Thursday, 30 January 2014

Bolting the Stable Door

Important statistical note:

in the following article, I a) forgot; and b) really couldn't be bothered with factoring in the Tearing special property for weapons into my already-nightmarish calculations. Deal with it.

So as an adjunct to my recent faint melancholy about Brother Nikolai, we got talking about the Heavy Bolter. We are not alone in this. The Internet is, in fact, full of people discussing the Heavy Bolter and its OP-ness or perceived lack thereof. In general there's a feeling that it's too good because it does huge amounts of damage. Dan identified a more specific problem, in that the Heavy Bolter is, mechanically speaking, the best possible weapon for:

  • Killing lightly-armoured troops
  • Killing heavily-armoured trooops
  • Killing enormous resilient monsters

and is extremely good (though possibly not quite as good as a heavy flamer) for:

  • Killing hordes
  • Destroying civilian vehicles

and with some serious luck it's actually capable of taking out an actual tank.

A Heavy Bolter rolls 2d10+10 with Pen 6. Each d10 has a 1/10 chance of getting Righteous Fury. Let's assume (extremely conservatively) a 50% chance of confirming Righteous Fury, so a 1/20 chance per d10.

If you roll a single 10, you have a minimum of 27 against the target's Armour, enough to damage a light military vehicle like a bike or walker. You're more likely to have 31.5 as the average roll is 5.5. The Righteous Fury die will tend to increase this to 37, enough to damage a military transport vehicle.

If you manage to roll two 10s (either initially or via Righteous Fury) you have a very reasonable chance of getting the 45 needed to damage a tank.

After some nasty brute-force statistics (which I am willing to concede errors in as I can't really be bothered double-checking)... I reckon you have a 69% chance of damaging Armour 25, a 5% chance of damaging Armour 35, and a 0.36% chance of damaging Armour 45. That, of course, is per hit. A Heavy Bolter will cheerfully get five or six hits, and can get as many as ten. Two rounds of Heavy Bolter fire have about a 50% chance of damaging an armoured personnel carrier like the Rhino. Tanks are vastly, vastly less likely, but it gets complicated with these very low odds and I really can't be bothered calculating the odds allowing for multiple sets of Righteous Fury. Let's just say: it's possible.

The reason this is a problem is twofold. Firstly, it's contrary to canon, where the Heavy Bolter is a very good rapid-fire antipersonnel weapon that can also take out very light vehicles when necessary, but is ineffective against heavily-armoured targets and entirely useless against tanks. Secondly, because the weapon is handed out like a party favour and requires no effort whatsoever to obtain, and is one of the few weapons whose effectiveness not only increases with a good attack roll but does so linearly and does all this at extreme range, there is rarely any point taking any other weapon whatsoever in any circumstances. If this mechanic were to truly represent the in-game universe, the entire Adeptus Astartes should be walking around with Heavy Bolters out of sheer tactical pragmatism.

A possible solution

After some reflection, I am still inclined to think the solution is one I briefly outlined on Dan's blog: firmly embracing the canon. According to everything I have ever read on the subject, bolt shells work like this (nicked from a random online description):

The bolter fires self-propelled, armour-piercing, mass-reactive explosive missiles called bolts. They are constructed to detonate a split-second after penetration, to optimize damage.

A significant part of the damage from a bolt shell comes from detonation after penetrating the target's armour. If the shell does not penetrate the armour, there is no secondary damage from the explosion.

We run into a slight problem here, because Tabletop and RPG model things in substantially different ways despite largely sharing terminology. Thanks for that.

In tabletop, there is (depending on edition) a 1/3 or 2/3 chance that a heavy bolter shell will simply ping ineffectually off armour, even before the ability of Marines to simply shrug off damage comes into play. However, if the shell gets through Armour (with a failed armour save) and Toughness (with a successful wound roll), it will take out the Marine every time because they have only one Wound. So will any weapon.

In the RPG, it is literally impossible for a heavy bolter shell not to penetrate power armour. They have Penetration 6 and a minimum damage of 12, while power armour is at most 10, half the required amount to shrug off a bolt shell. Moreover, only a minimum roll against a hit location of Torso will fail to wound the average Marine (2d10+10 Pen 6 versus Armour 10 and Toughness 8) which is about a 0.1% chance. However, thanks to having 20-odd Wounds the Marine can survive a single full-strength hit from a heavy bolter, although two will almost certainly be fatal. On average each shell will inflict (11.5 + 10 Pen 6 - Armour 2 [8-6] - Toughness 8 =... ) 11.5 Wounds. Against a Terminator this would be 5.5 Wounds.

Whether we can implement a canonical version of bolt weapons depends substantially on how we're prepared to interpret Toughness. If Toughness represents the likelihood that a weapon will not cause injury, thanks to very tough tissue and so on, then we can reasonably argue that a bolt shell failing to overcome Toughness + Armour does not penetrate enough to explode effectively. If Toughness represents the target's resilience to pain or ability to endure damage, however, then we can't fairly argue that a bolt shell that has overcome Armour has not penetrated to a point where full damage from the detonation should be inflicted. Unfortunately, while this might just about be acceptable against mid-heavy infantry like the Space Marines, it's nonsensical against most heavier targets. Terminator armour is only Armour 14, still automatically penetrated by a heavy bolter shell; so is a Carnifex, the toughest Tyranid you're ever likely to encounter. Only the absolutely most armoured entities around - most of them semi-mechanical things - have Armour getting above 16.

But it's not impossible. My mechanical suggestion is that all bolt weapons have their damage split into two parts. Only the first half is inflicted automatically. If the initial damage overcomes Armour, the secondary damage is inflicted; otherwise it has no effect.

Implementing Mass Reactive Bolt Shells

With a heavy bolter, the combination of fixed bonus (+10), Penetration (6) and dice makes a very powerful combination, starting at 16 - more armour than virtually anything we'd encounter. Halving the damage seems the most logical step, but because of the weighty Pen 6 this still leaves us with 12 minimum penetration. If we were to accept the Toughness-as-defence model, then this isn't too bad. Space Marines have A+T of 16 and occasionally a little more; rolling 1d10+5 Pen 6 would leave us with about a 50% chance of a heavy bolter breaking through their defences to inflict additional damage (another 1d10+5). Sadly, even I am sceptical about that interpretation of Toughness for anything other than pure mechanical balance against heavy bolters.

So noting that Armour is typically 8 for a Space Marine, and only 14 for a frikkin' Terminator, we need the minimum damage + Pen for a heavy bolter to be less than 8 if we want this to be any damn use, and ideally for a 14 to be a rare and special thing. Exactly what kind of odds we're looking for depend on how closely we want to adhere to tabletop and which version of tabletop at that.

In the most recent version I played, the chance of a heavy bolter shell taking out a Space Marine are 1/3 (to fail Armour) * 2/3 (to inflict a Wound), giving 2/9. I don't think we should go any earlier than that for examples, and I haven't played any more recent version so I can't use those (and besides, frankly the chances of Space Marines getting any less resilient are slim to none). Bearing in mind that Wounds work differently, I think it's reasonable to work on the odds of a Space Marine running out of Wounds in Deathwatch as the comparator. Let's also note that a tabletop heavy bolter in that iteration fired three shots a round, of which two would hit on average. I believe that means the chance of taking out a Space Marine in any given round were 1-(chance of not taking out, to the power of number of attempts), which means 1-(7/9²) = 1-(49/81) = 1-0.6 = 0.4

The same iteration of the rules would have odds against a Terminator of 1/6 to fail armour and 2/3 to wound, giving 1/9. The chance for a heavy bolter to take one out is about 0.2 per round. In earlier, crunchier iterations, it was vastly less.

Against a Space Marine, I suspect a Deathwatch heavy bolter is also liable to inflict about two hits. Someone using a heavy bolter will likely be competent with it and have equipment or skills that increase their chance of success, meaning an average 50% roll will be a little way under their target number. It could be a lot under, but let's be conservative for now and assume one additional hit.

Working backwards, a Space Marine has about 20 Wounds, so we're looking for heavy bolters to have a 0.4 chance of taking out a Space Marine with two hits; or more broadly, for one bolt shell to inflict about 10 Wounds on average. At present, it inflicts about 15. Ideally, to fit with the canon, I would like there to be a slim chance of the shells glancing uselessly off power armour. I also want this system to be generalisable to other bolt weapons, such that a boltgun has a much larger chance of bouncing off harmlessly.

I get the feeling I probably shouldn't mess with the Pen. That means Damage is all we have to play with for now. I'll begin by maintaining the same overall damage, but that may not last.

First attempt

What if we cut things right down and have the initial damage be only 1d10 Pen 6? Under this scheme, there's a 1/10 chance of a heavy bolter shell glancing off a Marine. Otherwise, it'll go through and inflict the additional 1d10+10 from the explosion. There's also a 3/10 chance of wounding a Terminator. In both cases the additional damage will automatically overcome Toughness, but it's virtually impossible to take down a Marine in a single hit. The average damage will be 21.5 Pen 6.

Damage is (0.9 * (21.5 - 8 - [8-6] = 11.5)), which is 10.35 against a Marine.

Extra added bonus maths!

As noted below I forgot about variable armour, and had to go back, rather against my better judgement.

There's a 40% chance of hitting Torso armour, which is 10 rather than 8. I thought this was a measly difference to begin with, but it actually isn't. Against Armour 10, the shell has a far greater 3/10 chance of failing to penetrate and causes less damage overall.

Average damage to a Marine is therefore the weighted average of (0.9*11.5=10.35) and (0.7*9.5=6.65), giving (6.65*0.4)+(10.35*0.6) for a final average of 8.87.

Overall and accounting for Armour, average damage per hit is 10.35 8.87 against a Marine or 1.65 against a Terminator. This means that, pleasingly, it will take an average of two three hits to fell a Marine and twelve to fell a Terminator.

The heavy bolter remains more or less equally effective against the Marine, and anything less armoured (almost everything) but is now vastly less impressive against a more heavily armoured target.

In contrast, the heavy plasma gun would do an average of 18 damage to the Terminator and annihilate the Marine instantly, the lascannon would do vaporise both, and an assault cannon would finally be a better option for anti-Terminator operations.

Oh, and I should probably rule that the Tearing special rule is applied to the secondary damage, not the initial impact. Allowing a reroll on that would substantially boost the chances of penetrating armour - again, I can't be bothered to do the maths, but it would largely eliminate the chance of a Marine escaping injury from a shell.

That's surprisingly pleasing for a first attempt! What if we apply this principle to the humble bolter? The bolt pistol has identical damage, so we only need do this once.


With the bolter (2d10+5 Pen 5), we'd be looking at 1d10 Pen 5 - almost the same. Well, again, if we assume most of the damage comes from the mass reactive charge (as we are repeatedly told by canon) then it makes sense the initial impact of the actual shell is only slightly more dangerous because it's a little bigger.

