiction. One of the stories I pitched to BOOM when they were doing Warhammer licences’ first-issue climax was reinforcements to this desperate siege turned up and it was just one Space Marine.

      KG

    • Chris D says:

      On the 1000 marines in a chapter thing I was trying to work out what percentage of that got wiped out over the course of my DoW 2 campaign. I’m not sure exactly but I don’t think it was pretty.

      Also according the background Cyrus and some of the others have been serving for over 200 years but apparently haven’t really learned anything from it until the month when the Tyrannids invade, but I digress.

    • bill says:

      I remember reading a story like that in white dwarf a long time ago.

      City under seige by thousands of raving cultists. Imperial guard worn down to almost nothing. Long awaited reinforcements teleport in.
      Of course, I think that was FIVE Grey Knight Terminators… which is a little more than one marine. And they lost one or two taking out the Bloodthirster..

      Wow… can’t believe i still remember his stuff after almost 20 years…

    • malkav11 says:

      The way I figure it – sure, the games don’t really match up to the fluff (though DOWII comes closest so far in that you’ve got individual hero marines or small squads with one hero and a couple of lesser marines for a grand total of 13 marines on the field -at most-, just massacring your way through everything), but even fluffwise, Space Marines are an incredibly powerful fighting force, but they are, ultimately, mortal. They exert a force that’s terrifically disproportionate to their numbers, but you don’t generally use Space Marines to do things like take an entire enemy-held planet. They don’t have the numbers and anyway that’s a job for the Imperial Guard, who are vastly more expendable. You use Space Marines for absolutely critical small scale engagements, surgical strikes, that sort of thing. Absolutely need to hold this point? Use Marines. Got to take down the ork warboss to disperse his WAAAAAGH into a bunch of fractious infighting? Use Marines.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      malkav11: Yeah, that’s it exactly. It’s just that their use in the fiction doesn’t really tie in for that a lot, but with their Drop-pods and all that, it’s what they’re meant to be used for.

      KG

    • bill says:

      The problem with 40k (fiction AND rules) was that each time they turned to a new race and re-did the rules/fiction they amped them up. So each race became almost unstopable in the fiction – and whatever race had the newest rulebook was unstoppable in the game.

      Back in the original Rogue Trader, the Marines were pretty powerful and a lot of the backstory was there – but they weren’t unstoppable. But they got the first detailed source-book and became so.

      But then the eldar started having Walking Gods with blood of molten fire, and then the orcs changed from tolkien-scale orcs to 15ft high warbosses, and then the simple genestealers changed to all-consuming borg-tyranid. Suddenly simple marines were a little outgunned.

      I remember getting really annoyed when, after reading the above short story in White Dwarf, I went out and bought a set of Grey Knight Terminators, spent ages painting them, and was very proud. Then spent way too many army points on them.
      Then the entire squad got wiped out in the first turn by some cheap-ass random new orc weapon that teleported squigs inside their armour from the other side of the battlefield.

      Then my other friend bought an eldar Avatar model and it was time to give up. Poor marines…

  18. Tetragrammaton says:

    On that note, has anyone seen the Ultramarines movie? http://www.ultramarinesthemovie.com/
    It looks a wee bit ropey.

    • Thule says:

      I’ve seen it. It’s a flawed movie, sure, but it has a few good moments.
      The animation is definitely the worst part though. It looks like a late 90′s early 2000′s video game cinematic most of the time. The voicework is great though(John Hurt motherfucker) and it has a few good action sequences.

  19. TooNu says:

    I’d like to hear a Rab produced podcast of this to be honest, I have trained Glaswegian to 100 and have mastered the art of hearing speech through mouthfulls of Monster Munch.

    GO ON RAB ! you know you want to have a podcast of your games, go on!

    • Laneford says:

      ‘Rab + RPS Crew playing some kind of boardgame’ electronic wireless show would be really all kinds of wonderful.

    • Premium User Badge

      Daiv says:

      Do it. Do it… FOR THE EMPEROR!

    • Dominic White says:

      Robert as DM, the rest of the RPS crew playing… I’d totally love to watch that livestreamed. Spoony & Co over at Thespoonyexperiment.com occasionally do livestreamed D&D games, with the virtual tabletop being on show for the audience. That could work here.

      Edit: Stuff like this:
      http://www.lordkat.com/dungeons-dragons-wyrmwick-010911-part-3.html

    • Chris D says:

      If this were to happen it would be the best thing on RPS all year, and I really like a lot of stuff on RPS.

