Deathwatch: Mission to Tantalus
Last weekend saw our first game of Deathwatch in what’s looking to be a pretty long-running campaign, if the initial mission was anything to go by. You may remember me mentioning it before, when I showed you all the weapons our GM had made for atmosphere and inspiration.
As you might’ve guessed from the title of the post, we’re playing through the official Watch Station Erioch storyline (or our GM’s version of it) so no spoilers, thanks.
The first session went suspiciously well. It involved plenty of “Wait, wait, wait…” moments where we brought things to a mutual halt to consult the rulebook, but those moments are an inevitable part of playing a new system. Nothing too show-stopping or game-breaking, and we were always happy enough to call a break in order to get it right. What surprised me was the difference between how the rules read and how they actually played. I’ll clarify that though, because what’ll definitely improve this blog are my boring-ass opinions on RPGs. For really reals.
All five of us have been playing RPGs for 10+ years (close to 25ish in some cases) and came to it with a wealth of experience with different rules systems – added to the fact I used to design RPGs, like, for a living. So we went into Deathwatch with open minds and a good handle on a bunch of systems. I have no real game system snobbery; I’ve played crunchy games with rules as dense as the core of a collapsed sun, and I’ve played things as frighteningly free-form as, say, Amber Diceless. Similarly, I’ve read rulebooks that were a joy to study, and rulebooks that were absolute bastards of poorly indexed and looping-back text.
Deathwatch was nowhere near the worst offender on the continuum, but all of us felt on shaky ground before playing, just from reading the rules. Some things were explained with descriptions that took us several interpretations to get right, and I reckon it’s got a good shot in the running of Most Useless RPG Index Ever. On a couple of occasions, half a rule we needed to look up would be on one page, another quarter of it was half a book away, and the last chunk would be found in somewhere between here, there, and fuck-only-knows-where. (Hi, healing rules!)
But the way it actually played? Christ, that was a different story.
I love how it played. I love how the rules reflected the atmosphere – more than just the obvious lethality of being a Space Marine – down to how equipment worked and how freaking dangerous it felt to be out there in the wild worlds of M41. I don’t think any of us had any real complaints about actual in-game stuff (and let me be clear, that’s very rare for some of my friends, who can find something to complain about anything). So in short, yeah, I like the rules a lot. I like how smoothly it runs, I like the array of competent options at your disposal as a player, and I like that a lot of it was actually intuitive – again, despite the fact the rulebook read like the opposite was going to be true.
It’s nice to be able to sit down and say “Shit, this is well-designed” and really, really mean it.
Before we started, quotable nonsense was flying thick and fast:
A lot of the immersion came down to our GM, Mark. He took preparation to a whole new level, actually arriving with – I shit you not – crates of stuff.
The weapons were just the tip of the iceberg. Check some of this out:
Briefly, our kill-team’s first mission involved going to the moon Tantalus and recovering an Adeptus Mechanicus datacore of vague and dubious origin, along with secondary and tertiary objectives to achieve in the last hours before the entire moon was overrun by tyranids from Hive Fleet Dagon. In another example of Mark’s prep-work, he had prerecorded and voice-distorted distress calls to play us, as well as printed pictures of every NPC we met to be attached to the outside of his GM screen for us to see.
We didn’t roleplay all that brilliantly, in all honesty. We made decisions as our characters would’ve made them, but there was no real acting or talking in-character. Part of my problem there was that I’ve done what I always do these days, which is make the mistake of playing a quiet and/or surly and/or distant character. Not intentionally to be uncooperative (I’m enough of a vet to know how a loner can basically slaughter any RPG group with contrary stubborn bullshit, and it’s supposed to be a team effort) but I liked the idea of a paranoid, brooding typical Minotaur – with underlying distaste for other Chapters and Imperial institutions – slowly coming out of his shell into the bonds of brotherhood with his kill-team. That’s a great idea on paper, and would make for decent character development in a novel. It’s not as wonderful when it leaves you mostly silent at a gaming table, and doing no real roleplaying. It was a coward’s way out, and I’ll probably adjust it next time.
