As you may recall, gentle reader, I am a fan of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. I have previously enjoyed some very straight-faced (and silly) games of Deathwatch under Arthur's guidance; I hope at some point to complete the campaign we were running.
For the past few months, I have been taking part in a very different angle on the whole business: a Black Crusade campaign, run by Dan. This is, for those of you not in the know, like switching from playing the Fellowship of the Ring (in an alternative universe where all of you are Strider, or possibly Legolas) to playing three distant relations of Wormtongue hiding out in the big city and plotting its downfall.
I'm not particularly proposing to discuss the campaign and its events in detail, but to waffle a bit about some specific ideas. This is going to get long; I don't really want to break up a review of a single product into several posts, but equally there's a lot to say. Sorry.
I have quite mixed feelings about the Black Crusade rulebook, because it both excels and flubs.
On the plus side, I think the rules of the game are solid (and an improvement on the former line), offering a richly detailed and satisfyingly crunchy small-ops-tactical combat experience while at least gesturing towards handling things that aren't brutal violence. It seems to handle most situations well enough.
But they foolishly neglected to consult me about bolt weapons.
More importantly, I think it does a good job at selling you on the premise. This is quite a tricky balancing act, even allowing that they can reasonably assume most players are existing Warhams fans.
In Black Crusade, you are trying to introduce the astoundingly complicated universe built up by the tabletop game, computer games, board games, mountains of tie-in fiction and previous RPGs over the course of over thirty years - a universe whose most important details span ten thousand years and include dozens of important individuals, locations, battles, metaphysical concepts and the unique set of physical and magical laws required for an incredibly metal dark science fantasy setting.
The designers have to introduce all of this - at least in outline - in a digestible way, so that somoene without exhaustive knowledge can at least understand what's going on. They introduce the concepts of the self-sacrificing Emperor, the heroic Adeptus Astartes who guard humanity, the constant battle against terrible alien threats and the all-destroying Chaos Powers. This is the reality to which people getting involved in the universe generally become accustomed.
Then they need to completely subvert that, because in this game you are playing servants of those selfsame Chaos Powers bent on bringing down the Imperium and bringing appalling carnage to the human race.
Considering everything, I think they do well. In something like this, you have to tread quite lightly, because to an extent you want to be able to present turning to the worship of dark and terrible gods and plotting the destruction of human civilisation while you slowly lose your sanity and mutate into a hideous demon as something the player can get behind.
The writers have carefully spun the whole story from a new angle. They play up the worst of the Imperium - which, to be fair, is not hard - and emphasise its hypocrisies, selfishness, power struggles, war crimes and corruption. They point to the Chaos Gods as a source of power to change that, as one of the few options left to those desperate for freedom from the stifling of the Imperium. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's clear that you are not good people - but they make it sound plausible, defensible and frankly fun.
The writing and art also carry the right tone and polish, for me at least, to give me the sense of how things are, of who you are, and to immerse me in the setting and the premise. There are armoured people covered in skulls and spikes, preposterous weapons, gibbering hellbeasts, worlds tormented by hideous powers, and contemptible Imperial lackeys to challenge you. The cynical, deceptive, rabble-rousing language lets you believe that the Imperium is beyond salvation and the only choice left is to embrace Chaos.
But it's not all good news. Unfortunately, the editing of all that work is sadly lacking. I mean, really sadly lacking. It's hard for me to make a genuine comparison with Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition, because the types of failure are so different.
Just in general, there are errors. There are scattered typos (inevitable). More problematically, there are incorrect page number references, and links which don't point to the topic in question. The index is insufficient, lacking entries for even some important rules like Pinning or Cover. Obviously these make finding information difficult.
There also seem to be issues with the searchability of the PDF, which is all I own. Sometimes there seems to be a problem with the searchable text so that it doesn't recognise the word you want. Sometimes it seems to be misaligned with the visible text, so the word is in a nearby paragraph but not where it claims to be. Again, when you're trying to play the game and just need to double-check a rule, it's a problem.
What makes these little problems into big ones is that the layout of the game is frankly suboptimal. Of course, you always have to make some tough decisions about what should go where. However, what we end up with is in some cases deeply inconvenient.
Let's take equipment. The rules for acquiring equipment in Black Crusade don't involve money at all, and are much more abstract. Instead, you have an Infamy score that (amongst other things) reflects how much clout you have. The higher your Infamy, the easier it is to get what you need. You tell the GM what you're looking for, negotiate if necessary (for example, you might need to visit a particular location), and roll against Infamy. There are modifiers based on how rare the item is, how many you want, and then a whole slew based on its condition.
