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.
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.
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:
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:
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…
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.