Deathwatch is the last of what was originally announced as a Trilogy of Warhammer 40K Role Playing games. The first, Dark Heresy, was intended to allow players to start out as the “everyman” of the Imperium of Man. The Second, Rogue Trader, was designed to allow players to stretch out in imaginative new directions and explore new worlds. The final game, Deathwatch, is supposed to allow you to play the pinnacle of Imperium forces, the Space Marines. Huge and imposing they have been made to kill any foe the Imperium should cross paths with. Rigid and heroic, there are a lot of people out there who want to play these superhuman champions. But how do we play Space Marines when they stay almost exclusively with their own chapters?
And so enters the Deathwatch. The Deathwatch is the militant arm of the Inquisitorial Ordo Xenos. The Inquisition has three functional major orders (or Ordos); the Ordo Hereticus which hunts Heresy and Traitors, the Ordo Mallius which hunts Demons, and the Ordo Xenos which opposes alien influences. The Deathwatch is a unified force made up of Space Marines from many Chapters who work together at the behest of the Inquisition. When they find proof that a world has become tainted by Alien influences, or signs of significant Chaos, it’s the Deathwatch that is called to purge these foes. Due to its nature it’s a unique melting pot of different Chapters coming together to form small and intimate Kill Teams, teams that work together as a squad or as individuals. And there will be a lot of killing in this game.
So let’s take a tour under the hood and see what fine goodies we have available to us!
The book begins with a forward discussing the subject matter, what is role-playing, the book itself, and an overview of what a Space Marine is. If you have ever read a Space Marine Codex for the table top game you will find a lot of that material here. If you haven’t, take a peek. In short a Space Marine is a man who was recognized for his nearly superhuman abilities and feats and made… More. To become a Marine many biological implants need to be grafted to the applicant, when they are done the man has become an 8 foot tall, acid spitting, kill machine. Actually, to be fair, they are more a kill Factory. They need less sleep, less rest; their bodies are adapted to survive in climates that would kill normal men and to wear power armor with biological grafts. There is a complete list of the implanted organs and what they do to modify the marine inside. The forward wraps up with a description of the path of the Marine, how they advance the ranks from a recruit to Chapter Master.
The first real chapter is Character Creation. We are introduced to the basic stats of the game and are walked through creating a character. The die mechanics are based on Warhammer Fantasy 1st and 2nd edition, there are various stats such as Ballistics Skill and agility rated from 1-100. To make a stat check you roll percentile and try to roll under your stat. Challenge ratings either add or subtract from the stats number, for example a hard agility check is a percentile roll under the player’s agility minus twenty. The mechanics are much more extensively discussed in chapter 7 of the book, but the key point to remember when making your character is to ensure that your stats are as high as possible.
Base stats are 2d10 30 for each trait. This is modified by your Chapter, resulting in stats that range from 32 to 55. For scale Dark Heresy characters range from 27 to 45 to start and Rogue Trader character stats range from 32 to 50, give or take. That includes any bonuses from the past or your home planet in Rogue Trader or Dark Heresy. Space Marines also have a trait called Unnatural Strength and Unnatural Toughness, which makes these two stats even more spectacular than their Dark Heresy or Rogue Trader fellows. While the scale does not seem that spectacular I can assure you, from play, that it’s fairly epic. The average starting number for a Dark Heresy character is 30. The average Deathwatch stat is 40. Breaking into a 50 is the best a Dark Heresy character can hope for, and he will be spending 2000+ exp in total to do it. Deathwatch characters can start at those heights and reach a 60-70 in all their stats. Good times for them!