Different GMs handle the exact mechanic differently. In our case, we say roughly what we want, then roll, then adjust the outcome based on the result. For example, if you roll badly, you might get a damaged item; if you roll well, you might get a high-quality one, or another bit of equipment that's similar but better.
This is partly for convenience, and largely because it makes no sense whatsoever to say "I am looking for a badly-maintained, poor quality autocannon made of radioactive metal with a telescopic sight", since you are very rarely looking for something inferior. What you are looking for is probably an autocannon. Or maybe even just any automatic weapon.
To take some basic examples: a spoon is a Ubiquitous (+70) item. There are Craftmanship modifiers from +10 to -20. There are also modifiers based on how many you need (+10 for one, -60 for 1000+). If my Infamy is 20, I can try to obtain one poor-quality spoon with a +90 modifier, letting me roll 1d100 against a score of 110. If I want 1000 spoons, I have to roll against 40 instead.
It is surprisingly difficult for anyone to obtain large quantities of spoons in the 41st Millennium, but then the tagline was never "In the Grim Darkness of the Far Future There is Only War, and Spoons".
On the other hand, a Warp Cannon is Near Unique (-50). If I want to obtain ten (-10) Best quality (-20) Warp Cannon with a Telescopic Sight (-10), I have to roll at a -90 penalty, which means it's virtually impossible for even the most famous of heretics to do so.
One of the slight quirks of the system is that if you can obtain a single incredibly rare and potent item, it's easy to obtain ten of them; only a 20 point difference, which is small compared to the rarity modifier. The same applies to very common items. Conversely, I think (if I understand statistics correctly) that if the item is moderately common, quantity is much more significant, because the quantity modifier is relatively large compared to the rarity modifier.
Getting ten Spoons rather than one affects your modifier by 2:7 (with a basic character within Infamy 20 it's the difference between rolling under 90 and under 50). Getting ten greatswords (Scarce +0) rather than one affects the modifier by 2:0 (with a basic character with Infamy 20 it's the difference between having a roll under 40 and an impossible roll under 0).
This all raises the question of how anyone in the Imperium ever eats soup.
Anyway! As you can see, there are lots of modifiers. Every single piece of equipment in the game has a Rarity value. And yet, the rules for equipment acquisition, which list all of those modifiers, are a full 240 pages away from the pages which list the equipment with their Rarity values. This means that deciding what equipment to look for, or deciding what adjustments to make to equipment based on the result of an acquisition roll, means flicking right across the rulebook.
In our group, we end up with the GM and several players all using the rulebooks a lot of the time, each of us taking responsibility for providing different bits of information as they come up: critical hit tables, hit locations, ranged combat modifiers, equipment mechanics... I have also had to create a cribsheet which combines tables from throughout the rulebook into a handy reference document.
There are other weird decisions; like how there are two copies of the entire Talent (special ability) list in different parts of the rulebook. One of them indicates which Chaos God a Talent is associated with, a vital piece of information for character development - the other doesn't.
So yeah, I have to give the rulebook a distinctly middling verdict, and it's one of those frustrating ones that's a mixture of high and low points. It's ease-of-use that's the primary issue for me. It gets better over time, I think, but...
An Anti-Paladin Problem
Another topic which raised itself in my mind is that Black Crusade offers an interesting variation of the Paladin Problem.
I think far more so than many other games, the idea of playing a bunch of villains who are probably (eventually) dedicated to different Chaos Gods - and so have not only different end goals, but also very different methods - lends itself to loose association. Rather than being a merry band of fellow adventurers, you are probably people who find it convenient to cooperate in an ad-hoc way.
Essentially you are operating an inspiringly cutting-edge freelance gig economy portfolio lifestyle, although admittedly in this analogy the "lifestyle" is being perpetually hunted by the terrifying Inquisition, the "portfolio" is switching between your cover identities and a variety of abominable plans, the "economy" is the exchange of favours and threats with other terrifyingly powerful and sometimes immortal beings, the "gigs" mostly involve people dying in utterly horrific ways, the "freelance" is not unconnected with your habit of disposing of anyone who learns your true identity, and the "cutting edge" is the whirling serrated chainsaw blade attached to your bionic arm, rune-inscribed and dripping with daemonic ichor.
Anyway, it's a relatively friendly setting for loner-type characters: in a lot of cases you'll be starting in Imperial territory, so you're operating partly undercover, you avoid making too many contacts, and in some cases you spend a lot of your time in isolation doing evil. This is all fine.
It's also a setting where most characters are broadly sociopathic and frequently insane.
Sociopathy for fun and profit
In a generic RPG, a lot of the time you are approximate heroes, and you can assume that the party is held together partly by a broad desire to do things for the public good. This benevolence helps keep you together even when you disagree about methods or priorities, encourages you to get involved in ongoing events (which often affect the public), to care about each others' plot arcs, or to feel a connection to NPCs. Of course, as generally good people you also often have plenty of other common goals and reasons to associate.
