Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Deathwatch RPG (review)

Amongst all my minis, games and toys there is one single lonely Space Marine. I'm not even entirely sure when I got him, or where. Somehow he invaded my hobby shelves and set up operations. I'm not sure really what he wants or what he's up to; his stern and stoic helmet betrays no sign of his mysterious agenda.

He's a dark, faded purple in colour, clutching a bolter in his gauntlets. I'm pretty sure that there was a spike on him at one stage; a homemade Chaos conversion, I'm guessing. But that snapped off long ago and he's ready for stormtrooping shenanigans once more.

Someone surely spent some time on him at one point. I myself never had much love for painting models. And I was always more into fantasy models than sci-fi anyway, so 40K kinda passed me by. Wargaming just isn't really my thing.

But the 40K setting has intrigued me the more I've read about it, and the recent RPGs have been getting praise and profile, so I figured that I should bite the bullet and launch my first proper foray into the 41st Millenium. But which product? Should I start with Dark Heresy, which seems a bit lore-heavy? Or Rogue Trader, for a bit more freedom?

Or Deathwatch? Deathwatch has Space Marines. And I've got one single lonely Space Marine who has been waiting years for me to give him some orders. Hell, I know nothing about these guys. I know about space orks, and eldar space elves, and those awesome tyranid space bugs. I'm aware that there's some living-dead cyborg emperor-god that rules humanity. I know that there's only war, and that there used to be space dwarves but we don't talk about them anymore. And there's demons, because the whole universe looks like an '80s power metal album cover.

But I actually don't know about Space Marines. I didn't get into them when I was fourteen; am I too old to enjoy them now?

Are Space Marines cool?
Space Marines are awesome! I didn't think I'd get so much into Space Marines, but I totally have!

Here's what Space Marines are: Space Marines are deranged hyper-masculine power fantasies, something along the lines of Arthurian knights meets Frankenstein's Monster, who kick the shit out of aliens in the name of Dead Space Hitler. It doesn't so much glorify violence as happily wallows in the bloody aftermath. And once you take that for what it is, it becomes very cool indeed.

Much is made of how tough Space Marines are. They can't be mighty enough. A lad (and it's always a lad - more on that later) has to go through like a zillion different steps and failing any one of them kills him, it seems. They're titans. Demigods! Ubermensch! The ones you play in Deathwatch aren't even new recruits. You get to play distinguished veterans who have proven themselves outstanding in combat.

Even Space Marines think your Space Marine is awesome! That's pretty overkill on the awesome, but the 40K universe does overkill so well! And it's so nice to be given all this awesomeness. In so many games we're straight off the farm, clutching a few coppers and a pitchfork, but in Deathwatch we're already at max level. We don't just fight aliens, we wipe out their species. We don't blow up enemy bases, we blow up their suns. It's heady stuff.

So I finally get it. Space Marines are fucking cool, and I've got this big massive tome to thank for it. The book itself is a beautiful object, filled with funky pics and busy graphics, and the flavour is great. But that concerns me. I'm in this for a roleplaying game, and for all I know all the stuff I'm liking could have simply been copy/pasted from the books for the miniatures. It isn't telling me about the game.

So far the background material is making me love Space Marines, and I'm suckered in. I'm lovin' them Space Marines. I wanna play me a Space Marine.

You better make me feel like I'm playing a Space Marine, big massive tome.

 So far so good...
First up! Pick your Chapter, which is kinda like choosing which illegal frat house hazings have scarred your character for life. None of them are nice organisations, and none of them are meant to be, with names that have inspired countless garage bands, no doubt. Each one gives you a few stat bonuses and also its own unique Solo Mode (which seems interesting) as well as its own Demeanour.

Now Demeanours are the first thing you'll see in the way of roleplaying aids. They're personality quirks that help define your character, and they're great to see. Even D&D got on the personality trait indie bandwagon with its most recent edition, and it's nice that bigger developers are recognising that it is important.

However, like D&D5, I don't think they've gone far enough with it. Demeanours feel tacked on and underused. I can't help but feel like they should be a more central part of the game, helping us peer beneath the shells of these armoured angels of death. They could have offered strict protocols for actions, perfectly suiting the themes of indoctrination and discipline, or even offer a list of various oaths by which your character lives with consequences for breaking them. A missed opportunity.

Having picked our oh-so-macho Chapter we get to pick our Speciality, which is basically our combat role (medic, berserker, heavy gunner, psychic space wizard, etc.) And about now I'm starting to worry. All of these choices so far have been helping me narrow down a character identity, and I'm really getting off on that, but they're also mentioning some simple references to adjustments to the main system, and I'm getting the horrible feeling I'm not gonna like it.

I keep putting off having a look ahead to confirm my bad suspicions that I won't like the system, but am holding off simply because I'm really digging the Space Marine fluff and I don't want to be disappointed. I'm looking for something that feels colossal, suited for portraying the mythic lives of these superhuman dark heroes, and I just don't think I'm gonna get it.

My little lonely purple Space Marine is now sitting on my keyboard, studying my every word.

I think I'll call him Dave.

Where'd my power fantasy go?
I have a copy of the classic Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay on the shelf. My mates and I always joked about it being a completely bizarre game in which a whole heap of stupid mechanics got thrown together and despite them individually being shit they somehow worked together to be really entertaining. But it isn't a great game by any means, even though it does have a few good moments.