After rolling their base stats they pick their chapter, which further raises their stats and gives them a Chapter Demeanor. We will be discussing Demeanors later, but for now know that you pick one for your own personality and each chapter is defined by one. After selecting your Chapter you then pick your Specialty, which is like your job. It’s a bad analogy but it sort of works. Specialties include Apothecary, Assault Marine, Devastator, Librarian, Tactical Marine, and Techmarine. Players of the many versions of Warhammer 40K will recognize these titles, and they are what you would expect. There will be a more detailed version of the list when we review their chapters. (As opposed to Chapters, which are brotherhoods of Space Marines)
Next up is the spending of Experience points, each character starts with 1000, and how to calculate Fate points, wounds, and movement. Starting equipment is simple, you get a basic package as a Space Marine and then your specialty gets a further package. For example, all Space Marines get a bolt pistol, but Tactical Marines get a Bolter too. The Specialist packages are all minor tweaks but they give each Specialist the signature gear you would expect, such as a Jump Pack and Chainsword for the Assault Marine. This is followed up with some charts on their individual pasts, which makes each marine a little different even when they are from the same chapter with the same specialty. You also get to roll for your Power Armor’s history, a nice touch by the way, a roll for your personal demeanor, and your name. There is also a good discussion of the history of your individual Marine’s history. There is also a good, in-depth, discussion of the various implanted organs and what their game effects are. A clever GM might extrapolate enough information from this to run a campaign from the point of view of a recruit seeking to join a Marine Chapter.
Let’s take a moment to talk about Demeanors. These are a new mechanic for Deathwatch, and it feels like an Aspect from Fate Role-playing games, and I mean that in a good way. Each Space Marine has two, one from their Chapter and one that is personal. When invoked, and role-played, they allow you to fake a Fate point expenditure and may even improve the rolls effect. They are intended to be invoked once, each, per story to give the player a chance to pull some super heroics out of their hat. If your demeanor is Stoic and your facing a Green Skin Horde charging towards you the player can say something Stoic sounding and then stand there gunning them down with a bonus to their rolls. It’s a nice add on to the game and makes Space Marines feel even more larger than life in my opinion.
Chapter One wraps up by presenting the six Space Marine Chapters presented in the book: The Black Templars, The Blood Angels, the Dark Angels, the Space Wolves, the Storm Wardens and the Ultramarines. Most of these will be immediately recognized by those familiar with the table-top Wargame, or with the 40K fiction, all except for the Storm Wardens. They were created by the book’s writers as a Chapter based in the Calixis Sector (the setting of Dark Heresy). All six Chapters spend time discussing their recruiting practices, their approach to war, and the mechanical modifications to those who play the particular Chapter in the game. For those new to the setting, think of your Chapter as your race. Each Chapter has become somewhat specialized to an approach and playing that Chapter grants mechanical benefits as befitting these specializations. Elves are portrayed in most games as master archers and their stats reflect this, a Blood Angel tends to favor Fast Attack and so in this game they get a bonus to Weapon Skill. This, in turn, tends to make Assault Marine much more attractive as this Specialty plays to their strengths but the player can do any Specialty they want. Even Blood Angels need Librarians. There are a few restrictions, Black Templars shun Librarians and there are no Space Wolf Apothecaries, but there are very few of these restrictions. Personally, I find that these Six represent a nice slice of the setting. I see more Ultramarine armies than I can shake a stick at, but Space Wolves and Blood Angels are also very popular. All of the selected Chapters are very well known, except for the Storm Wardens for obvious reasons, and I think most players will end up very happy with what’s available.
For those who want to know, a starting Space Marine at Rank One is 15,000 experience before spending their starting package of 1,000, which makes that around rank five for Rogue Trader or Ascension for Dark Heresy.
Chapter Two is dedicated to the Specialties and the Experience Point charts for Advancement. As usual your character is limited to five stat advancements, and there is a discussion on how to advance and what Elite Advances are. For those not in the know an Elite Advance is an advancement that is outside the advancement scheme for a character, but one that could be justified through role-play or circumstances.
The actual Advancement charts clearly show that this game has been designed to accommodate a lot of different approaches. There is a Space Marine chart, going from Rank One to Rank Eight. There is a Chapter specific chart for each of the chapters. There is a Deathwatch advancement chart, for Marines who are part of the Deathwatch during that particular rank. Finally there are the Specialty Advancements, which are for each specialty and include the Stat Advancement charts. The message is very clear; you can add new Chapters very easily but just adding a Chapter Advancement Chart. The Deathwatch is also optional, if you want to run an Ultramarines game where they are defending Ultramar from the bug hordes you just drop the Deathwatch charts from the game. I cannot think of any other cross Chapter organization to add, but one could be added if one were so inclined.
