Monday, October 18, 2010

For The Emperor! - Thoughts on Deathwatch (Not a full review)

So, in case you didn't know, I'm something of a science fiction fan. I love it, and I wish there were more games about it. Which is impressive when you consider just how many sci-fi RPGs are out there if you go looking. In that regards, when a housemate picked up Dark Heresy, the first of the Warhammer 40k RPGs in the new run by Fantasy Flight games I was intrigued. Rogue Trader than came out, and now, most recently, Deathwatch (Not Death Watch as I keep wanting to enter!) has hit store shelves in game stores everywhere. Now, Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader are interesting games in their own right, but they are still very traditional RPGs. You make your character, pick from a variety of classes, and in general have a whole ton of freedom of choice in who, what, and how you play. Deathwatch on the other hand does not have this. You play a Space Marine, with all that comes with it. So what does that mean? Well, Read on and find out.

A Game About Heroes
Deathwatch, as I said, is a game where you play Space Marines. For those not familiar with the 40k universe, basically you are genetically modified and enhanced super soldiers. Standing 8' tall before power armor, and being built like two line backers (not linemen, mind) of the NFL stapled together. You have multiple vital organs, a ridiculous level of strength, toughness, and training. Essentially, you are the sci-fi equivalent of Hercules wearing power armor, and wielding weapons that fire bullets roughly the size of coke cans into the enemies of the empire of man. To put it in other terms, consider it like playing an Epic Level campaign of D&D, or your RPG of choice. You are an elite monster, not just a normal person. You are the kind of person, or group rather, where a standard mission objective could be "So we sent in this unit of 100 men, and they were killed to a man. So, now we want to be serious. We're sending you 5 in alone. Wipe them all out, and try to be back so we can leave before dinner." Even better, this is completely doable. Finally, for people with experience in Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader, a starting character in Deathwatch has 13-14 thousand experience at the beginning of the game.

Deathwatch is also a military action game. You need to know this going in. Space Marines are militant and organized, and the game is set up to go in an episodic "Mission to Mission" structure. If neither of these are your cup of tea, you would probably be happier with Dark Heresy or Rogue Trader if you still want to play in the 40k 'verse.

A Couple Bad Things
This isn't a full review, I'm not even sure I will do a full review of Deathwatch, but I do want to talk about a couple of the things that either could turn you off from the game, or that I just don't see the need for. I'll end with the things I like to leave it on a bad note.

First, and most important, the big things that could turn you off are just what kind of game it is. I mentioned this above, but if you aren't interested in Military Games, or full on action based RPGs, than Deathwatch is probably not for you. This isn't a bad thing, but if you are considering the game, be prepared for a mission format, and things like the 'fight of the week'. It can be fun, I've seen it in other games, but it is not for everyone.

The other thing you may not like is how limited character creation is. Now, they try to do things to help open it up but there are limitations. For one, you are a Space Marine. This means that a lot of your physical description is already set. You are tall, strong, fit, and a 'perfect' specimen with, as Invader Zim says, "such plentiful organs" (more Organs means more Human!). This also means that you are a male character, a chem gelded one at that. So if you were looking for romance in your play, this is not the game for you either - unless you are fine with purely emotional love, and even that is kind of hard. Finally, the being a Space Marine itself is also a restriction. Instead of choosing classes, like in a normal game, you choose a specialization. Some of these are quite divergent (a librarian gets you psychic powers for example), but for the most part it means people are playing different emphasis of the same class. An Assault Marine is a melee based fighter, a devastator is a heavy weapons fighter, a tactical marine is an all rounder. At best, you are a fighter/blah multiclass.

Now, there are ways around this restriction. If your GM allows it you can bring in a character from Rogue Trader or Dark Heresy with 14k XP on them. However, even with that you are likely to be over-shadowed by some of the simply monstrous abilities of these Space Marines. Essentially, in the combat missions you'd be playing 'hard mode'. Making up for difference in power by breadth of ability. A viable alternative, as long as you are aware of the draw backs.