Here, we have a 1/5 chance of not penetrating power armour - actually, slightly less accounting for Armour 10 on torso, which is a 40% chance hit location... gah.

No, no, I can do this. If we hit non-Torso, there's a 4/5 chance of penetrating power armour, at which point we do an average of (16 Pen 5 vs. Armour 8 and Toughness 8 =...) 5 damage, so overall 4 average. If we hit Torso, there's only a 3/5 chance of penetrating and we do only 3 damage through A+T 18, so 1.8 average. So the final average damage is ((4*0.6) + (1.8 * 0.4) = 2.4 + 0.72 =...) 3.12 damage on a hit. I hope. Maybe? Oh, whatever. It's low, okay? It's low.

Currently, I note, the average damage is ((5*0.6) + (3*0.4)) = 4.2, so it's really not a huge difference. The maximum damage is unchanged. Worth noting, it is now possible to do zero damage to a Space Marine with a bolter, which was not previously the case, but given that this happens all the time in the vast array of Marines vs. Chaos Marines literature out there, this does not bother me one tiny jot. I also think that's far less of a problem mechanically than the opposite - things crossing the "possible to Wound" boundary. The difference between "invulnerable to this" and "1% chance of injury" is far more significant from a game management POV than the difference between "always injured by this" and "95% chance of injury".

Suggested bolt weapon fix

So here's a summary of the important bits from all that guff...

All bolt weapons gain the Mass Reactive quality.

Mass Reactive

Designed to detonate moments after impact, Mass Reactive shells must penetrate armour to achieve their full potential. Initial damage from a Mass Reactive weapon is 1d10, applying Penetration as normal. If the result is less than the target's Armour, the attack is deflected. Otherwise, determine the remaining damage and apply the total against Armour and Toughness as normal.

The Tearing property applies to secondary damage only. Righteous Fury applies to initial and secondary damage.


Brother Genericus fires his bolter (2d10+5 Pen 5) at a Tyranid Warrior. His first hit rolls 1d10 initial damage and scores a 2. With the bolter's Penetration, this penetrates 7 Armour, against the Tyranid's 8, and spangs off its armour.

His second shot rolls 1d10 and scores a 7, piercing 12 points of Armour in total. The shell pierces the Tyranid's carapace and explodes, and the remaining 1d10+5 damage kicks in. With the Tearing property Genericus rolls an additional die and chooses the best; he rolls a 3 and a 1 and chooses the 3, giving 8, which is added to the initial roll. The final damage is 7+3+5=15 Pen 5 against the Tyranid's Armour 8 and Toughness 10. This does 2 Wounds.

A third shot rolls an initial 9 and easily penetrates. Genericus rolls 6 and 8 and chooses the 8 for a final damage of 22 Pen 5. Deducting 3 points for Armour and 10 for Toughness, the hit does 9 Wounds to the Tyranid.

I was expecting to expend more brainpower on this (but not more time, I spent several hours on this, which time I'm sure will be roundly appreciated by a vast horde of admiring oh who am I kidding...) and probably end inconclusively, but then my second idea kind of worked pretty much exactly how I wanted, so... yeah, bye.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Monitors core mechanics

I have been repeatedly and nonspecifically worried about the core mechanic (d20 roll under Attribute) for Monitors. I have been unsure about how much granularity I think the game needs, and how much it has, and how smoothly it's distributed across the game. I'm concerned about whether my whole initial aim with the project, of making nonlethal damage a viable and interesting alternative is really being addressed. And most recently, I've realised that there is no mechanic at all for directly opposed action in this system, and that really needs addressing somehow.

Entirely unrelated to this last, I have also started thinking about niche specialisation in games, and want to play with that a bit as well. By "niche specialisation", what I mean is, the tendency to pick a small number of things you are very good at, and then only ever really use those abilities. I should clarify that I have no real problem with the former, but am curious about the latter. Would encouraging people to use their less-good abilities improve the game experience in some way? Are there problems of Party Failure getting in the way? What underlies those choices? How does it relate to things like advancement? Is it something I need to care about in my game specifically?

So maybe we should also look at skills in a couple of categories: Quantitative versus Qualitative success (hit that guy vs. translate this document) and Contributive Success versus Party Failure (Search vs. Sneak). But that can probably wait. One thing at a time.

This may be the start of me ripping Monitors to pieces and starting again. I'm really not sure at this stage.

Doing Stuff

So at the moment, the mechanic for Doing Stuff is:

  • You have an Attribute typically from 0-20, although it can be higher
  • Roll d20
  • Apply difficulty modifiers for particularly easy or difficult tasks. Assume "moderately difficult" is the baseline - this is judged independently of the character's skill to avoid ability compounding spirals.
  • Apply situational modifiers if conditions or equipment affect your chances of success.
  • Apply any personal modifiers from character traits and background, such as experience in the police aiding you on attempts to deal with police bureaucracy.
  • A score =< the Attribute is a success.
  • A score =< half the Attribute is a particularly good success. In combat this increases your chance of inflicting damage, effects elsewhere are as deemed appropriate.

I haven't outlined too many modifiers, and mostly left these up to GM discretion. Crunchiness: relatively low.

There are 16 Attributes at present. Three of these are (let's be honest) largely passive and used for defence. I am somewhat uncomfortable with having two distinct categories of Attribute like this, but I may be over-sensitive.

Characters can take two actions per round.


Combat involves an Attribute roll to attack, followed by an Armour roll from the target to avoid damage. Armour can be ignored by weapons with high Penetration. A half-Attribute roll on the attack forces a reroll of any successful Armour roll.

Hard weapons do 1 Wound, and Wounds are typically 1-5 with most enemies in the lower end of the spectrum. There are penalties for mildly and severely wounded creatures.

Soft weapons inflict a Penalty Die sized 1d4-1d12. This is rolled each round, and on a 1 the penalty has elapsed. The penalty inflicts a -5 whenever it would be relevant, as well as any other consequences as deemed appropriate.

At present, hard weapons are effectively binary (with a slight hedge from half-Attribute rolls) while soft weapons inflict a fixed penalty but have a variable duration, providing some degree of non-binariness. This could be tweaked somewhat.

Lingering effects can be incurred through serious injury, including being taken out of action in combat. These last for a number of Ticks, which elapse when either in-game downtime has occurred, or at the end of a "scene".

Combat spells, in several cases, inflict effectively binary effects on targets, missing the whole point of my game. With very little granularity in the system it's not especially clear how to alleviate this.

Opposed rolls

There is no obvious way to handle opposed rolls. What options exist in the current system?

  • Both roll Attribute. There is either a clear victor or a draw. Half-Attribute roll may or may not trump normal success, I'm not sure it matters. Advantages: simple; better chance of success with high Attribute. Disadvantages: not sure the probabilities are a good model of ability discrepancies; absolute ability seems more important than relative ability; attribute 20 can never lose a contest even against a 19; with skills outside the middle range, lots of draws are likely; draws are frequently meaningless in opposed situations.
  • One rolls Attribute, modified by other's Attribute or some fraction thereof. Advantages: allows for relative ability; avoids draws. Disadvantages: introduces variable modifiers to the game; even a slight discrepancy makes roll impossible.
  • One rolls Attribute, modified by difference in Attributes. Advantages: allows for relative ability; avoids draws; weak Attributes suffer badly from discrepancy whereas strong ones can succeed despite considerable discrepancies. Disadvantages: introduces variable modifiers to the game; requires arithmetic.

The third option seems the most promising. It has a couple of drawbacks, though. One is that so far, there are no variable modifiers in the game: modifiers are either +/-2 or +/-5, keeping it relatively simple. It's not a huge issue, but once variable modifiers exist, it makes sense to consider whether they should apply elsewhere. The other is that it requires a bit of calculation and comparison - it also means knowing the target's relevant Attribute score, but I'm not really bothered about giving out that kind of information.

It also seems to me like this increases the level of granularity in the system. It's not a bad thing, it's just a thing.


Penalty Dice II

One alternative that's popped into my head is a change to the injury model, introducing another degree of variation. In this case, a hit from a weapon inflicts a Penalty Die of varying size. The initial penalty equals the maximum on the die. At the end of each round, the character can roll the die; on a 1 it's discarded, otherwise the penalty is reduced by one step.

Alternative: roll the die each round, including on first hit. Unless it's a 1, the result is your penalty for the following round (reroll 1s on the first hit until you get another number). This offers the potential for an injury to suddenly get worse after apparently getting better, which may seem inappropriate. It does mean not having to remember what the initial score was and track it, though.

Either way, Blind and Slow dice apply to activities involving vision and movement/reaction respectively. The other big change is that Wounding could also move over to a Penalty Die. Rather than having injury states based on remaining Wounds, each Wound can take one Wound Die. The total results on the dice determine your current penalty. Once you run out of Wounds, you're out of action. Unlike Blind and Slow dice, Wound dice only get rerolled in special circumstances - you don't heal actual damage in combat, even though you can shake off being dazzled.

This model is nice in some ways, because it adds a lot more variation to Wounding. A disadvantage is the time taken each round to roll dice. Another is that the most logical way to track all this is by putting dice on a character sheet, and that will use quite a few dice of different sizes once multiple characters come into play.

Finally, it still doesn't offer any way to actually win a fight mechanically with soft attacks. It's always possible for the GM to rule that a blinded opponent will yield to threat, but I'm wary of relying on that. I don't want to allow soft attacks to fill a Wound box, because then you'll quickly hit a situation where soft attacks are just a more effective way to fight people all round (they'll tend to meet lower defences). The only possibility that immediately presents itself is a surrender/finishing blow mechanic, where soft dice might count alongside Wounds towards these mechanics.

Roll and add

Next option: forget this niche roll-under lark. It's more suited to a game with minimal modifiers, few mechanics (at least, few mechanics in that area of gameplay) and a generally simple approach to resolution. Turn to the mainstream, and add modifiers to a roll against a target number.

This scheme offers an immediate and easy way to gauge how well you did, to compare that achievement with anyone else (allowing opposed tests) and readily absorbs any modifiers you care to throw at it.

A disadvantage is you need to have a target number for everything, be it fixed or calculated. This kind of system seems like it increases the crunch level of the game (and, incidentally, makes it increasingly like Dungeons & Lizards In Space). You need a starting difficulty for everything, and it will change how Attributes work entirely. Logically, I should set a Difficulty of 20 for tasks to get the equivalent balance of success (if I care about that). It does feel slightly less intuitive, somehow, than rolling under a fixed number.

I'm also not sure how Degrees of Success would translate into effects in the game, particularly given my combat system. One simple option would be for combat DoS to modify Armour rolls, although this would naturally reduce the value of Penetration, particularly to characters with high combat Attributes. If I did switch to Penalty Dice II, DoS could adjust the number on Wound Dice.


