The Siege of Mersadie Hive: The Waaagh Hits the Fan

On Saturday we had the chance to conclude my siege-based adventure for Deathwatch. This essentially boiled down to a linear series of crises for the PCs to react to – the arrival of an Ork gargant on the battlefield, an invasion of the upper hive by Dark Eldar slavers allowed through a webway portal by aristocrats who think the idea of a city where pleasure never ends is just dandy and forgot to ask whose pleasure never ceases, and so on. I think in other contexts this might have come across as railroading, but I think linear adventures are generally alright in Deathwatch and arguably demanded by siege-based scenarios. Deathwatch, after all, isn’t (usually) about parties of freelancers who get to decide their own agenda – it’s about squads of super-soldiers who get given missions and are expected to complete them. As far as sieges go, what you essentially have to deal with as the commander of a defending city in a siege is a long series of crises which you have to deal with one at a time as they arise. Granted, in periods of downtime you might be able to cook up plans to do something proactive, like sallying forth to raid the besieging army and steal their supplies or plotting an internal coup or something like that, but this is necessarily going to have to wait until a gap between emergencies. Provided you let the players have their heads when it comes to how they want to respond to these emergencies, it’s all cool unless you don’t actually have player buy-in to run a game oriented around linear missions or a scenario based around a siege – and if you don’t have player buy-in that’s a problem far more fundamental than whether or not your adventure is a railroad.

As it happened, I didn’t have the siege running over as long a timescale as I had originally planned. Given how sporadic the Deathwatch sessions have been (100% intentionally), I thought that dragging the siege out over even more sessions would begin to get tiresome, so I decided to wrap up the adventure with a high-octane session with lots of combat. I was worried that this might be too abrupt or get monotonous, but actually the players seem to have enjoyed this session more than its predecessors – cool fights are an opportunity to be show-offy and heroic, which is precisely what you want when playing a Space Marine.

Or at least, they are in theory. In practice there are issues here with the Deathwatch system; fights against inferior foes see the Marines steamrollering them, fights against tougher adversaries turn into games of what Dan identified as “rocket tag” – whoever shoots and hits first wins. This did lead to some tense moments in the game – the players were properly worried when facing off against a Dark Eldar Archon and a clonk on the head from the Ork Warboss’s power klaw forced Shim to burn a Fate point. However, it also means that Deathwatch encourages less-than-heroic strategies – taking out combats at a distance with heavy bolters, in particular, is just plain sensible. The Warhammer 40,000 RPG line in general has this feature and, to be fair, in other lines it’s less of an issue – for instance, in Dark Heresy your characters will probably be decimated in a fair fight, but you’re not meant to fight fair because you’re the Inquisition. In Deathwatch, 3 PCs ganging up on one Chaos Space Marine feels unfair and unheroic, but pitch 3 PCs against 3 Chaos Space Marines and you may easily get a TPK.

Another issue which came up this session was that whilst two of the three players were quite conversant with the setting, one of them really isn’t, which is something I and the others kept forgetting. This actually means that concentrating on combat helped, because as the Imperium teaches us you don’t have to understand something to blow it up.

On the whole, I think the Siege adventure was a success – the players especially seem to have enjoyed the chance to catch up with the lads they pulled recruited in the first adventure. If I were to run it again, though, I’d have had the siege begin as soon as the PCs reach the Hive (or before, if they dawdle about getting to the Hive on time), and I’d have trimmed back the downtime sections which didn’t involve interesting fights. Likewise, if I run any published adventures for the group in future – there seems to be interest in further Fisting sessions, though it’s likely we’ll end up playing some Dying Earth or A Song of Ice and Fire or Mahna Mahna before then – I’ll probably look to trimming down any investigative components they cram into them in favour of hyping up the action sequences and fights.

Lessons learned:

  • If the players signed up for a load of fighting, give them a bunch of fights.
  • Remember to always pitch descriptions of stuff for the benefit of the player who’s least familiar with the source material.
  • You don’t have to be a diablodon to get a TPK in Deathwatch.
  • It might be worth tweaking the way Fate Points work to make them a little more generous, which may help the players be a bit more heroic in fights.

