The Imperial Fists have arrived on the planet, won some admirers, and proven themselves the manliest of them all. What next? Oh yes, the actual mission.
(As before: spoilers for The Price of Hubris in the collection The Emperor Protects follow.)
The Naked Truth
The scenario as written presents the Marines with an interesting dilemma: the caele has discovered an infestation of Genestealers in a town off to the west, and has taken the fairly sensible step of enclosing it in a massive cordon of burning promethium. Unfortunately, whilst he and his men are vaguely aware that the Genestealers can turn people they weren’t aware that the ‘stealers can do so with their bites.
At this point I was profoundly glad that I had specified that the Fists wanted to use this planet as a recruiting ground due to its proud warrior culture churning out good candidates, and that I had managed to get the players to emotionally invest a little in Kyme and his buddies. Because if this were a vanilla Deathwatch game and I just heard that, I would be advocating dusting off and virus bombing the planet.
Fact! Genestealer infestations in 40K are fucking nasty and incredibly insiduous. Fact! The longer an infestation goes unchecked the louder the “come here, the noms are delicious” beacon that attracts Tyranid hive fleets gets. Fact! In the adventure as written, it is actually massively difficult to determine whether someone is infected, even if someone happens to have the medicae skill. Fact! The suspicious circumstances surrounding Sister Rachael’s death make it look extremely likely that she was infected by Genestealers and killed herself rather than allow herself to be tainted by filthy xenos biomatter or dominated by the alien hive-mnind. Fact! Since it is deeply unlikely that Rachael got inside the infested town, the PCs can reasonably infer that Stealers have breached the quarantine. Fact! Since it is possible – especially in the adventure as written – for players to completely miss the fact that her body was moved, some parties may come to the incorrect but understandable conclusion that the Stealers have got to the point where they are brazenly infecting people in their homes in the capital city.
Faced with the above FACTS!, the PCs would be mad not to break out the big guns and exterminate the entire population of the planet. Yes, perhaps its value as an agri-world would be diminished, but you can’t export herds of grox from an infected world anyway lest you spread the taint. Yes, lots of innocents will die but unless you are playing Deathwatch for the lulz your PCs are probably hard-edged sorts who consider this a regrettable but necessary price to pay to burn out the cancer. And since in vanilla Deathwatch you work alongside the Inquisition, you’re one brief message away from the guys with the virus bombs to do the job. The rare crystals which represent the major natural resource of the planet will survive the cleansing plagues intact.
The actual module offers precious little motivation for the PCs not to take this course if they suspect the infection is widespread, and due to the outright bizarre handling of the death of Sister Rachayel that really doesn’t seem all that unlikely. Luckily, that wasn’t a problem for me going into the second session: having tantalised the players with the prize on offer (namely, a bumper crop of hot young recruits), I could reasonably expect them to do what needed to be done to secure them. However, I still needed to give them some means of actually determining the job was done in the first place, because it really is meant to be quite difficult to purge a Genestealer cult without doing mass culls.
Once again, it turned out to be really useful to have a Librarian in the party. It’s established that Genestealer hive minds are a psychic phenomenon, part of the Tyranid “shadow in the Warp”, so you’d expect our Librarian with his psynescience skill to be able to sense the presence of the hivemind. (Yes, it’s meant to be a little hard to perceive, but the hivemind is most definitely visible in the Warp – otherwise how could psykers see the shadow, right?)
So, once the caele brought them up to speed things progressed nice and quickly. Ascertaining that there seemed to be some Genestealer presence local to the caele’s hall, the party reasoned they needed to check out the warriors who’d gone toe-to-toe with the Genestealers. Further enquiries led them to the traitor, and careful examination of his body coupled with a damn good psynescience roll allowed them to figure out that he was tainted – and to get a good example of a Genestealer bite mark they could use to assess the purity or otherwise of other warriors. All that was remained was to convince the gathered warriors to prove their honour by getting their kit off and the purification of Aurum was underway.
The big assumption I made here was that the Genestealers would leave behind a big, recognisable bite mark. Since the climactic battle in the enormous final encounter the designers fell in love with (but can only happen if the PCs are outright mugs) has Genestealers successfully infecting people with one successful bite in combat, I think it’s reasonable to assume that the Genestealer strain on Aurum works that way – and that once you’ve seen one ovipositor scar, you can recognise others.