Along with the Specialty charts are a description of each Specialist, a trained skill to add to the sheet, and a choice of unique abilities to add. These allow two Specialists to be different, for example an Apothecary can be really good at keeping the Kill Team pure (resist corruption), make Xenos specific toxins (poison coating for more damage), or be an exceptional healer (well… that one is self explanatory). Again, I like this touch. Anything that lets two people doing the same job stand out from each other is a good thing in my opinion.
Chapter three covers skills. The vast majority of skills are part of a Marines basic package with one or two coming from their Specialty. The rest are Advances of one type or another from one of the previous charts. Skills are linked to a stat; to succeed you roll under the linked stat on percentile dice. Skills can be improved, giving a bonus to the base stat for roll to be under. For example, Dodge 20% gives you a bonus of 20% to your Agility when you try to dodge an attack. So if a Marines Agility is 52 they need to roll under 72 to succeed. Each skill is then reviewed along with their uses. A good read and full of useful information for players and GM’s alike, but if you’re familiar with Dark Heresy or Rogue Trader its familiar territory even with the new topics.
Chapter four reviews the Talents and Traits of the game. Talents are the feats of the game, granting advantages in combat or to situations. Traits are normally found in the back, with the Monsters, but here they follow the Talents available to Space Marines. Some of the talents are reprints from prior books, but many of them are new and require the player to be and Astartes (or Space Marine) to take them at all. All Space Marines have some unusual traits shared with the Dark forces of the galaxy, so the Traits part is not as odd as it might appear.
Chapter Five reviews the Armory. A new system is presented for the Deathwatch; unlike previous games where the players had to purchase what they needed either with their Wealth or actually pay Thrones for them a Space Marine has access to the mighty resources of the Inquisition itself. Each mission gives them some Requisition points to spend adding to their basic package. You can also take a talent that “perma-buys” equipment and makes it part of the players basic package. You are limited by this Requisition, but it can be pooled if you’re not using all of it, and by your renown in the Deathwatch. No one who is new to the Deathwatch, no matter how highly ranked in their Chapter, is getting the big toys until they prove their heroism and loyalty to the Deathwatch itself. All your favorite toys are here: Power Fists, Power Armor, Bolters, and Plasma weapons and they are all Astartes sized. There are also rules for other types of characters trying to use Astartes weapons, and surprise, it is not a good idea. Each player also gets a Relic from their Chapter to carry into battle, and they are all pretty cool. On the par with Dark Heresy’s Divination, nothing here is game breaking but these relics give a bit of an edge to the Marine holding it. The chapter wraps up with a discussion of the Cybernetics available and how much it costs to requisition Servitors.
It’s worth noting that the Deathwatch Living Errata has significantly altered a few mechanics for combat and for the Armory in general. Damage has been simplified to fewer die rolls; previously a Bolter did 2d10 damage with a small bonus on top. Bolters also get to roll two dice for every one and you get to keep the higher of the two dice for your damage roll. So for every damage roll the player ended up rolling four dice, having to roll each “die” of damage in a pair for proper effect. The rules have now been modified to dropping the roll to one actual die (you still roll two keeping the higher though) and giving a bigger bonus to the roll. Also, auto-fire has been significantly revamped with many weapons completely losing the full auto option entirely.
Chapter Six discusses Psykers, well Librarians really, and Psychic powers. Once again there are big changes. In the past we have had a lot of little powers (Dark Heresy) that are granted automatically when a Psi rating is raised. Then we had what could only be called “slots” (Rogue Trader) for powers, you would buy one and fill it with a power equal to its cost in Experience or less. They had fewer powers than in Dark Heresy, but their powers were much more effective and Rogue Trader introduced a new way to use powers that made failure far less disastrous. This system of restraint at the cost of power, or power at the cost of increased chance of the Warp getting involved, was later adopted in Dark Heresy with the Ascension book and returns here. The big change here is how powers are selected. The varying cost powers are back, but there are no “slots” to buy. A few powers are limited by Renown rank but you can buy any power you want, regardless of discipline the power belongs to, as long as you can pay its experience cost! In the past the Psi rating only allowed access to a single discipline, or in the case of Dark Heresy, less to start with and granted more access as your Psi went up. Deathwatch Librarians can freely access all four of their disciplines as they see fit as long as they meet the powers requirements (of which there are not that many, to be honest.)