18 thoughts on “The Siege of Mersadie Hive: The Waaagh Hits the Fan

  1. Honestly I’ve enjoyed all the games so far, partly because you’ve done a nice lot of mix and match on them. So the first mission had breaking the line and taking over the shop (I like planning). The second had being the biggest fish in the Underhive, interspersed with the scouts taking the fight to the orks; to some extent it actually feels simpler running the scouts, precisely because they’re more overtly vulnerable and very tactical. And then this time it was all go, juggling the different crises.

    The rocket tag issue is a fairly significant one, and I’d quite like to know what is supposed to offer a solid moderately-difficult battle for Deathwatch. You’ve basically got armour equal to half your hit points, and large die sizes*, so hits do very much tend to either do half your hit points or nothing. So is a tough battle supposed to be one where you’re constantly taking action to avoid taking hits, which would be tactical but not especially in keeping? One where you fight hard, then duck and cover as soon as you take one hit? One where the challenge is actually working out suitable tactics to never be in danger? Or is it supposed to be a stand-up fight of chipping away hit points, and it’s just that the mechanics don’t especially support it? If you are supposed to be wading into combat, what enemies are expected to be a moderate but not TPK-worthy opponent for three Space Marines?

    *I wonder if doing something like dropping d10s to d6s wouldn’t take the edge off the problem, by reducing the size of potential swing?

    I also wonder if it’s got something of the class issue that I’ve heard (Dan?) mention in other contexts. Of course Astartes are pretty decent at switching roles, but there’s a fair amount of class-basing in there, and at the least you tend to want the skills you pick to end up useful. The problem is that each type of marine has different strengths, and they’re really pretty divergent, but one marine doing X isn’t usually enough to win by doing X. Perhaps what you should really be doing is picking similar types of marines, so that you’re all very good at doing a subset of things and okay at the rest, and then your tactics and skills won’t be pulling against each other? I think in Deathwatch it’s more of a narrative than a mechanical problem, but it’s still a bit of an ish.

    For example, I do try not to take over all the time, but fundamentally I’ve got a jetpack and swords and grenades, and I’m good with them, and if I’m not flying into combat and dropping esoteric explosives on people on a fairly regular basis (which I generally can manage), I’m just a slightly rubbish devastator. But any time we’re in melee combat is a time Dan is wasting his heavy-bolter-fu.

    1. I’m not 100% certain, but I think /Deathwatch/ combats are supposed to feel quite life-or-death, with a bit of leeway to account for the fact that it’s an RPG not a tabletop game. In a way “either takes half you hitpoints or nothing” is a pretty good measure of what attacks do in the tabletop game, after all.

      I think real risk of serious consequences is supposed to be part of the game, but at the same time I think that’s at odds with the heroics which the game also expects you to be getting up to (I think this might work a lot better in /Only War/, in which you’re supposed to be “heroes” in the sense of “regularly risks death” rather than in the sense of “regularly performs superhuman feats.

      1. I suspect part of the trouble is they can’t decide whether they want it to fit the tabletop or the narrative, because “either takes half you hitpoints or nothing” doesn’t entirely fit the background.

        Although saying that, I don’t think any of us ever burns through all our Fate points, so as Arthur hinted, it could well be that you’re supposed to be doing that every game. It’d go a fair way to modelling Space Marine resilience and all that.

      2. At the moment my thinking is that the effectiveness of Fate Points really needs to be boosted if you want Deathwatch to effectively follow the flavour of the narrative and allow for the heroics the game expects.

        My current thinking is along these lines:

        – Make the in-game effects of spending a Fate point exactly the same as burning a Fate point, so you don’t have a distinction between spending a Fate point to get a mild result and burning a Fate point to get a major one.
        – Make the actual effects of spending/burning Fate points less “You don’t die but you’re still effectively out of the game” and more “You keep going as normal despite the fact you are bleeding everywhere”.
        – Make the distinction between spending and burning Fate points hinge on whether or not the expenditure has long-term consequences. If you spend a Fate point to eliminate the 1D10+20 damage from the Ork Warboss’s Power Klaw we just say you dodged at the last moment and are fine. If you burn a Fate point instead, then you do get hit and you’re head’s all messed up and after the mission you’re probably going to need half your skull replaced and a cool cybernetic eye, but systemwise you’re still able to act (with perhaps a few situational penalties for situations requiring two working eyeballs).
        – Have burned Fate points grow back gradually (say, one per session and full restore between missions).

