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.


  1. It's a tough one.

    I think Heavy Bolters are a big part of the problem (and using Smite at Push level is kind of a risky strategy, and probably not normally quite worth the risk). But I do think part of the issue - as you touch on above - is that you're playing in a mixed RPG party rather than a more specialized unit. In a 40. In a 40K battle your Assault Marines are trying to take out the artillery on one side of the battlefield while your Devastators are blowing up tanks on the other. Here you have a Devastator, an Assault Marine and a Librarian all being asked to fight the same enemies at the same time, and swordsmen get in the way of bullets more than gunmen get in the way of swords.

    I understand that Assault Marines *can* be very game mechanically effective, and melee weapons actually scale to do more damage than ranged weapons eventually (as you observe yourself, you're actually doing +12 damage from your Strength bonus alone which, if you think about it, is as much as I do with my Heavy Bolter). Now you can afford power swords, you should be making four attacks each doing (I think) 1D10 + 18 damage Pen 6.

    Peculiarly, being in melee might actually also make you *less* vulnerable than being at range. You don't get to use cover, but you do get to Parry using your full Weapon Skill (plus weapon bonuses) rather than Dodging using your base Agility. And you're less likely to get shot.

    Interestingly in Black Crusade they redid Lightning Attack to work like Full Auto for melee, so you do one extra hit per degree of success, which helps a lot (and you can Lightning Attack with both hands, which is *crazy* good).

    1. I'm fairly sure things will even out at higher levels, because as you say your heavy bolter isn't really going to improve much, whereas between better weapons, increasing Strength and talents I can actually slather quite a bit of extra damage onto Nikolai's hits. I also took an initiative trait after last session, which should insure a bit against everything being dead by the time I arrive.

      Erec is a lot keener on Pushing powers than I would be personally, but in fairness so far the side effects have been completely trivial, so there's no in-game encouragement to act otherwise. I suspect there's a psychological difference between being warned by players about demons eating your character, and having spent years with the 40K setting and absorbed the lesson that psychics are really bad news and sooner or later it catches up with you.

      In terms of vulnerability, I think given the kind of things we tend to fight, it feels like there's a pretty good chance of them firing into combat. Whether that's actually true I can't say. Logically also if you kill an opponent, everyone else is free to shoot you at point-blank range.

      Coming back to the mixed party thing, I think another manifestation is that while you're all being asked to fight the same enemies, you almost always encounter those enemies at significant range, which means strength lies with the ranged characters. Partly that's because it's much easier to justify spotting some cultists a little way off than suddenly being jumped straight into melée yet again. We also tend to play relatively cautiously, which means Arthur gives us a fair chance to avoid getting jumped. And of course, initiative tends to lie with the Marines, which means we play to our group strengths. If scenarios mostly featured us all being plunged repeatedly into hand-to-hand combat, Iakomo would be seriously struggling.

    2. It occurs to me that since Space Marines are all basically as tough as each other with only minor variations (TB+Armour tending to range from 16-20), I really should be running more combats where multiple opponents are spread out, so it ends up making sense for Nicolai to jetpack into hand-to-hand combat with a Chaos Space Marine Devastator to stop them getting their heavy bolter in play whilst Iacomo uses his heavy bolter to hold the orks at bay whilst Erec engages in psychic combat with a Chaos Sorcerer (for example). Unfortunately the modules we've been running haven't been designed that way, at least so far. I may take a look at the next adventure to see what I can work in.

    3. That could certainly be one way to compensate. The scenarios seem to generally feature X of enemy Y in a cluster, which means it feels right to treat them as a group even if they could technically could be individuals. The Chaos Marines are maybe the only ones who'd have naturally ended up splitting if they hadn't been fried.

      I might turn some of these comments into another post, I'm finding this quite interesting.

    4. Incidentally, does Deathwatch allow for interesting psychic duels, or is it basically just Smite tag?

    5. You can nullify enemy powers with a Psychic Hood, but otherwise it's smite-tag.

    6. Re: more diverse/widely spaced enemy groups.

      I'm not sure that entirely solves the problem, because it still leaves Nikolai doing a job that Erec or Iacomo could probably do *better*. A heavy bolter or a smite is a far more effective way to take out an enemy devastator than a jump pack.

      So I'd worry that we'd still wind up in a situation where Nikolai was just doing whatever job was left over.

    7. Certainly I get the impression that while Nikolai is vastly better at killing things in melée, the other characters are much more effective at simply killing them.

      Assault Marines do have definite strengths, including being able to survive melée much better, rapid movement, and oh yes, flight. Those are very cool, and Nikolai's done a number of things that would be very difficult for any other character - he's an excellent point man and scout precisely because he can run away very well.

      I'm inclined to say part of the difficulty is that the major strengths of an Assault Marine (at the levels we've seen) aren't actually their ability in melée at all, but their movement capabilities, and this is unintuitive.

      Post on this discussion is inevitably on its way.