A Stony Sleep, A Shaky Ending

It had been about half a year, which meant it was time for us to Fist again (like we did last summer). Having run an interim adventure so that the player characters were actually of a level appropriate to the campaign, I ran the gang though the next episode of The Emperor Protects, entitled A Stony Sleep. Session logs are up here, Dan’s thoughts are here and here, Shimmin’s thoughts are here, here and here, my thoughts are immediately below. (Spoilers ahead.)

As is usually the case with prewritten adventures, I had to change a lot on the fly. That, in itself, I don’t hold against A Stony Sleep – no published adventure written will ever be able to take into account the specific circumstances of your home campaign, or the sheer range of potential actions your players might follow, after all. For the first two thirds or so of the mission, up to the point where they reached the underwater city, the major changes were as follows:

  • Truncating and streamlining the process of investigation and island-hopping smackdowns of Reborn cultists, since we basically do Deathwatch in short bursts every few months or so and therefore keeping things short and snappy is a priority. This is a change I imposed myself.
  • Having Inquisitor Quist not die early on. This is a change the players brought about by virtue of taking their stated goal of protecting Quist seriously and showing basic common sense.

To be fair to the adventure, it does provide suggestions on what to do if Quist survives. (I had her handling most of the investigative stuff for the PCs in the background.) On the other hand, it seems to think her survival is much more unlikely than it actually is, when all it takes to ensure is for one of the PCs to say “Hold up, we should check out that box before you get near it ma’am”. In addition, there’s a weird red herring involved here where Quist isn’t wearing gloves (why?) whilst literally everyone else in the room is (double why???), which I think is meant to prompt trigger-happy groups to come to the conclusion that the assassination attempt was actually down to the local Imperial commander and his men (who are genuinely innocent) and gun them down, complicating matters massively. This setup, however, makes the Alpha Legion’s plan seem ludicrous, since it requires that everyone else who handles the box happens to be wearing gloves, and I don’t see how the Alpha Legion could have counted on that.

The major change I made, though, was allowing the PCs to destroy the tomb-city’s power core by simply shooting at it. This flies in the face of the module, where the presented solution to destroying the power core is “let any plausible-sounding plan the players cook up work provided they make a suitable roll, otherwise rule that that plan doesn’t work and make them come up with a new approach. Oh, and simply shooting the thing never works.”

The problem I have with this approach is that the module throws out this suggestion but doesn’t build in much in the way of features which the players can latch onto in order to actually come up with these schemes. More or less all the examples given would never be arrived at by the players simply working from the information presented in the module; to jump to the conclusions in question, one of two things would have to happen:

  • The referee would have to provide additional information. For the referee to just add this information into the descriptions would seem to steer the players towards a particular solution or solutions, which seems to be against the spirit of the way this part of the adventure is written. Alternatively, I guess the referee might come up with something in response to a successful Tech Use or Forbidden Lore (Xenos) roll, but again, the choice of what information to give in response to the skill roll would seem to be steering.
  • The players would have to spontaneously come up with some appropriate technobabble and put it into effect. In some games this would even be appropriate, but I don’t think Deathwatch is one of them – like the other Warhammer 40,000 RPGs, it’s a fairly traditional affair where players typically don’t get to narratively wish solutions into existence and the referee tends to have authorial control over the world and scenario.

If I had to guess what A Stony Sleep is driving at with this plot point, it’d probably be the latter, but expecting players who’ve been approaching a game with one set of play assumptions – play assumptions the module has itself been following up to this point – and then, without warning, suddenly switch to a different approach to play seems bizarre, and I don’t know how players are expected to cotton on to this. Possibly they’re meant to start resorting to oblique solutions after trying shooting and finding it doesn’t work, but this feels like a frustrating, time-wastey approach to me. There’s a time and a place for fashionable storygamey stuff like this, and it’s in a fashionable storygame; material like Deathwatch requires that the referee really be given much clearer direction on how shutting down the power core works, and information to give to the players which can convey this.