Once again, this was an enormous exercise in scaling back the investigative component in a game which really isn’t meant to be about investigation in the first place. Perhaps it’s a side effect of Dark Heresy being the first of the 40K RPGs, or perhaps the designers see that the Deathwatch are associated with the Inquisition and jump to conclusions, but either way they do seem intent on throwing investigative stuff at the PCs this time around. Where’s the Deathwatch megadungeon? Space Hulks are the perfect dungeon in space and I’m mildly surprised that Fantasy Flight haven’t made making a Hulk-themed supplement for the game a high priority.
Prison Camp Party Time
First port of call: since the traitor had been in charge of it, the party needed to go and check out the oil-filled caves and the prison camp of workers extracting it. (Remember, the oil is being used to maintain a fire barrier around the infected town.) In the adventure as written the prisoners seem to have little to nothing in the way of guards (the fuck???) and haven’t been infected by the Genestealers hiding in the oil (the double fuck???). This seemed both spectacularly dull and really not consistent with the way Genestealers are meant to work to me, so I changed all that to turn the prison camp outside the caves into a quick and refreshing little combat encounter. Between their heavy bolter, their heavy flamer, and a handy hand flamer, the PCs were able to exterminate the entire Magnitude 50 Horde in two rounds, thanks to good stealth rolls and a sound plan allowing them to get the drop on them.
This was a bit of a wake-up call for me because it established how quickly Astartes with anti-crowd weapons can rapidly thin out a Horde. This would make the Genestealer mechanics for the infected town even more nonsensical than they already were – but I’m getting ahead of myself there. Having taken out the infected people, the party hustled into the caves to find the taint which their Librarian assured them was there. In the adventure as written the player characters are expected to pass an Awareness roll at minus 60 to notice that there’s creatures lurking under the surface of the oil, but because the PCs had an auspex and the players had guessed where the Stealers were I thought to myself “man, fuck a massive skill penalty” and just let them succeed.
Then there was a mild stalemate.
The way the adventure was written, as far as I can tell the Stealers are meant to just kind of sit there under the oil and hope any Space Marines who come visiting don’t notice them and go away. The module doesn’t even offer any suggestions as to how to run a fight (or cope with the Space Marines igniting the oil pool) if they do happen to notice the Stealers down there. So, I assigned an arbitrary number to the Horde Magnitude (70), the PCs came up with a good plan to kick off the fight by collapsing the cavern on the Stealers – which slashed the Magnitude down to a level where the PCs could wipe out the surviving Stealers before they got in melee range. Perhaps a little anticlimactic, but the players had cooked up a good plan and I don’t mind letting the players steamroller an encounter if it’s the result of them being smart.
Of course, they still had the infected town and the Broodlord to deal with.
Finally Bleeding a Little
The module is rather inconsistent about where the Broodlord is currently shacked up, mainly so that it can play a shell game and keep it away from the players for the designers’ intended ending where it attacks a big feast and it’s an enormous fucking downer. I decided to roll to decide where the Broodlord was and it turned out to be in the village, which I think made for a more interesting fight there.
The main issue I had with the village fight is that the geography of the whole thing doesn’t make sense. The thing is supposed to be surrounded by a ring of fire courtesy of the Aurans, which makes me think that the whole area of the thing can’t be that big – the Aurans might be about as advanced as you can expect a culture which has had no opportunity to discover metal to get, but even then manning a fire trench kilometres across would seem ambitious. Also, the town is meant to be in a ravine, but the provided map only shows one side of the ravine – and how is the circle meant to work if there’s big cliffs making breaks in the circle to begin with? And why haven’t any of the Genestealers bothered to look in the easily-accessible hunting lodge that’s, like right there for them to poke around in and contains a clutch of human survivors?