        How does this sound to people?

    2. Re: Fate point suggestions.

      1. The way I read the rules, you can both Spend and Burn the same Fate Point in the same session, so I’ve not read it as an either/or choice. Basically you can spend Fate as normal, and if you die you can reduce your *maximum* Fate to survive instead. So I don’t think this needs houseruling. In fact, houseruling it would make us *less* inclined to spend fate on other stuff, because we’d want to save it for survival

      2. I’d actually rather be out the game than functioning on 1HP or whatever the equivalent would be, simply because it reduces the risk of dying *again* in the same encounter. Black Crusade includes both options, but makes it very clear that the version where you survive on 1HP is *worse* than the one where you’re out but guaranteed to survive by whatever means. I think it also punctuates things better. If burning Fate leaves you functioning, then it just becomes a lot of extra Hit Points, I actually like the current system where you can *fail* but be certain not to *die*. I think it provides a lot more leeway than we let ourselves take.

      3. I’m not sure what you mean by this one.

      4. Rather than have burned Fate Points just regenerate naturally I think I’d rather just make more generous use of the existing rules, which allow a the GM to give the players extra Fate points for especially heroic actions. Interpreted generously enough, any action in which you risk having to burn a Fate Point can also *award* a Fate Point (whether you burn one or not) meaning the group makes a net Fate profit (rather than a net fate loss) on most heroic activities.

      1. 1 and 3 are related: the idea would be that you spend Fate points to survive/auto-succeed/etc. until you run out, then you start burning them, at which point your Space Marine starts getting horrible injuries/cool scars.

        2: This might be the case, but it still leaves us with the spectre of the assault marine who in practice fears mucking in with melee combat because they might get clonked on the head in round one and spend the rest of the fight in a coma.

        4: This requires the GM to actually remember to do this, and the GM already has to remember a bunch of stuff. I mean, I’ll do it if I remember but I don’t usually have enough spare RAM to give out metagame points for heroic stuff in games.

      2. I worry that if you allow FPs to be spent (rather than burnt) to actually auto-survive stuff that might tip things too far the other way. We’ve got three FPs each and we’ve never really suffered more than one or two potentially fatal attacks even in the most combat-heavy sessions. It might also discourage the “lighter” uses of FPs like rerolls.

        I actually quite like the “burn a FP to survive” system because it makes dangerous things feel like they have consequences. Of course I say this as the person who *didn’t* just have to burn one. I appreciate that Shim might feel differently (on the other hand if he *had* spent FP to stay up, it might have just meant he went down a couple of turns later, since I couldn’t have unleashed a Heavy Bolter into melee.

      3. I think the thing there is what’s needed for you to feel heroic isn’t the same as what’s needed for Shim to feel heroic. Shim needs to be able to go toe-to-toe with things otherwise he’ll (not without justification) think that his assault marine is nerfed (as witnessed by him pondering changing class more or less every time we play Deathwatch), so Shim needs to be able to stay in melee after being hit once otherwise he’s a bit of a glass cannon.

        I think on balance I will keep the distinction between the effects of spending and effects of burning but may make both more generous. For instance, rather than “spend to reroll” I may change it to “spend to succeed at a roll you just failed”, because there’s literally nothing more frustrating than spending a very limited resource in a game and getting fuck all out of it. Likewise, with spending to heal I might just say “spend a Fate point to boost yourself back to full hit points” – which sounds cheesy except since, as we saw, it’s very possible to go from full it points to completely dead in one blow you could spend your Fate points fairly quickly that way. I appreciate the point that this might only have the effect of keeping people in the fight another couple of rounds before they burn a Fate point anyway but I’d argue that keeping people involved in the parts of the game they want to be involved with is kind of a primary duty of a GM.

