We had our party of Space Marines, and had decided which actors/fictional characters they resemble Astartes-scale versions of. We had done our shopping. The party had been briefed on the mission. In short, it was time to get the game moving…
(A little reminder: this series of posts has spoilers for the adventure The Price of Hubris in the collection The Emperor Protects. So obviously if your GM intends to run this thing you should study this post intensely but deny all knowledge.)
Planetfall and Preliminaries
More or less the first thing the players did was pick Kyra as the team leader, which allowed them to take the Oath of Knowledge for the mission which would let them get bonuses to attacks against Tyranids. They knew that Tyranid-related creatures would be the main threat on this mission because they very sensibly had Kyra’s character don the Pain Glove and perform an Augury, which as per the Deathwatch rulebook allows you to ascertain what the biggest threat which faces the PCs is even at the lowest power levels. I don’t know whether this is an anticipated use of the power, but it certainly seems to be a very sensible one.
After installing themselves in the brig of a Rogue Trader vessel and making the Warp journey to Aurum, the party made planetfall. They knew that mysterious deaths were happening on the planet – including an Adepta Sororitas missionary, Sister Rachayel, sent to convert the local populace – and they knew they needed to get to the bottom of the case, convince the locals to join the Imperium, and locate some new meat for the Chapter. (In principle, I should have given them some more requisition points for shopping purposes since I’d added another secondary objective to the mission, but I decided not to since it was an objective added purely for lulz.)
Sensibly, the players decided to check in on the two major centres of Imperial power on the world – the Imperial Guard outpost and the Ecclesiarchy missionaries’ temple – as their first ports of call. As Dan’s pointed out in his post on the adventure, one of the things the designers seem to have wanted to do with the adventure is to let the players feel that their characters are awesome and cool. The reactions of the Imperials to the Marines actually seems like a better opportunity for this than the reactions of the locals; as well as being generally distasteful, having these technologically unsophisticated natives become all servile in the presence of the Space Marines wouldn’t have been in the spirit of the module, which requires that the locals at least wait until the Marines have proved themselves in some fashion before acknowledging that they are impressed. Even though the Ecclesiarchy priest and the Imperial Guard soldiers are rather eclipsed by the Marines’ capabilities, having the other branches of the Imperium scramble to be of assistance to you is a good ego-puff and I think it helped the players get into the mode of superhuman god-men sent to be exemplars of the Imperium’s overwhelming power.
For the most part, I ran these early parts of the adventure more or less consistently with the way the thing was written, eschewing most of the optional encounters because we’d already lost a chunk of time in the session to character generation. Probably the biggest departure I made was in the investigation of the death of Sister Rachayel, in that I actually decided that there would be some useful evidence the PCs could pick up using their auspex. In principle, this is an interesting little mystery because on the one hand the killing is exactly what it looks like – the Sister taking her own life – and the real question is not whodunnit, but where it happened. In practice, the adventure offers literally no way for the PCs to find out that she’d been moved until they’ve already worked out who’s responsible and had a chance to shake them down.
This is part of the module’s dogged determination to railroad the scenario into their planned final encounter. If you could make headway in investigating the killing you are sent to the planet to investigate, you might unravel the Genestealer conspiracy too early. Then the game designers wouldn’t be able to ambush you with hordes of unexpected Genestealers at the end and feel like they’ve outsmarted you. That would never do!
I dunno, fellas. For the first thing, if my players get outwitted in a game I run, I prefer it to be in a situation where they at least had a fair shot of working out what was going on before it was too late. Any two-bit GM and designer can make the important clues impossibly hard to get (or, in this case, just plain absent) and expect to mislead the players as a result, but it certainly isn’t something to be proud of. Secondly, none of us actually signed up for a complex investigative game – we came for the Fisting, not the Inquisiting – and it seemed to me that throwing in an outright insoluble enigma would put entirely too much emphasis on stuff which we didn’t actually want to be the focus of the game.