There are four disciplines in Deathwatch. Telepathy, Divination, Chapter powers, and Codex powers. Telepathy is the most structured and rigid, to get the most powerful abilities in Telepathy you need to buy a few of the lower powers to “build up to” the grander stuff. Divination is far less restrictive; there are only a few powers that require previous powers to be purchased. None of the powers in either discipline require Rank to make them available, and they are largely what you would expect from prior books. Librarians are the Soothsayers of the Astartes, their telepathy is on par with an Astropath Transcendent and their divination gifts make them a favored advisor to the Chapter Leadership as they plan major offensives. The real gems, though, are the Codex and Chapter disciplines. Codex powers are available to any Marine and include such favorites as Smite, Might of the Ancients, and Vortex of Doom. Table top players will recognize these as signature powers from the Wargame. These do have Rank requirements. No rank ones are going to be throwing around Vortexes of Doom without a house rule! Codex powers are much the same, but they are specific to their Chapter and give each Librarian a more or less unique pool of powers to pull from! Each is fairly thematic, for example the Storm Wardens have lightning effects and ancestor calling in their list while Space Wolves (who call their Librarians Rune Priests instead incidentally) can call storms and spirit wolves to their sides. Rank requirements range from plentiful to virtually non-existent on these lists. I really like this approach and I am looking forward to playing a Librarian.
Chapter Seven is about Game Mechanics which covers the bulk of game rules(aside from straight fighting, which is in the Combat chapter). The testing mechanics is fully explained here, but as I said previously it’s a very simple system: Roll under your stat (either linked from a skill or in a straight stat check) which is modified by challenge. A Challenging check is 0, for example, or a Hard test at -20. Players of Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader will find these rules to be the same. Fate points are fully explained as well, but don’t forget that once a game per Demeanor you can “fake” a fait point by invoking and role-playing your demeanor. We then move the obligatory Environmental Hazards discussions. Swimming, flying, weight, light sources, jumping, climbing, and gravity effects are all reviewed.
A very interesting new element is the Squad mechanics. When a Kill team departs they select a leader for the mission. They then take an oath which is limited by the leader chosen. The leader and the oath determine the Cohesion of the squad. A marine can be in one of two modes at any given time, Solo and Squad. When in Solo mode they act autonomously and favor their chapters training in a situation. Each chapter has a solo technique that can be invoked by the marine, such as the Blood Frenzy of the Blood Angels which allows them to re-roll damage checks in Melee and increase the chance of doing Critical Damage to a foe. There are also general techniques available to marines of the appropriate rank. Squad mode removes these solo abilities and means that the team is acting in unison. They get new techniques such as setting up a fire line to dig into a position for maximum defense. Cohesion is lost when initiating these tactics; it can also be directly damaged by others through fear and numbers. If you’re Cohesion goes to zero the squad returns to solo mode and breaks ranks. Tactical marines can even share Chapter tactics with the right ability. This adds a nice tactical element to the game, making combat a little more interesting while not requiring a grid or miniatures.
We then move on to the Mission structure, which gives the Kill team a very nice adventure format. You can very easily move beyond it, but basically they get briefed on a threat, select gear with requisition as needed, the GM rolls for a complication and then the adventure proceeds to completion. Renown and Experience are rewarded for meeting Primary and Secondary objectives. The better your Renown the better the gear you can select, the more Experience you get the powerful your Marine becomes. The complication is a nice optional touch, it’s a simple roll that you can do in front of the players and watch them groan as the see they are going to have Insertion troubles. I have been accused of making stuff like this up to torment my players, charts like this make my players feel like these disasters are now more or less random and not design. The Oath taking that is done after a Squad leader is chosen is also a nice touch that I very much enjoyed, it rewards the players for choosing leaders that are best suited to the mission at hand but does not penalize for not having the most opportune leader if the players decide to go their own way.
