A Four-Hour Firefight: Deathwatch, Session 1

It’s commonly held amongst roleplaying game hobbyists that a combat any longer than an hour stops being fun. There’s no character in it, just lots of tectical decisions. It’s a drag. It’s dull.

Yet when my friends Scott, Sim, Ketch and Rebel got together on Saturday morning Australian time – which made it part of International Tabletop Day – to play the first true session of our Deathwatch roleplaying game, we wound up in a four-hour firefight.

And it was fun.

The Setup

The Deathwatch roleplaying game. Image from Fantasy Flight Games.

I’ll confess that when I woke up at around 6AM on Saturday morning, the first thing I felt when I got out of bed was cold, stabbing fear. It spawned what Shelli Varela calls “Automatic Negative Thoughts:” I hadn’t prepared enough. I have no idea what I’m doing, really. It’s going to suck. I’m going to suck. I ought to call it off, apologise to my friends for wasting their time and give up this whole “GMpreneiurship” business for the stupidity it is.

Instead, I got dressed, got some breakfast (Weet-Bix with honey and chopped banana), fired my PC up and went through the pre-session checklist I’d written myself. Around an hour and a half later, I was describing the scene that met my four players’ characters as they exited their drop pod after a fall from orbit and ventured out into the city of Lordsholm on the planet of Avalos.

This may seem like an odd time for five people to be getting together to play; it’s because we’re scattered across the globe. I’m in Australia, Sim and Rebel are in England and Scott and Ketch are in Canada. Naturally, this means that the usual RPG session format of sitting around a table with books, paper and dice is completely unworkable.

The technical solution we were looking at was twofold:

  • To communicate with each over via voice and text, we used the gaming-focused app called DiscordIt’s a neat combination of the gamer voice programs TeamSpeak and Ventrilo and the collaborative tool Slack.
  • To simulate the tabletop, we combined a dice-rolling plugin for Discord called Sidekick with the web-based virtual tabletop, Roll20.

The Play

A Deathwatch Kill-team in action. Art by Michael Phillippi; sourced from the Round Tablet.

When the players stepped outside the chapel that their drop pod had crashed into, they found themselves behind one line of a pitched battle between two forces; the beleaguered and outnumbered troops of the Planetary Defence Force and a rag-tag yet overwhelming force of rebels against Imperial rule. Naturally, as befitting of the Emperor’s Angels of Death, the Space Marines launched themselves into the fray (literally, in the case of the jump pack-equipped Brother Matthias) toward the enemy lines.

While having everyone in the once place at the one time is always the ideal solution, there’s another belief amongst hobbyists that any other alternative, especially one that doesn’t involve voice communication, is a poor alternative. Maybe my skills in chatting with people across the Web for the past four years (mostly) without video connection helped (Scott is also a veteran podcaster); maybe it’s that Scott, Sim, Ketch and Rebel are each in their own way lovely, crazy motherfunkers who just happen to synch up. Regardless, even with our voices as our only connection to each other, we had a great time!

The main thing that helped, I think, was a staunch refusal to take the action seriously. Space Marines are warrior-monks writ large – a good comparison would be Chris Hemsworth’s Thor from the recent Marvel movies – and RPGs are a good place to let Mencken’s temptation of the normal man “to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats” safely have free rein.

Sim, Scott, Rebel and Ketch were hilarious. An RPG purist may shudder at the amount of contemporary references we were making while playing characters in a grim, dark, distant future, but we were all having fun and the characters were giving each other shit about their combat prowess (or lack thereof). Blood was sprayed, bad jokes were told, and the players got to get some early practice in the art of Ultimate Badass Swagger (particularly Brother Matthias, who has the Personal Demeanour of Ambitious).

What slowed us down?

The session started at around 7:30AM with the commencement of combat and ended at around 11:10AM with said combat barely over. As game master, I’d hoped to have given my players the chance to interact more with the non-player character who was due to brief them and have perhaps another combat or two in the meantime.

Even with the digital assistance, I found having printed and handwritten materials handy.

That was stymied by the complexity of Deathwatch. It’s a Big Game; four hundred pages long and a good chunk of that page count dedicated to rules and options that affect those rules. It’s not as full-on as Dungeons & Dragons, which comes in three books, but even so, a “level one” Deathwatch Space Marine is laden down with a list of options that other games often let characters build up gradually over several levels (perhaps appropriate, as a Space Marine worthy of being seconded to the Deathwatch is not only a superhuman special forces soldier but also a veteran of decades, perhaps even a century or two, of warfare).

An example of the Google character tracking spreadsheet assembled by Rebel and modified by me.

Those options can be hard to keep track of, especially by a group unfamiliar with the game. Even with the trail combat we had a few weeks ago, there was still a lot to learn; while Rebel had put together a Google spreadsheet to help track things, the session highlighted some aspects that needed further development so that he, Ketch, Sim and Scott had access to what they needed, when they needed it. In a spurt of nerdiness this morning, I went through the “Combat Stuff” tab of Rebel’s sheet and added in some formulae and extra info that would calculate things like the melee damage of Brother Matthias’ chainsword as modified by his Strength bonus both inside and outside his powered armour as well as the range of a thrown grenade. (My family and friends reckon I’m an un-diagnosed Aspergian and based on this morning’s effort it’s hard to argue with them.)

It was also my hope that I could get a working solution in Roll20 by the time the session kicked off, but I think that goal was biting off more than I could chew.

(Side note: I reckon Deathwatch is the last “Big” system I GM for a while. I’m hoping the Open Legend one-shot I’ll run in a couple of months will be more streamlined.)

Still, even with the rules hunting, nothing really felt tedious. I think that can be chalked up to the atmosphere we maintained, despite that each of us was in a separate room across the globe. We were patient, we knew we were learning, and awesome things happened as a result.

Technical Notes

We’ve found that Discord works well, not just as a means of linking us up for voice chat but also as a way to communicate between sessions. It’s also great for having an audience in; as a test, I invited my friends, Paid to Play Podcast guests and Patreon backers Birdy and Mike Diamond along, and they were able to create logins, jump into the voice chat and listen along with no problem.

The Sidekick bot is a little more limited than I was hoping; I wanted to be able to have some sort of one-click or quick command shortcut a’la Roll20’s macros when it came to dice rolling. we may have to resort to saved lists of dice rolls instead.

Roll20 was good to have but, in the end, I was about the only one using it to track where every combatant was relative to each other. Some of my players logged in initially but by the end I was the only one logged into our gaming session. Would grid paper do the job? Maybe; I had a tough time shuffling paper as it was so keeping battle maps on screen would be more of a benefit for me as game master, at least.

The Podcast and the Patreon

You may have noticed above that I had a couple of guests in on the play via Discord. That’s because I have some ambitions for this game. Not only do I want to have fun with my four friends, I reckon we can entertain enough that we could publish our sessions as an Actual Play podcast.

Not only that, I reckon that I could put together a Patreon page for the show and get a little crowdfunding behind us. Patreon is integrated with Discord, so much so that you can set custom access to voice and text channels in Discord for different levels of Patreon backing – like letting backers listen in live as we play.

So watch this space for another podcast from Rob Farquhar, Game Master – one that’s actually about what I’m about! (You’ll actually get to hear the horrid gallows humour that went down on Saturday!)

What’s Your Game?

What did you play on International Tabletop Day?

What have you found particularly challenging when starting a new game?

How have you found playing a tabletop RPG online?