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10 thoughts on “A Stony Sleep, A Shaky Ending

  1. Interesting to see (since I only glanced at the scenario post-game) what you had to finesse.

    This setup, however, makes the Alpha Legion’s plan seem ludicrous, since it requires that everyone else who handles the box happens to be wearing gloves, and I don’t see how the Alpha Legion could have counted on that.
    It’s just a bit weak all round. As well as the glove fluke (and you might reasonably expect inquisitors to wear gloves precisely because it offers a bit of protection against the unknown), you could reasonably wonder:
    * were the soldiers actually expecting Quist, and did they know why she was here? If not, how did they know to bring her the box? (this may be answered in the mission, I don’t remember)
    * the Alpha Legion have no particular reason to expect her, since as I recall it was her initiative to look into Vincent’s disappearance. Did they just leave orders to give the box to anyone who turned up looking for Vincent? What would they do if two people came?
    * Why have the box brought to Quist, which increases the risk of someone else triggering it? Why not leave it in his room with a message that she’s to inherit it?
    * Wouldn’t a self-respecting inquisitor be naturally suspicious of items being unexpectedly presented to her when a fellow inquisitor is missing, especially if it’s apparently so urgent she should open it before doing literally anything else? Again, leaving it in his room would be far less suspicious.

    I know it’s not a major issue, but it undermines the value of the Alpha Legion as cunning covert-ops menaces who could be anywhere, if you have them carrying out plans that are patently a bit silly. It’s as though you brought in some World Eaters and had them slip on banana peels when they charge, you know?

    the module throws out this suggestion but doesn’t build in much in the way of features

    This. As you know I tend to dig for details given the chance, but as presented the room seemed extremely vague, with all the emphasis on the crystal, guns and field. There just wasn’t enough there to make it feel like you were encouraged to look for creative solutions, on top of the feeling that we only had one roll to try this without being shot to bits. If you’re not being given any detail and you’re looking at rolls of 40% for those lucky enough to be trained, it can produce a sense that unless you’re following the approved strategy (which is likely to have bonuses or alternative success mechanisms) your chances are pretty poor.

    It probably doesn’t help that most of the skills useful in a situation like this are quite unusual. Tech-Use, Evaluate and Demolitions seem like the main contenders, and they’re hard to get for most characters. Nikolai has two of those, but that’s for roleplay reasons more than anything else and they didn’t come cheaply. There are things you could maybe do with other skills once you understood the machinery, but that’s going to need a Tech-Use roll.

    1. were the soldiers actually expecting Quist, and did they know why she was here? If not, how did they know to bring her the box? (this may be answered in the mission, I don’t remember)

      This was actually answered in the mission: as you remember, Quist and Vincent had an arrangement where if one of them disappeared on a mission, the other would come investigate, and Vincent had left instructions that if Quist showed up she should get the box.

      the Alpha Legion have no particular reason to expect her, since as I recall it was her initiative to look into Vincent’s disappearance. Did they just leave orders to give the box to anyone who turned up looking for Vincent? What would they do if two people came?

      Her initiative, but Vincent would have expected it, and so when the Alpha Legion broke him and he blabbed he’d have told them about the box he’d left behind for her, which is what prompted them to go, empty the box, and lay the trap.

      Why have the box brought to Quist, which increases the risk of someone else triggering it? Why not leave it in his room with a message that she’s to inherit it?

      That is a good question. You can sort of finagle this in the sense that the Alpha Legion thought that if they actually started changing the orders Vincent had left behind (which, remember, he’d left before he was captured when the box contained genuinely useful stuff and wasn’t a trap) people might ask for confirmation from Vincent, but that’s a big stretch.

      Wouldn’t a self-respecting inquisitor be naturally suspicious of items being unexpectedly presented to her when a fellow inquisitor is missing, especially if it’s apparently so urgent she should open it before doing literally anything else?

