The Siege of Mersadie Hive: Space Marine Road Trip

The first session of the game broke down into three neat parts: shopping, a road trip, and talking to various NPCs at the hive.

Spending Experience and Requisition

The party earned a fat stack of XP from the previous mission, which naturally I gave them a chance to spend now, plus this mission had more requisition points associated with it than the last one. The party’s Librarian happened to take the long-range telepathy power, which I hadn’t considered but I realised would actually serve quite nicely as a means of giving the PCs a limited amount of contact with the outside world without it being so reliable and regular and constant that it won’t hurt the sense of isolation from the outside world a siege scenario really needs. On top of that, I let the players buy things for the Scouts with their requisition points, which I think helped eat up some of the excess points and so made the shopping process go a bit faster.

Dan asked whether we wanted to use the weapons stats from the Deathwatch errata, which rebalances some of the weapons and tweaks the weapon stats to reduce the number of dice rolled (which in turn reduces the likelihood of the Righteous Fury rule for extra damage kicking in, which occurs when you roll a 10 on one of your damage dice). I opted against that this time because we had two Deathwatch main rulebooks and no physical printouts of the errata at all, and I didn’t want to be grabbing Dan’s laptop every time we made a damage roll. Having had a chance post-session to sit down and look at the errata, on balance I don’t think I’ll be adopting the new weapon stats unless the players lobby for them especially hard.

First off, although they’re presented in the errata, they’re presented in an appendix and offered up as an option that you can adopt if you want to, rather than being something which is actually meant to replace the original stats in the same way other material in the errata is meant to replace or supplement existing rules. In other words, FFG seem to be satisfied that the weapon stats presented in Deathwatch aren’t actually broken, at least as far as Deathwatch games go. Secondly, the point of the tweaked stats is supposed to be to make combat faster but I’m not sure it does so to a sufficient extent to be worth the cost. In my experience of Warhammer 40,000 combat making the actual damage roll isn’t really the rate-determining step, even if Righteous Fury does kick in, so the time savings from reducing the number of dice rolled in damage would only be modest at best. The other effect of the rules tweak is to make Righteous Fury somewhat less common – when you roll 1D10 you’ve got a 1 in 10 chance of triggering a Righteous Fury check, whereas when you roll 2D10 you’ve got a 19% chance of getting at least some Fury kicking off. To be honest, I think I prefer the mildly higher odds. 19% is enough that you can be reasonably sure of some Righteous Fury coming down at least one per game session, probably multiple times, but at the same time it’s still reasonably special when it happens, which is a level I’m happy with when dealing with a game about genetically engineered super-soldiers waving around weapons which do ludicrous amounts of damage.

Of course, the other effect is that 2D10 +X can be a bit swingier than 2D10 +(X+4) – the revised weapon stats typically increasing the bonuses on damage rolls for guns – and swingy combat tends to be slow combat. On the other hand, the PCs will have the benefits of Righteous Fury, whereas their opponents won’t, so whilst the PCs could pull out a Righteous Fury which quickly and suddenly ends the combat, their opponents won’t be able to bring out any nasty surprises.

That said, ruling that the old weapon stats stand did prompt Dan to buy heavy bolters for all the PCs, though I’m actually fine with that because a line of Imperial Fists opening up on the ork hordes with heavy bolters is something I’m perfectly happy with seeing here.

Road Trip

The first phase of the adventure had the PCs mounting up on Space Marine bikes and hitting the road, motoring at top speed to try and get to the hive before the orks did. This was a fairly linear part of the adventure but I have few qualms about that because travel is one of those situations where a linear series of encounters actually makes sense. I could have just skipped this part of the adventure and begun with the gang arriving at the hive, but I wanted to give the players an opportunity to interact with the Scouts before they got to the hive, and I also wanted to throw in a quick fight with a forward party of orks who’d set up an ambush in a mountain pass, so that I could take a measure of how the players were going to handle use of the Scouts in combat (and also to establish da boyz as being brootal and cunnin’). The actual ambush was a fairly simple idea – big barricade in the pass with a bunch of orks up top ready to toss bomb-squigs down on the party as they approach the barricade – and I gave the PCs hints of what to expect via the Librarian’s auguries to give them a good chance to make a decent plan and through their tactical rolls suggesting that an ambush was most likely there – but that taking an alternate route would require looping around the mountain range, making them incredibly late to get to the hive.

It is, to be honest, incredibly easy to railroad players in Deathwatch. Give them a set of goals in the mission briefing, then for the most part you can expect them to avoid actions which would fluff one of the mission goals, especially if it’s a primary aim of the mission (as getting to the hive before the orks was). There may be exceptions, particularly in groups who are getting Serious Business with their roleplaying and whose Space Marines might have actual personal or ethical objections to particular mission objectives, but in general players who are actually engaging with the game in good faith will be attempting to complete the mission objectives because that is what you do in a mission-based game.

