Every time I return to the 40K RPG after playing something else, my dismay at its slow, dated, overdesigned combat system increases. How much can I forgive this game for, when the only reason I’m playing is that I’m a Warhammer fanboy? Turns out quite a lot. Dark Heresy Second Edition might represent the system at its most elegant (or perhaps just “most sensible”), but Only War’s focus on the soldiers of the Imperial Guard is surely the best representation of the 40K setting. Back on the battlefield, but without sacrificing humanity to get there, this is what the Grim Darkness of the Far Future is all about.
Last week I was singing the praises of collaborative world generation, and it’s delightful to see that in a mainstream release. Only War achieves this by encouraging players to design their own Imperial Guard regiment, determining everything from how their soldiers will fight (tank crews, paratroopers, guerrillas, line infantry) to the planet that they come from and the NPC that commands them. Combined with rules for comrades – an NPC for every player that accompanies their PC across the battlefield – and you’re not only successfully building story with mechanics, but achieving something else no other 40K game has really managed: emotional investment, and not at the expense of horror. Better still, regiment creation is great fun in its own right. It’s a shame that in any given campaign, you’ll only get to do it once.
Black Crusade prompted a pretty dramatic overhaul of the 40K system, and most of those changes come across into Only War. Some of them, like the streamlining of the skill list, are welcome. Others are not. I particularly dislike the Aptitude system, which replaces the rigid class system of earlier 40K releases with a buy-anything-you-like approach to character advancement, that alters the cost of upgrades depending on the Aptitudes of your character archetype. I liked the restrictiveness of early 40K because it felt thematic. I liked the freedom of Black Crusade because it was distinctively chaotic and therefore also thematic. But I hate the Aptitude system in Only War because it makes advancement take ten times as long, as you consider the hundreds of available options and try to remember what Aptitudes your character has (costs in Black Crusade were determined by your deity, which was much easier to remember). And also because it’s un-thematic.
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