So, I tweaked the investigation a little. I was somewhat tempted to change things around so that the local Ecclesiarchy patriarch would be dead and a hyper-competent Sister Hospitaller would be onhand to help out the PCs (not least because there has been some highly skeevy stuff going down with in some corners of the fluff when it comes to the Adepta Sororitas of late), but I decided against it because the fact that an Adepta Sororitas has apparently committed suicide is a honking great clue in and of itself. (The closest male equivalent would be, I don’t know, a Grey Knight or something killing themselves, and explaining what they were doing there would be a nightmare in itself.) Saying “the Father wasn’t the sort of man to kill himself” is one thing, but having the victim be a class of people known for their absolutely unshakable faith and devotion to duty is the next order of magnitude. Likewise, I didn’t want to take the killing out of the the module entirely because it gives important early indications of what is going on on the planet.
Instead, I made it much more obvious that someone within the local government was up to dodgy shit. (For instance, rather than the Sister’s body being shipped back to her Order, I had the Aurans cremate it on a “misunderstanding”.) Secondly, I took advantage of the players’ own bright ideas; Dan thought of using his auspex to check the room, I made a spot ruling that the auspex could probably detect a somewhat old blood trail (thanks to, I dunno, luminol rays or something), and presto, the party had the key information that the body had been moved. Couple this with the fact that the Sister was going to go explore up north before she died, and they’ve got more or less all they need to piece together what happened, or at least figure out the general gist of it.
(Actually, it is quite interesting the way the module includes barely enough clues to suggest an alternate route through the adventure but then goes out of its way to discourage the players from taking it or to make it difficult for the players to do anything effective with it. It’s almost as though the lead designer was really, really in love with the final encounter they had planned out and point-blank refused to let anything seriously disrupt the railroad, whilst their assistant snuck in hints that maybe you shouldn’t railroad the players in this mission when the lead wasn’t looking.)
I still don’t think the mystery quite hit the spot for the players – at least one mentioned after the second session that it felt rather anticlimactic to find out the Sister hadn’t been murdered at all – but at least the party were able to make brisk progress on the investigation and not get frustrated with it.
Teenagers & T-Rexes
The other alteration I made to the early stages of the adventure was adding a number of muscular teenage boys (of the age of consent to avoid the homoerotic lols going into a skeevy area) for the Fists to groom for recruitment purposes. The most prominent of these boys was Kyme (named for a Black Library author), son of the local caele or high king, who I had the players encounter sparring with the caele’s second-in-command so that the Fists could
gaze adoringly at the sweat glistening on his rippling abs identify a potential recruit early on.
A major assumption of the module is that the party will attempt to win the trust and respect of the caele by taking part in the hilariously named Divested Hunt, a hunt for the even more ridiculously named Diablodon (it’s some kind of T Rexy thing) which is considered the ultimate and most ambitious way for an Auran to qualify as a warrior and an adult. The whole “Divested” part of the deal is that they have to doff their power armour to do so and use only the traditional weapons of the Aurans to perform this task.
Space Marines, of course, need little encouragement to go forth and take part in ardous trials, which I suppose is the assumption the designers were making here: in the adventure as written there’s more or less no way to avoid the ordeal unless the PCs are deliberately choosing to provoke a war with the locals, which is a clear breach of one of their primary mission objectives anyway. (Of course, the number one reason why the players might lose their temper with the locals might be the caele’s stubborn insistence on the ordeal…) In this case, though, I had extra insurance: because the players were in this partly for homoerotic lols, proposing that they strip off and go sweaty and beloinclothed into the jungle to perform deeds of manliness coincided exactly with what they wanted to do with their characters anyway.
To add a little complication to the hunt, I decided that Kyme and three of his buddies – all of whom around the age where they would be expected to go do this sort of trial anyway – would arrange to gatecrash the hunt, partly to win their manhood with the mentorship of the Fists and partly because they want the Fists to succeed for their own reasons. (I slipped in a hint that the caele’s second in command had put them up to this, since in the adventure as written she is very keen for Aurum to join the Imperium.)