I fucked about a bit with the geography of the town (for instance, putting the hunting lodge somewhere mildly inaccessible to explain why the Stealers wouldn’t go there unless they specifically thought there was a reason for them to) until I got it into a state I could halfway believe in. I will confess here to some minor railroading: it was my call, and not the designers, that the village was choked with thick smoke from the fires and so didn’t have sufficiently clear visibility to allow for Dan’s favoured “stand on the cliffs and bomb the shit out of them with heavy weapons” plan. In my defence, that wasn’t actually my original intention with that detail – I wanted to include environmental factors which would not make it utterly stupid to go into the town and assault it, since that is what the game sorely wanted the players to do. (Plus I genuinely don’t think that plan would have worked 100% anyway – the Stealers could have ducked into the caves during the firing and either worked on burrowing their way out or played dead until the Marines had to go down anyway to see if they were all dead.)
I also more or less entirely scrapped the way the Genestealer encounters in the town whilst still trying to maintain the same general effect the rules the designers cooked up were meant to accomplish. What they seemed to want to do there was create a situation where the correct tactical decision was to keep moving, keep moving, keep moving, unless and until the party reached a solid defensible position (the stables are highlighted as being one such potential strongpoint). The way they go about this is to throw in a sort of quicksand effect. If the players get bogged down in a fight with Stealers, more Genestealers show up round by round. Eventually, if 15 Genestealers are present, they are treated as though they are a Horde of 10 Magnitude. You clear out the town by killing sufficient Stealers, either individually or measured in terms of Horde Magnitude.
This system, if I’d ran it as written, would have had two consequences. The first is that the designers seemed to thing it would even be remotely viable to keep track of up to four-fucking-teen individual Genestealers, each of whom gets to make their own individual attacks during the round. Fourteen attack rolls from Genestealers who have Weapon Skills of 65 (so rolling on a 1-85 if they go for All Out Attack) and who can expect to do anything from 4-15 points of damage per hit on a Space Marine (tending towards the higher numbers because their claws do Tearing damage) will have good odds of utterly shredding a party of Marines. Hell, if they use their Swift Attack talent they could make 28 attack rolls – that should be more than enough to mince up the party. And with their particularly sick agility scores odds are they’ll be making those rolls before any of the party members get to go.
The second consequence which the designers clearly haven’t really appreciated is that as soon as 1 more Genestealer shows up to turn 14 individuals into a Magnitude 10 Horde, suddenly that crew have become massively less dangerous. Suddenly, they’ve gone from doing 14-28 attacks doing 4-15 damage per successful hit to doing 1 or 2 attacks per round, and the extra damage they get per successful hit from their Magnitude does not remotely compensate them for the loss of the extra 13-27 attacks. On top of that, a Mag-10 Horde can be automatically instakilled with one shot of a heavy flamer.
I’m not going to go too deep into analysing precisely how daft this is – Dan has come up with extensive discussion of the Horde rules on these two posts on his blog and he’s 100% on the money with his analysis. The big thing is that the Horde rules really don’t work to model enemies which are meant to be individually fearsome. The whole debacle suggests two things: firstly, that FFG’s adventure designers don’t really understand the implications of their system, and secondly that FFG don’t seriously other to playtest the adventures they publish. Caveat gamer, I guess.
What I did instead was encourage the players to make tactics rolls to plan out their assault and use their successes to drop hints that the key to success in the town would be to keep moving. Then I kept reminding them of that tactical assessment once they were in the town. They got the message, not least because the first few Stealers they encountered underscored the point that they really did not want to wait around to get ambushed.
Actually, the use of the Tactics skill in the game strikes me as potentially interesting. Admittedly it can be a tool for mild railroading if you take the view that only the tactical assessment the GM provides for a successful tactics roll will be effective. Equally, in the hands of some groups it could risk taking the place of any sort of in-combat decision-making whatsoever. But as a way of presenting options which are likely to give the PCs at least some advantage if they follow them in-game, it’s pretty good, and I’d be inclined to allow the PCs to have bonuses for plans which ignore the tactics rolls if the plans sounded convincing enough.
What really threw me in this fight, and in the final confrontation with the Broodlord, was just how many Traits and Talents high-end monsters in Deathwatch get. And irritatingly, the published adventures don’t provide you with handy summaries of what those things actually mean. I was fucked if I was going to waste the players’ time flicking back and forth through the Deathwatch rulebook – I’ve always taken the view that keeping the game moving smoothly vastly outweighs the importance of getting the rules remotely right – so I probably didn’t use the Stealers and the Broodlord as effectively as I might have. (Then again they came pretty close to causing major hurt to two different player characters so arguably they were already tough enough.)
