Deathwatch holds a special place in the history of this humble blog, seeing how it’s the first game I wrote about on here. Out of all the Warhammer 40,000 RPGs it’s by far the most pure and simple in its tone; you play Space Marines assigned to the Deathwatch, a body whose members are drawn from all the different Space Marine Chapters out there in order to provide Astartes-scale backup for the Ordo Xenos. This obviously and naturally lends itself to mission-based, violence-oriented, alien-blasting gameplay. The Deathwatch concept is a nice, setting-supported angle to allow for PCs of different Space Marine Chapters to go on missions together, but the system is also robust enough that you can absolutely run a game based around a single Chapter, and there’s some quite nice rules for squad-based abilities and the like and the sacred history of your power armour and gunning down massed hordes of low-powered enemies.
The main problem with the game is that it’s built on the Dark Heresy chassis, which in turn was based on extending the WFRP system in directions it had never been intended to really accommodate. Whilst that just about works for the purpose of Dark Heresy provided you’re willing to play it as the low-power high-threat WFRP-in-space version the rules suggest, for the purposes of handling Space Marines it requires tacking on heaps of stat boosts and Talents (the FFG-era 40K RPG equivalent of Feats, with all the niggling exceptions and rulebook-flipping that entails), and pitching them against enemies with a similarly burdensome amount of game mechanical widgets.
It’s for this reason that I am less grumpy about the new 40K RPG expected for 2018, Wrath & Glory, ditching the Dark Heresy-era system in favour of a new one than I was about WFRP3 ditching the WFRP system. For one thing, they are at least having the decency to give the new RPG a different name, so it’s not like it’s claiming to be the inheritor of the legacy of a previous game whose approach it’s completely dispensing with. For another, they apparently intend to build Wrath & Glory from the ground up with an eye to making a system which can account for characters at a range of power tiers smoothly, and even provide ways for low-powered characters to adventure with a high-level party and still make useful and important contributions.
That all sounds great and the sort of stuff you need to do to produce a general system which can handle the full variety of player characters people might wish to play in a 40K-based game, and is exactly what Fantasy Flight didn’t do. (Ross Watson is developing the system and he was the lead designer on Deathwatch, and I suspect the frustrations he must have faced trying to make Space Marines work smoothly in the Dark Heresy model have left him with all sorts of ideas about how to accomplish this.) We’ll never know what Black Industries’ original plan was for when they got around to doing Deathwatch (it’s the third of the planned trilogy of games they originally conceptualised before they were shut down and the line was licensed to Fantasy Flight), but as it stands Fantasy Flight seemed to take the approach that you can just keep tacking stuff onto a character sheet and people will keep following it.
Now, to be fair, especially if you just relax and stop worrying too much about tracking every single little Talent and power every entity have, Deathwatch works reasonably well. However, it’s still stiffer and slower than a high-octane Space Marine battle really should be, and a lot of that comes down to the fact that the system is straining to handle all sorts of stuff it was never really meant to. I still have a certain affection for it, but out of all the 40K RPG systems it’s the one I suspect will be come most redundant for my purposes once Wrath & Glory‘s Space Marine support gets fleshed out.