Squeeage: Only War

Hey folks, the Christmas season is an appalling time for actual play so I don’t have many qualms about making some non-Actual Play-based posts, particularly when it’s a subject I want to enthuse about.

So, I am now the proud owner of Only War and the associated GM’s kit because Fantasy Flight Games are addicted to putting out Warhammer 40,000 RPGs and I am a shameless enabler of this addiction. I could ramble in a directionless way about my first impressions but I thought it’d be more fun to pitch this post both as a place to ask me any questions you might have about the thing if you don’t already own it, or to share your thoughts if you do already own it. Given that I know two out of the three people who read this blog are shameless Warhamsters like me (and there’s a not unreasonable chance Dan owns Only War already) I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine you guys are interested.

8 thoughts on “Squeeage: Only War

  1. Okay, I’ll bite. Inevitably.

    What’s your favourite thing about it?

    How d’you think it does at putting across a Guard tone, as opposed to the serious manly manly struggles of Astartes, the conspiracies and paranoia of the Inquisition, or the cynical opportunism of Rogue Traders?

    What sort of range of playstyles d’you think it’ll handle well?

    What’s this buddy system I’ve heard about, and does it look cool?

  2. I’m going to hold off on favourite thing until I’ve had a chance to try the thing out, but as far as putting across a Guard tone goes they seem to be emphasising the right things. In particular:

    – The ranged weapon table is nearly twice as long as the one in Deathwatch and the melee weapon table is a bit more basic, because if you’re playing a Guard game and intentionally going for hand-to-hand combat you’re kind of doing it wrong.

    – There’s vehicle rules in the core rulebook, which I think is a first if you don’t count the starship rules in Rogue Trader (which really cover a different niche).

    – Most importantly, unlike Deathwatch where the default assumption is that you come from a mashup of Space Marine chapters – which I would argue is a worthwhile departure from the way Marines usually work for the sake of emphasising the individual heroism of the Marines – this is a regiment-based game. You all come from the same regiment, before you even start rolling your character you pick a regiment. Impressively, they’ve got full custom regiment creation rules in the core book, unlike Deathwatch – I suspect because there’s a bit less fanboy fervour around individual Guard regiments than there is around Marine chapters – but there’s also a bunch of writeups of the more prominent existing chapters (with Gaunt’s Ghosts being a notable exception).

    So the bottom line is that they’ve moved some things which would usually be in the Inquisitor’s Handbook/Into the Storm/Rites of Battle book of this particular line into the main book, and I think they made the right call because without vehicles and roll-your-own regiments I wouldn’t feel it was a complete-out-of-the-box Guard game. According to the intro the book – as I suspected – started out as a Dark Heresy supplement (I think they actually announced it a year or two ago as a supplement under a different title), but I think it was the right call to make it into a full-fledged game in its own right because the emphasis of play is much different, whereas if I were going to do a Tech-Priest/Arbitrators/Ecclesiarchy/criminal scum game I think it’d work much better with the assumed investigative emphasis of Dark Heresy.

    In terms of playstyles, the system is about as crunchy as the other 40K games and about as easy to gloss over if you don’t want to go for a high-crunch game so there’s that. The title of the game is Only War and I do think it’d shine best in a high-action game – not necessarily constant combat, you could probably do the “deep behind enemy lines infiltration mission” thing and stuff like that, but if you didn’t get into combat regularly you’d feel you were wasting a lot of the stuff here.

    The Comrade system: basically, each PC (except for some Specialists) is accompanied by a Comrade who’s basically there to lend a helping hand in combat and other tasks and be a meat shield between the PC and enemy fire. They’re basically there to mimic the action of the Gaunt’s Ghosts series – and, to be fair, the wargame itself – where major named NPCs tend to survive shit which kills off redshirts. Comrades don’t get real stats and only have randomly-generated names and personalities. In action you can maintain or lose cohesion with your Comrade, give them orders and so on; in combat the Comrade can basically give you +5 to your BS when shooting and the Ganging Up advantage (even if you don’t outnumber your opponents) in hand-to-hand. In general they do a good job of setting it up so that you never have to worry about actual stats for Comrades – there’s rules for abstracting out what happens when they are damaged or when they’re faced with Fear/Pinning tests or insanity and corruption – but they do have the get-out clause of suggesting you use the Imperial Guardsman NPC profile in situations the Comrade rules don’t cover.

    1. Actuallly I just realised what my favourite thing in this is: they have rules for Ogryns and Ratlings in here.

      Now they just need to add Beastmen…

    2. That sounds like a really strong product with some very sensible decisions. I think you’re dead on about the individuality: the heroism of the Guard is always highlighted as the achievement of regiments, while Marines are way more about personal achievements.

      And if it’s anything like the others, you can probably play anywhere on the gritty-Hollywood-Boys’ Own-Dad’s Army axis, which sounds good to me.

      It also strikes me that with the system as outlined, you could probably play a fairly strategic game where you switch between commanders planning and politicking, and the troops on the ground. There should be enough regimental similarity to keep it fairly coherent even if you end up playing different characters.

  3. I’m really looking forward to getting this game for my local club. Would you recommend this as a good introduction to the FF warhammer 40k rules system? or would Dark Heresy be better for prospective GM’s to cut their teeth on.

    From what you’ve said about the rules in your above comment it looks like it will be great fun to play and a welcome change from the frequently claustrophobic environs of Dark Heresy, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for when you put up a proper review.