I already have a dicepool mechanic in the shape of Heat Points. The Attributes could translate reasonably well to a system of dicepools, where you roll for successes.

Dicepool systems can be good for both uncontested and opposed rolls if you take care to design them well (at which point I would contact Dan). They automatically measure degree of success. Dicepool size can be adjusted as a means of handling penalties and bonuses - this would mean changes to the Penalty Die system, but that's okay.

So yeah, that's what's in my mind Monitorswise right now, and to be honest I don't think I'm gonna make any progress until I get some thoughts straightened out. I can't design spells or equipment until I'm happy with a core mechanic, and I can't test the game without spells and equipment.

Numenera: the Beale of Boregal, part four

This recording comes mostly from a laptop mic, and so the audio quality is dubious. I recommend listening on speakers rather than headphones if possible. Many apologies.

Here begin the spoilers for the starter scenario The Beale of Boregal, and as always be aware that our podcasts are not entirely family-friendly.


Link to episode 04

With a bit more experience of the game, I might have tried to find a way to drive the broken hounds elsewhere rather than killing them. It would fit the character better and killing stuff famously doesn't get you XP in Numenera.

As I mentioned last time, there isn't really all that much discrepancy in our combat ability here; the most significant one is a (roleplaying) choice of Asperity's not to take any ranged weapons, which means Tasha and Arvil look cooler due to picking off broken hounds before they even reach us (with, admittedly, multiple jammy rolls). I think the use of illusion powers was good here. We didn't really understand the stat pool economy here, which means we just plain didn't use any Effort, when in fact it would have been quite sensible in a fight when we were very near comfortable civilisation for rest and recover. The downside is that most Effort useful for combat comes from the Might pool as I understand it, which directly undermines the same stat most enemies target, increasing the chance of you getting penalties. This is where abilities based on other stats have a clear advantage.

Similarly, we hoarded our cyphers rather than hurling them around like confetti, which I think (based on further reading and listening) is exactly the wrong approach. Ah well.

There's a substantial talky-over bit here, which is unfortunate. One half is me using my sense-stuff powers to search the garden, and discovering an oddity buried amidst the plants - a crystal sphere that shatters and reforms. The other half is Dan explaining the "Carries a Quiver" focus, which at the time we mistakenly thought distinguished your character by allowing them to use a bow. In fact, bows exist in the normal equipment list, just like crossbows. It was funnier when we thought otherwise.

Monday, 27 January 2014

First Impressions: skills, part two

So I started talking about how skills help to define a game, and I never finished. Here's another bit.


Deathwatch has a very extensive list of skills. There are no less than 60 listed on the character sheet, of which 11 are sub-skills of a group and many further sub-skills aren't listed. Ignoring the groups and allowing for the extra sub-skills, there are probably around 80 different skills in the core game. Admittedly three or four of these don't, in fact, exist - the character sheet notoriously includes skills from previous games in the game line that aren't covered in the rulebook itself. Never mind.

What do you do?

Looking through the list of skills, you can get a few basic impressions. One is that this is going to be a relatively actiony game; there are skills for knowing about War, Demolition, Dodge, Shadowing and Tactics. Despite the fact that social skills appear, you probably won't be spending your time dallying with socialites. That being said, there aren't really any skills for actually fighting. Does this mean you don't fight in this game? It seems unlikely, considering the other skills that exist.

The main focus of Deathwatch is, in fact, fighting, and that's why there is no skill for it. Weapon Skill is an attribute, rather than a skill you learn, and it behaves somewhat differently in terms of advancement. You can improve your ability with specific weapons using Talents. A fight involves a combination of Weapon and Ballistic Skill, your Dodge ability, Tactics, Command to influence your team and allies, and occasionally application of other skills like Forbidden Lore to recall enemies' weaknesses, or Acrobatics to perform unusual manoeuvres.

Briefly: Numenera actual play

I mentioned in a couple of places that I've been listening to Numenera actual play and picking up some thoughts that way. Ooh, poetry! Ahem. The one I've started with is The Roo Sack Gamers. They have a relatively small back catalogue, but with turns out to be because old episodes are shifted to for hosting space reasons.

Numenera-wise, they've played through a couple of chapters (9 episodes at time of writing) in what's obviously a bit of an arc. I haven't picked up a clear indication of whether they're running prewritten stuff with added bits or largely homebrew content, though my instinct says the latter. I've found it pretty enjoyable to listen to, and because they're basically novices it's interesting to hear them working through rules issues and see their approach to the game. It seems noticeable that playing with lots of Effort and using high combat rolls to inflict penalties instead of extra damage makes the combat feel much more varied. They actually change their approach throughout the episodes (unconsciously, I think) as they sound out different playstyles, and talk about this a bit in ep 7ish.

Audiowise I found it good quality, very clear (very little cross-talk or ambient noise that I noticed) and pretty well-presented. Things like introducing yourselves at the start of episodes can make a difference to how easy things are to follow - I should probably think about that for our recordings... They also have a melodious array of what I would tentatively call southern US accents, but my expertise stops there.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Numenera: the Beale of Boregal, part three

This recording comes mostly from a laptop mic, and so the audio quality is dubious. I recommend listening on speakers rather than headphones if possible. Many apologies. It's also fairly short (22 mins) because that was just where it made sense to split the episodes.

Here begin the spoilers for the starter scenario The Beale of Boregal, and as always be aware that our podcasts are not entirely family-friendly.

To the spa!

Link to episode 03

I liked the dream plot hook more than I might have expected. It just seemed to be quite well-articulated, and it was genuinely intriguing as a setup. Plot dreams are a bit of a cliché, but I felt it was a decent example of the idea.

This is where I started to find the setting a little confusing, because spa towns with psychologists felt like something more suited to early modern civilisation than to an age with wandering adventurers. On reflection it's not so bad - the Romans had baths in Bath, after all, but then they were relatively civilised too. I think the idea is perhaps that there are areas of civilisation and other places are wild and unknown. Perhaps when I actually read the rulebook it will solidify a bit in my mind.

At this stage there was a bit of a sense that we were all somewhat useless, but that's quite misleading. I think the issue is that it feels rather like D&D, but you have very few obvious abilities, most of them aren't combat-focused, and all the numbers associated with you are small. The Glaive doesn't have a load of stuff that makes them obviously better at combat than the Nano. Actually, we kind of had it backwards: everyone in Numenera is basically really quite good at Stuff. K worries about how she'll be totally ineffectual, but her character is precisely as good at hitting stuff as anyone else, and can take the same amount of damage. It's only really damage inflicted that varies. The most noticeable thing for me was that my "wizard" is the most resilient one in the party. As we mentioned, having a number of +2 is pretty damn good in this system.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Into Ploughshares

Case 02 - An Early Subsistence Farm (1740) - Dioramas in the Fisher Museum (Harvard Forest) - DSC07368

"True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost." - Arthur Ashe

The Setting

The vast and ancient Haverlakes are a realm of strife. Bandits and murderers stalk the land, preying on travellers. Monstrous beings scuttle forth from abyssal caves to stalk the land. Foul sorcerers enslave whole counties to build monuments to their glory. Ancient ruins hold treasure and menace alike.

The folk of the Haverlakes are stout and fierce, skilled in the arts of blade and spell. Hardy bands roam the lands, battling goblins and demons, putting down the undead, or searching the vast and crumbling ruins that mysteriously dot the land. There is not one amongst them who is not a warrior of renown. They do not know peace.

For aeons, the Haverlakes have been sustained by the blessing of Fraig, spirit of plenty. Bushes and trees burst with fruit ripe for the plucking, and fish hurled themselves onto every hook casually offered. A heroine forging her path through the Toothed Woods could barely cast a spear without hitting a fatted rabbit, unless a bear, manticore, wood elemental, chitter-demon or bandit interposed itself. Huge and riotous taverns were built upon springs where wine and ale poured forth from the very ground. Firewood sprouted abundantly wherever it might be needed. Rich robes, fine swords and golden chalices were carried triumphantly forth from underground cities, or torn from the bodies of fallen foes. Life was not one of toil, but one of adventure.

And now, the power of Fraig is fading from the land. The simple warriors and wizards of the land are helpless in the face of threats they never anticipated: starvation, cold, pestilence. Only a few gifted folk have the power to save them. The Haverlakes must know... work.

The Spiel

How many novels have you read where, in a world of humble farmers, a simple lad is called upon to set aside the plough, learn the way of the sword and battle evils given physical form, that the rest of the world might be safe?

In a world of battling heroes and villains, a small band is called upon to abandon their warlike ways and take up the only skills that can save their people: pastoralism.

Learn unique and amazing skills like Sowing, Harvesting and Preservation In Salt! Master the lost and secret arts of Animal Husbandry! Build imposing shelters that will protect your people from storms, cold and pestilent vermin too small for any warrior to fight!

Do you have what it takes to be a hero?

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Monitors re-evaluation

I'm slowly working towards a point where I could actually roll some dice and see what happens with this project, but let's see where Monitors stands at the moment.

Basic ruleset

Okay, we have a basic mechanic for Doing Stuff with the d20-roll-under mechanic I outlined.

We don't, crucially, have any mechanic for opposing use of attributes. This is becoming increasingly evident as I look at spells, but also poses problems for many other situations, not least inter-party disagreement. I'm not looking for any actual party conflict, but there are other situations where PCs may want to contest against each other mechanically; the old "grab him before he presses the button" comes to mind. This issue is continuing to raise questions in my mind as to whether the mechanic I've proposed is actually the best option.

We don't yet have side-effects for spellcasting, except in the very broadest terms. There's no structure behind it.

Heat points I'm basically happy with, but some more work may be needed (eventually?) on outlining likely temperature situations.

Injury, both short-term and long-term, have been looked at and should be good enough for testing.


I provided some general information on the universe, as well as a random bit on languages. There's always more setting to do.

Stuff to do

...okay, you got me. This is a pretty damn gaping hole right here.


Playing a game requires some characters. So, let's see how possible it is to actually make a character

I've got some suggested archetypes going.


Right now, there are 16 attributes. This is a game where I encourage the use of modifiers, and where Monitors are genuinely competent. Broadly speaking, I'm aiming for a a situation where if you are facing something that is a moderate challenge and you're moderately good you will succeed half the time. Logically, it seems reasonable to allow Monitors a number of points such that they can have 50% in all the skills if they want to do things that way.

Allowing that the starting attributes for Monitors are all rated 4, and scale from 1-20, this means you need 6x16=96 points to reach that threshold. Okay, I'm probably going to want that to be a nicer number, but let's live with it for now.

