Why a Deathwatch Space Marine is All a Player’s Christmases At Once

I’ve been working on a two-sheet rules summary for the Deathwatch roleplaying game to help my players kick alien arse and take unpronounceable names. It started as a one-page summary of the basic rules – how to test a skill, how the combat round works – until I realised that there are other rules, like Fate Points and Demeanours, that wold be good for my players to have handy.

Then I started adding in all the standard bonuses that the players get thanks to the fact that their characters are Space Marines and members of the Deathwatch. I’m starting to wonder whether two pages are enough…

What’s the big deal about Space Marines?

Hudson may not have been kidding when he said he was state of the badass art in the Special Edition of Aliens but it doesn’t make him any less wrong. The Space Marines of the fictional realm of Warhammer 40,000 are the true ultimate badasses; every pubescent, heavy metal-listening thirteen year old’s power fantasy turned up to eleven.

The tagline of Warhammer 40,000 is:

In the grim darkness of the 41st Millennium, there is only war.

Thirty-eight (nine?) thousand years in our future, Humanity has it bad. Our species owns a vast galactic empire that’s under siege from without and within. Rampaging Orks (Lord of the Rings’ orcs on Space Steroids), mysterious Eldar (Lord of the Rings’ elves on Space Steroids), sanctimonious Tau (Communist China on Space Steroids) and all-consuming Tyranids (Aliens’ Aliens on – look, no. Whatever they’re on, you don’t want it anywhere near you. Just – no, okay?) all challenge our very right to exist.

If they aren’t bad enough, the only way to get across the stars quickly is through the Warp, a.k.a. the Realm of Chaos (mash Star Wars’ hyperspace together with the Dark Side of the Force and Hell and you’re close. Seen Event Horizon? Played any of the Doom games? Yeah, you’re getting there). It’s powered by the misery of all living things and it wants into our universe. If you have psychic power, you’re drawing form the Warp and putting yourself, your family and friends, your entire planet at risk of death – or worse.

So the Empire of Humanity has been in this multi-front, offensive, defensive, meat-grinder of a war for thousands of years just for the sake of survival. Thankfully, we’re pretty hard core, with the Imperial Guard (a mash-up of the armies of World War I and Communist Russia on Space Steroids) holding the front line and the Inquisition (the original Spanish Inquisition, not the Monty Python one, on – ahh, yep, you’re getting the idea) weeding out rebellion and the influence of Chaos within.

You haven’t got to the Space Marines yet.

Good point. Okay, the Space Marines. How are they humanity’s hardest of hardcore? Let me count the ways:

  • Usually born onto the worst, nastiest planets in the galaxy and have been fighting for survival since.
  • Recruited on the cusp of puberty into an order of warrior monks.
  • Surgically, biologically and genetically enhanced so that they leave puberty in a physical and mental state that would make Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime feel woefully inadequate.
  • Clad in suits of powered armour that would make Darth Vader weep with envy.
  • Standard issue armament: Bolters, guns that shoot miniature rockets that explode once within a body.

So, the US Delta Force, Rangers and SEALs, the British Special Air Service, every elite special forces/commando unit rolled into one and given a treble dose of them ol’ Space Steroids.

On top of all that, the players’ Marines have been seconded out of their home Chapter (their specific warrior-monk order) after what could be centuries of battle to join the Deathwatch,special special forces unit that gets called in when the rabid witch-hunters and demon-slayers of the Inquisition run across something that’s too much for even them; usually something alien as that’s the Deathwatch’s speciality.

Best of the best of the best of the best of the best of the – yeah, okay, you get it. What would you mash up? Men in Black? Edge of Tomorrow? Black Hawk Down? Starship Troopers (the book and the movie)?

Managing the Present Pile

One of the main problems with Deathwatch is probably its main selling point: Because the characters start off as experienced Space Marines who are about to embark on their first mission for the Deathwatch after completing its specialised training, they get lots of cool things that they might not necessarily remember.

From Mum and Dad: Starting bonuses and abilities

Just so you have an idea of what the benefits below mean: Whenever players want their Marines to do something entertaining, they make a test: roll two ten-sided dice designating one die as the “tens” die, giving a result from 1 to 100. The roll must be equal to or below the Marine’s modified Skill or Characteristic being tested. On average, Marines start with a Skill/Characteristic of 41; if the circumstances of the test are easier than Challenging, there’s at least a +10 modifier.

Thanks to the wealth of enhancements and experience, Deathwatch Space Marines start the game with these ongoing bonuses without their famed power armour:

