System Analysis is a sporadic series on the blog where I'm going to go over a system in a more in depth fashion. The idea is to look at not only how a system works, but what that may mean for the games that you can run with the system itself. This series of entries in System Analysis is focusing on "Dark Heresy" by Fantasy Flight Games.
Combat is, in most systems, the crunchiest place for the mechanics of a game. It is also generally viewed as the most dangerous part of the system, which is often why the rules governing combat and what can and can't be done during combat are gone over so extensively. Dark Heresy is no different in this regards with the added caveat that thanks to a fairly simple core decision mechanic, combat can still feel fairly fluid even if it can also be a bit bogged down with die rolls and bonuses. Also, like in some other systems, combat is very deadly and dangerous. It isn't hard to find yourself burning fate points to stay alive with just one bad round in Dark Heresy, but we'll talk about that later.
Attacking goes exactly how you think it would. You make a check against your attack skill (BS for ranged, WS for melee) and determine if you succeeded or not. Easy peasy, right? Well, not so fast. We're not done yet. After you determine if you've successfully hit or not (and how many times in the case of rapid fire weaponry) the target gets a chance to dodge or parry(with melee) the attack. Only after that is unsuccessful do you get to do damage. This makes a single attack, when all goes well, take 3 rolls to accomplish: your attack roll, their defense roll, your damage roll. Keep that in mind for later.
Defense and Taking Damage
The defense roll has already been mentioned, but it is important to note that unless you have a specific advantage (well, one of two) you only get one defense roll a round. This means that you can only dodge or parry against one attack, and are defenseless against all other attacks in a round. Add to this that it is harder to dodge an assault rifle burst than it is a single shot from a pistol, and the weight is very favorably on the attacker's side in the confrontation. However, this doesn't leave you helpless. When you do take damage, it is reduced by a number determined by the armor you're wearing plus your character's natural toughness. What this boils down to is that in a system where a person will on average do 8-9 points of damage, it isn't that hard to get your character to be soaking 7-8 points off of each attack. Still, this doesn't change who has the advantage too much.
Melee vs. Ranged
Enough with the mechanics, lets look into the application. In Dark Heresy if you want to be a melee character you're setting yourself up for a rough life at first. Sure, as the game goes on and you get experience it can become viable if you specialize in it, but guns are - in general - just so much more dangerous. There is no way to "rapid" strike with a melee weapon, and while later on you do get multiple attacks you still have to make your attack rolls and you don't get near as many bonuses as the gun people do. All in all, the guy full auto firing at a target is going to hit more often and for more damage than the person dual wielding swords and in melee. This does not mean, however, that melee isn't viable. Just that it does have issues. On the good side, you can't take cover from a melee attack.
One of the things I'm not sure I like, but ymmv, is how much gear dominates everything in combat. If a rank 1 PC went against a Rank 5 PC, but the rank 1 had better gear, the rank 1 would most likely win the fight. Better Armor, armor pen, bonuses to attack, and raw damage output are all controlled by the gear and that is the key determinant in a fight. I mean, sure, the rank 5 person may have a BS of 60 while the rank 1 only has a 30, but when you're full auto-ing in point blank range then the rank 1 is still rolling against an 80, and that is assuming the weapon itself doesn't have other bonuses.
What It All Means
All of this comes together to present the 40k universe in all its grandeur. Equipment can be more important than the person. You want to focus on the guy firing a bolt gun more than the guy with the lasgun. Why? The bolt gun is going to do a lot more damage, even if both are viable armaments for a soldier. At the same time, a person in the right armor may be able to laugh off 99% of the attacks coming in at them.
The reliance on gear helps to reaffirm that feeling that the individual isn't as important - unless really really really powerful - as the side they're on. It also makes combats stay very dangerous, even when fighting mooks. It doesn't take much more than one failed dodge roll to really ruin a PCs day, whether they're rank 1 or rank 8. Easier on the rank 1, sure, but we all know that bad rolls do happen eventually.
The Lethality is both a good and bad thing though. For one, with a healthy chance of death - or at least a loss of fate points - every fight, players often become more cautious about getting into fights without things in their favor. This means they try other things instead of fighting. Also, when they do fight, combats are kept short because people simply die so fast that it just kind of happens.
Still, some players may not enjoy the feeling of fragility you get from Dark Heresy, and you have to be ready for an unexpected death anytime you run a fight. If not death, permanent scarring or maiming. The system is old school in how it handles things, and it's very possible for someone who takes a bad hit to suddenly be halving one of their combat stats permanently. Be warned.