Sensible distributions might look something like:

All-rounder: 12 12 12 12 14 14 10 10 10 10 6 6 8 8 8 8

Professional: 16 16 14 14 12 12 10 10 10 10 8 8 6 6 4 4

Specialist: 16 16 16 16 12 12 12 12 8 8 8 8 4 4 4 4

Expert: 20 16 16 12 12 12 12 10 10 10 10 4 4 4 4 4

There are more extreme options available, such as having six 20s and everything else at 4. I could introduce rules to prevent this, but... if people desperately want to play characters who are near-infallible at a small group of things and bad at everything else, and genuinely think this will be fun, why stop them by designer fiat? Plus, since I'm expecting modifiers to be relatively common in this game, a) people with a lower attribute can still achieve 20+ by dint of gear and conditions; and b) having a 20+ only means you'll succeed at averagely difficult things all the time, and you can still fail at hard things.

Other traits and stuff

We have some basic lineage traits, and I've talked a bit about backgrounds.


Right now I've got about ten spells, which isn't brill but is enough for a party of four to pick two each with two left over. Some of them definitely need some work (Emerald Sigil of Splendour, I'm looking at you) but while they may be broken in the balance sense, they should function within the rules as currently defined.


Okay, I've got bionic organ replacements (both compulsory and optional) and I've got weapons (admittedly I haven't yet published any, but I've got them). So far there are basically no gadgets or anything. For testing, I could roll with that and make up stuff on the spot, but I'd like to have something.


Definitely a work in progress. At the same time, not actually essential to the game at present, which does feature both magic and tech. You can't pick from what doesn't exist, though.


None so far. Easy enough to make in theory, but I should have some ready to go.

Anything I missed..? There's bound to be.

Who Are Heavy Laden

Krätzen vor 1914

I’m quite possibly the only person in the world this bothers, and me only in passing, but it’s always seemed weird to me the way carrying capacity works in d20 games, and particularly the way it interacts with combat.

It’s probably reasonable to assume I’m the average Str 10 NPC, which means I’m unencumbered when carrying a toddler (33lb.), slightly slower (but still able to run!) when carrying two toddlers, and still slightly dextrous and moving pretty rapidly when carrying three toddlers. Well, okay. Dramatic licence and all that, plus you want chracters to be able to transport significant amounts of stuff (including fallen comrades and massive piles of gold), so damping down the effects of heavy stuff seems okay.

However, the rules also allow me to fight at full effectiveness when carrying three toddlers. That’s right. I may be slow, unstealthy, and off-balance, but I can duck, weave, thrust, parry, spin and hack as much as I like regardless of how much I have strapped to my back. This isn’t just a question of weight, but one of balance. I very much doubt my camping rucksack approaches 100lb (internet suggests an army pack is around 50-70lb), but the idea of fighting in it is ludicrous – even turning around quickly is difficult. Soldiers use special packs with quick release straps to drop them if a fight breaks out, but it’s never implied that adventurers do anything similar. Adventurers typically cart all kinds of potentially fragile materials around, but their luggage never gets damaged in combat, as you’d expect if they’re brawling with bears. Blades and maws don’t seem to rip canvas and spill contents, missed attacks never stab into packs and stick, or shatter potions.

So, what if (hypothetically) we wanted things to be more realistic here? My suggestion would be to have encumbrance – but not armour, which is already dealt with by armour proficiencies and feats – apply its check penalty to attack rolls and to AC. It’s simple enough. The same applies to large and bulky items that would cause significant inconvenience, regardless of their weight - ever try carrying a big pile of styrofoam?

Adventurers of increasing level will find the penalty much less of a problem, which reasonably reflects increasing familiarity with fighting encumbered. Those wanting to avoid the penalty need to adopt tactics other than simply strapping everything to their backs: using pack animals, leaving non-essential gear outside when exploring, or dropping packs when they expect trouble. These are all realistic solutions to the issue.

Dropping a pack should realistically require a move action (medium encumbrance) or a standard action (heavy encumbrance). This is potentially risky if you’re carrying fragile items or fighting in awkward environments. Stowing a pack (or carried object) with extra care, so it won’t drop into an acid pool or off a walkway, may require an additional action.

For anyone worried by the penalty, there’s a simple option of offering feats:

Encumbered Proficiency (Medium) [General]

Benefit: You treat your encumbrance as one step lighter for the purposes of determining attack and Armour Class penalties.

Encumbered Proficiency (Heavy) [General]

Benefit: You treat your encumbrance as two steps lighter for the purposes of determining attack and Armour Class penalties.

Battle Porter [General]

Benefit: You can drop a pack as a swift action, or carefully stow a pack as a move action.

Normal: Dropping a medium load requires a move action, and dropping a heavy load requires a standard action. Stowing a pack carefully requires an additional move action.

This approach might encourage players to think more carefully about what they would realistically tend to carry on their person in pouches and pockets (thieves’ kit), what would be in an adventuring pack they take with them (50’ of rope), and what might be brought along on journeys but typically left at campsites unless they expect to need it (portable forge, 500 arrows). Most of the time this won’t be an issue – they can nip back to collect bulky items if they’re needed – but occasionally it will limit their options, hopefully in interesting ways.

So yeah, just an idle thought I felt like fleshing out, really.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Numenera: the Beale of Boregal, part two

This is, I think, the worst-affected episode, because it features the section where my recorder actually packed in. Again, my apologies, I did my best to retrieve it. If we were one of those super-organised groups who have impeccable table discipline and dedicated recording equipment it would probably have come through a little better, but that's not really our style.

Here begin the spoilers for the starter scenario The Beale of Boregal, and as always be aware that our podcasts are not entirely family-friendly.

Wandering Adventurers

Link to episode 02

In this episode Arthur attempts to give us a plot hook. This proved a bit of a difficult one because, as people point out a couple of times throughout this series, the setting is distinct enough that it's not especially clear what tropes we're working off. Broadly speaking I think K is riffing on Dying Earth, whereas Dan was maybe playing it more like a heroic adventure? I'm not really sure where I'd categorise my approach, I suppose I was taking an ambling exploration sort of tack.

This is a genuine problem I still have with this game: the relative flexibility of characters and the range of setting elements seems like you could be using it for anything from John Carter of Mars to Dying Earth to Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser to Stainless Steel Rat, as well as for technomagic versions of genres ranging from Regency romantic adventures to pirate romps to The Tribe-like daily survival dramas. Obviously some would work better than others and it's got an obvious bent towards adventuring of some kind, but it's not entirely clear what kind of adventuring that is, because it's neither D&D (with known playstyle) nor obviously based on any particular set of fiction or films that you can emulate. How self-interested and self-absorbed are the characters? Are you expected to leap at the merest hint of a plot hook, to wander around poking things aimlessly, to have your own goals to follow, or to basically look out for yourself? On top of that, how much are characters expected to understand the world around them, and how much of it is supposed to seem weird and wonderful to them?

It seems like when you look into it a bit more (I've done a bit more reading around and listening to stuff), the assumed playstyle is one of accepting quests readily and exploring on the side. I'm still not entirely sure, though, and must get round to actually reading the rulebook.

Adventure design

The adventure design here is a funneling branch, so that whatever you do leads you back towards the intended endpoint. I'm okay with that, especially in a starter adventure, and there are a number of choices you can make that still end up with finding the source of the problems. Because it's basically a static threat, that makes sense - there isn't really any logical way to deal with that kind of problem without going to confront it, and wandering off elsewhere is outside the designer's purview.

This structure actually builds in a bit of genre flexibility, because if you don't particularly fancy an escort quest for some random stranger, you can rush to the aid of the village, or go and investigate the disturbances if you prefer to think of it that way. The escort quest is more suited to a questing knight or relatively civilised kind of approach, whereas a more combat-oriented and thrill-seeking group, or indeed one that's interested in what's going on but not particularly bothered about doing random favours, can go to the village.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Numenera: the Beale of Boregal, part one

As I've mentioned a couple of times before, a few months back Arthur ran us a playtest game of Numenera. I did record the session, but it was plagued by technical problems and with one thing and another it's taken a while to beat into some kind of shape. About two-thirds of the recording was done on a laptop built-in mic rather than the dedicated recorder I normally use, and it makes a noticeable difference. I'm putting it out there, and it is listenable (I always test podcasts on earphones before release, mostly walking to work beside a busy road) but some parts are a little tricky to catch and there are a couple of sections I had to cut and narrate. I do apologise.

This particular episode is basically spoiler-free as we go through the Numenera character generation process, taking rather longer than we expected. This rest of the series is a colossal mass of spoilers for the starter scenario The Beale of Boregal, and in general our podcasts are not entirely family-friendly, so be aware.

Character Generation

Link to episode 01

Character generation was maybe what really got my attention for Numenera, because the idea of being an Adjective Noun who Verbs is attractively simple. In practice, as so often, it proves to be a little more complicated. To be fair to Numenera, I think it had bad luck here. One thing is that the players had bought into the ANWV scheme quite hard, and were a little thrown by the extra layers of detail. Another is that we were inclined to rush ahead, and I notice that Arthur had to hold us back several times as we started wanting explanations of things we hadn't yet come to. Being quite mechanically-minded as a group, this is a bit of an instinct, but disrupted the flow of character creation and slowed things down.

I haven't actually run it yet, so take this with a pinch of salt, but... my impression is that the way to handle first-time chargen in Numenera is perhaps to pause before opening the books, and to ask people to take it lightly, and just write down the crunchy details of their choices without worrying about what the crunch means at this stage. There are bound to be a couple of things you will want to explain, but pausing to define everything as soon as it appears isn't actually that helpful. Explanations made too early can very easily be more confusing than helpful, so that before too long you're explaining complex mechanics that make much more sense when they actually come up, when all you needed was to pick your hair colour.

There's quite a bit of crunchy details associated with chargen, which does make it more complicated than it initially seems, but most of it doesn't really need explanation at the time, only noting down to be dealt with at a later stage. I suspect that if you took this tack you could probably do first-time chargen, with reading-out of options, in fifteen minutes or so.

The main thing I might do to ease chargen is to attach a one-line explanation to some of the less intuitive Adjectives and Verbs, allowing people to make choices based on general consequences rather than the details. For example, it's not at all obvious that being Sneaky would make you slower or less agile, or that being Clever means you're street-smart rather than learned. This seems particularly important where drawbacks are concerned, given that some Adjectives have drawbacks but not all, and that some drawbacks may be deal-breakers for a character - several Adjectives make you bad at social skills, for example, which can easily clash with a character concept.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Of Stones and Sleep, or, Why Designers Don't Like You Just Attacking Things

As I mentioned a few posts back, Arthur ran us through the Deathwatch scenario A Stony Sleep recently. I'm on some kind of Deathwatch-craze at the moment and feel the urge to write about it constantly. The adventure will almost certainly pop up as a podcast so I'm not going to run through it in enormous detail, but here's an observation or two.