    1. From a GMing point of view, I guess the question of which 40K RPG to start with kind of hinges on how much prior exposure you’ve had to the 40K setting. If you know the setting reasonably well – well enough that you’ve already got ideas about the sort of thing you’d like to do with it as a GM – then I’d say it’s best to go with whichever one of the 40K RPGs best first the concept you want to run with. Between “investigators of heretical mysteries”, “mirror universe Star Trek“, “super manly spacebros”, “heretical subversives out to overthrow the cosmic order” and “war movies in spaaaaaaaaaace” you should be able to pick out one which matches what you want to go for most closely, and in my experience the more enthusiastic you as a GM are about what you’re running the more successful the resultant game will be.

      That said, all else being equal I’d rank the 40K RPGs from easiest to pick up and GM to most difficult like so:

      Dark Heresy/Only War
      Rogue Trader
      Black Crusade

      Rationale is as follows:

      Dark Heresy. The system does have some wrinkles that later 40K RPGs have moved away from; in particular, sooner or later a Dark Heresy psyker will die through using their own powers, though I think if you’re running this one you kind of want the players and PCs alike to be shit-scared of psychic phenomena. However, there’s less moving parts in the core game than in later 40K RPGs. You don’t have the starship management aspects of Rogue Trader, for instance, and since PCs start out at a much more modest power level you don’t have the task of juggling a bunch of different skills and traits at once which sometimes becomes tricky when running Deathwatch.

      On top of that, Dark Heresy has an assumed party concept and campaign structure which GMs and players are likely to be more used to compared with the others. Deathwatch and Only War scream out for mission-based games, whereas Rogue Trader and Black Crusade lean more towards sandboxy games but a very particular sort of sandboxy game in both cases (which I’ll get to in a sec). None of the other games really cater to the “gaggle of misfits” model of party composition which tends to be the norm in lots of other RPGs – in Only War you’re all members of the same regiment, in Deathwatch you are all spezz mareens, in Rogue Trader you’re all part of a crew (with an implicit chain of command) and in Black Crusade you’re a terrorist cell.

      On the other hand, Dark Heresy casts you as a grab-bag of folk from various walks of life in the scuzzier, more low-powered side of the Imperium, which is a party structure people are likely to be more familiar with from other games. Moreover, if you run it sensibly – that is, you assume the PCs’ Inquisitor has a fairly hands-off approach and doesn’t micromanage the Acolytes’ investigations or get directly involved on a regular basis – Dark Heresy runs a lot like Call of Cthulhu in spaaaaaace, so if you’re comfortable running that you should be fine with Dark Heresy. (In some respects it’s easier to plan Dark Heresy investigations than Call of Cthulhu because your “How do the PCs get involved?” step is almost always a variation on “Their Inquisitor gets word that something weird needs investigating and orders the PCs to sort it out.”)

      On top of that, the range of supplements they’ve put out for it kind of proves that Dark Heresy is the Swiss Army knife of 40K RPGs and is much easier to adapt to variant concepts than the others. Want to run a high-powered game with PC Inquisitors and lots of mucky Imperial politics? Grab Ascension. Want to run an all-Ecclesiarchy game? Blood of Martyrs has you covered. Going for a Judge Dredd-esque future-fascist police procedural? Book of Judgement lets you do that. Want to run a campaign based around the Adeptus Mechanicus? Lathe Worlds. Like I said earlier, even Only War itself was originally conceived as a Dark Heresy supplement until FFG realised they could hang a whole game line off the Imperial Guard concept so FFG clearly see the game line as the natural home of 40K concepts which don’t quite fit any of the other game lines and don’t have broad enough appeal to be a fully-developed game in their own right.

      Only War. The PCs are a shade tougher than Dark Heresy starting characters but not to an extent that adds heaps more complexity, the game is very complete in one book, and the mission-based structure of the game is a good aid for planning campaigns. (Also, as the most recent of the 40K RPGs it incorporates most of the more successful refinements to the system that have come out since Dark Heresy, such as the somewhat less automatically fatal psyker rules and the less sick Unnatural stats).

      On top of that, the Imperial Guard setting means that if you concentrate on developing the various NPCs within the PCs’ Regiment you can have a rich core cast of recurring characters for the players to engage with to an extent that Dark Heresy (by default) doesn’t allow for. That said, the narrower range of characters available might be make the game a somewhat harder sell than Dark Heresy and there’s slightly more moving parts than in Dark Heresy. (The Dark Heresy core rules, for instance, don’t worry too much about vehicles whereas obviously vehicles are kind of a big deal for an Imperial Guard game.)

      Deathwatch. The PCs will be ridiculously powerful, yes, but the game has a fair number of ways to help you cope with that like the Horde rules. A big issue with running the game is that lots of powerful enemies will have a large number of traits and talents, all of which will have a game mechanical effect, and it can be tricky to keep track of all of them at once. It may be difficult to convince your players to take the game seriously because Space Marines are kind of hard to take seriously in general, but at least there’s reasonably developed mission construction guidelines to give structure to the game and help with the preparation.

      Rogue Trader. Spaceship combat is a whole new combat system you have to learn in parallel to the main one which might, if the players have bad luck or if you misjudge the balance of an encounter, result in a TPK as their ship is blasted into atoms. There is a good chance that one of the PCs will have the power to kill with their gaze. And the premise of the game really screams out for a sandbox approach. This all adds up to a lot of stuff for the GM to juggle.

      Black Crusade. Another one which kind of screams out for a sandbox approach. Plus I kind of feel that in a long term campaign I’d really want intra-party conflict to be decidedly on the table because Chaos shouldn’t be harmonious, especially when fabulous prizes like the command of a Black Crusade or ascension to Daemon Prince status are on the table.

      1. That is a great review of all the game lines! I’ve dabbled in each of the systems except for deathwatch, with Rogue Trader being the most popular due to the high initial power level of the characters. I like how you have contrasted Dark Heresy with Call of Cthulhu as I believe it is very easy to run similar storylines within both of these systems too.

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