Sunday, August 8, 2010

Review: Deathwatch RPG by Fantasy Flight Games

Deathwatch RPG
Fantasy Flight Games
400 pages
As a Deathwatch Space Marine you have been selected as an exceptional candidate from amongst the warriors of your primary chapter, to bring your unique talents and abilities to the fight at the furthest fringes of Imperial space. United in this newly forged brotherhood, all Deathwatch Space Marines must learn to put aside their differences and work together to succeed in the most extraordinary of missions — or face the threat of total annihilation when confronted by implacable alien foes.
Excerpt from

This is it, what many of us have been waiting for since the 1980’s: an RPG where we get to play Space Marines! A few years ago when we received word of the development of Dark Heresy, the geek world exploded with excitement. Having a Warhammer 40,000 RPG was something I think we all wanted. An official one, not just something we cobbled together in Mutants and Masterminds, but something officially sanctioned by the hallowed halls of Games Workshop. Dark Heresy was a dream come true.
One thing I appreciated with Dark Heresy, is that it kept the core mechanics of the existing Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (basically a percentage-based system with talents and careers, and an advancement scheme for leveling). This has remained true all the way through the Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay series.
I think that having a core set of mechanics that we get used to, and doesn’t change makes it easier for us to understand and ultimately set it aside for a more immersive experience while roleplaying. Dark Heresy absolutely nailed the dark vibe with fragile characters on the low end of the totem-pole of the Inquisition food-chain. Rogue Trader did a fine job in capturing the space-faring angle and now we have Deathwatch to capture the brutal and bloody end to many of the very worst of antagonists.
Rogue Trader and Deathwatch truly owe a huge debt to the developers of Dark Heresy who really built the template for things to come. I think if Dark Heresy would have been anything less than a smash hit, we would have never seen Rogue Trader, much less Deathwatch. I am very pleased that the level of success has allowed Deathwatch to come to my gaming table!
So what is it?
For those versed in Warhammer 40k lore, the Deathwatch is something we all know about. For those less so up on 40k, the Deathwatch is a secret organization tied to the Ordo Xenos, a branch of the Holy Inquisition of the Imperium of Man. Made up the crème of the Space Marine crop they are sent in for the most brutal missions: when subtlety is largely unnecessary and a hive needs to be burned out, a genestealer cult eradicated, securing an Eldar artifact, executing a Tau Ethereal, rescuing an Inquisitor Lord from the clutches of vile aliens…when the mission MUST NOT FAIL, they send in a Deathwatch Kill-Team.
Space Marines are a varied lot. Each one a bio-engineered superman encased in the best armor, equipped with the best weapons and hypno-indoctrinated to be as loyal and fearless as a living being can be. Each “Chapter” of Space Marines has their own way of doing things and being steeped in traditions in a very much “Dark Age” of technology, they are all vastly different in how they act, believe, reason and interact with other Space Marines and humanity as a whole. Aside from a common set of guidelines in the Codex Astartes (which some revere as a holy text or largely ignore in favor of their own traditions) the only thing that binds these Chapters together is a common goal of defense of the Imperium. A task they all do in their own unique way.
When called upon to be “Seconded” to the Deathwatch, they must learn to work together as a team. Each of the new Deathwatch members is a veteran performer in their Chapter. Already a hero of legend by any account. The missions they undertake are the most dangerous. Suicide missions by any other description. Truly they would be suicidal if undertaken by any other force in the Imperium’s arsenal. The members of a Deathwatch Kill-Team resemble Jason and the Argonauts in the same way “normal” Space Marines resemble the 300 Spartans of Thermopylae.
A quote I heard this past weekend was that as Dark Heresy resembles a Call of Cthulhu game set in the 40k ‘verse, Rogue Trader resembles Traveller and Deathwatch resembles Dungeons and Dragons. I think this is particularly apt. Each of these games really snags a piece of the Roleplaying pie and runs with it. For those wanting a dangerous investigation with less-than perfect adventurers delving in to mind-shattering secrets…Dark Heresy really shines. For exploration in to a very grim and dark universe where Bad Things ™ are literally around every corner…Rogue Trader nails it. For a game where it is time to get in, kill everything and get out with your prize intact…Deathwatch is stellar!
