Dark Heresy 2nd Edition: Under the Influence

What with all this fuss about the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, it’d be easy to miss the fact that Fantasy Flight Games have put out a 2nd Edition of Dark Heresy. Replacing the previous edition of the game – the only Warhammer 40,000 RPG which wasn’t developed under FFG’s auspices – the 2nd Edition was, like D&D 5E, subject to an open playtest. Whilst Mike Mearls has mentioned how the 5E playtest took the game’s design into an unexpected direction – in particular, the realisation that a sizable demographic of players preferred a more rules-light and loose approach to the game than both 3E and 4E had offered is cited as something which really changed the development team’s thinking – it’s rare that a game publisher’s intended direction with a game has been so comprehensively changed by an open playtest to the extent that Dark Heresy‘s was.

For those who didn’t follow what went down with the open beta, here’s my understanding of it (as someone who didn’t take part in the beta but kept an eye on the news): the first version of the beta rules which went out were substantially different to the product as released. In fact, it was substantially different to most of the prior Warhammer 40,000 RPGs. A substantial portion of the beta testers objected; they didn’t want the backward compatibility with earlier products to be nuked, and they especially didn’t want to break compatibility with Black Crusade and Only War, whose rules updates had generally been well-received. (Indeed, many had assumed that Dark Heresy 2nd Edition would mostly consist of applying the Black Crusade/Only War updates to Dark Heresy). Thus, midway through the beta test, FFG announced they were changing direction in response to this feedback and released an extensively revised beta which formed the basis for the game we’ve now received. (Cue wailing and gnashing of teeth from folks who liked the radical shift represented by the first beta version.)

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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.)

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Listen to edited highlights of exciting Fisting sessions!

For the benefit of the user who got here after asking their preferred search engine “what does one feel with insertions and fists?”: you might get a better idea by listening to Shimmin’s recordings from the first Deathwatch mission, which he’s been posting bit by bit to his blog over the past few months. These are particularly significant gaming sessions for this blog, because they were the subject of my first few posts here, so if you’ve like what I’ve posted here over the past year or so, you might like to give them a listen.

Excellent Search Queries Episode 2

Subsequent to this: today somebody got to the site by searching “what does one feel with insertions and fists?”.

Can’t help you, friend; it varies a lot depending on which supplements you use, what tier the Marines are at, what career paths people have chosen in character generation, which (if any) prewritten adventures you use, how seriously you and your Fisting partners take the whole thing, how well you know the other participants, how much you trust each other and feel safe in each others’ company, how relaxed you are and which and how much lubricant you use. There’s just too many variables!

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.

The Siege of Mersadie Hive: Great Shot, Scout, That Was One In 10,000!

So yesterday we continued my siege-based Deathwatch adventure which we kicked off in October, and I pulled a mild bait-and-switch on my players which actually worked out quite well. I was fairly sure they wouldn’t bother dragging the Scouts along with them on their trip down to the Underhive to inspire/bully the local gangs into helping out against the Orks because, let’s face it, three Space Marines versus the masses of the Underhive is just no contest even before you add the Scouts to the equation. Odds were, they were either going to leave them behind or send them out to do actual Scouting (an option I made sure they were aware of so they could have a reasonable choice of what to do with the Scouts).

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