        I may keep “burn a Fate point to survive” but give choices as to what survival means – for instance, you can choose to be knocked out of the fight but not have any lasting ill effects (beyond cool cosmetic ones) once the fight is over, or you can stay in the fight if you wish at the cost of losing an important bit of equipment.

      4. For what it’s worth, we’re also missing some quite important features of Fate Points. Most of the situations when we’ve gone down (or more precisely when Shim’s gone down) in round one have been the result of our getting unlucky losing initiative, and it’s worth remembering you can spend Fate to automatically roll 10 on Initiative rolls as well (not much help versus Genestealers or Eldar of course). You can also spend Fate for +10 on a roll before you make it, or to add a degree of success afterwards, and I might be inclined to fold these together to allow a +10 either before or after you make a roll (so if you fail by a small amount you can turn it into a success).

        I’m not sure about allowing FPs to grant auto-successes, because I’ve got bad memories of the old WoD Willpower system, where you could spend a point of WP for an automatic success on anything, no matter how absurd. I could see restricting it specifically to auto-success on a Dodge or Parry, or perhaps even an auto-success on the Ability most suited to your Archetypem (WS for Assaults, BS for Devs etc).

        Incidentally I think part of the problem here is that Devastators are very front-loaded in terms of effectiveness while Assault Marines are very back-loaded. I basically get the best weapon in the game as part of my starting kit, but I’m not going to be much more effective at Rank 5 than I was at Rank 1. Eventually, Shim is going to be making four attacks a round with Power Claws, and should be able to dodge or parry multiple times a round as well. I’m going to get maybe +2 damage or a couple more points of Penetration.

        To put it another way, I think we’re currently at a stage of the game where the optimal strategy is almost always “kill it with Heavy Bolters”, and I’m very slighly better at deploying that strategy than Shim is. To put it another way, in terms of effectiveness it goes something like:

        Me With Heavy Bolter > Shim With Heavy Bolter > Shim in Melee >>>>>>>>> Me in Melee.

        It’s probably also worth noting that most of the things that have killed Shim have been things which are, canonically, total melee powerhouses. And as Shim points out below, they’re usuallyl total melee powerhouses that have got the drop on us, often because we’ve had an awkward transition from “narrative” time to combat time. I don’t think Shim is actually particularly vulnerable, it’s just that most of the things we’ve fought have been extremely hard-hitting melee monsters. Put us up against Tau and I suspect it would be a very different story.

      5. Re: auto-Dodging/Parrying/succeeding at distinctive characteristic: I think that’s a very fair compromise. Likewise, I think adding +10 before or after a roll is also fair.

        Re: effectiveness in melee: It’s worth also considering that some of the most effective melee weapons may well be reputation-locked at this stage, which might be another reason to a) shove you guys up the reputation track a little faster than the game intends or b) enforce the reputation system less.

        Re: Tau: as a matter of fact, one of the official campaigns published by FFG is based around going after the Tau, so I’ll give serious to consideration to running at least part of that one next. Not least because squishing Tau is very satisfying,

      6. I think the thing there is what’s needed for you to feel heroic isn’t the same as what’s needed for Shim to feel heroic. Shim needs to be able to go toe-to-toe with things otherwise he’ll (not without justification) think that his assault marine is nerfed (as witnessed by him pondering changing class more or less every time we play Deathwatch)
        I hadn’t thought of this, but I think there’s maybe something to it.

        To be fair, the class-change thought was more of an in-character thing, given Nikolai seems to have a taste for tech and problem-solving.

        To put it another way, I think we’re currently at a stage of the game where the optimal strategy is almost always “kill it with Heavy Bolters”, and I’m very slighly better at deploying that strategy than Shim is.

        Also this. Actually, I think it may not even be so much that I’m not quite as good at KWBH, as that it feels like the wrong way to use what’s presented as a mobile, melee-based character choice. It’s like building a wizard, then finding out it’s always better to hit people with a broadsword. Even if you’re very nearly as good at that as the fighter, it wasn’t the point.