  • +10 to hearing- and sight-based tests.
  • +0 Awareness test: detect poisons or toxins by taste; -20: detect by smell
  • +20 Toughness test vs. ingested poisons; +30 vs. gases.
  • Can re-roll failed Willpower tests (the re-roll’s result must stand) to avoid or recover from being pinned.
  • Can re-roll failed Toughness tests (the re-roll’s result must stand) vs. poisons and toxins, extreme temperatures, asphyxiation and drowning – although that last isn’t much of a worry, because thanks to their multi-lung, Marines can breathe water.
  • A regular human does 1D5 (roll a ten-sided die, halve the result, round up) minus 3, plus their Strength bonus (usually 3) when hitting unarmed; normal physical blows count as Primitive, so armour protection is doubled.
    Marines do 1D10 (one ten-sided dice) plus their Strength bonus (usually 8) for an average 14 Damage; blows from Space Marines don’t count as Primitive. The average civilian has 8 Wounds; the average Imperial Guardsman has 10 with an armour value of 4 and Toughness of 3. So, a Marine has good odds of one-punching a lot of human beings.
  • If a Marine’s Strength is 45 or more, he can fire heavy weapons at Semi- or Full-Auto Burst rate without bracing (setting the weapon down on a tripod, crate or low wall) and doesn’t suffer the -30 penalty for un-braced weapons (a Marine in his suit of powered armour has a Strength of at least 50).
  • Thanks to an implanted gland, a Marine can spit acid out to three metres for 1D5 Damage that ignores 4 points of armour and slowly chew his way through almost everything.
  • Let’s leave aside for now the Marine’s abilities to ignore the ill-effects of not sleeping for days, go into suspended animation or temporarily learn a new skill from an enemy by eating its brain.

From Your Aunts and uncles: Fate Points and Demeanours

On top of the aforementioned benefits, players get the following opportunities to turn bad situations around.

Each Marine starts a mission with three to five Fate Points, which refresh between missions. They also have two Demeanours (aspects of their personality) and can trigger one per game session by bringing the Demeanour to the fore when acting the Marine’s personality out.

Spending a Fate Point or triggering a Demeanour lets a Marine:

  • Re-roll a failed test once. The re-roll’s result is final.
  • Gain a +10 bonus to a test (before dice are rolled).
  • Add an extra Degree of Success to a test (after dice are rolled).
  • Scoring an automatic 10 + their Agility bonus on Initiative (who goes first in combat; normally 1D10 + Agility).
  • Enter Squad Mode without a Cohesion Challenge.
  • Instantly remove 1D10 Damage (does not affect Critical Damage).
  • Instantly recover from being Stunned.
  • Regain 1 lost Cohesion point (indicates the Kill-team of Marines’ ability to enter Squad Mode; we’ll get to those in a minute).
  • Gain a +1 to Rank for the benefits of a Solo Mode ability (we’ll get to those in a minute too).
  • Remove one level of Fatigue.
  • Killing Strike: When taking an All-Out Attack, opt before rolling to make your Marine’s melee attacks for this round impossible to parry or dodge.

From Grandma and Grandad: Space Marine Powered Armour

Also setting aside any other equipment and weapons, a player needs to remember the bonuses granted by their mighty Mark VII powered armour, a fully-sealed life support system that protects the Marine not just from Damage but also from hostile environments (and needing to go to the toilet) and grants:

  • 10 Armour to the body and 8 Armour to legs, arms and head.
  • +20 to Strength, giving an extra +2 to unarmed and melee weapon Damage.
  • Vision in total darkness, not to mention an extra +10 to hearing- and sight-based tests (for a total of +20).
  • An extra +10 to tests to resist an attack with (and ongoing effects from) a weapon with the Toxic Quality.
  • Six doses of pain suppression that allow the Marine to ignore effects of Critical Damage for 1D10 rounds.
  • Negation of a Stunned status after one round.
  • +1 to base movement.

There is a -10 penalty to any tasks requiring fine dexterity and an inability to use a ranged weapon not designed for Space Marine powered armour, but hey, with all the benefits, who cares?

From Your Brothers and Sisters: Oaths, Solo Mode and Squad Mode

At the beginning of each mission, after the Marines have been briefed, the players choose one Marine to lead the mission. The leader gets to choose an oath, which gives a bonus to the whole Kill-team like extra Cohesion, Characteristic bonuses and re-rolls.

Then, during the Mission, each starting Marine gets three Solo Mode Abilities; usually these are once-per-session or once-per-game-day abilities that can briefly boost Characteristics or grant re-rolls in specific circumstances.

And then, the Kill-team can spend their Cohesion pool on Squad Mode Abilities, which allow the declaring Marine and any others in Support Range to take co-ordinated actions that fill whole areas with bolter fire, enable relentless advances or take down heavy targets.

But which do you open first?

When making roleplaying games, many designers take the path that players start their characters out small and develop skills, acquire equipment and gain power over time. It’s a great way to learn effective play gradually and gives players something to look forward to later.

When making Deathwatch, the designers quite understandably lobbed this principle out the window. Space Marines are the signature force of Warhammer 40,000, the uber-troops that everyone loves. They’re epic by nature and anything less wouldn’t feel right.

It just means, unfortunately, that players and game masters have a bit of homework to do before starting a game, particularly game masters who need to isolate and condense the parts of the rules that players need to know so that they can properly take advantage of all the cool stuff.

And that’s why Christmas isn’t over just yet – I’m working on a couple of document projects to make my players’ lives a little more easy…


Deathwatch Roleplaying Game

Warhammer 40,000

Aliens (Wikipedia)

All images sourced from the Fantasy Flight Games web site.

1 thought on “Why a Deathwatch Space Marine is All a Player’s Christmases At Once

  1. Pingback: Process Document: Deathwatch Rule System Summary - Rob Farquhar: Game Master

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