Obviously, this post contains spoilers for both A Stony Sleep and The Price of Hubris, so y'know, imagine it's some kind of autohypnotic training you received of an ancient mission that just happens to closely correspond to the one your GM is about to run. Or look away.

Last chance.

No, really.

Mission structure

The mission followed the almost-inevitable structure for this kind of game. Beginning with a mystery, the Marines quickly follow a fairly obvious set of clues to the first and rather feeble set of enemies in need of the Emperor's wrath. This provided a clue leading to a tougher set of enemies, and their clue led to the third section of the adventure where you deal with serious alien threats and fight two sets of powerful enemies.

On the one hand, I worry that the weak-weak-moderate-strong encounter structure may become a bit jaded after a while, but it's the structure of just about every RPG scenario ever written so I may be overthinking it. There's also a genuine issue that having the toughest enemies at the start may well make everything else feel anticlimactic, and that having a weak encounter or two after the boss battle is likely to just feel tagged on.

The story

The actual story is something like this: an inquisitor has gone missing, and his old friend requests Astartes aid to help determine his fate. You quickly uncover (one way or the lethal other) a plot to assassinate her, which assures you that foul play is in evidence. The planet has two obvious issues, these being a cult who worship pre-human beings they expect to return and save them, and some underwater structures that the inquisitor was investigating. Chance of them not being linked? Zero. The inquisitor's disappearance seems to involve some mysterious Space Marines and a submarine stolen by the cultists.

One way or another, you end up storming the cult base where the submarine is moored, and find them armed with xenotech - specifically, terrifying Necron gauss weapons. The inquisitor is found incoherent and useless after prolonged torture. Retaking the submarine, you head down to the city, which is inevitably a Necron tomb-city apparently stirring from aeons of slumber. Inside you encounter the Marines, and learn they were part of a traitor techpriest's mission to steal strange technology from the tomb, waking the Necrons as they left to cover their tracks. The evidence suggests a strong connection to events on Aurum in The Price of Hubris. You must find a way to stop the machinery before the Necrons rise again, which turns out to mean "blow things up".

Demolition derby

Demolition is one of the things I find a little bit odd about the Deathwatch skill set. I mean, I can see it both ways to some extent, but it seems a little strange that elite soldiers charged with tackling the most dangerous foes facing humanity don't get any training at all in effectively blowing things up. I'd have thought that all that assaulting of strongpoints and so on would make it a sensible thing to cover, if not in basic training, certainly a bit later on. There's two sides to this being a good choice: being able to effectively bring down enemy structures or use geographical features against them; and knowing where not to go tossing krak grenades or lascannon fire around so you don't bring the whole damn place down on your heads.

Anyway! The scenario ends with you confronting a huge glowing crystal that's slowly rousing the Necron city from its slumber. The obvious thing to do is to destroy it. Admittedly I had a certain amount of concern that it would explode devastatingly and annihilate us all, which would be fairly likely in a 40K novel, but on balance I decided it was unlikely in a game. Also, even if a designer had included a screw-you like that on the assumption that obviously that would be stupid, I could be pretty confident Arthur wouldn't spring it on us without making it clear we were making a mistake.

The crystal is protected by a shimmering force field, and there are massive guns atop and below it that are obviously there to return fire if it's attacked. You're in a city full of Necrons on the verge of waking, totally isolated from any Imperial resources.

From a quick glance at the mission post-game and from what Arthur and Dan have said, the solution to the crystal problem is absolutely anything, providing it isn't just attacking.

As Dan mentioned recently, game designers (and sometimes GMs) are very keen on situations where just attacking doesn't work. I'm very torn about this.

From a design point of view, I can very much see the temptation to give things attack-immunity.* For one thing, it's easy in games for direct violence to become the omnisolution, especially because PCs are often a lot better at violence than at other things. Combine this with problems that can usually be solved with violence, and particularly with lack of consequences, and violence as first resort can be both the easiest option and the most efficient one. Enemies? Use violence. Recalcitrant prisoners? Use violence. Locked doors? Use violence. Suspicious NPCs? Use violence. This isn't particularly interesting and it reduces the value of other skills, as well as producing a very specific kind of PC. Providing attack immunity to an objective like this is one way to force players to get creative, and perhaps get them in the habit of taking a more varied approach.

Another point is that it's nice to have puzzles to solve sometimes, and I for one find it satisfying working out different ways to approach a problem. I'd have preferred working out a cunning way to deal with the Necron crystal rather than shooting it at long range with a heavy bolter, but there didn't seem to be many; more on this later. Targets immune to direct attack can tickle that itch even in a combat-heavy game. Not trivially, they can also defend puzzle-inclined players' interests against other players inclined to blast through problems with brute force. The puzzle-solver probably won't get much milage from a complex door mechanism with a really clever solution if someone else reaches for their disintegrate spell as soon as they find a door they can't open. Note that I'm not saying this isn't a valid playstyle, players like different things, and you might quite cheerfully solve one puzzle door and disintegrate another one. Indeed, sometimes using the disintegrate feels like the cleverest thing to do.

Thirdly, there can be obstacles that just don't feel like conventional attacks should work against them. This is a strong argument, when it's coming from a convincing basis, and when it's implemented properly. It can add to the immersion of a game and help reinforce elements of the setting.

Lastly, and weakestly, sometimes an element seems significant, such that just overcoming it with straightforward attack rolls would be an anticlimax and undermine the scenario. This is weakest because isn't really easy to predict what will feel significant to players and what will feel anticlimactic. Sometimes encountering the final obstacle and summarily defeating it makes you feel awesome. Sometimes the way previous events have gone mean the sense of significance just hasn't arisen, so the immunity doesn't feel justified. Sometimes, just as with NPC plot armour, a designer is just too much in love with their creation and has misjudged how players will relate to their obstacle.

The main problem I'd note is that all too often, the players aren't convinced by the immunity of the object, either because of insufficient build-up or inconsistent implementation. A secondary problem, but a very real one, is that sometimes the obstacle might be more or less convincing, but is nevertheless annoying. Less can be done about the second issue so I'm ignoring it.

Unfortunately, the mission here seemed to be an example of the former problem.

*I'm considering Attack Immunity as somewhat different from NPCs with Plot Armour, and from Plot Doors. The chief difference I'd highlight is that generally Plot Armour and Plot Locks make it impossible to deal with something until you achieve tangential objective X. (or impossible to do it at all), whereas Attack Immunity asks that you do something other than Y. There's a third related category, what you might call the Achilles Heel, which states that Only X Will Y.

If we imagine the adventure as a castle, then the Achilles Heel has the castle sealed for battle but leaves a side window open, Attack Immunity shuts the drawbridge and goes to sleep, and Plot Armour is a tourist agent behind a glass panel who won't tell you where the castle is until you buy her a sandwich.

Reverse the polarity of the krak missiles, battle-brother!

In the case of the Necron crystal, the guidance is that simply attacking it will not work, but any other reasonable plan will. One suggestion seemed to be planting krak missiles on a timer.

I'm not sure whether these occupied two different categories of strategy in the designer's mind, or whether it was a more arbitrary decision. I can certainly see the first one. Under "attack", they perhaps picture a hail of fire spattering off the crystal's crackling energy field; under "sabotage", they picture the missiles being carefully positioned for maximum effect against the crystal's structure, and perhaps even someone stepping carefully through the field to plant the charge. I can sort of get behind that. The problem is, not everyone has the same shared mental image. The richly detailed chamber and technological setup perhaps pictured by the designer has to be distilled into a handful of words, then filtered through the GM to the players, and getting everyone on the same page is very difficult. To a lot of people, both of these consist of weapons being discharged against a floating crystal, with an arbitrary split in their effectiveness based on how you detonate the missiles.

I'd also say that the setup presented felt to me quite discouraging of inventiveness. I am absolutely down with experimenting with a crystal surrounded by a force field. However, there were massive guns on top, and this is a pretty lethal setting, where survival relies on you not doing things that are patently stupid. Clearly, some interaction with the crystal would make them fire, but what? Shooting, probably. What about approaching too closely? I considered using handfuls of pebbles to investigate the field, to see whether it was more of a timed pulse (so pick your moment to strike) or a fixed field, or maybe even something that could be disrupted by a couple of Marines's efforts while the other one slipped through or took another action - but without any particular knowledge of Necron force fields, it seemed entirely possible that this would get me shot.

Oddly enough, I did actually come up with something very like the krak missiles plan, involving jump-packing up onto the crystal to lay charges, but by this point our pessimism had surfaced and we were worried the field itself might fry Nikolai. In retrospect, it's relatively unlikely that Arthur would have allowed that, but then again it's a dangerous setting with brutal rules and leaping into an alien force field is quite reckless.

As well as the immediate concern, ironically I think the time-pressure exerted by the plot actually discouraged creativity. We knew that the Necrons were about to wake up, and had to be stopped as soon as possible. There really wasn't time for too much faffing about, either in terms of wasting time, or causing trouble that would delay us. Moreover, as I noted above, Space Marines don't actually come with any demolition skills, and the entire Imperium is highly paranoid about technology, let alone vile alien technology: we were very short in the kind of training that might have helped us to find alternative approaches.

It felt, in short, less risky to find a safe firing angle and shoot the damn thing, than to stand around in the open pussyfooting our way around in an attempt to cleverly disable it. The chances of either approach activating the weapons didn't feel that different, and it was actually easier to protect ourselves while doing the shooting thing.

Ironically I suspect making the endpoint of the mission into a massive floating crystal in a power field undermined the idea of making it attack-proof, because something like that is a very obvious target. If the designers had given us a more diffuse and complicated environment to interact with, reduced the immediacy of the Necron threat, and perhaps hinted that blowing up the wrong things was likely to make things worse, they might have had a better chance of persuading us to interact differently with their problem.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

So a Techmarine, a Scout and a Lexicanum walk into a hive...

I posted recently about (amongst other things) the difficulties I'm having playing my Deathwatch assault marine like an actual assault marine. There's been some interesting points in the comments and I feel like wittering a bit more. The title will make sense when you get to the end. Maybe.

The perception of risk

One of the things I mentioned was the psychological aspect. I think particularly given the swinginess of Deathwatch combat, there's a reluctance to take on situations where the odds aren't in your favour. This means that, while I'd be happy enough running Nikolai into a horde, I'd be quite reluctant to charge two or three individual foes unless I knew I was getting backup, because as we've seen with genestealers and more recently with Chaos Marines, the line between unharmed and dead is very tenuous indeed when you're fighting Elite enemies. A single round of fire from a single Chaos Marine bolter knocked off two-thirds of Nikolai's hit points. If you think about it, even a humble Astartes Combat Knife is a problem: 1d10+2+Strength bonus and Penetration 2 is likely to mean around 9 points of damage from a hit, which is very nearly half Nikolai's hit points. Getting trapped into combat with two or three enemies who're either competent in melée or don't mind shooting into it could be extremely foolish.