      Again, if they have a pre-existing “you come to avenge my death, I come to avenge yours” deal, it might be less unusual, though if anything this is an even bigger stretch.

      The basic idea of “lay a trap for Quist because we know from interrogating Vincent that she’ll be on her way” is solid and makes sense, but the execution sucks. Why even bother with the box? Why not just put a really, really big bomb in Vincent’s room triggered to go off when someone enters, and have him record orders along the lines of “absolutely nobody except Inquisitor Quist or a member of the Inquisition of equal rank or above is to be permitted entry to my room”?

      1. I’d forgotten the part about the existing arrangement and that he had explicitly left the box for her, so that helps with most of my puzzlement. As you say, it’s a perfectly good strategy and very Alpha Legion in concept, it’s just executed oddly. A really big bomb… a clue leading her somewhere completely irrelevant to delay her… the timing was relatively close so that could well have been enough.

        By the way, does it ever explain what was originally in the box?

      2. There used to be a teleport key in the box (in my tweak it’s the one which was being kept in the camp where you found Vincent). Naturally, the Alpha Legion wanted to get that out of the way in order to keep any Inquisition follow-up team from following them to the underwater city.

  2. To be super, super fair to the “shooting the crystal” sequence, I think what it actually says is that shooting the crystal *with your ordinary attacks* won’t work, so arguably in this case using the Krak Missile Launcher that we brought along *specifically* do destroy hard targets was actually technically within the confines of the scenario. Although more by luck than by judgement. It also leads to the peculiar situation whereby shooting it with a Krak Missile would be fine as long as you *weren’t* using it as your primary weapon.

    I also don’t think it’s intrinsically storygamey to suggest that the PCs just have to think of a plan – you can argue that it’s a kind of old-school “rulings not rules” scenario: here’s a big alien thingy, the players have to destroy it, judge whether their plan is good. I think what makes it come across as storygamey in this context is that the focus seems to be on getting the players to narrate an exciting scene rather than on getting them to come up with a plausible plan. If it had just said something like “the power core is protected by a force field which is largely impervious to bolter fire, the players need to come up with a plan, some suggestions include [BLAH]” I think it would have been fine. It was the sub-white-wolf sideswipe at “just shooting it” that made it annoying.

    1. I think there’s scope for interpretation here. You could argue that “your ordinary attacks” includes the Krak Missile Launcher if your standard operating procedure is to use missiles to attack vehicles and infrastructure, for instance. And literally none of the examples offered are even remotely as simple and straightforward as “shoot a missile at it”. (I think one is “shoot a missile at it with expert timing to get past the field” or something crazy like that). So if “just shoot it with a bigger gun than you usually use” is meant to be an option, every single thing about the way the scene is actually written points directly against that.

      The thing which makes me put this thing in the “storygame narrative bullshit” camp instead of the “rulings not rules” camp is that “rulings not rules” isn’t about the players inventing details and technobabble out of whole cloth, it’s about the players making good and effective use of the information the referee has given them. And here I don’t see how the players are meant to come up with a better plan than “shoot the thing” unless they have more information than the module gives them. I guess you can go “rulings not rules” if as the GM you provide appropriate extra information based on their enquiries, but again I feel that’s less “rulings not rules” and more “shepherd the players towards a particular solution”. (And inventing setting details for the players if they pass an appropriate roll is a decidedly storygame mechanic – that’s how Donjon works.)

      1. righteousorb

        I’m not sure it’s inherently storygamey for a scenario to require the GM to improvise a solution around player input. It only becomes storygamey if there is an expectation that the GM will directly edit the gameworld to accomodate player input.

        I agree that the presentation in the book borders on storygameyness, but I think that might have been accidental.

