Monday, October 25, 2010

Review: Deathwatch

So, when I gave my initial thoughts on Deathwatch, a couple people expressed interest in a full on review for the book. So, here we go with a full review of Deathwatch after a couple weeks of looking through it, and spending some time on the forums for the game to see where other people are with it as well. So, read on for the Official Reality Refracted review of Deathwatch.

Just the Numbers
Presentation: 8.5/10
Layout: 9.0/10
Rules: 8.0/10
Character Creation: 9.0/10
Provided Material: 9.5/10
Final Score: 88/100 (B+)

Right off the bat, Deathwatch has a beautiful presentation. The book is more a hard covered tomb than an actual book. Its surface feels smooth, it has some heft to it, and the art on the cover is beautiful while getting across the point right away. In other 40k games you are playing the normal folks, here you play Heroes with a capital H. Here, you get to be the Space Marines.

Going through the book, the pages have a nice feel to them. They feel durable, which is good considering the weight of the book. The artwork throughout the book isn't a consistent style, but it does draw on 40k and the Warhammer franchise's long legacy of outstanding geekery. All the images are appropriate for the game book, and a few of them had me stop just to look at them and enjoy what was actually going on. Little drawings for weapons and armor also help give you an idea of just how things look, and can help do a lot for conveying the feel of the 41st millenium.

On the downside however, when reading the book parts of it come off as very rushed. While I am willing to give some leeway to the editor for the sheer size of the book, there are simply a lot of very easily fixed, and easily spotted, mistakes throughout the books. Typos aren't the worst culprit (which is good), but on numerous occasions words are simply missing from a sentence, or the wrong form of verbs are used. This can be jarring when reading, as your brain then needs to go back, figure out what the author was trying to say, and fill in the words. In a couple of places, it makes the meaning of the sentence hard to figure out, as the omitted word could easily have been the negative form of a word like "can" or "should" instead of the positive form. It is a shame too, especially the frequency, as otherwise the book is very good.

The book can also be daunting in size. I'm not going to take off any points for this, but it needs to be said. In a world where most RPGs are going smaller, and more visually friendly, less daunting to what is going on, Fantasy Flight has clearly stuck with the more old school method and has given a big, heavy tomb full of rules and setting. This can be terrifying to a new player who may feel they need to go through this giant book to know what is going on. So, just be warned if introing someone to the game, teach them if you can, instead of making them read.

Score: 8.5/10

The Layout for Deathwatch, much like the Presentation, is eye catching and well done. Pages are easy to ready, and layed out neatly in a way that invites the eye along to the next section. Sidebars are unobtrusive, simply giving extra information and then letting you go on your way. Fluff and setting side bars are also easily identifiable, and set in a way they don't demand your attention, leaving you with the choice of whether you want to read them now or after.

The chapter layout progresses through character creation, and then onwards into the meat and potatoes of the game, which is something I must say I am a fan of. I like being able to go through the book and have information presented to me as I need it for character creation. A person who is new to RPGs in general also gets a nice intro to the game, and world, before touching on character creation.

On the down side, there are some places where things are not where you expect, mostly because there are two places you'd expect them and they're in the latter of those places. The size of the book again can be daunting, and once the general stuff is gone over, I am not sure I agree with how certain things are laid out. At the same time, I can't think of a better way to do it off the top of my head, so perhaps it is something with no happy answer.

Score: 9.0/10

I have a love/hate relationship with Deathwatch's rules, and you need to know that before I go into this. Some of the stuff I am going to be taking a few points off for might be things that you love, and I understand that some people will like them. The reason points are lost for them though, is I feel they add needless complications that makes it harder to get into the game without familiarity. I'll talk about this more below, but first I want to go into the good.

Deathwatch, like Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader before it, uses a surprisingly simple mechanic for handling things. Character stats are between 1 and 100, and to see if you can do anything you simply roll percentile, compare to your stat, and if you got below it then you succeed. This gives people a real easy way of telling their odds for a given task. "I have a 33 stat, therefore I have a 1 in 3 chance of making this test". Now, I've argued before that the stats being so low makes the game based on failure, but in practice this isn't really all that much of a hindrance. There are bonuses galore you can take for your stats to boost them up, and in general on an important roll at least one member of the party will make it. The system definitely gets points for handling a lot of complex things simply, especially from the players perspective, by putting the majority of the load on the GM. Still, they provide the tools to keep the load manageable, and honestly the core system is a wonder of game design in my opinion.