Chapter Eight is all about combat. If you have played Dark Heresy or Rogue Trader, you know what to expect here. After you roll for combat order in the round you decide on your actions for the turn. Attack rolls are made with Ballistics skill or Weapon skill depending on the nature of the attack. The defender can attempt to dodge or parry, which he can do one or the other only once per turn, and if successful on the skill roll then the attack roll is fully negated. For example, a Devastator is laying down some heavy bolter fire. He is doing this at short range (+10 to the base skill, making it easier) at Full Auto (+20 to the base skill, heavy bolters cannot fire at any other rate) with a base skill of 52. Rolling a 02, he hits with 7 degrees of success. That means that he hit the target with 8 of the 10 bolts, or 16d10+48 total damage (base damage for a Heavy Bolter is 2d10+6). And it has tearing, so each die of damage is rolled twice and the better of the two is kept. One dodge roll later, no degrees of success, and the attack is negated in full. At first I found this a bit discouraging since it works the same way for bad guys, but if the players focus fire only one attack can be avoided per round. Another thing I find a little confusing is when multiple hits score, such as the example above, if the total damage is rolled minus the targets Armor and Toughness Bonus or if each shot is reduced. I have ruled that each shot is reduced, but it’s a point I may seek clarification on in the future. The rules for Hordes, in Chapter Thirteen, seems to count each Hit as a separate damage roll which jives with what I am doing for damage normally.
Again, note that the Living Errata has made some fairly significant changes to overall combat, but from my experience in play its all for the better. Take a hard look at those rules, in my example above the Heavy Bolter hit for 16d10+48. Each die is rolled twice, using the old rules, so in play this would be done with each dice to be rolled done in pairs so the better of each roll is kept. 16 times. A total of 32 dice rolled for those 8 shots. The new system would have 16 dice rolled, half as many. Much faster in play, especially for horde strikes where each shot needs to be compared to the toughness to determine if the hit was effective or not.
Chapter nine: The Game Master Chapter; reviews all the points a Game Master needs to know beyond what the players will normally be familiar with. The Themes of the Deathwatch are discussed, different approaches to play style, how to invoke the setting, how to reward players in experience and renown, and the rules for Fear and Corruption are presented. The chapter is very informative, but feels a little short. I would have appreciated more information on running Space Marine chronicles outside the Mission structure provided, but this is in no way a deal breaker for me. There is a good section on the types of missions undertaken by Kill Teams, which makes a good starting point for planning adventures. The rules for insanity are also very specific to the Chapters; each Chapter has its own insanity that affects its Marines as they get more and more lost to the horrors of war.
The next few chapters cover setting information, so I will be covering them all together. Chapter Ten cover the Imperium of Man. This is more or less what you would expect; it’s a good overview of the Imperium works for those who are not familiar with Warhammer 40K background. It reviews the different organizations and how the Imperium wages war. Chapter Eleven covers the Deathwatch organization in detail including its history and practices. Chapter Twelve covers the Jericho Reach, the default sector of space that the game is set in. We get the history, key worlds in the sector, and a detailed examination of the Deathwatch’s holdings and operations in the Reach. Each of these chapters is well written, informative, and presents a lot of ideas for adventures both in the Jericho Reach and outside of it.
Chapter Thirteen gives us Adversaries, the foes your Kill team will be coming up against time and again! It starts with a discussion of Hordes, large mobs (that’s a crowd as opposed to the MMO term) that band together to form threats from foes that would not be a threat otherwise. Any hit that damages a horde, after Armor and Toughness reduces the damage, reduces the magnitude by one. Explosive weapons reduce it by two. Devastators get additional bonuses, if they choose it for specialties’ power. We then get an overview of Chaos Marines and Demons, the Tau, and the Tyranids. The chapter concludes with some basic templates for Guardsmen, Servitors, and a civilian.