  20. Chris D says:

    I ran my first game of Dark Heresy this week. I picked up Rogue Trader about two months ago and got Deathwatch and Dark Heresy over Christmas. ( I kinda got carried away.)

    It was less organised than I’d like but in my defense one of my mates called me that afternoon and said “How about it?”

    After much deliberation we went with Dark Heresy because it had the little guy working his way up thing going which means we don’t need to worry about too many special rules right at the start.

    He and another friend who had never roleplayed before rolled up a Tech Priest and an Assassin and then it seemed a shame not to use them so I figured we’d do a little “Welcome to the Inquisition” scenario which I made up off the top of my head. We didn’t do the one in the book partly because I didn’t have time to read through again, partly because I wanted to save it for when we had a few more players and partly because with a roleplaying newb I didn’t want to hit them with the “Demons eat your soul” stuff straight out of the gate.

    It gets quite nervewracking trying to run a session when you realise you don’t know the rules nearly as well as you’d like and have no idea what happens next once they leave the room. The characterisation was poor, the plot wasn’t going to win any prizes and we winged most of the rules, going with the “close enough” principle for dice rolls to keep things moving. On the other hand it kind of worked.

    It emerged into a yarn in which the pair end up working for the inquisition rather than being imprisoned in the mines after a bar brawl gets out of hand. Then there was an initiation in which the Tech Priest had to make his way through a maze filled with traps while the Assasin was under orders to track him down and kill him. A mysterious device of unknown technology led them deep underground into mutant infested tunnels ( I figured I should at least attempt one fight using the actual rules, the bar brawl was a bit of a set up.) Finally they were reunited with the Inquisitor during a duel against an Eldar Farseer and were able to turn the tide at a critical moment, saving the day.

    Not how I’d choose to run a session again but it worked and marked the transition from just owning the Rulebooks to actually running a game which is a hurdle many games have fallen at. Now I just have to conscript a couple more recruits and figure out a regular slot then we can begin roasting heretics in earnest.

  21. zergrush says:

    Not exactly on topic, but I feel pretty happy and am slightly drunk so I’ll say it.

    Just mustered enought courage to spend some of my savings and bought starting boxes for warhammer fantasy and 40k, thanks in no small part to the love I’ve seen RPS demonstrate towards those games and universe in general over the last few months I’ve been reading the site. First found out about them by playing Dawn of War, but until now I hadn’t had the balls to go and spend a lot of money importing stuff ( I live in Brazil, but found a lovely british store that has free worldwide shipping ).

    Am so psyched to start ruining some miniatures with my terrible painting skills (:

    • Chris D says:

      Even badly painted miniatures look better than unpainted ones (and believe me I have some badly painted miniatures.) If you do go wrong almost everything can be fixed anyway. Go for it.

    • apa says:

      Painting the minis is actually a lot easier than you’d think but it takes a LOT of time. I got the new Space Hulk when it was released and decided to paint the miniatures, even though I had never before done anything like that. Actually I found the warhammer nerds painting the little plastic men a bit funny bunch… next thing you know I’m surfing youtube for painting tips :D

      Long story short, it’s easy but takes a lot of time and patience. Although the “official” brushes and paints are expensive, I’m glad I bought the stuff because they are good quality.

    • Ergates_Antius says:

      “Painting the minis is actually a lot easier than you’d think”
      This. I have absolutely no artistic talent. In fact, I have the opposite of artistic talent, I utterly suck at anything even remotely arty, or that requires manual dexterity – drawing, painting, writing prose, diy, etc.

      However, even I managed to do a pretty good job of painting some WH40K figures – I’m still proud of my squad of Deathwing terminators some 20 years (oh god!!) later…

  22. Jsnuk says:

    I wish I had an imagination.

  23. ElElegante says:

    I’ve been interested in the 40k universe for some time now, but what I took away from this review is ‘It’s awesome because other people make the decisions for you and you can focus on the guns’, which sound pretty much like the opposite of my idea of fun (not that I don’t like big guns, mind you). When I decide to give it a try, I think I will stick to Rogue Trader.

    • Chris D says:

      Deathwatch Kill teams do have a lot of autonomy compared to a marine squad operating under the standard chapter command structure so there is plenty of scope for making decisions about how to go about your mission or even which missions to accept. There’s also potential for plenty of mystery and intrigue in the setting as well. You do get a lot of cool guns though.

      Having said that Rogue Trader is also awesome and of the three probably allows the most scope for setting your own course if that’s the style of play you prefer.

