Aaron Dembski-Bowden

Don't worry. None of this blood is mine.

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.

Witnesses described it as "totally badass."

Witnesses described it as “totally badass.”

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:

Here's one of the dataslates that Mark made up for us. This was the image side, where we got handouts of artwork and maps on transparent plastic to lay over the computer screen background. This was to represent our commanders and our warship sending us picts before and during the mission.

Here’s one of the dataslates that Mark made up for us. This was the image side, where we got handouts of artwork and maps on transparent plastic to lay over the computer screen background. This was to represent our commanders and our warship sending us picts before and during the mission.

This is the other side of the dataslate, which is a chalkboard for recording Wounds and Ammo. Each one had its own customised Mechanicus symbol, and personalised eraser.

This is the other side of the dataslate, which is a chalkboard for recording Wounds and Ammo. Each one had its own customised Mechanicus symbol, and personalised eraser.

This is Jon's dataslate, amidst his notes and wargear cards.

This is Jon’s dataslate, amidst his notes and wargear cards.

Beyond the glorious vista offered by my Lemon Grenade mug (Thanks, Liam and Nikki!) lies my array of wargear cards. Mark made these for each of us depending on our loadouts, laminated and personalised with quotes from the lore.

Beyond the glorious vista offered by my Lemon Grenade mug (Thanks, Liam and Nikki!) lies my array of wargear cards. Mark made these for each of us depending on our loadouts, laminated and personalised with quotes from the lore.

A better shot of some of my wargear cards. You can see the back of Ross's cards - all of them have the Deathwatch Inquisition symbol on the back.

A better shot of some of my wargear cards. You can see the back of Ross’s cards – all of them have the Deathwatch Inquisition symbol on the other side.

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.

A weapon of fine killingsmanship.

A weapon of fine killingsmanship.

And these were for progenoid storage, like the good Apothecary I am.

And these were for progenoid storage, like the good Apothecary I am.

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.

If you look closely, this apparently boring Space Marine is made from bitz of 6 different kits, and took me fucking ages to get the iconic look right.

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.

February 7, 2014 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Wow, I’m surprised the rules played so smoothly. I also felt on shaky ground reading through the rule book (it felt… complicated), but it didn’t get any better playing it through. I guess it didn’t help that I was trying to lead a group of inexperienced RPG players through it, so that May have made all the difference.

    Comment by Chinh | February 7, 2014 | Reply

  2. I must admit I’m rather envious of all that effort that your GM put into preparing all those items for his team. Anyhow, yes, the FFG books are rather complicated, although I’m not sure if this originates from the original Dark Heresy book published by Black Industries, but the layout hasn’t changed since. As for the rules themselves, they are usually pretty useable, although, as with every RPG system, there are certain glitches. Still, all in all, it’s a pretty good system and it’s rather new player friendly if you aren’t trying to do complicated stuff.
    We’ve begun playing Dark Heresy when it was first released and we’ve tried all the various WH40K systems released since, which includes Deathwatch. Our Dark Heresy games are primarily investigation based, with a good dash of horror and some shooting. Interestingly, the “majority” of our players (3 out of 2) prefer the shooting bit and when the storyline gets plot-heavy, they all look bored while the rest of us try to use our brains (mind you, our success rate is less than satisfying). However, when we decided to try Deathwatch and it devolved into 8 hours of mad, bolter-porn induced dice rolling and grim Astartes communicating only with cheesy one-liners from ’90s action movies. And that was the end of our expedition to Deathwatch land. We are now safely back in our hive cities, rooting out heretics and witches (i.e. people we can bully without repercussions).

    Comment by Harlek | February 7, 2014 | Reply

  3. Interesting blog and I concur on the alyout of the Deathwatch corebook, it’s very poorly structured with rules scattered left right and centre. It’s heartening though to see that such chaos did not stop you and your fellow holy warriors from suceeding in your mission. Glory to the Emperor!

    Comment by John | February 7, 2014 | Reply

    • Oh and seeing all them props make me feel really insecure as a GM, they’re brilliant, I’ll ahve to hope my players don’t see this, terrible accents and ‘data-slate’ text files on a tablet look rather weak in comparison 😉

      Comment by John | February 7, 2014 | Reply

  4. With regards to the apothecary downtime problem, perhaps try having a different weapon in tandem to the bolter, such as a sniper rifle or meltagun. It gives the GM and squad leader the perfect opportunity to include you more, “hey this bulkhead needs sealing” or “we need to pick off the guard in that comma tower”. Whenever I GM, I always encourage the ‘healer’ to take a part-time job like such, so they’re never standing around waiting for wounds to appear.

    Comment by Graarlerth | February 7, 2014 | Reply

    • I’ve read that mentioned in a couple of places, and started silently fantasizing about eventual sniper rifles, and so on. But that’s a really good idea, dude. I never feel like healing is wasting a turn, but doing something unique on the non-healing turns (sniping… meltagunning…) would seriously cover all my doubts.