It follows, then, that you want to be really careful in how you draw up the objectives for missions in Deathwatch. If you want to run a tightly defined linear adventure, you don’t want broad, generalised mission objective open to lots of interpretation; if you want to run something a bit more open-ended you don’t want to have narrow objectives of the format “go here and do this in that way”. For what it’s worth, here are the mission objectives I gave the players:

  • PRIMARY OBJECTIVE: Reach Mersadie Hive before the Orks arrive.
  • PRIMARY OBJECTIVE: Oversee imposition of martial law and establishment of defences. Defend and hold Mersadie Hive until reinforcements can come.
  • SECONDARY OBJECTIVE: Improve and maintain morale of Imperial Guard, PDF, and citizens.
  • SECONDARY OBJECTIVE: In the event of internal conflict, provide what assistance IG Commissars and Arbitrators require in maintaining order.
  • SECONDARY OBJECTIVE: Relay intelligence on Ork movements via vox; help work out orbital strike patterns if the Imperial Navy is able to regain dominance in space.
  • TERTIARY OBJECTIVE: Identify and eliminate targets of opportunity amongst the Orks.
  • TERTIARY OBJECTIVE: Provide mentoring to Scouts as required.
  • TERTIARY OBJECTIVE: Identify potential recruits.

As you can see, for the most part they offer no real guidance on how the various goals to be achieved except for the first part of the first objective, because I wanted to run a quick linear travel segment for the reasons outlined above but I wanted things to be a bit more open-world once the players got to the hive.

War Council

The PCs’ first priority was a fairly sensible one: check in with Colonel Darkscourge and Commissar Severus (the latter played by Alan Rickman), get the lowdown on exactly what is going on in terms of relations with the locals, and bring representatives of the various power blocs together to force the new order down their throats. Turning an entire hive-city around from a state of mild denial to being prepared for total war in the space of a few scant days is not an easy task, but when the totalitarian institutions of the Imperium all start pulling in the same direction they should be able to pull it off. Consequently, I didn’t want to use the council of war as a means of getting a fully detailed plan for the defence of the city out of the PCs so much as I wanted to get a sense of their priorities.

In particular, war councils are great for sussing out what the players view as their main responsibilities or opportunities to help out. Seeing what they volunteer to do themselves is a fairly overt declaration of their next move, seeing what they delegate to NPCs is a good indication of what they don’t want to be bothered with, and seeing how they interact with the NPCs gives a good measure of who they trust and who they dislike.

For instance, from this meeting it appears to me that the players are putting a high priority on the Underhive. They’d been quizzing NPCs about it in the lead-up to the meeting; I’d decided that since the Underhive is a wretched pit of scum and villainy, the PDF and local Arbitrators didn’t really have much presence down there, and due to being sorely undermanned until the PCs showed up and ordered the PDF to get off their arses the Imperial Guard likewise hadn’t looked into it much. The players have hit on the idea that the Underhive is an enormous untapped source of cannon fodder manpower, much of which is capable of holding its own in a scrap and willing to fight dirty to achieve their objectives. Shim’s character has an Underhive background himself and Dan’s character has a criminal past, so both of them may find they have an understanding of these people, and in the meeting they also encouraged the Ecclesiarchy to go down for a recruitment drive/tent revival. These factors add up to present interesting possibilities for the start of next session.

The other major upshot of the meeting was making it clear how little the PCs trust the PDF, or the corporation they are in the pocket of. Perhaps I didn’t help this, after all, I mentioned that the head of the PDF happened to be played by Stephen Fry in a performance not dissimilar to his appearance in Blackadder Goes Forth:

The Planetary Defence Force’s brightest and best… at staying far away from the fighting.

which seemed a good fit for the PDF’s general attitude: they like their luxury, want to retain the local class system as much as possible, and would greatly prefer it if someone else did the fighting. Likewise, for some reason the players think that Paul VI, Chief Executive Monarch of the corporation, is dodgy simply because he is played by Charles Gray:

Why would anyone assume that this man is a cultist?

To cement the players’ suspicions I had Paul VI do the dodgiest thing he could possibly do in the meeting: acquiesce immediately to the PCs’ requests without any fuss -a  clear sign he’s up to no good.

Meanwhile, the players were absolutely happy to greenlight Magos Sorvad’s project to create mobile servitor gun turrets with heavy weapons and difficulties handling stairs…

Kill-crazy genocidal maniacs with an absolute hatred of the alien. In other words, model Imperial citizens.

Lessons Learned

So, what did I learn from preparing and running this adventure? Amongst other things, the following:

  • Mission objectives matter in mission-based games, both in terms of requiring particular actions from the PCs and giving them permission to improvise.
  • Councils of war are an invitation to the players to suggest what they want the next session to be about.
  • Players will let you make Daleks if you promise they’ll fight for the Emprah.

Next session is likely to involve Underhive-based shenanigans.

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6 thoughts on “The Siege of Mersadie Hive: Space Marine Road Trip

  1. Good summary. For me at least, the mission objectives don’t actually appear? I think WP may be messing with you, it broke some links on the last post as well.

    I keep noticing how long shopping seems to take, which is odd because it’s not like we have to RP it by haggling with vendors or seeking out unusual items. I suppose quite a bit of it is that Deathwatch gets its shopping in as a chunk between missions, rather than here and there during a game as you pass a blacksmith. The system also means you generally have XP to spend after each game, rather than waiting for occasional levelling up. In future maybe we’d do it after the game rather than before the next one, but eh.