In practice, while I think there's a lot of value in that caution, I wonder if this might be a partial rerun of the old credence problem and I should try to strike a slightly more confident middle ground between caution and recklessness. With chainswords and parrying, he can stave off attacks reasonably well.

EDIT: edited sentence above to actually finish it, since I apparently forgot and wandered off in the middle of that one.

Splitting the party

Another couple of things seem to spring more from scenario design and from reasonable expectations about events. As Arthur commented, one way to deal with disparate specialisations in a combat-heavy game is to have combat encounters physically split, so that each Marine can engage the enemies most suited to their capabilities in a sort of elemental duel sense. Assault charges the supporting troops, Devastator/Tactical rain explody death on anyone charging in, Librarians or Techmarines or Apothecaries choose roles suited to their particular loadout and capabilities.

So far, none of the scenarios have really supported this style of combat, because we've always ended up fighting A Group of N Enemies of Type X. As far as I remember, the only occasion with distinctive enemy types has been the group of xenotech-wielding bodyguards in our latest adventure, but those were apparently in the middle of the mob rather than off to one side. This kind of design may simply be easier to come up with, I'm not sure. I suppose also that Deathwatch groups are very small, so it's awkward to design encounters with multiple enemy types that will be interesting to fight but not overpowering. On the whole, though, I'm inclined to think it's a good option.

One disclaimer that did strike me is that threat level and initiative of participants is going to affect whether this works in practice. Again, to a large extent we're coming back to the perennial West Lothian Heavy Bolter Question. Using our most recent game as an example, if there is a miscellaneous horde and a group of elite ranged troops to fight, I suspect in most cases it is both sensible and natural for everyone to concentrate their fire on the much more dangerous ranged troops, even if the optimal division of labour is Shoot Horde, Stab Snipers, because you are much more worried about the risk posed by the elite troops. This is particularly likely if initiative means the snipers will get to shoot before the assault troops go, since preventing them from firing at full strength is a vital advantage. In many cases this will result in the ranged troops becoming a fine red mist simply because the Heavy Bolter is ridiculously good. Similarly, if the melée enemies are obviously more dangerous, they are likely to be the priority target.

Non-random encounters

Assuming the average party is balanced with 50% ranged skill and 50% melée skill (I have no idea whether this is ture), and that designers work around the average party, you might expect encounters to be roughly split so that about 50% of combat involves melée. In practice, I think there are a number of reasons why this isn't the case.

Firstly, and I suspect most importantly, Deathwatch is quite rightly a player-driven game for the most part. Scenarios tend to feature relatively static plots that the PC poke at, and events are triggered by PC actions, rather than things happening for the PCs to react to. This being the case, a combat encounter is typically triggered in one of these ways:

  • The PCs travel into enemy territory, move towards an objective and attack enemies they discover
  • The PCs uncover evidence of treachery and confront the enemy in their midst

In general, the PCs are the ones whose action begins the combat, which means they are in a position to assume formations, ready weapons and take the initiative. They may not know whether an enemy is present, but they are the ones bursting in with guns at the ready. In many cases, they are also aware of the enemy presence before they are discovered, which means they can prepare for the specifics of the encounter. Detection range is often significantly further than movement range, which means shooting is more likely to break out than melée combat. A ranged-inclined party is not very likely to rush into melée where they cannot exploit their strengths (though individuals might), and particularly if this might break their advantage if they are spotted during the approach. Two very typical actions at this point are setting overwatch for an approaching enemy, or opening fire on a stationary enemy. The rocket tag inclinations of Deathwatch increase the importance of getting in the first shot, and encourage this approach.

Secondly, there's an issue of plausibility. It is perfectly possible for an enemy to sneak up and ambush the Marines in melée or point-blank range, or for the party to stumble unawares right into an enemy in such a way that there's no time to fall back and open fire. However, because Marines are very competent soldiers typically operating in hostile territory, and because of general probability, this shouldn't happen very often unless the Marines are being particularly careless or hasty.

Let's assume detection can take place at arbitrary distance 10 moves. Each round, the Marines have a chance (in realism, not necessarily in mechanics) to detect the enemy as the two approach each other. All else being equal, on average, you'd expect detection to take place somewhere around the middle (disclaimer: this is not a rigorous statistical analysis). A handful of detections should take place at either maximum range and right up in your face. In general, unless the party is very melée-focused, it will tend to be best to engage the enemy when they are detected. Simply put, there are many more possible detections that tend to result in a ranged encounter, than will result in melée.

Why is it best to engage enemies as soon as they're detected?

  • Combat in Deathwatch tends to result either in zero damage or serious injury. Two or three hits can easily eliminate a Marine. Damage is very high compared to hit points. Getting the first hit in can greatly reduce the impact of enemy attacks and sway the outcome of a combat.
  • Many enemies have no or weak ranged attacks. Regardless of the strength of their melée attacks, it makes sense to engage these at range.
  • Holding position and firing generally leaves you in a known location, and in some cases one chosen for its defensive qualities. Moving into melée increases the unknown aspects of the situation: there may be other enemies not yet detected, traps or other problems. By remaining at range to fire, these risks are reduced. It is, of course, entirely possible that unknown aspects include devastating long-ranged abilities that could have been averted easily in melée.
  • And inevitably: the Heavy Bolter causes enormous amounts of damage. The earlier you engage an enemy, the more Heavy Bolter shots you are likely to get off.

Finally, there's the issue of playstyle. This is a relatively crunchy game, and our group at least expects our actions to be important. We tend to play with a fairly cautious approach in quite a military style: whenever we're in hostile or unknown territory we tend to be using auspexes to scan for danger, sneaking, scouting, leapfrogging and otherwise taking care to detect threats and give us the maximum possible time and opportunity to deal with them in a way advantageous to us. It's fun, canonical and sensible in a relatively dangerous game like this. However, it also serves to make it much less likely that we'll end up in melée, because having done all that work, it's implausible that we would regularly get ambushed at close range or stumble right into enemies. If the GM regularly had that happen, even for the sake of balancing the kind of combat and the opportunities given to each character, I suspect it would very quickly feel annoying.

Party composition

This idea has only recently come to me, but I'm starting to wonder whether part of the issue isn't actually party composition.

In games it's always very tempting to go for the one-PC-per-niche approach. This tends to work in D&D where you really do want something rather like Fighter Healer Lockpicker Wizard. You have one person to handle each kind of challenge you tend to face (fighting things, surviving injury, obstacles and weirdness/hordes) while they can all contribute something to fighting enemies in relatively close quarters, which is typical.

In some other games, though, it doesn't work that well. A perennial problem of Call of Cthulhu is how you justify the librarian, the hoodlum, the circus dwarf and the aristocrat hanging out together to investigate haunted houses for paltry wages or take an amateur detective's interest in odd events at the other end of the country. Many games with a less specific focus than D&D benefit from you deciding whether you're going to be a party of burly investigators or a party of posh intellectuals. This approach allows you to all be interested in, and competent at, broadly similar sets of challenges, which means the game sessions can focus on those things and keep most people happy most of the time. I suspect a lot of this is down to whether games balance themselves on the assumption that you only do things you're competent at (Challenge = Party size) or that one specialist handles each challenge (Challenge = 1). Running the PI and the aesthete together means half the time the PI is left outside in the rain while you discuss art exhibitions at a ball, and half the time the aesthete is being beaten unconscious by thugs. Playing a niche-protection game as a party focus game tends to be massively swingy, and your four fighters will hack apart everything in sight until an apprentice wizard dominates them all with a single spell because their Will saves are dismal.

I'm starting to think that Deathwatch may actually benefit from a focused approach to party composition, rather than the base-covering approach. There are a couple of points here. One is that Marines are good all-rounders, so this doesn't necessarily create dangerous weaknesses in your capabilities; rather, it would ensure that everyone is comfortable taking a similar approach to combat. The other is that precisely because Deathwatch benefits from a quite tactical approach, having a party that's extremely good at one set of tasks would allow you to really surf that strong-to-weak curve. If faced with challenges not suited to your skills, you change tack and look for another way to do it.

A party composed of a Scout, a Devastator and a power-fisted Techmarine is not one that has all bases covered and is A-okay, it's a party that isn't particularly good at anything and will struggle to find optimal tactics in a game where optimal tactics are important. Only the Scout is good at sneaking, so covert ops and sneaking past or ambushing enemies is unlikely. Only the Devastator is good at ranged combat, so in a ranged duel they'll suffer. Only the Techmarine is much cop in melée, so rushing into melée isn't a very sensible strategy either.

Basically, while everyone is good at fighting, it sort of makes sense to bundle together people who prefer to fight in similar sorts of ways so that everyone can play to their strengths most of the time. While it's natural and tempting to pick a ranged combat specialist and a melée specialist as complementing each other, I'm not sure that's how it actually works. Instead, you're likely to have one or the other flailing suboptimally most of the time because they're out of their comfort zone: dragging missile launchers into ventilation shafts is inconvenient, and firing at onrushing hordes with a pistol is inefficient.

In our party's case, we actually look pretty balanced because a librarian with Smite is both stabby (force sword) and zappy (Smite), but I don't think this is the kind of issue that necessarily lends itself to balance. In practice, our librarian prefers to zap whenever possible, so ranged combat becomes the default tactic and one that we are very powerful at.

If I were creating a new party, I'd be inclined to strongly suggest picking one approach and sticking to it. If you don't want duplication, Devastator, Tactical and Librarian or Techmarine is probably a decent balance for ranged combat. Assault Marine, Apothecary, Techmarine or Tactical would make a decent balance for melée specialism.


As I've mentioned before, I have far too much fun with Brother Nikolai to want to give him up, but I do think I may look at changing his focus a bit and playing up his Calculating trait and his interest in tactical knowledge. He's already very competent in melée (I could have boosted his combat stats a bit more, but he has all the relevant talents) and given the very limited amount of combat he engages in, it seems to make sense to spend XP elsewhere for now. I could focus on boosting some other stats and specific skills to make him a better point man and skill-monkey, boosting things like Tactics, Perception and Demolitions so he can spot advantages and really take advantage of his grenadey inclinations. He's manoeuvrable enough to zip around providing crossfire or distractions. I could also look at getting him a decent ranged weapon (even just a bolter) so he won't always be looking to rush into combat. If anything does get close enough to be a danger, he's right there to intercept it.

Basically, having found myself in a ranged combat party, I think it would make sense to try and find a new niche within that overall structure, rather than trying to stay in one that runs mostly contrary to the grain of the party.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Monitors: some possible Enhancements

Following on from an earlier post, I present a few sample Enhancements I've designed for the game on top of the ones everyone gets. I'll be wanting more. There are two main categories, implants and cybernetics.