When I reviewed Rogue Trader I was critical of the lack of a random Xeno creator and was disappointed with the number of adversaries as a whole. If this is your first foray into Warhammer 40k, and own no other books, this chapter should hold you over for a while. You will eventually need to start snatching up other books in a few months, and I would strongly suggest Rogue Trader for its Kroot rules and Ork information. If it’s not, well the other major Xeno threats are already presented in other books from the line so you should have no shortage of foes. But while I found Rogue Trader, a game about meeting strange new Xeno races and plundering lost worlds, very much in need of a random race/monster generator Deathwatch feels very complete without it. I have most of what I need to pit the Space Marines against some of their classic foes: Orks, Tyranids, Tau, Chaos, Chaos Space Marines, (rogue) Guardsmen, and Eldar. Each of these races are very far from complete, but I can sort of fake what I need to based on what I have for now. The only major table top army that has not been given any rules is the Necron, but I don’t hate my players that much. Yet.
The final Chapter is a sample adventure called Extraction. I am not much on evaluating an adventure until I am running it, and I have not run this one, but it seems very complete for an introductory adventure. It takes a sandbox approach, presenting an objective and countdown, and allows the players to seek their objectives in any way they want. This is how I tend to write my own adventures, and it does not look too scripted/railroad like.
The book then wraps up with an index and a character sheet, much as one might expect.
Overall, I am very impressed. This is exactly what I wanted from a Space Marine game and it avoids, neatly mind you, what would block a more standard Space Marine game. It allows you to play different Chapters that would ordinarily not work together, gives you some internal completion to play off, and gives you a framework for adventures where they don’t have Thunderhawks to call on for backup when things get tough. When playing them, and running them, they feel very superhuman especially if you have played the prior games. The biggest hurdle I ever had with Rogue Trader was the fact that the players could truly do anything they wanted and trying to convince them that they could go ANYWHERE sometimes felt like I was trying to explain the Warp to the Tau, and Deathwatch neatly skirts that as well with their mission structure. The art is also very nice; I found it inspiring and evocative of the spirit of the book. To be fair, though, I feel that Warhammer 40K RPG family is one of the best written out there. Especially with the minimalist approach a lot of mainstream companies are going with their setting details.
And now to address the elephant in the room: there are only male Space Marines in the Warhammer 40K universe. Yes, you can play a Sister of Battle but you would need to advance them from Dark Heresy to Ascension and the Astartes are going to be better at battle, hands down. Yes, you can house rule a Female Chapter just as I can house rule a galactic alliance between the Imperium of Man and the Eldar Craftworlds for technology and troops, no one says you can’t, but both will likely draw the same stares from purists. My wife and my Daughter are both playing in my Space Marine game, my wife is playing a Tactical Marine and my daughter is playing an Assault Marine, and the gender issue has been a non issue thus far. No one is going to try and seduce a Space Marine; I don’t even think that they feel human desire, so a lot of the issues with cross gender role playing goes away. Personally I think people are making a bigger deal of it than it needs to be, but that’s my opinion and since I am not a woman and thus not directly affected by this issue it’s not worth much. All I know is that I have players who don’t care about the issue, giggle when a they lay Kraken rounds into a Tau on full auto and roll 50+ damage on the roll, and high five the other players when an objective is completed.
This is a definite buy. This game will be a present for players I know at Christmas. The setting is rich, the mechanics are solid, there is a lot of material out there for new players to review about Space Marines (Dawn of War 1 and 2, Books, and Comics not to mention the Table Top game) and spending time in any game store can get a player educated on the different factions and histories of the universe. It’s full of action without requiring a mat and miniatures, which it very easily could have considering its subject matter is based in a table top miniatures game. This game is more than worth the money in my opinion.
I am defiantly looking forward to the new releases from this and the other Warhammer 40K lines.
(Please note, this was originally posted on RPG.net by me. It has been updated slightly with information about the Living Errata, but otherwise the content is the same.)
[5 of 5 Stars!]