  24. Chris D says:

    Quick question for any Rogue Trader players/GMs.

    How do you deal with the scale if the game. Given that the players have their own starship, the smallest of which has just under 20,000 crewmembers is there anything to stop them kitting out say 1000 of them and taking a small army everywhere they go. Alternatively they could just level a city by firing shipboard weapons at it. Do you discourage this type of behaviour and make the players do their own work or just go with it and play everything out on the big scale?

    • Cradok says:

      It entirely depends on how you want to play it. If you want to let them go nuts, let them go nuts. If, on the other hand, you’d rather they didn’t do such things… well, there’s plenty of ways to ‘discourage’ them.

    • Snidesworth says:

      If your players are capable of bombarding something from orbit you should probably account for this. Void shields are a fantastic way to protect planetary installations, as is sticking stuff groundside that they want to get their mitts on. Macrocannons and lances don’t tend to be too discriminating when it comes to what they destroy.

      As for the crew, between 5 and 10% of them will be dedicated armsmen, security personnel and so on. The rest of the crew will be simple voidsmen; they probably know how to fire a gun but they won’t be that good at it. Stripping a ship of its gun wielding brutes is also a surefire way of giving the lower duck scum an idea about mutiny. Still, the game supports the acquisition of armies and will be bringing out more extensive rules for mass warfare in the near future. Just remember that armies are costly to maintain and deploying one will cut into the profits of whatever endeavour their pursuing at the time.

      I’m not trying to encourage you to shut down the players when they want to try anything like stuff you mentioned, mind you. It’s just a matter of presenting them with obstacles proportional to the resources they possess.

    • misterk says:

      Yeah commisioning half your ship as an army would reduce morale way the fuck down, and leave you with a pretty shitty army that’d get taken apart. Also on any imperium run planet that probably wouldn’t be looked on too kindly. Indeed, any planet with a standing army wouldn’t be too happy about it. I suspect crewmen, some of whom have never been on a planet would run at the first sign of orks, let alone tyranids….

      I played the pre-shot of Deathwatch, which was fun. I got our team somewhat punished in plot terms by, when we were meant to help the mayor, ripping his head off because he was a dick….

    • Snidesworth says:

      That’s a perfectly valid response. The Governor is a bit useless and, by the time you get to him, little more than a figurehead. Removing him from command and appointing someone else as top dog could work just as well, or even better, as keeping him alive in terms of keeping the PDF’s morale intact.

    • Chris D says:

      Thanks for the responses, guys. For the moment I’m sidestepping the issue anyway by running Dark Heresy ( I figure if we’re going to play it we have to do it first as it would be too much of a come down to return to it after one of the others.) I definitely want to run Rogue Trader at some point, though.

  25. Nico_101 says:

    And here I am, waiting for a WH40K RPG for the PC, made in a Mass Effect 2 style.

    • Jsnuk says:

      That’d make me cum buckets.

    • The Great Wayne says:

      A RPG would be nice indeed, but imagine a Planetside-like with all the factions in the game, several immense battlegrounds and the use of NPCs to simulate numbers discrepancies from one army to the next ?

      *That* would be the ultimate nerdgasm.

  26. bill says:

    I’d love to have this. But I rarely get to actually play RPGs.. i just lovingly read the books and imagine.

    In a weird way, this sounds like the best RPG ever – Paranoia.
    Send a squad off to complete a mission. Except in that case the mission would be impossible, illogical and even if you completed it you’d get executed for doing so. Because that would be impossible – so you must be a traitor.

  27. JackShandy says:

    Rob Florence, you bastard, I bought Cluedo because of you. Not even the normal game- some horrible new version where all the characters are celebrities and the ballroom’s a spa and you can get randomly eliminated at any time. I bought it and I designed a game for it, all for you. It was called Tic Tac… To Die! Me and a friend spent an entire afternoon thinking it up. AND FOR WHAT. NOTHING BUT A ONE-WAY TRIP TO 22 GUTTER LANE, TRASHVILLE.

    I’m slamming my internet closed in disgust, you monster. Consider this a divorce.

  28. reezecalban says:

    Just as an FYI, the core rulebook is available for £25.90 from Amazon at the mo

    Definately worth it at that price!

    • Wilson says:

      Thanks for that, I’m actually tempted by this now. I got the Inquisitor rulebook ages ago, and I quite fancy some kind of proper RPG in the 40K universe. Though it sounds like Dark Heresy might be more suitable as a general ruleset, but it’s also still £32. Do you get more content with the Dark Heresy rulebook?