As far as the things I disagree with, they are very few but are there. I don't see the need for Squad Mode and Solo Mode. The abilities are neat and all, but they are also a bit confusing and complex. It makes the game less accessible to new players in my opinion, which is one of the good things about the other systems. Complex as they could be, the system itself was easy to teach to new people, and to pick up by playing. Now, my real dislike for Squad Mode comes from what I see as a design mistake. Throughout the book it mentions that one of the themes of the game is the bonds of brotherhood in the kill team. Them forming into a cohesive unit that can act as one. In such a case a "Squad Mode" makes an amazing amount of sense. However, the rules for Squad Mode only have one - minor - point that emphasizes this part of the story. Everything else is based off of the rank and mechanical abilities of the squad leader. It doesn't matter if the team is brand new, or has worked together for years, a rank 4 squad leader with command +10 will always produce the same amount of cohesion points for Squad Mode. A mistake as far as I am concerned.

My other issue with the design is what I consider over-design. While I can't fault people for being thorough, there are things in the book that seem to exist solely for the purpose of capturing every aspect of the space marines from the 40k fluff perspective. Not a bad thing really, but it does come off as over-design at parts, and also helps to hinder introducing new people to the game. The character sheet can be particularly daunting for this, a lot of information crammed into a fairly small space, including a lot of the special functions and rules. Some of them I wonder if they are actually necessary, or just put in there to try and keep people from calling foul for not representing that Space Marines are almost impossible to poison (I think the Unnatural Toughness * 2 does this, but there are also 2-3 other things covering similar situations).

These aren't major gripes, just places I have issue with the design. Both fundamentally fall under two categories. The first is forgetting the theme of the game when making the core mechanic, the second is failing to remember the KISS rule.

The Good
Enough of the bad, lets talk about the good. The rules, aside from the few areas I talked about above are nice and clear. They can be understood fairly easily, with the exception of squad mode, which isn't as daunting with some thought put into it, but is still a bar to a 'quick pick up'. If you've played a previous 40k game, like Dark Heresy, you are already aware of the core mechanics. They're the same here, the power level is just dialed up to a significantly higher degree.

One thing I do like a lot about the game, is the small built in function to encourage people to role play during the game. Characters have something called Demeanor. They have both a Charter Demeanor, and a personal demeanor. If they role play these demeanor's out, and do a good job of it, they can get a mechanical benefit from it. It isn't a major mechanical benefit, but it is there, and is enough to encourage people who are used to roll playing, to give role playing a shot.

The game also captures the scope and power of a space marine well. Even without what I see as over-design, there is no chance in my mind for you to not realize you are a bad ass. The fact that in a system with an "average" strength of 25, you have an effective strength of 100+, or a toughness in the 80s. The fact that most people have to roll well into the top 5% of their potential damage to evens cratch you. The weapons you have, and all the other aspects of it. If you like epic games, this is a "can't miss" game.

This is less Deathwatch and more the whole line, but I also love the ramp up. I like that I can bring my Dark Heresy character into Rogue Trader - and if they keep surviving - further along into Deathwatch. I like that if I want, I can run a game with a 5 man Deathwatch Kill Team, and then have some random other person 'permanently' assigned to them. Like a Rogue Trader, or a Sister of Battle. The rules work the exact same, the only difference between a Space Marine and a Dark Heresy character is that 13000 XP difference. Meaning, you hand out 13000 XP and the DH character fits right nice into your Deathwatch game, by design. This is awesome, especially when you see how it keeps the whole universe for RPG books on the same page, and Fantasy Flight deserves a lot of praise for this.

Final Thoughts
Despite my nitpicking and warnings, there is a lot to love about this game. Especially if you like Sci Fi epic action games. I am eagerly looking forward to running it, which should be starting in the next couple of weeks. A few people have already made their characters, and just comparing them to my DH characters the power level is terrifying. Especially when you consider that these are established DH characters versus new Deathwatch characters. Also, I'm curious to see where Fantasy Flight is going next, considering it mentions that you can "escape the scope of Deathwatch and into the realm of other Warhammer 40k RPGs" when it talks about maxing out your Space Marine.


  1. Thanks for the review. Deathwatch was sold out by the time I got to Gen Con. Our gamemaster has two copies, though. Currently we're working through Red Wake at, but we will eventually move in to Deathwatch territory.

  2. This wasn't a full review, but since there is apparently an interest I will do one for later in the week.

    Red Wake looks interesting, thanks for the link to the updates on it. Since you've played DH, I doubt Deathwatch will surprise you mechanically, so if you like the flow of that game you'll probably enjoy deathwatch. Especially since a starting level Deathwatch character is the same level XP wise as a starting level Ascension character.