One possibility is letting you take other kinds of gadgets as implants or built into cybernetics. But as I haven't invented any of those yet, there's no examples here.

My intention for the game is that while enhancements have specified mechanical benefits, this is a moderately sciencey setup and other effects should apply if it makes sense and seems fun.


Implants are bits of electronic and biotechnology incorporated into the subject's body so seamlessly that they're undetectable without medical examination.


Using ultrahigh-frequency sonar, the echolocator provides its owner with a whole new sense. When using the device, the character gains all-round perception, and can navigate in total darkness. The sonar cannot detect colour or markings, but can distinguish general textures. It also provides a +2 bonus on Perception when the target is hidden behind something, due to sound refraction. The device can be turned on or off as the owner chooses with a mere thought.

The echolocator can be confused by chaff, heavy rain, insect swarms and similar effects; by soundproofing and absorbent substances; or by excessive background noise. Two characters with echolocators can often sense each others' sonar, but individual devices may use different frequencies. The device doesn't detect or interfere with natural sonar. A few creatures with high-frequency hearing can detect the sonar.


While a small amount of nanotech is common for Monitors, nanohaem is a complete in-bloodstream detoxification system. Tiny particles detect and purge harmful substances, tweak hormone levels and track their owner's general health. Nanohaem grants +2 to any defence against Toxic damage. In addition, any penalty die inflicted by Toxic damage immediately has its size reduced one step, to a minimum of 1d3. The nanohaem can also halve the duration of any lingering effect caused by toxins, narcotics or equivalent effects.

Neural Jack

A nervous-system interface can connect directly with technology, making many jobs easier and permitting bonding with mechas, large vessels and similar devices. Using short-range wireless links, neural jacks allow the user to operate computers discreetly and at great speed. A skilled neural jack user can operate a jacked device without anyone noticing.

Most Earth-style electronics accepts neural jack input, and jacking into an enabled device takes no additional time. Technology without input devices can be hotwired for neural jacks as easily as any other input. Secure devices can be hacked at a distance using neural jacks. Some high-security devices may block neural jacks or include countermeasures. Alien technology may not permit neural jack use, or require additional rolls for successful use.

Using neural jacks grants a +2 bonus on rolls to operate electronic devices and reduces the time needed to perform tasks. By freeing up hands, neural jacks make some complex activities easier, providing the same +2 bonus. It negates most noise, but computers may still beep and monitors display work in progress. A Will roll can be used to feign another activity while using neural jacks to covertly operate machinery. Neural jacks can typically be used from up to a metre away, though obstacles may block signal.

A good example here might be the classic chase scene. It's a lot easier when you can drive the hovercar directly from your brain, leaving both hands free to shoot back.


Cybernetics are enhancements that either supplement or replace an existing organ, often after an injury. While replacement organs are common, Monitors cybernetics are a cut above, providing significant benefits to their owner.

Cybernetics come in two broad types. Bionics are elegant replicas of the original, undetectable in most circumstances. Their complexity and discretion allows limited room for enhanced capabilities. Augmetics are bulkier and more conspicuous, focusing on power and function rather than form. They offer a significant advantage but are very difficult to conceal, which makes the user far more conspicuous, easier to identify and can raise suspicions. Regardless of type, some cybernetic enhancements cannot be used in public without revealing their nature: firing your hand off on a grapple line, or the sudden telescoping of your eye, is very hard to explain away.

A character can choose the appearance of their own bionics within these bands; an augmetic might be a crude-looking mechanical affair of pistons and valves, or a sleek and beautiful thing apparently made of scarlet glass.

In general, an augmetic grants antagonists a +5 bonus to identify, track or research the character. The augmetic is too large, noisy or oddly-shaped to be disguised easily by covering or makeup, but creative disguises may succeed. NPCs such as guards, may be more suspicious of characters with augmetics, and search or watch them more carefully.

If I end up using the power-consumption rules I mentioned briefly, augmetics would also consume one power point from the character's allocation. If not, I may want some other drawback, as I think the balance is still notably in favour of overts. One possibility is that augmetics are vulnerable to EMP-type disruption or can otherwise be temporarily impaired.

Options labelled (A) are only available to augmetics.

Cybernetic Arm

This enhancement can be designed with a range of features to suit its owner’s tastes. Options include:

  • Enhanced Servo-Motors: greater power grants +2 bonus on rolls using the arm where speed and strength are important, such as bending bars, punching, searching rubble, repairing barricades or bowling.
    • Overcharger (A): classified power and propulsion technologies providing enormous power for their size, increasing this bonus to +5.
  • Toolkit: incorporates specialist algorithms and tools to aid in professional tasks. Grants a +2 bonus on one of Fettle, Medicine, Science or Tech rolls involving practical work or evaluation. You may choose this benefit more than once, affecting a different attribute each time.
    • Secondary AI: a semi-autonomous computer within the limb greatly enhances its technical value. Increase the bonus to +5 on one chosen attribute.
  • Weapon Mount: the limb incorporates one weapon of your choice of category None or Hand. While it would be possible to build grenades into a cybernetic, it would also be really stupid. When not in use, the weapon can be concealed within the arm and only close technical inspection or military-grade scanners will reveal it. Activating or concealing the weapon does not require an action.
    • Stabilisers (A): the weapon mount can incorporate an Assault or Heavy weapon instead. Penalties for firing one-handed apply as normal.
  • Grapple: the limb incorporates a grapple line. The hand functions as a pulse-driven grappling hook with independent AI, granting a +2 bonus as it intelligently grips the target. The hand can scuttle short distances on landing to find a suitable pivot point, which takes one action of time.
  • Shield (A): a collapsible force shield can be deployed at a moment’s notice. (I need some shield/parry rules for this)

Re: servos - I'm still not quite sure how to articulate this one to get my idea across. The idea is that servos can make sudden powerful movements, so they don't make you faster at doing things on the whole.

The "pulse-driven grappling hook" will be an actual bit of equipment at some point so the Grapple option makes sense.

At present, entirely under rules as written, it's possible to create a character with Strength 27 - just take a Crocodilian or Varanid, give them a full whack of 20 Strength, and an augmetic granting +5 Strength. I'm not yet sure whether I care about that.

The idea I'm trying to get across with toolkits is that having a bionic arm designed for interfacing with technology shouldn't grant you a bonus to remember theories, and an augmetic eye designed for lab work shouldn't help you debate science. It's theoretically possible, it just seems off.

Weapons - this is not the sort of game where people are expected to regularly lose or swap weapons, making this more useful for quick draws and concealment. That being said, being able to bring a heavy weapon in under the guise of a replacement arm is still pretty damn useful. The limit on non-limb cybernetics is because building a massive recoil-causing cannon into someone's eye socket would be madness.

While I was initially led to make Hand weapons minor benefits out of flavour (it seems more practical and therefore more likely), I have considered the balance issue as well. I know my weapon balance is only hazy, but one of the plus factors for Hand and None weapons is specifically that they are easy to carry and conceal. By making the implant only a minor benefit, I reduce the feeling that you're paying twice for those advantages. In contrast, having a concealable rifle is a substantial benefit, even if it's still obvious that you have an augmetic arm.

Cybernetic Eye

A replacement eye can be equipped with a range of sensory modifications. Options include:

  • Spectral Compressor: the eye translates near-infrared and near-ultraviolet into visible light, allowing vision in a wider range of conditions. The eye switches to the best available mode, generally providing a mix of monochrome and thermal-image vision in poor light. Mechanically, the owner ignores penalties to vision caused by poor lighting other than total darkness.
  • Flash Filter: algorithms detect and compensate for sudden changes in light intensity, reducing the risk of blinding. The eye grants +2 Visor against Photon damage and a +2 bonus on any other relevant rolls, such as spotting a target against the sun.
    • Compensator (A): multiple lenses and an image reprocessor stabilise images even further, increasing the bonus to +5.
  • Camera: as well as a visual feed, the eye can take photographs or brief clips of what the owner sees. These can be exported like any other data. The eye can also be used to play back footage or view image files. The eye's storage chip can be swapped or wiped like any other memory device, and has space for around one hour of video.
  • Magnifier (A): the eye incorporates adjustable lenses, providing limited telescopic and microscopic vision. This provides a +2 bonus whenever these abilities would be beneficial.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

The Loneliness of the Melée Distance Fighter

As both Arthur and Dan have recently posted, we just finished playing through A Stony Sleep from The Emperor Protects, which is a Deathwatch scenario. If you are baffled by this sentence, you may want to move on. If you are worried about spoilers, this is not the post you're looking for. Somewhat oddly, if you want a post about the scenario, it turns out not to be this one either. I didn't realise when I started writing it.

Consider this a spoiler-averting image...

Ancient city - Qian Dao Lake

I had a lot of fun with it, which I'm adding in at the start as pre-cushioning for some negative comments I will probably make (I tend to write blogposts stream-of-consciousness, so I don't actually know yet).

So a quick précis of the scenario:

  • Inquisitor calls you into investigate another missing inquisitor and the underwater city he was looking into
  • Foil trap set for inquisitor (or don't)
  • Discover xeno-cultists under old shrine
  • Attack other xeno-cultist base to retrieve stolen submarine
  • Travel to underwater city
  • Defeat enemies
  • Blow up McGuffin and run away

Those of you (ahem) who have been following our exploits will remember that my character is the dashingly handsome Brother Nikolai, played by Antonio Banderas and now featuring a Terminator-style glowing red eye after an unfortunate encounter with an Orc Warboss and his power claw.

The Eyes Don't Have It

Before we go any further, let me gripe about that eye. See, the level of bionics you can get depends on your Renown rating. I decided that getting my head bashed in really cried out for an obvious aftereffect, and also bionics are something I quite like about 40K, so I declared that my injury was bad enough that a bionic eye was needed. This cost a certain amount of Requisition points (gp) despite that fact that low-tier bionics don't actually do anything. They are exactly as good as a normal eye.

What we didn't spot at the time was that bionics - even in the Space Marine-focused rulebook that is Deathwatch - are literally exactly as good as a normal, non-Space Marine eye. Space Marines have an array of anatomical upgrades that allow them heightened senses, night vision and various other things not connected to eyes. Strictly by the rules, my character's vision should actually have decreased as a result of this entirely self-inflicted, points-costing "upgrade".

I'd been quite excited about getting to the next level of Renown on completing this mission, because then I'd be able to buy up to an enhanced bionic, which would give me some actual benefits. After completing A Stony Sleep, we looked at the rules for enhanced bionics. Turns out, an enhanced bionic eye (requiring level 2 Renown and a sizeable investment of Requistion) is exactly as good as a normal Space Marine's eyes except in one specific situation that I can't quite remember. Ah, wait, you can incorporate a single ranged weapon sight! That's great. For my Assault Marine.

