Even though Space Marines are the poster boys of Warhammer 40K, I still remember the raised eyebrows when Fantasy Flight Games announced they’d be getting their own RPG. Psycho-conditioned, fascistic, meathead superhumans don’t sound like the most fun characters to roleplay, unless you want every PC to sound exactly the same. But I remained optimistic. A military-themed RPG sounded interesting to me, and the different Chapters of Space Marines distinctive enough to present a variety of roleplaying options. To be fair, Deathwatch makes a concerted effort to reflect these themes in the mechanics. It’s a shame that those extra rules are the straw that breaks the camel’s back in an already overloaded and sluggish system.
Deathwatch is the nadir of the 40K roleplaying line. When the system debuted in Dark Heresy, the high whiff factor and nuances of hit location were an acceptable fit for the gritty violence and pitch-black-comedy that typified life in the Imperial Inquisition. Deathwatch, in contrast, is about angelic warrior knights battling daemon princes against the backdrop of armageddon; yet the only real difference in how the game plays is that the numbers of the PCs’ stats are higher. The extra special rules that Space Marines get (mostly to do with executing special manoeuvres when operating as a team) would be cool if they were the core of the game, but instead they’re just another thing to keep track of, along with all the other minutiae of 40K combat (ammo counting, measuring ranges) that should be beneath a Space Marine’s notice. Dark Heresy kept the pace up by mixing quick-to-resolve investigation with brutal, violent combat, but Space Marines are indestructible and fighting is all they do. It doesn’t take long before “surgical strikes” and “against-the-clock missions” feel like long, tedious slogs.
Production values remain Fantasy Flight Games’ strong suit – Deathwatch is as beautiful as the rest of the 40K range. And never let it be said the company doesn’t learn from its mistakes. The next 40K game line, Black Crusade, enacted a system-wide streamlining that notably enhanced playability, and Only War (the other military-themed 40K game) was far better for it. Alas, this transformation came too late for the warriors of the Adeptus Astartes. I guess the hyper-violent twelve year old in me will have to play something else instead.
(I never review a game I haven’t played or run. Check out https://michaelduxbury.com/category/reviews/ for more RPG reviews.)