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Cardboard Children: Deathwatch RPG

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.

Cover image for YouTube video

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!

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About the Author

Robert Florence