Add to this that the system is savvy enough to allow for a wide bit of variation within each game: Inquisition acolytes who grow in ability and power to kick ass, Explorers who can investigate or become conquerors, or big hulking supermen who can be as silent as ghosts or discreet as the need calls for it…these games can handle it!
One last bit on the trifecta of awesome is that they are all inter-operable. It is entirely possible to mix and match between games to make it what YOU want. It really doesn’t get any better than that!
What’s IN the game?
At this stage there are rules for a handful of representative Space Marine chapters: Black Templars, Blood Angels, Ultramarines, Dark Angels, Storm Wardens and Space Wolves. Rules for representing other Chapters of Renown and creating custom chapters will come in a later supplement. Kind of a bummer, but expected.
The skills, traits, talents etc. all make sense and are well thought out. There are interesting rules for the history of your power armor and quirky bits on how it functions.
There is a LOT of material which long-time 40k fans, especially Space Marine aficionados may grind their teeth at: much of the material covering the making of a Space Marine, their gear, traditions, the gene-seed and explanations of implants, organization as well as history of the Imperium from the Great Crusade to present is covered in detail. This makes perfect sense as Fantasy Flight Games (and GW) want to net new customers (zealots) to the “cause”. Knowing a few long time 40k fans, I know there will be complaints as there is re-used art from Warhammer 40,000 and the Space Marine Codex. This I think would happen one way or another though as the more rabid and opinionated fans would end up complaining if dying the desert of dehydration and handed the wrong brand of distilled water.
So there is a lot of excellent material for newer players and a nice refresher for existing fans. Excellent!
FFG did a fine job with Cohesion, Solo and Squad abilities as well as the Horde Rules: a very smart way of handling the effects of armored supermen being able to cut a swathe through entire cults of mutants or swarms of lesser xenos. Emphasis is made on how Cohesion is gained or lost as well as how to get it back so the squad can work most effectively and carry out their mission, which will likely affect the entire sector. The very different personalities MUST learn to work together. By being true to their characters this will be a challenge, but this really is a very team-oriented game. The challenge is just as much about learning to operate as a single entity as completing the mission.
Fantasy Flight Games has captured the appropriate feel of the genre and this niche of it.
Presentation- 4 of 5 The new illustrations really are stellar, though they use of a lot of existing art keeps this from being as high as it could be. It’s still nicely laid out, clear and concise. I only found a couple typos so far and thankfully it has a nice index!
Rules- 4 of 5 Very consistent with the rest of the Warhammer 40’000 Roleplay series. Percentage systems aren’t complicated and easy for newer players to get their heads around. All the current additions to the base system are well thought out.
Price- 3 of 5 Expensive. $60. Granted this is a nice book, coffee-table display kind of book but still a stretch for many gamers.
Game Play- Not Graded I have not actually played this. I’ve played the pervious games in the series, and while they have the same core mechanic, I cannot comment on the current additions more than saying it seems to work on paper. It looks brilliant, but until I roll dice in a group…I’ll withhold judgment.
3.6 out of 5 Stars.


Matthew James Stanham said...

I got hold of the Rogue Trader Quick Start last year, and thought it was pretty cool. The art turned me off, with the big guns, small heads syndrome in full effect, but I have to admit that I have been severely tempted to lay down the money for these books. Hopefully, they will stay in print for a good long time and I can acclimatise myself to the cost. :D

Good review. I particularly liked the contrast you drew between the three games, which makes a lot of sense. Being somebody who was originally drawn into the game via the original Rogue Trader, I can sympathise with those who grind their teeth at some of the directions the franchise has gone in. Still, I think that I can overlook such shortcomings for the most part!

Vampiric Chicken said...

Good stuff Jeff, it really is a shame about the re-used artwork but I'm sure I'll still buy it, will have to have a whip-round with my nerd friends though or ask for it for christmas. That's a lot of moolah to come up with for a book!

Jeff said...

"I particularly liked the contrast you drew between the three games, which makes a lot of sense."

Yeah, I totally cannot claim that as my own. I completely paraphrased Kate Flack who aside from being one of the Primary Devs for Dark Heresy is a really cool lady.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great review. My only issue was the price tag, but I found some new copies on Ebay for quite cheap, from some store called green_lake_games_seattle in case anyone else needs a deal to pick one up cheap!