      Comment by Aaron Dembski-Bowden | February 7, 2014 | Reply

      • How about a huge stormshield? You’d be in the thick of it, Ross and Jon could shoot around it and I could jump over it. Of course, if the shield fails, we’d be down a healer…

        Also; the Aegis of Sabres sounds like a song from a Castlevania soundtrack.

        Comment by Greg Kirkpatrick | February 7, 2014 | Reply

      • I approve. I totally hear how your ‘speciality’ leaves you somewhat more ‘bland’ when it comes to non healing action.

        I shall muse on this and see if I can remedy it…

        Comment by Mark | February 7, 2014 | Reply

      • A Storm Shield would be pimp. I wonder how good they are at deflecting Heavy Bolter shells. Just in case, y’know?

        Regardless, I think we’re a few missions away from having enough renown for the nice toys. Some cool skills seem to be the way forward to start with.

        Comment by Ross Brimstone | February 13, 2014 | Reply

  5. So, the tale of the heretic five is no more?

    Comment by Althalus | February 7, 2014 | Reply

    • On the contrary. I’m blogging a bit more in 2014 than the failure of 2013, and that’s coming very, very soon.

      Comment by Aaron Dembski-Bowden | February 7, 2014 | Reply

  6. My little boy came up whilst i was reading and spotted the canisters and screamed “daddy mutagen ooze, he’s got mutagen ooze”

    Comment by Justin Read | February 7, 2014 | Reply

  7. Also, Nerovar in Helsreach. Charging into the fray, snapping off bolter shots, doing what was needed to claim the fallen brother’s gene-seed. That’s my enduring image of apothecaries now.

    Comment by martyn | February 7, 2014 | Reply

  8. I was never a big rpg fan but the rites of battle book is an awesome source of fluff particulaty like the bit about kill marines solo missions without armour proper bad asses

    Comment by Dragons Claw | February 7, 2014 | Reply

  9. Apothecaries can sometimes feel a little lacklustre – there are a few suggestions around the net to beef them up a little. The problem isn’t really that they’re less capable than their brethren, but more than they’re fine combatants in a group of specialists. Tactical Marines get away with hogging the leadership role (a well-built tactical marine and well-used Squad Modes is what turns a Kill-Team from a half-dozen disparate warriors to a small army), Librarians get terrifying mind powers. Techmarines are the toughest sons of bitches you’re ever likely to meet.

    The best suggestions to improve the Apothecary tend to revolve around making them “the Determinator” – earlier or cheaper access to talents that let them ignore injuries and fatigue so they can keep fighting to get to their brothers in need.

    Also, if you’re facing Tyranids regularly, Apothecaries tend to make the best “subject matter experts” – specialising in biological and chemical matters makes them ideally suited to study Tyranids. As they’ll have a high intelligence to take best advantage of their Medicae skill, they can also benefit greatly from having a variety of Lore skills to emphasise this.

    Comment by Nathan Dowdell | February 7, 2014 | Reply

  10. My favourite DW character is an Apothecary. I never felt useless playing him – Apothecaries are pretty good in close combat and can learn interesting stuff there. Also, they are quite tough, and make rather impressive Determinators. Juhani is using a power spear, which makes him a rather devastating horde killer. But mostly, he can do things others cannot do, even when he is not healing. He’s also the nice guy, and the guy who always eats the weird brains to find out what the things they killed knew.

    Still, the funniest thing was when he downed three Tau orcas with his bolter, despite having a sucky BS skill.

    You will find your feet, I hope – I find that having a character with a unique personality is much more important than merely having something with good tricks.

    Comment by Liliedhe | February 7, 2014 | Reply

    • You’re definitely right on the personality score. Though it’s not “useless” as much as distinctly less capable and having fewer options in combat, which – even if combat isn’t a vital thing for me – is still a combo of not-lore-ish and not great game balance.

      I’m not worried, though. These things have a way of working themselves out with a houserule or two.

      Comment by Aaron Dembski-Bowden | February 8, 2014 | Reply

  11. I made a character for that game for the Chargen thing Matt and I have been doing, and it was extremely difficult considering how poorly laid out the books were. That said, I’d love to play and your group looks amazing. I can’t believe you didn’t choose an Ultramarine though. Bad Aaron!

    Comment by John the Great | February 8, 2014 | Reply

  12. Uhggh! You’re using the book-stats for the weapons. ADB, you really need to use the weapon profiles from the errata (and if not for everything, then at least for bolt weapons!). It changes combat in Deathwatch from “Very Easy Mode” to simply “Easy Mode”. We started referring to our Devastator as “The Heavy Bolter” because he did so much damage that it was the weapon that defined him more than anything. I know you’ve gone and made all those nice and fancy props, but the novelty of being bad-ass Space Marines will begin to fade when you work out that you’re never actually losing combat, and that everything you face is a complete cake-walk.

    Comment by HBMC | February 8, 2014 | Reply

    • Thanks.

      I love how you provided such incredible insight into the tuned and adjusted adventure I crafted for my friends.