This actually prompted the most involved in-character conversation of the evening, in which the Marines debated whether they should take the boys with them or send them back. I confess here I indulged in some mild railroading here in that I had Kyme claim that if they were sent back they would be considered to have failed the trial and be dishonoured, but I think it was justified in this case. I knew (but the players didn’t) that once the trial was done the Genestealer angle would be revealed, at which point it would be proper crazy to keep these pure and unblemished boys close to hand, so there was a real chance that the trial would be the only opportunity to actually get to know the kids and assess them for recruitment. (Besides, it’s not unreasonable for an infatuated young lad to say whatever needs to be said in order to stay close those he idolises.) On top of that, one of the player characters was keen to keep the lads around to see what they could do, and my gut feeling was that at least one other player was up for it OOC but wanted a little more IC justification for it.
This led to a tense moment with the expanded party sneaking through a dinosaur nesting site, which resulted in a fairly brisk combat in which an amusing psychic mishap led to Kyme and the party Librarian becoming better acquainted. It led to the party quickly and efficiently finding the Diablodon with the young mens’ help appraising them of the perils they would have faced getting there. It also exposed the mild ludicrousness of the trial: namely, that it would be game mechanically impossible for any native Auran to actually kill the Diablodon.
The problem is that the Diablodon has a nigh-ridiculous armour rating and a sturdy Toughness score with it, and the traditional Auran weapons have a miserable Penetration rating and don’t do all that much damage. Even with a very strong Auran warrior or a fully-fledged Space Marine’s Strength bonus in play, there is essentially no way to damage the thing unless you happen to get extra damage via Righteous Fury. Meanwhile its attacks do colossal amounts of damage and it has 180 wounds. Beating it with melee combat with Auran weapons and no armour is essentially not going to happen, even if you are a Space Marine, and picking it off at long range with bows would take forever and require it not to run away (or charge at you). I guess Aurans who have taken the things down might have done so with cunning traps, setting off landslides on its head and so on, though you’d think there would be mentions of legends of them doing so to tip the players off that a frontal attack might not work.
As it went, the Diablodon went down easily thanks to Kyra blasting it with ridiculous amounts of psychic power. Kyra was concerned that her Librarian was too OP, but was convinced otherwise by a quick glance at the Perils of the Warp table; the real issue was more that the other PCs had been nerfed by their insistence on not cheating like bastards and taking their usual weapons on the trial. We really didn’t know how the designers expected parties lacking a psyker with something like Smite to beat the thing because it seems to be built on a scale to be challenging to Space Marines with Astartes weapons and power armour, and PCs who are doing the trial in good faith (which is precisely what you want to do if you take the diplomacy with the caele serioiusly) won’t have that. Were the PCs expected to cheat or did the designers just forget? I agree with Dan that the latter is more likely; it’s even possible that the monster stats were written by someone else who only had a vague idea of the circumstances of the scenario.
Pain Gloves and Punishment
That fight aside though, the first session was fairly unchallenging for the PCs, which gave them ample opportunity to go for the lols. Our in-joke around Imperial Fists – which is probably also Games Workshop’s in-joke considering how well it is supported by Fist-themed fiction – requires a careful balance which I think everyone managed to hit. The trick is to pack in as much homoeroticism (preferably of a BDSM flavour) as possible without actually having the characters fuck on camera. How the battle-brothers express their deep bonds of bro-ness in downtime and between scenes is one thing, but any action in uptime needs some sort of justification in the Fists’ religious practices and tradition of self-discipline.
This is because the funny part isn’t the sexuality the Fists represent – laughing at other people’s sexuality in general isn’t cool. Nor is it funny because of the whole “Fist” thing and associated double entendres. Though it certainly helps; there’s a level on which any and all sex acts are inherently funny because whatever the specifics of what you’re getting up to with your partner(s) are there’s something mildly silly and undignified about the whole thing – yes, even that thing you like to do – but even so, narrating actual sex acts in a tabletop RPG session would attain a new and undesirable level of awkward I don’t think any of us wanted to aim for. No, the funny thing is how the Imperial Fist canon has all of these insanely tenuous justifications bolted onto it so that people can kid themselves that (for example) the Pain Glove ritual is not on some level a massive public bondage session utilising a science fictional sex toy. When I reviewed Space Marine by Ian Watson over on Ferretbrain one commenter became very insistent that the Fists’ activities couldn’t be homoerotic because they were religious/military ceremonies, as though such things could never, ever have a sexual component at all. (If you want another example of mildly homophobic 40K fans covering their ears and yelling NOT GAY NOT GAY NOT GAY when it is suggested that the whole Astartes thing is mildly homoerotic, check this archived 4chan thread out. Note one guy’s declaration that Space Marines have their penises removed as part of the transformation process, which seems to have no canonical basis in anything other than his desperate need to keep the gay out of stuff he likes.)