I can from one angle appreciate that it makes sense for bionics not to actually be better than your existing senses, to discourage unnecessary bionicising, and also to fit into the technophobic 40K universe. Presumably, the idea is that you lose a limb or organ as a result of some critical injury damage, and then can keep your character playable via bionics, while still suffering the long-term effects of your injury until you become powerful enough to overcome them. I have to assume that it didn't occur to the designers that players would inflict them on themselves for roleplaying reasons.

The others asked if I wanted to retcon the bionic after our discovery, but that felt like a cop-out. I'll keep it. I'm just a bit miffed. It looks like it'll be quite a few more missions before I might be able to get a bionic eye that actually seems to have any kind of game-mechanical effect, which is kind of the same thing as not having a bionic eye at all.

A Stony Sleep features several battles, a couple of which we apparently skipped because our scheduling lends itself to two-shot missions every few months rather than dragging things out. As far as I can tell Arthur just allowed us to fight only two mobs of Necron cultists rather than three or four, which is kind of fine by me. In a slower-paced campaign I'd have quite happily played through some of the investigations and maybe worked with the other Imperial groups to put down the rebellion, but that's not how we're playing this campaign and Deathwatch isn't exactly built for investigation.

Oh hey, another tangent!

Investment Advice

This is, in some respects, another part of the system that I find quite odd. The Deathwatch character sheets include a vast swathe of social and investigative skills that Space Marines do not have, such as Blather, Barter, Deceive, Disguise, Lip Reading, Inquiry, Shadowing... Some of these can be bought as skill upgrades with your nice XP, but this seems like a particularly bad choice.

The first and most obvious reason is that it's very unlikely your Space Marines are going to be doing any socialising or investigating. They are not renowned for their social graces, and if they get invited to parties it's only as part of some honour to the Emperor. 99% of the Imperium's inhabitants are going to be so nervous around a Space Marine that it will be impossible to hold a conversation with them, and if you are suspicious of them for some reason, Space Marines have so much authority (and are so damn scary) that you can either legally drag them off to be tortured and mind-probed, or nobody is likely to stop you anyway. Looking at the other investigative skills, Space Marines aren't likely to be called in to any cases requiring forensic or research skills, while the idea of them doing PI work is preposterous - it's really hard to be surreptitious when you're a seven-foot godlike entity who most of the population will run screaming from or fall to their knees before.

The second reason is a nasty metagame one. In general, Space Marine skillsets are limited to combaty stuff. There have been a few occasions where we asked about something and Arthur pointed out that our characters simply didn't have the training to do it. However, quite a lot of the time, if we don't have a relevant skill but something should in theory be doable, Arthur has offered a way for us to try something we're interested in doing - which is one of the things I like about his GMing. For example, in The Price of Hubris, we used a simple random roll to see whether I could bring down a tunnel with a grenade, since I didn't have any Demolition skill.

However! If a game system explicitly provides a skill for doing something, and somebody actually invests in that skill, the GM will generally feel obliged to use that skill as the resolution mechanic. That is entirely fair. The likely result is twofold. Firstly, by taking an unusual skill, you are quite likely preventing other characters from being able to do those things. Whereas before the GM might have offered an alternative way of doing things, with the tacit understanding that your combat-oriented characters were not expected to invest heavily in unusual skills, it feels wrong to have the one character use their actual skill while offering an alternative to the others, because it seems to devalue that investment. Secondly, in a game like Deathwatch with relatively low (30-40%) base chances in skills, it is entirely possible that the one character who does have the skill will end up with a lower chance of succeeding at it.

I'll say that again, because I think it's an interesting aspect of how people do stuff: by spending your XP on Moustache Waxing instead of Shoot Things Even Better, you may well end up with a worse chance of successfully waxing moustaches than you had previously. When nobody has the skill, the GM might simply call for a random die roll, and people tend to give relatively generous odds on those kinds of things. Even on a relatively ungenerous call, you may well end up with a 10% chance of success for no investment at all. In contrast, if you spent those points on Moustache Waxing, you will have perhaps a 40% chance of success at this one obscure task - which still isn't very good odds - and you've passed up the chance to get Shoot Things Even Better, which would have enhanced a skill you use all the time and are already good at.

I don't think this is a GMing problem, I just think it's an interesting feature of the tacit understandings groups tend to establish around how they like to play. It's a shame in some ways, because I really like dabbling in unusual skills, but Deathwatch just isn't that sort of game really.

Fight Club

Where were we? Oh yes, battles. The battles are, as I remember:

  • Fight a horde of cultists
  • Fight another horde of cultists, some with Gauss weapons
  • Fight a small group of Chaos Marines
  • Fight a Necron boss

I'm trying to find a way to say this which doesn't sound like griping at the other players, or about the game, and I can't, but rest assured that isn't my intention... perhaps the most noticeable thing for me as player of Brother Nikolai was how effective I wasn't.

  • In the first battle, Nikolai confronted the cult leader while the others aimed weapons at the mob. When they refused to surrender, he snatched the leader away while the rest were mown down by heavy bolter fire in seconds.
  • In the second battle, Iakomo blew apart the cult leader's xenotech-wielding bodyguards in a single round, then was obliged to switch to a bolt pistol because Nikolai was in the way and still killed several more cultists. Erec annihilated the cult leader and sixteen points of horde with one psychic blast - very nearly taking Nikolai with them. Nikolai, with four attacks and a trait that inflicts additional damage on hordes, killed a mighty seven points of horde.
  • In the third battle, Nikolai got pumped full of bolt shells when he stuck his head round a corner. Erec blew apart the entire squad with a psychic blast.
  • In the fourth battle, two rounds of heavy bolter fire tore apart the Necron, although Nikolai's missed entirely.

In the entire scenario, Nikolai's fighting contribution was to kill six cultists, successfully grab someone, and leave a grenade on a timer to blow something up. A fair bit of it is down to bad luck - I got unlucky on initiative most of the time, and rolled poorly during my single round of melée combat. I can't help feeling, though, that it seems to be easier for the other characters to fight well. The heavy bolter is partly responsible for that, of course, and psychic powers are very powerful because of the (in theory) balancing chance of getting your brain eaten by a demon.

A heavy bolter tends to inflict around 20 points of damage per hit, and generally inflicts multiple hits, making it insanely good for blowing apart individual targets, demolishing armoured squads or ripping apart hordes (it seemed to do about 9 damage to hordes). Smite inflicts 7+1d10 damage to hordes and 7d10 damage to individuals within a 7-metre, which will ruin most creatures' day. A chainsword - the only melée weapon available to a low-level assault marine - does 1d10+4 damage per hit; a good to-hit roll puts a lower cap on that but doesn't allow additional hits or increase damage. Allowing for the tearing power to pick the best of two d10s, you're looking at about 11 damage per hit - this should actually be 23 with a Strength bonus, which I keep forgetting, but thankfully I don't think it was relevant in this mission. With a full array of traits, the assault marine can look at getting four attacks, and a +d10 bonus for a single round when charging a horde while in Squad Mode.

In short, the decked-out assault marine can just about manage to inflict the same damage on a single target that Smite does to a 7-metre radius, or about half what a heavy bolter is likely to inflict. To do so, he must rush into combat, isolating himself, leaving him vulnerable to counterattacks (unlike shooters, he can't use cover) and blocking line-of-fire for his far more effective brethren.

Against a magnitude 30 horde, the heavy bolter does about 9 damage. Smite inflicts an average of 12 damage. The assault marine is likely to get three hits inflicting about 6 damage, and for one round may be able to get the extra average 5 damage.

What I really can't work out is what it is assault marines are actually good at. There are certainly situations where he'll do better - if the entire party is forced into melée combat - but there doesn't seem to be any type of battle where where he can be more effective than someone else with a heavy bolter would.

In fact: let's go back to that magnitude 30 horde. Nikolai's BS of 34, plus +20 for Full Auto, plus a +30 magnitude bonus to hit, gives him 84 to hit, which means he will tend to get get three degrees of success. This will translate into 5 hits (1 + 3 DOS + 1 Explosive). This is only slightly less than he can expect in melée, can be done at enormous range, from cover, does not expose him to melée attacks (particularly relevant to the many creatures with nothing else) and does not impede his brothers' ability to attack effectively. It is, in fact, almost certainly a more sensible option given the choice.

In other words, unless I'm completely missing something, it seems like at least a low-level assault marines can fight most effectively by buying a heavy bolter and shooting things from a long way away. Had Nikolai invested his XP in Ballistic Skill upgrades and traits rather than in assault-appropriate ones, the distinction would be even sharper.

Don't get me wrong. I love Brother Nikolai. I have a lot of fun with him. I just... don't understand. I don't know what I'm supposed to do, or whether I'm doing something fundamentally wrong mechanically.

I've achieved a fair amount with Nikolai, but most of that has been by using him either as a courier or a tank. He retrieved civilians from inaccessible places. He can kidnap cult leaders and fly off. He's spent quite a lot of time being the point man who soaks up damage for the rest of the team. He's picked up a few esoteric skills that I just occasionally manage to pass my rolls on. He's (in my view) a great success for roleplaying, but he's frankly a bit ineffectual when it comes to his actual job.

Opposing Elements

One of the traits of 40K tabletop, which I suspect applies in the RPGs too, is that you should ignore cinematic logic. We have seen repeatedly that if you are confronted by a melée-specialised enemy, the absolute last thing you should do is engage them in melée. Nikolai's experiences with a genestealer, a dark eldar archon and an ork warboss have drilled that idea fairly thoroughly into my head. Melée enemies, you shoot.

In theory, the opposite applies to shooty enemies. By engaging them in melée, you can rob them of their greatest strength.

I don't know if this actually works yet, because so far I really don't think we've seen much in the way of shooty enemies. It's possible that the Chaos Marines met that description, but they got blown up. I suspect we also won't see much in that line, because practically speaking an assault marine with a jump pack is the only one that can reliably approach rapidly to get into melée without being shot to pieces, and scenario writers aren't likely to want to make that assumption; whereas absolutely everyone has ranged weapons.

Even then, it presents some problems that aren't there in tabletop. As an assault marine, you really have to be extremely confident to lead a one-man charge on a heavy weapons battery because if anyone is on overwatch, or if it turns out to be possible for them to fire into melée, or if there turns out to be a scary melée opponent amongst the shooters, then you have a good chance of ending up dead.

The Loneliness of the Melée Distance Fighter

So that's life for Brother Nikolai, doomed to be slightly less effective at everything than everyone else. But perhaps one day - if he curbs his enthusiasm for ending up in single combat with the universe's most effective killing machines enough to live that long - his time will come.