      I really like how you instinctively know what transpired, and that the mission was an effortless ‘cake-walk’, in ‘very easy mode’, with no challenges, need for thought, and not even a smidge if jeopardy.

      I’m glad to hear that errata’ed, weaker bolt weapon stats would have prevented any player being impaled on ‘nid talons. Or how a friendly fire accident when a marine took 7/10 heavy bolter rounds and survived would still have survived if the stats had been different.

      Perhaps your omniscience chose to turn a blind eye to the fact that the smaller party size may have, in my opinion, benefited from the slight buff.

      Or is it possible that your adamant need to express your gaming experience with one set of rules prevented your clairvoyance from scrying that my plans for my players may involve different challenges?

      I guess I must have goofed, busily focusing on making ‘nice and fancy props’ at the expense of heeding your fervent need to have your opinion followed and obeyed.

      It is, after all, inconceivable to think that the opponents I am using for my adventures could have been adjusted to make them MORE dangerous, rather than make a marine’s weapon weaker.

      I must be a moron.

      Comment by Mark | February 13, 2014 | Reply


        Why I oughtta.

        Comment by Aaron Dembski-Bowden | February 13, 2014 | Reply

      • I apologise for HBMC – his lack of tact conceals his good intentions. There are balance issues, particularly as characters advance, with the weapons in the rulebook. Amongst other things, the Heavy Bolter is flat out superior to any other gun. The errata versions tidy up these issues, and push up the power of a few underpowered Xenos weapons as well. Speaking from experience – as a GM and as a contributor to the Deathwatch game – the errata stats remove a lot of unnecessary effort from mission planning, which leaves more time for the interesting parts of running the game. At least, that’s what I found.

        Comment by Nathan Dowdell | February 13, 2014 | Reply

      • Nathan: what a well worded and helpful response. My apologies for the tone of my grumble-rant…

        Comment by Mark | February 13, 2014 | Reply

      • Now kiss and make up.

        Comment by Vijay | February 17, 2014 | Reply

  13. As a Minotaur, you can access the Codex Chapter advances, and get Bolter Drill pretty early as I recall- you might not be as accurate as the Tactical marine, but you’ll get more shots. +1 to your rate of fire at semi/full auto goes a long way.

    As for combat options, I myself have always favoured grappling- you can describe and pull off some pretty cool stuff with that. I one grabbed a Traitor Guard officer and folded him up like paper, pulled the pins from his grenades, and cast him back to his unit.

    The thing with Deathwatch? It’s never what you do. It’s how you do it.

    My 2 pence.

    Comment by Jim | February 8, 2014 | Reply

  14. As other people have mentioned before, having Intelligence as a primary characteristic makes the Apothecary a go-to Specialty for Lore skills. You might also want to take a look at the General Advancements table and pick up things that might bring utility to the table; Trades based on Int and other skills (like Evaluate, which might become very useful if you need to improve your cover) as well as Perception, another primary characteristic. Awareness and Scrutiny come to mind when thinking of useful situational skills that the group might overlook in favor of more Dakka. Determining an appropriate choice of wargear is important as well, try to spot what your group might lack based on the mission info and cover the gap.

    When all else fails, remember; your job is to bring their progenoids back to base, preferably still inside their bodies.

    Comment by VP | February 8, 2014 | Reply

  15. The Apothecary is one of the specialties in Deathwatch that I’ve really wanted to test out, since the release of The First Founding. Something about playing an Ultramarines Tyrannic War Vet Apothecary and using the advanced Talents you can get, to boost what you can do along side your healing and basic attacks. Seems like there are loads of different things you can give a try with that, like using Master of Venoms and then skipping over Create Toxins for Enhanced Healing, or Guardian of Purity.

    Speaking of, which special ability did you chose?

    Comment by Brother Stynier | February 18, 2014 | Reply

  16. It was really interesting getting into your head a slight bit. But I still want to see your models painted up! *grumpy face*

    Comment by Forkmaster | February 18, 2014 | Reply

  17. Great !

    Comment by Warhammer | February 27, 2014 | Reply

  18. […] another note, remember my Deathwatch Campaign? Brother-Intendant Deiphobus of the Minotaurs is rolling along with some slow painting progress. […]

    Pingback by Look what I saw in the wild… « Aaron Dembski-Bowden | March 7, 2014 | Reply

  19. Where is there a how-to on making these props?
    After rubbing our faces in the awesomeness and making us ordinary GMs look lowly surely you should direct us to the secret sacred knowledge required for us to serve our players with equal fervour and skill?
    Do not my Deathwatch players deserve such props too?

    Comment by battybattybats | April 19, 2014 | Reply

  20. […] He drew me a map to explain one of the narrative points he was making about the novel I’m working on right now, which is just supremely, beautifully ugly. Bonus points for doing it in chalk on one of our Deathwatch wound marker slates. […]

    Pingback by Maps and Apps « Aaron Dembski-Bowden | July 13, 2015 | Reply

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