Deathwatch is using a very similar system (as used in Dark Heresy et al) but with a bit of modern polish, and it simply feels inadequate. I can't really complain about it, because it does do its job serviceably well, but it never lives up to what it could or should be.

The percentile system at its core is made more interesting by some great twists (like reversing your hit result to determine hit location) but then you'll have an ugly rule about determining the roll's relationship to your ability, which would have been smoother by simply having the "tens" of your roll become extra degrees of success. It's this confused approach that permeates the whole game.

Whenever the game wants to give you a choice it will give you so much. Maybe too much. And then it gets all self-conscious about it and has you roll on a table for the next thing and you've gotta run with it, no arguments. But then it feels all bad about being so strict and the cycle never ends. It's a confused mess.

Combat is the heart of this, as it should be, but it never makes you feel like you're a Space Marine. You just feel like you're playing yet another standard roleplaying game. Yup, it's a roleplaying game in the 40K universe. Yup, it can do the job. Nope, there's no reason why you should use this system rather than a better one on your shelf.

There are indeed a few things included with Deathwatch which are great, but nearly every one of them never follows through on how great they could be. The idea of your power armour's history and quirks is great, and having it randomly generated is cool, but it has very little effect on the game.

And this game should be about those personal touches. When we're playing Space Marines I want someone to invoke their power armour's history in a scene and have that moment be important. I want someone to open up about that time they slaughtered a warmaster and that's why the orcs on this planet aren't attacking us yet. I want the exploration of our characters to be happening as part of the gameplay, drawing us together to become a band of brothers.

Solo and Squad modes for combat are a great idea, and Cohesion and Fate are both fascinating, but fall flat with the system as a whole. It all feels like a miniature game, and that already exists. Why not give us something really different?

Just another RPG.
Deathwatch straddles the oh-so-familiar rpg trope of being caught somewhere between a minis game and a roleplaying game, and if it actually accepted its place it would have been a lot better. If it had simply become a tabletop skirmish game with character and mission progression (like an improved Warhammer Quest or Necromunda) then it could have worked. But it has too much bullshit for a minis game, and too much other bullshit to be a decent roleplaying game.

I thought that maybe the recently released Kill Teams might do the job. I even went out of my way to walk into my closest Games Workshop store to check it out. Sadly, it doesn't stress character growth and ongoing storylines at all, really. And I guess I'd like something in between those two if I wanted a tabletop Space Marines chronicle.

But I would really like a far different approach. Last year I read a mechanic in a game where you healed during refreshment scenes. You only get the benefits of a refreshment scene if a character reveals something about themself which hasn't been introduced before. That kind of mechanic is exactly what Deathwatch could have been built on.

Tell me about how the people of your home planet live in perpetual darkness and that's why you see well at night. Gain an advantage in a combat against a corrupted Commissar with your laspistol that you only ever use to execute traitors. Never remove your helmet in company, and even then go masked and hooded, but finally show your face to your battle-brothers and let them see the truth. Tell me of how you have dreams of dying in battle with a Hive Tyrant, but refuse to let that deter you from your mission. Let the base mechanics be built on learning about our character during play and watching him grow as we also see what made him.

That would make me feel like I'm playing a Space Marine. Deathwatch makes me feel like I'm, at best, playing a soldier.

Being fair
I think I'm being a bit hard on Deathwatch. The system isn't terrible, just typical and boring. It contains enough variety and distraction to suit it's design, and there are quite a few nice touches. But all of these good elements end up being hexbugs (hexbugs are elements in a game that remain charming despite being utterly incapable of achieving their function.) You can't build a game around hexbugs, especially by trying to link them together; you simply get stupider and more ridiculous hexbug activity. A lot of charm, but no satisfaction.

For casual roleplayers, and especially those coming into the hobby from a wargaming background, Deathwatch is fine. It's a perfectly serviceable game and is just as good as some other big lines out there. It's going for a certain style of play and has succeeded in the attempt.

But the true star, of course, is the setting material, and I think our hypothetical wargamer might have a different complaint. For me all this wonderful source material is fresh and exciting, but our wargamer friend might see all of this as very superficial. Apart from a new Chapter (briefly described) and some admittedly quite nice work on the local sector of space, there's nothing new here to excite them other than the system.

There's not even enemy stats for orks or eldar. I know I'm new to the Imperium, but aren't we meant to be seconded to the Ordo Xenos? Hey, I'll shoot Chaos with the rest of 'em, but ain't we here to bag us some aliens?

I now understand Dave a lot better and I have Deathwatch to thank for it. I now know why he's so stoic and ever at-attention. I know what torments he went through to become Adeptus Astartes and can only imagine what atrocities he has witnessed (or committed) since. I know that he holds a bolter with a .75 caliber and the bullets explode upon impact. I'll be reading up more on Space Marines, I tell you!

What does Dave think of Deathwatch? He doesn't give an opinion. The best he offers is a macho space-shrug and remains impassive. It's all the same to him.

He's pretty much nailed it. Space Marines are so cool!


PS: Games Workshop has been justly criticised at various times for its attitudes regarding women, and the 40K line has also suffered criticism as well. Fantasy Flight aren't responsible for any of that.

But FF should have put at least a sidebar early on discussing the gender politics of this setting and how that shouldn't affect who plays the game. And they shouldn't have used the male pronoun for players throughout the document without giving us a justification. That just looks guilty.

Myself, I can get behind the reasons why there are only male Astartes (it's all quite dystopian and cool) but it ain't gonna look good until GW stops sexualising the Sororitas.