The idea behind Deiphobus, my Minotaurs Apothecary, is that he volunteered for the Deathwatch to explore a little more individuality beyond the unbreakable mass of full-scale Chapter deployment, a la standard Minotaurs tactics. There’s also the consideration of knowing your enemy: walking among the other Chapters and getting first-hand experience of how they differ from the Minotaurs, but he primarily wants to determine who he is (if anyone…) beneath the bronze armour, and test himself without the vast, vast resources of his Chapter’s hundreds of brothers at his back.
I really felt that, even if it didn’t exactly show in the roleplaying side of things. The isolation of it all; the sheer ball-aching distance of being out there, alone, with no hope of reinforcement. It was one of my fave parts of the whole game.
I was, perhaps unsurprisingly, way more into the idea of absolute violence for the most pointless of reasons when I was holding a bolt pistol in my hand.
One thing I was a little less keen on was combat, though again that’ll need some clarifying. I loved the lethality of it, how dangerous it felt. I love how true to the setting it felt, without being impossibly difficult, overwhelming, or overly complex. I thought it was awesome how some fights absolutely favoured the Devastator and his heavy bolter, while others showed the Assault Marine’s specialty, and the Tactical Marine was basically just good at everything. We’d decided not to use Squad Mode (or even much Solo Mode) on our first run-through, but I can see all the ways everyone (especially TacMarines) get even more useful when that stuff comes into play.
Apothecarying it up felt a little bland in comparison, though. I could heal like an absolute genius, and I usually enjoy support classes that buff, boost, and heal the rest of the group, no matter what game I’m playing. That worked in Deathwatch, too – just not quite as much as I’d hoped. Some of it came down to tactics, with our squad positioning being bad enough sometimes that I couldn’t really get to the others in time to heal them efficiently, but the ones I could heal jumped right back up and started killing all the Red Team again. That was cool.
What was less cool was how I was basically relegated to auto-attacking when I wasn’t healing, which was fairly often. And when I say “auto-attacking”, I mean in the MMO sense of doing basic automatic attacks while the others are using special abilities and controlling the fight. I could shoot my bolter, but with much less accuracy than the Tactical Marine and much less damage. I could use my chainsword, but only attacking once compared to the Assault Marine’s twice, and doing much less damage than him with each one. I just struggle to see an Apothecary being significantly less skilled like that, I guess.
It’s not a matter of my character’s stats (which are high, and awesome) or my dice rolls (which were stellar, for once). It also wasn’t a matter of feeling shitty for just doing less damage in combat. It’s more a matter of options. They had choices and options – special rules to get involved with – while I had a lot less of that going on. I could heal them, or do a less-useful version of what they were doing.
And looking at the advances, it seems to magnify as you level up and get more skills. Part of this is personal bias, mind you. One of my personal outlooks on Apothecaries is that they’re among the more courageous and capable fighters in a Chapter, rather than the doctor who hangs back, because they have to chainsword their way through where the fighting is thickest to recover their fallen brothers’ gene-seed. You see a little of it with Kargos in Betrayer. He’s one of the deadliest fighters among the World Eaters for precisely that reason. Not that I want to be The Very Best or whatever. Just “not significantly worse”. If you’re spending several turns healing the other guys while they do all the violent work, it feels a little like there could be some balance where you could contribute more efficiently in other ways when you’re free from kissing their aches and boo-boos.
I like kissing their aches and boo-boos. I just don’t want to be useless when I’m not doing that.
But again, we’re talking about a pretty tiny gripe in an otherwise awesome weekend. This campaign’s been the most fun I’ve had RPGing in freaking ages, and I’m itching for the second mission to get underway. Our homework for this month is to paint our Deathwatch minis, and for your viewing pleasure here’s Deiphobus “Dio” Lorec, Intendant of the Minotaurs. I was trying to go with an iconic look for an Apothecary – narthecium and chainsword – despite the fact I knew I’d almost universally be using my bolter. Aesthetic choice, etc.
Dio’s most intriguing slice of personal renown came from standing before a kneeling, dying hive tyrant, and puncturing its skull with his reductor to take a gene-sample.
CRACK-THUNK-CLICK. SAMPLE STORED. Take that, alien bitch.