In short, the joke is how the Marines do all this stuff with a perfectly straight face as though it is SERIOUS BUSINESS (more or less everything a Marine does is treated as SERIOUS BUSINESS in the canon) and they all studiously avoid acknowledging that they might be getting their rocks off on this. It wouldn’t have been funny if Kyme had openly flirted with the Librarian and the Librarian had said “I am going to tie you up tight and spank you until you squeak”; the comedy arises when Kyme expresses deep feelings of guilt over worshipping the Emperor imperfectly during the time before Imperial contact, and the Librarian offers to show him proper chastisement, because even though those lead to more or less the same end (Kyme in the blissful embrace of the Pain Glove) the funny thing is the clash between the po-facedness SERIOUS SPACE MARINE BUSINESS tone of the conversation and the unabashed homoeroticism of what they’re actually proposing to do.
It’s particularly funny when you take the typical Space Marine demeanour into account. A while back the four of us had watched the Ultramarines movie, and had found the behind the scenes bonus features on the DVD more entertaining than the film itself. (We went into more detail about the subject here.) At one point in the making-of documentary someone – I think it’s Dan Abnett – makes the quite accurate observation that Space Marines tend to speak in blunt statements of fact and tend not to show doubt. Kyra in particular latched onto this, which served her very well in her portrayal of a dogmatically pious Librarian. Shimmin and Dan also got into the whole “Fact!” thing a little (the players tended to indicate they were speaking in facts by preceding all their IC dialogue with “Fact!”), but put their own twists on it – Shimmin’s Assault Marine came across a bit like Inigo Montoya with a chainsword whilst Dan’s Devastator was played as Jack Sparrow with sufficient firepower to blow up the whole Royal Navy. Whatever spin you put on it though, having these guys speak in facts and treat whatever it is they are doing with deathly seriousness is great for comedy, because the more seriously they treated their totally-not-sex rituals the more ridiculous the whole thing seemed. Again, three guys stripped down to leather loincloths having a flogging session is porn, a Librarian sincerely reciting holy Imperial Fist scriptures whilst whipping his battle-brothers Florentine-style to prepare themselves for the Divested Hunt is comedy.
The session wrapped up after the successful hunt with the caele revealing the existence of a Genestealer infestation on the planet. Overall these are the things I came away from this first session with:
- You can generally trust the Deathwatch character generation system to turn out viable Space Marine characters. Shimmin had fairly rotten luck on his characteristic rolls but even then he was still a force to be reckoned with.
- Running a game with a comedic emphasis works best if everyone involved is in on the joke.
- The pre-mission shopping phase of a Deathwatch mission can get slightly tedious and I need to make sure that the players who are less engaged with it have stuff to do whilst it is happening.
- You can have fun in a session where the PCs aren’t facing any serious threat provided you’re letting them do what they want to do with their characters. (In this case, that’s “be awesome paragons of manliness” and “lol at how homoerotic the whole Space Marine thing is”.)
- If the game isn’t meant to have an investigative focus, there’s no shame in knocking down the investigative roadblocks.
- A broken encounter can turn into a chance for a player to take the spotlight if they happen to have abilities the designers didn’t plan for.
- Imperial Fists won’t take your sons into the forest to initiate them into the ways of manhood unless they have your sons’ willing and enthusiastic consent.
- Whilst high-end psychic phenomena are sources of horror and dread in the 40K universe, low-key ones are great for slapstick comedy.
- The Fists have a fever and the only cure is more