        Incidentally I think part of the problem here is that Devastators are very front-loaded in terms of effectiveness while Assault Marines are very back-loaded.

        You mean, Assault Marines are the wizards of Deathwatch?

  2. On the Hive City scenario in general:

    Like Shim I enjoyed all three sessions, but I felt that the more combat-heavy sessions were much more successful overall. I think the Hive City as a setting highlighted some of the weaknesses and some of the absurdities of the Deathwatch setup. It was hard to know what three guys, even three Space Marines, were supposed to do about what was presumably an army of several million Orks. That got a bit more concrete in the last session when we were moving out and hitting high-value targets, but I think that a big part of the problem was that while our Chapter is technically supposed to be all about siege warfare the actual *game* is set up very much for the players to be small recon units or kill-teams.

    For what it’s worth I found the planet of Aurum somewhat easier to get a handle on than Mersadie Hive. I think it’s because Aurum was smaller and so you could basically feel like you knew everything about it inside the first session (proud warrior culture, ride dinosaurs) whereas Hive Cities are necessarily more complicated.

    1. Also, I got charged and totalled right at the top of the initiative order (and similarly, I didn’t realise I was engaging the archon… or putting myself in a position for four genestealers to attack, come to that)

      For what it’s worth, I think this is a feature of this particular style of game (it’s something that I’ve had to be quite careful about in D&D as well). In a game that places a lot of emphasis on tactical combat, I think it’s important for the players to be really clear when they’re going into a fight, because the way in which you describe things during simultaneous-move narrative action is very different to how you describe it during turn-based combat action.

      1. I think that’s certainly true for the Genestealer example. Archonwise, I was pretty clear I’d end up fighting dark eldar, I just hadn’t realised it’d be the archon (in retrospect, *duh*).

      2. I seem to remember you speculating that it might be the archon right before you dropped into combat with an unidentified enemy, so I tend to see that case as falling into the “you were aware you were taking a risk and what you were afraid of happening happened” category (which I tend to consider to be fair game).

  3. @Fate Points: I honestly can’t remember the rules well enough to say anything very useful here.

    I do think Arthur makes a decent point that the swinginess of Deathwatch means burn-to-survive Fate Points don’t necessarily increase heroism much, because you’re still left with the problem of going out of the fight with a single hit. When you’re thinking about what to do, obvious *surviving* long-term is great, but you’re also calculating whether you’ll actually stay conscious long enough to *achieve* anything, be it killing X or rescuing Y or dropping a bomb in the midst of Z and then legging it to safety. So for example, I still wouldn’t charge into combat with a warboss or three genestealers, because getting knocked out in the first round doesn’t achieve any more than dying in the first round and it’s costing a permanent Fate Point. However, knowing I’d stay functional for at least one round would give me the chance to do something impressive or interesting, or at least delay the enemy while someone else did. Same for exposing yourself to enemy fire while you do something dramatic. OTOH I take your point about spending Fate Points working out as HP increases (although you can already spend FPs to heal later on).

    There might also be an argument that the reason we’re not taking many dangerous hits is we aren’t taking many risks, though whether that’s a problem or not I dunno.

    I can’t really enlighten you about the emotional weight of the system, because truth be told I’d only a vague idea how Fate Points worked, and had no idea I was burning one – Arthur may want to amend my character sheet depending how this discussion works out. Also, I got charged and totalled right at the top of the initiative order (and similarly, I didn’t realise I was engaging the archon… or putting myself in a position for four genestealers to attack, come to that), so considering consequences never really got a look-in. I’ll let you know next time Nikolai’s about to die…

    1. You may be right, memory’s a bit vague; certainly I knew I was getting myself into a fight so I think it wouldn’t be unfair either way. The genestealers one boiled down to misinterpretation of the narrative, which is just one of those things that happens, and running into a warboss inside his half-destroyed gargant during the final battle isn’t exactly a surprise, so there’s nothing I think would justify griping. All I really meant to say was, I don’t think in any of those situations I really found myself seriously weighing up whether I was doing something life-threatening with heavy consequences – which probably says more about me than about the game. Although saying that, I think the trip to Stealervale Chalet had me pretty worried.

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