How Do Five Guys Across the World Make Four Hours of Deathwatch Fun?

I’ve been mentioning Deathwatch a lot in the last couple of months, talking it up. I think it’s high time I started walking the talk and get some friends to gether to actually play the damned game.

Thing is, I’ve been out of the hobby circle or a while. For the last seven years, I’ve been reading heaps of advice on hot to game master, but done very little practical application.

Which leaves me asking as game date approaches: Just what can I do to help four hours of five guys hanging out over the Internet be as much fun as a good episode of (y)our favourite hour-long TV show?

Maybe TV is a bad analogy. All the heavy lifting on a TV show is already done by the time you and I sit down to watch it. It’s entertainment, ready to go; the only questions are whether the show is of sufficient quality and appeals to our tastes.

During a tabletop RPG session. Image sourced from

A tabletop roleplaying game is different. When the players get together atound the table and start playing, they’re weaving the characters they’ve made with the plot events that the game master throws at them and mixing in wargame-y action scenes. It’s a four hour mix of improv theatre and board game.

I’m taking on that “game master” role, which means that while the other players get to be the heroes of the piece, playing the role of individual characters, I’m the guy who gets to make their lives interesting in ways that make for entertaining story.

Making things even more interesting is the fact that two of my friends are in Sydney and the other two are in California, while I’m here in Cairns. We’ll be meeting and playing virtually thanks to a program called Roll20.

And in the middle of all this, I’ve been trying to cram seven-plus years of RPG and game mastering theory into the first session of play, just to make sure Everyone Has A Good Time!

Thankfully, I caught myself doing it and decided to try somethings different instead.

Accept That I’m Rusty.

That’s the biggest thing. While games like Sorcerer and Burning Empires have heaps of advice on how to maximise the amount of intrigue and interpersonal drama a group can cram into a session, trying to use it is like skipping straight to the advanced driver’s course when I’ve only just got my learner’s.

So I’m just going to stick with the basics. I’ve re-read Deathwatch’s pages on setting up a session and am following their instructions. I’m preparing the details of the Mission my players will be assigned to and working otu the opposition and complications from there.

Remember What’s Cool About The Core Idea

Cover art for the Deathwatch supplement, The Rising Tempest, depicting a Deathwatch Kill-team in action.

Another problem is my tendency to take Deathwatch and try to turn it into Burning Empires, a game I’d still love to run sometime. But I didn’t get Deathwatch because it’s the closest I can get to Burning Empires whilst still getting other people to play.

I got it because I like its central idea: Epic warriors with grand and conflicting personalities, defending Humanity in a grim, distant future.

May players came on board because they like that idea too.

So that’s the mood I’ll aim to foster in the group come play time: Let them be Troopers of Awesome.

Let This TV Show Be an Ensemble Cast Show

My four players have each created a mighty Space Marine ready to strut his stuff as a member of the elite Deathwatch (the best of the best of the best):

  • Brother Raphael, a calculating Devastator (heavy weapons) Marine of the Ultramarines. He and his fellow Ultramarines fought off a horde of Orks in the Forgoil star system, and his armour exudes intimidation from the growl of its fusion reactor to the fearsomeness of the scriptures of damnation affixed to it.
  • Brother Ancalyn, an ambitious Apothecary (medic) of the Black Templars Chapter.
  • Brother Feargus, a taciturn Assault Marine of the Storm Wardens chapter. He fought the vicious Sluagth hand-to-hand in the tunnels of the planet Vigil, and his mighty armour enhances his already inhuman strength further than even other Marines’ suits do.
  • Brother Aconius, a gregarious Tactical Marine (all-round warrior) of the Chapter known as the Templars Omega. His armour is inscribed with the names of those against whom previous wearers have taken oaths of vengenace.

This first session is like the pilot episode for a TV show, where the leads are out to convince the audience that they’re worth following for future adventures. My job is to make sure each of them gets the chance to strut their stuff, and while I might have some ideas for awesome villains and opponents, it’s always worth remembering that the villains are mostly there to allow the heroes to be heroic.

Which mainly consists of giving the players the chance to use their demeanours (calculating, ambitious, taciturn and gregarious, respectively). Under the right circumstances and when attempting an important task, a player can choose to play his Demeanour up to eleven in order to improve his odds of success.

So I need to get the important tasks to occur under the right circumstances.

And with any luck, this will let the players play their characters’ personalities off each other, and not just the opposition characters I put in their way.

Avoid Playing Before You Play

In the midst of all this planning, there’s a temptation to think of how the problems I’m going to chuck at my players might be resolved. It’s a natural thing; present someone with a burning question and that someone will have a hard time not thinking about possible answers.

So rather than letting my imagination run off with cool ideas about how plots could turn out and who could do what, I need to just note the questions down… and leave them alone until game time.

Above All: Relax and Have Fun with Your Mates!

The biggest problem I’ve always had with RPGs? Taking it too damned seriously.

You know how us nerd types get so invested in a particular piece of fiction that we could tell you, say, Ned Stark’s birthdate (and those of all of his kids) – or even Tony Stark’s birthdate (and the mark numbers of each of his armours)?

In a way, that’s all to do with the odd desire we have to get things right. It’s kind of a control thing.

Well, imagine how bad it can get when instead of someone else’s fiction, you’re getting invested in the tie-in fiction you’re writing with your friends – before you’ve even written it yet.

Yes, that’s Wil Wheaton. Buy his T-shirt.

And then there’s all the damned rules! Combat, conversations, cover, when to roll the dice, what dice to roll, what to add, what to subtract, what to roll higher than, what to roll lower than… No wonder RPGs have a higher proportion of rules lawyers than the Navy!

It’s easy to forget that when it comes down, you’re just getting together with a bunch of folks whom you like and making yourselves some fun for a few hours.

They like you as much as you like them, I tell myself. They’re learning how things work as much as you are. They’ll tolerate and help correct the odd mistake, and if things get a bit flat, it’s okay to ask them for help in making things exciting again.

And if it all goes pear-shaped, at least you’ll all have something to laugh about!

Next Questions?

How do I keep a campaign going?

How do I set up a combat arena quickly in Roll20?

Are You Curious?

What’s the most fun you ever had playing an RPG?

What was your best and / or worst first session for a new campaign / with a new group? How so?




Wikipedia entry on Game Masters

2 thoughts on “How Do Five Guys Across the World Make Four Hours of Deathwatch Fun?

  1. Pingback: Painting Miniatures: Deathwatch and Infinity - Rob Farquhar - Game Master

  2. Pingback: How Pre-Generated Adventures Let You Test the RPG Waters - GM Radio Rob

Comments are closed.