However, I mentioned needless complications. If you read my initial thoughts on Deathwatch, you've already know some of these things. For those who didn't, and don't want to click, I'll briefly summarize. Deathwatch, in dealing with Space Marines, had to add stuff for that level of epic play. In some cases this stuff is good, the Horde rules for instance are really cool, in other cases though I think the project ran away from them. Squad mode is cool, but doesn't convey the theme the book claims it does, of making the story being about these Space Marines coming together as battle brothers, while adding a lot more complications and things you need to remember. The Space Marine special glands add a lot of things to the game you have to keep in mind. Armor Histories, I'm not sure why these are even in here aside from Rogue Trader has it for ships, so lets give it to space marines. But basically, there is just a whole ton of stuff to keep track of, places bonuses and penalties come from that just don't make sense in some cases. Atraties likened it to an RPG where everyone is playing a mage, and so everyone has to have a very high level of knowledge about the system. Luckily, a lot of these things can just be removed from the system if you don't want them there without really harming the system too much, but that will feel weird for some people.

Like I said, some of those things some people will really like. Heck, I even like them to a degree as they can be cool, but looking at it as a game they add layers of complication that I can't help but look at and go "Why?" As in, "Why not stop before doing this, and add this later as optional rules". So in short, I love the system, but I don't like some of what I feel is over-design.
Score: 8.0/10

Character Creation in Deathwatch is smooth and straightforward. For the most part, all those complications I mentioned above are handled seamlessly in character creation. Even better, aside from stats (which have to be rolled), you can do your character completely random, or completely by choice. This helps out when you need to quick gen a character, while giving you options if you want to make your Space Marine be all yours.

A couple days ago, I watched two people who had never played the system before, generate their characters in less than 20 minutes each. While choosing some of the things for their characters. This is pretty awesome in my book, as it means you can get games going a bit faster. With the totally random way, the GM can run everyone's character creation - until you spend your initial 1000 XP anyhow - at the same time, then break up the book into XP spending time for people.

I don't think my friends are the average, but even still, you get a very powerful character very quickly, and the way things are done it is hard to make your character uselessly weak. The standards will keep you useful if nothing else.

About the only bad thing I can point out is that there isn't much variety. Space Marines are generalists, and while they can specialize, there is a lot of overlap in what they are capable of. This is a strength for the system, as it keeps people useful, but some people may feel constrained in their inability to be 'unique'.
Score: 9.0/10

There is, quite frankly, a ton of provided material in this book. Tons of setting information, as well as plentiful stats for NPCs and other opponents. The provided adventure is a good starting point, and is supplemented by the free adventure available off of the game's website. I, personally, would have liked more stats for variety, but I can't begrudge what they did provide. Especially when there are so many other stats you can pull from the other books in the 40k universe. Not to mention the forums, where people custom build things and post them for review, and the fact that if you have access to the table tops 2nd ed stats, you can make your own by multiplying the stats by 10.

Lots of material, and lots of tools to help you work the game. Not perfect, but not far from either.
Score: 9.5/10

In general, the only real 'problems' I have with Deathwatch is that the project lead got a bit design happy at places. And honestly, I can't fault him too much as he was clearly going for "as close to fluff" as possible, instead of as close to the table top rules. This brings in some complications, but also puts in a lot of things that the community will love to be able to play around with. Some of the things, may even exist to help try and make a character a bit more unique. Only, for whatever reason, they got caught up in being mechanically unique instead of letting the role play go for it.

Still, I'd recommend Deathwatch to a lot of people. Anyone who likes action games, who likes being epic, and who likes the 40k universe just for starters. War story lovers as well will probably find a lot to like here as well.
Final Score: 88/100 (B+)


  1. Thanks for your review. I just got this book and your thoughts helped me get a good overview on it. I might be emailing you some questions! It's been a long time since I have played an RPG but 40K enticed me back in. Thanks.

  2. Feel free to email the questions all you want, or just post them (if they pertain to a particular topic).

    Glad you liked the review. The 40k line of games is a lot of fun, or at least has been with the playgroup I am in out here. Sadly though, since everyone's play group is different I can't put a 'fun factor' aspect of the review in, since it is so GM/Player dependent.

    Hope you enjoy the game though.