    • Thule says:

      All the rulebooks from Fantasy Flight main 40k RPG lines are big extensive books, well worth the money.
      They’re 300-400 page behemoths, in which you get all the starting rules, a setting to use and a starting adventure.

      Whichever you choose should depend on what kind of RPG you want to play. Do you want to play as an inquisitorial asset or an elite Space Marine? Do you want to stop evil schemes and plots on suicide missions. Or do you want to be an unstoppable killing machine, sent into battle with your brothers to stop entire armies and fleets in their tracks?

    • Wilson says:

      @Thule – Good to hear. I thought they would be, but it’s nice to have it confirmed. If there’s no difference in amount of content or anything, I’ll just have to make a decision. I think I’m slightly more tempted by the inquisitorial side of things, but the chance to play as a ‘proper’ Space Marine could be very cool. Oh choices, choices.

  29. Schiraman says:

    I’ve not looked in detail at Deathwatch or Rogue Trader, but I have to say that I was pretty unimpressed with the Dark Heresy system.

    It’s ok for combat, but it does a pretty bad job of bringing the different character classes to life – Psykers get to be powerful and unique, but everyone else feels largely interchangeable – which is shame given the strength of the background material.

    Also it feels like a big cheat to make people buy the same rules three times – wouldn’t it be better to have a single core rulebook with DH, RT and DW as campaign supplements?

    • Wilson says:

      @Schiraman – What was the background lore and the other gameplay mechanics/systems like in the Dark Heresy rulebook? When you say you were “pretty unimpressed with the Dark Heresy system” does that apply to the whole thing or just some elements?

    • Thule says:

      I think he means just certain elements of the system. You have to understand that Dark Heresy is the oldest of these RPG’s and therefore the system is the least refined. Dark Heresy was first, after which came Rogue Trader, which was followed closely by Deathwatch.

      One of the criticisms most people levelled against Dark Heresy, was that your character didn’t feel powerful enough. Though that’s supposedly been fixed with the expansion called Dark Heresy: Ascension, which’ll allow you to play an actual Inquisitor(among other classes) rather than an Inquisitorial lackey.

    • Wilson says:

      I knew that Dark Heresy was first, but I wasn’t aware they had been refining the system in the following games (I assumed they would be more adding rules rather than working on what they already had). I suppose you can use the improved systems from the later rulebooks in Dark Heresy games? I’ve decided to go for the Deathwatch rulebook, and if I like it I might grab Dark Heresy at some point in the future.

    • Thule says:

      It’s not so much that the later systems are better neccesarily, but they’re just a bit more refined. The systems all use the same ruleset and you can for example, use an NPC monster from the Dark Heresy book against the players’ Deathwatch characters.
      However, they’re Space Marines, so where a Dark Heresy acolyte would be crapping in his pants against an Ork a Deathwatch Space Marine would chop it into bits, without any problems.
      That’s why you fight against Hordes of foes in Deathwatch, rather than a single enemy.

    • Snidesworth says:

      @Thule: Ascension is, unfortunately, not that good an addition to Dark Heresy. Some of the careers are fundamentally broken, others are bland and uninteresting (even when their concept isn’t) and the entire thing feels like it wasn’t playtested much, if at all. This is all on top of rank 8 DH characters being substantially powerful. There’s some good stuff, mind you. Conceptually it’s great and the Influence mechanic works as well as Profit Factor does in Rogue Trader but, when it comes down to the character careers themselves, you’re going to either find your options are largely uninspiring or elevate you to such levels of power that the likes of greater daemons are required to even threaten you.

      @Wilson: There have been some refinements to the core rule system of the three games. Little things like wildly successful attack rolls increasing the minimum damage a hit can deal, some previously useless talents being upgrades and general clarification on how things work. The only iffy “improvement” made was how Righteous Fury (critical hits) were handled, a change that was redacted by the latest errata of Deathwatch.

  30. Acosta says:

    This post made me buy two books more of the Horus Heressy saga and three Ombinuses of Gotrex and Felix. The Warhammer fire is easy to light…

  31. andtriage says:

    may i just say: beautifully written and GOD BE PRAISED that RPS throws some scraps at the pen-and-paper readership.

    i love video games, but pen-and-paper is where it’s really at. shadowrun, traveller, etc. i was checking out the fantasy flight RPGs at the local game shop and they all look impressive.