Deathwatch is a game that many people have been waiting a long time for. I’m not strictly one of them, but I understand the charm; while playing Inquisitors (via Dark Heresy) or Rogue Traders (via Rogue Trader) is fun, people have been wanting to roleplay Space Marines for a long while. Now, with Deathwatch, they can.
I have to admit I was a bit sceptical at first. While Inquisitors or Rogue Traders offer great roleplay potential, Space Marines are… well, Space Marines. They are genetically modified semi-clones in power armor, made to “Kill Stuff for the Emperor!” (and little else). That’s great in a tabletop wargame scenario, but is a but thin gruel for tabletop roleplay. Well, the guys at FFG have figured out a very elegant solution to that problem.
Deathwatch has the PCs be members of, well, “Deathwatch”, a militant arm of the Inquisition’s Ordo Xenos, with volunteer members from pretty much all the Space Marine chapters and tasked with fighting back against the Xeno menace (or reclaiming worlds from xeno scum for the Emperor, as might be). This places the PCs out of their base chapters into a “fish out of water” scenario, where they may well be the only member of their specific chapter in the Deathwatch combat group. So in a way, the game places the PCs in a “special ops” outfit, which is great for giving a bit of leeway and flex to the missions.
In addition, the game has a lot of stuff tacked on to the base rules as seen in the earlier games. There are rules for “hordes” (huge groups of enemies, resolved as a group), it adds “Demeanours” which give some nice rewards for roleplaying certain character traits, and equipment is handled quite differently than in the other games – it would not make sense for the PCs to have to buy their gear in this setup, so each mission is given a certain number of “requisition points” which can be used to requisition gear from the armory. This is a bit like how some mission-based computer games handle equipment, and it makes a lot of sense here. There is also a new bit of mechanical support for squad-level tactics.
The game gives the option of playing as a member of six possible Chapters: Black Templars, Blood Angels, Dark Angels, Space Wolves, Storm Wardens and Ultramarines, and I assume more Chapters will be given via later expansion books. While PCs will have to work together as a team, their original Chapters will have a lot of game effect in the form of skills, talents and other background-related crunch.
The ruleset is based on the same rules as the earlier games, but tweaked heavily to support the high power level that even beginning-level characters will have. Without playing with it I cannot really say how well it works, but it does look a bit complicated, due to lots of stuff being tacked on in addition to the base skills, talents and what have you. The squad tactics rules are interesting: the PCs are either in solo mode or in squad mode, and when in squad mode they have to option to perform advanced maneuvers which are based on (and powered by) a new mechanic called Cohesion. If Cohesion drops to zero, the squad has lost tactical sense of where everyone is and cannot function as a group; it doesn’t mean that they are in panic, but does mean that they are on their own (for a while). It makes for interesting tactics, though I got the impression that the Cohesion numbers only allowed for a few squad-level tactical tricks per mission, which seems a but weird – why should highly trained soldiers only be allowed to use a certain squad tactic a few times per mission? Again, of course, I haven’t tried this in practice so may be missing something.
Most of the bulk of the huge 400-page volume goes towards describing the character generation, rules and equipment – as noted, it’s all quite complicated. There are some antagonists listed, but it’s pretty skimpy; there is an expansion book out now devoted to xenos and other antagonists which should fix this lack, though. The book ends with a short but quite decent intro scenario.
I was quite impressed by this book, despite some early doubts. Though somewhat complex, the rules do seem to model these super-soldiers pretty well, and I like the fact that the game is designed to be played a bit differently than the other games in the line: here, the PCs get military missions to accomplish (with primary and secondary objectives), and can requisition gear for that specific mission. While a lot more constrained than the more freeform structure of the other games, it’s also more relaxed than a “normal” Space Marine game would be, due to the “special ops” nature of the Deathwatch. It seems like a nice balance to me.
It’s a (military) combat game, first and foremost. It lets the players play superhuman, power-armored soldiers, blasting away at endless alien hordes in the name of the Emperor. Assuming the game mechanics work well in practice, it should be a lot of fun.