This is probably a consequence of the 40K RPGs’ misguided desire to build monsters along the same general lines they are built in the wargame, despite the fact that in the wargame every unit is designed to the same level of detail because they are all playable units. There’s no earthly reason why NPCs and monsters in an RPG should be built along similar terms to PCs; Shimmin pointed out after the game that providing truncated stats for the monsters in the module plus pointers on tactics they might use in combat is far more useful to a GM than providing the sort of stat blocks they currently provide. Sure, maybe I’d have been able to make better use of them if I thoroughly studied the monster listings before the game, but isn’t the point of pre-genned adventures to minimise my prep time?
Where From Here?
Although I did my best to make the fight in the town simultaneously sanely balanced and yet at the same time tense and exciting for the players, I think they found some aspects of it frustrating. I would like to think that this was due to the wonkiness of the Horde rules as applied here, but then again throwing most of the Genestealers at the party in the form of Hordes prevented an ignominious TPK so there is that. And in general the mildly more serious business tone of the session lent itself to long discussions about strategy and tactics, so the brisk pace and jolly lols of the first session were a little attenuated and I’m not sure everyone was happy with that.
That said, I was surprised (and mildly flattered) to find that all three of the players seemed to have enjoyed the mission as a whole. I was even more surprised to find they’re keen enough on Fisting that they want me to run another mission, so it looks like I’m going to have to do some planning. If I’m going to be running another pre-gen, I’m going to have to keep an eye out for the idiosyncracies of the designers, and whatever I run I’ll need to bear in mind the cautious, careful, never-fight-’em-on-their-own-terms playstyle which Dan believes (and I think he is right in this) the Deathwatch system encourages. Of course, if I wanted to shake things up and prompt the players to take more risks, I could make sure the missions they go on have more time-critical factors, so a slow and cautious approach might not always be the appropriate tack to take if you want to accomplish your mission at all costs. (If you don’t want that, what sort of third-rate excuse for a Space Marine are you?) Alternately, I could turn that approach to my advantage – the Fists, after all, are meant to be experts at siege warfare, which is what the play style Dan outlines suggests to me.
Perhaps as well as a dungeon in space (which I do want to attempt some time) I could cook up a siege-based adventure. All I’d need is a well-described location for the Fists to defend, well stocked with secrets to discover, weapons to deploy, Scouts to order about and so on, and a series of events to correspond to the attackers’ various gambits before the relieving force arrives to scatter the attacking army. Furious combat against the onrushing hordes could be alternated with roleplaying the desperate lives of the Fists within the fortress walls, as in the brief lulls between assaults the battle-brothers experience hope, despair, the anguish of bereavement, the comfort of brotherhood, and maybe even love.
As for the new recruits’ future? Well, Kyme had his disciplinary session with the Librarian. We didn’t fully roleplay it, but I did make a toughness roll for him – he got a really good roll so I ruled that, like Lexandro in Space Marine, he underwent an ecstatic experience in the Pain Glove despite not yet being infused with the geneseed of Rogal Dorn, which pleased Kyra to no end because he’d become her favourite recruit. As for the others, their ordeal is yet to come…
The plus side to the session being a bit of a mixed bag, of course, is that I had somewhat more meaty lessons to learn from it.
- If the players are excited about their characters and want to see what happens next, then you’ve done your job.
- NEVER assume FFG understand their own system.
- Hordes are for weaklings. Do not make hordes of monsters that are meant to be individually dangerous. Genestealers do not come in Hordes. Chaos Marines do not come in Hordes. C’tan do not come in Hordes.
- You are not a computer. Do not attempt to adjudicate a zerg rush.
- A cakewalk is still a good combat encounter if the players feel awesome at the end of it.
- If neither you nor the players know how to handle a tactical quandary, have them roll Tactics, make some shit up, and then make sure it’s game mechanically helpful.
- Dan can appraise a system down to the average damage done by a monster in one session.
- Players will consider it an honour to brand their recruits’ buttocks at the end of an adventure.
- FFG should totes do a Space Hulk-themed megadungeon in space for Deathwatch.