    The other aspect is, I suppose again, that two of us aren’t familiar with the system so waver a lot over XP spends or working out what wargear actually does (in the first game I took a couple of handy-seeming items that I couldn’t actually use). The hard reputation-based limits on wargear use may also require a bit more concentration than simple affordability, which is more common in D&D and so on. Oh, and actually another thing was that we were planning for a siege, so some items that’d be ideal for small-scale missions didn’t seem that useful – we talked about screamers to warn of sneak assaults, but while they’re handy if you’re defending a strongpoint, they’re not much use for protecting a whole hive.

    On the plus side, I really like getting some upgrades after basically every battle, rather than major chunks with a levelling system – I was able to round out Brother Nikolai nicely to fit the character I’d imagined, and with such military characters it makes sense for a year or two of between-game training and combat to hone your skills somewhat.

    It’s occurred to me actually, it would be handy to have the equipment and skill/ability information as a player handout so people could plan things between games rather than spending a long time during the session. That’s a general idea rather than a dig at our session! Play time is generally limited for people. I suppose GW or FFG producing one is too much to hope for, but it’d probably fall within the 5% copying limit… (I could, of course, get my own rulebooks, but given my existing overwhelming library, starting to collect 40KRPGs would be a bit reckless).

    You’re quite right about the railroading – though it’s easy enough with any Merry Band that take orders, I suspect. I felt like your setup was pretty solid, and in any case Space Marines weren’t likely to waste time just to avoid a fight. The exploding squig ambush was brilliant, very orky and with loads of potential for fun, so I really enjoyed that.

    The Underhive… I suppose we should show some interest in the main habs at some point, but we all know the Underhive is the most exciting part of any hive city. From a tactical point of view, it’s also the one least likely to be already contributing to the defence effort (as it’s outside the governor’s control), so it’s both an unexploited resource and one that shouldn’t have too much impact on the rest of the hive if things go badly. Getting a few hundred thousand underhive scum killed won’t make as much difference as losing actual workers. It does really help that the Necromunda setting gave so much attention to the underhive, as it brings to mind ideas like the Redemptionist crusaders.

    The NPCs I thought came across very well – nobody was oozing obvious evil, but there’s a lot of ambiguity there that gives room for you to develop things in whatever way seems interesting, or to let things lie if that seems better. But I have to say the daleks were inspired! The best bit was the slow dawning realisation as the Magos explained more and more… possibly the best thing in the session. And who doesn’t want daleks in their RPG?

    1. Broken links last time and missing objectives this time were entirely my failure to proofread. 😉

      Re: producing equipment and skill stuff as a player handout – this is more photocopying than I am personally willing to do but I believe FFG offer most of their 40K stuff as PDFs these days. I do agree that spending XP between sessions may reduce the shopping burden a lot.

      1. It wasn’t actually meant as a hint, sorry. It mostly did strike me as a useful extra – like how WFB and 40K tabletop tend to come with cribsheets as well as rulebooks. I will probably crack and get the PDF at some point though, especially given certain plans.

      2. Didn’t think it was a hint, really, I agree it’d be useful to have a handout of stuff to spend XP on but the amount of the Deathwatch rulebook I’d actually have to photocopy/scan to make that work would be really burdensome.

        I may copy the Imperial Fist bits in Rites of Battle (if I remember) so’s you guys can have a copy in Oxford to consult when spending XP between sessions. Unless you or Dan crack and get the PDF of that too. 😉

        Glad you feel Nikolai is measuring up to your conception of him now BTW.

  2. Actually, I’ve got to say (again, I think?) that Deathwatch does a really decent job of starting characters. Not only did I feel like we were all formidable to begin with, but the skill-based system and the fairly open approach to requisitions and ability selection meant I was able to craft a character quite well. So to be honest I felt like Nikolai was what I wanted right out of the crate. The last game gave a good chance to develop him a bit and get a better feel for how I imagined him and how that fitted with the ruleset; because DW then gave me some XP to spend rather than hanging on for a level-up, I could immediately shop for some more skills and tweaks that added a bit of mechanical backing to the fleshing-out we’d done.

    For example (in case anyone else actually reads this), I’d rolled him up as “calculating”, and during the battle I found myself doing a lot of analysing and working out different approaches to things, and some tactical demolitions. Assault marines can’t take the Demolitions skill at rank one, but we picked out Tech Use as a likely skill for someone always who’s looking for an edge, I grabbed some Defensive Tactics as a logical complement to my outrageous Assault Tactics, and Survival because it seemed to fit a hive brat who knew how to take care of himself. I hadn’t particularly felt any of those things were missing last mission – and hadn’t known some of them existed, given I’m new to the system – but when the chance came to improve, I had a great selection of appropriate options available that felt to me like plausible advancement rather than arbitrary upgrades.

    TL;DR – I am really liking the 40KRPG system.

  3. Pingback: The Siege of Mersadie Hive: Great Shot, Scout, That Was One In 10,000! « Refereeing and Reflection

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