        For an analogy, consider a situation in D&D where the players encounter an unknown magical field surrounded by mystical runes. The Wizard might ask if they can disrupt the runes to bring down the field, or the thief might want to decipher script to see how the field works, or a Cleric might want to try casting Bless into the field to see what happens. A “rulings not rules” GM will come up with rulings for all of these eventualities, whether they’d thought about them in advance or not. It isn’t necessarily storygaming to respond positively to player input.

        I think what felt storygamey about the power core was that the module until then has (perhaps misleadingly) given the impression that Necron technology was uninteractable with, so the idea that you could suddenly come up with whatever technobabble you wanted and it would necessarily work because skill check feels a lot like direct world-editing.

      2. I’m not sure it’s inherently storygamey for a scenario to require the GM to improvise a solution around player input. It only becomes storygamey if there is an expectation that the GM will directly edit the gameworld to accomodate player input.

        Sure, and that’s exactly what I’ve been saying was storygamey about this (again: this is how Donjon works). If it’s an accident, it’s an accident that just happens to have super-coincidentally looked like it was done on purpose.

      3. By way of an example: that D&D party will try to suss out the magical field using spells and skills they already possess and are on their character sheet. A party of wizards with a somewhat looser and less prescriptive magic system but still a traditional RPG framework – like Mage: the Ascension or Ars Magica – will use the established parameters of improvisational magic to investigate the field. Both will engage with what the GM has already said about the field, and in all those cases the players will expect that the GM will be assessing the results based partly on the properties of the magic or skills in question and partly on the properties of the field in question. Here, though, it literally doesn’t matter what skill the PCs use or what rationale they use for it, provided they narrate something vaguely appropriate and make the right dice roll.

        In principle, I’d say it’d be perfectly valid “rulings not rules” play if the GM improvised the appearance of a field on the spot and hadn’t yet decided what it was, and came up with stuff on the fly in response to the players’ queries. But this wasn’t an improvised game, it was a prewritten module, and one with such an utter dearth of insight into how this power core actually works that there isn’t actually much of anything for the players to get to grips with. It’s one thing to set a scenario where you present a problem but leave it down to the players to work out a solution rather than hardcoding in solutions yourself, but it’s another thing to leave the parameters of the problem so vague that the players have to effectively work out the specifics of the problem as well as the solution.

        Also, presumably in your D&D example you’d feel free to give answers which in defining the field more also constrained the approaches to tackling the field more. (“OK, it’s…” – rolls dice – “an Infernal field placed by a powerful demon. Wizard, you can use your Dispel if you like but you’ll be going up against the demon’s caster level. Cleric, this demon is a sworn foe of your God so your prayers or holy water could be effective against the field. Thief, the runes are beginning to make your eyes water and you’re starting to taste copper – are you sure you want to keep reading?”) Conversely, so far as I can make out with this module you should avoid doing that because if you invalidate a particular solution to the problem you shut down the players’ ability to try it out if their current angle of attack fails.

        It’s the combination of illusionism (there’s apparently a problem but actually any solution is valid) and storygaming (the players propose something and you edit it into the setting to make it so if they roll right) which gets me. It’s like the worst of both worlds.

      4. the module until then has (perhaps misleadingly) given the impression that Necron technology was uninteractable with

        I think this is a big part of it. It’s not just the module, though; the entire setting emphasises the foreignness and mystery of any kind of technology to Imperial citizens, and the mixture of suspicion and reverence with which it is treated. Much of the suspicion is entirely justified, with technology frequently being either unreliable, deeply sinister or genuinely tained by evil.

        If this were the kind of game where you expected to be hacking systems, breaking security, fettling machinery or doing analysis then it would have been a natural way to deal with the crystal. But Space Marines know bog-all about technology, even their own. The GM has no specific tools to offer them, and there’s no generic set of expectations for interacting with technology because you don’t.

        It’s a bit like having a setting where magic is sinister and only a handful of licensed wizards are (reluctantly) allowed to do vital jobs, then shoving the PCs in a room where a complex spell is unfolding and telling them to stop it.

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