If PCs don't really care about other people, though, all of these are up in the air. There is no inherent drive to care about the fate of NPCs and of society.
This has two knock-on effects. The first is that it defuses various GM hooks: the PC won't necessarily feel the urge to protect bystanders, destroy threats to a community, uphold justice and so on. The second, and more substantial, is that when the PC's own decisions are made, the consequences for people around them (and particularly for strangers) are a very low priority.
To put it briefly: a relatively heroic PC, on hearing that a monster is attacking the town, will generally feel the urge to stop it because of a generic desire to protect others. If forced to take drastic action, they will generally aim to minimize the negative effects of their actions on others.
A sociopathic PC has neither of these constraints. There is no automatic reason for them to take the effort (and risk) of confronting or even indirectly opposing the monster, if they don't care what happens to NPCs. If it does become in their interests to do so, and detonating a huge firebomb seems the best way to kill it, they don't particularly have to worry about collateral damage. In fact, one of the most reliable tactics might well be to plant the firebomb in a large cluster of civilians because that will attract the monster, and detonating it while they're being eaten will ensure it's affected.
This isn't necessarily a problem. Different PCs have different goals, motivations and personalities, and will always react in different ways. Part of the GM's job is making sure the hooks, NPCs and goings-on are suitable for engaging the PCs they're presented with (of course, this relies on the players making PCs suited to the game that has been agreed on).
They called me mad. Because I was cacklingly insane.
The Warhammer 40,000 games have Insanity mechanics, and over time Black Crusade characters in particular will accumulate insanities from their abominable behaviour. But to be honest, all characters in Black Crusade are somewhat insane.
The protagonists of Black Crusade have spurned conventional morality and philosophy, and embraced the forbidden Chaos Gods. They relish the great sins: pointless carnage, the spreading of disease, hedonism and terrible knowledge (some are more insane-seeming than others). All are willing to, at the least, make enormous sacrifices for things people don't understand.
I mean, our not-particularly-bats low-level low-Chaos party consists of the following (at least, in my imperfect understanding of other people's characters):
- A knowledge broker who cares about nothing but his own advancement
- A wealthy, plausible serial killer
- A mad scientist obsessed with perfecting the human form
- An AWOL soldier determined to overthrow the tyrannical Imperium and usher in a new era of responsible liberty, whether the people want it or not
They view the rest of humanity somewhere on the scale from "expendable for the sake of" to "prey". All of them would happily accept the proposition "Millions will die, but..." in circumstances most people would consider alarming.
I think where hiccups can break out is where there are significant disparities in sociopathy between members of the party.
So with the Paladin, the Problem is roughly this:
- the paladin's moral code imposes a roleplaying constraint on the other members of the party;
- this code is hard to work around because it is a moral one intrinsic to the character's nature;
- if the paladin ignores it, this both undermines the premise of their character and imposes mechanical penalties;
- if the other characters seek ways around it, this tends to position them as bad or at least morally compromised, which can undermine the player's intentions;
- unless the other characters comply with the paladin's code, the party is liable to be drawn into open conflict, and it's hard to justify them remaining together;
- since the code is a very strict moral one, events can easily unfold so that a paladin feels compelled to slay their companions or vice versa.
So the paladin tends to become the moral arbiter of a party, so that other party members must comply with their code or the party will struggle to remain intact, potentially erupting in a fight to the death. As a result, the Overton Window* is drawn towards the most Lawful Good of the characters. The party is irrevocably shaped, so that it is a Paladin and their Companions, directed by the goals and judgement of the Paladin, not a party of equals.
*Overton Window: that is to say, the set of behaviours and attitudes that it's acceptable or even conceivable to adopt.
With Black Crusade (and other games along similar lines) a parallel process can occur. What happens here is that the Overton Window becomes dictated by the most outrageous member of the party (the Sociopath).
- the sociopath has no intrinsic constraints upon their behaviour because they don't care about other people or social pressures;
- other characters are faced with either accepting their behaviour, or challenging it;
- if there is a logical extrinsic constraint (such as personal gain or fear or consequences) this can be suggested as a reason to avoid extreme behaviour, though this becomes difficult if that motivation wouldn't occur to the second character;
- if other characters constantly have to provide reasons for the sociopath to refrain from unwanted behaviour, this can positions them as highly manipulative, or as petitioners pleading with the sociopath to control themselves, either of which can undermine the player's intentions;
- alternatively, if the other characters go along with the sociopath's extreme behaviours, this makes them the kind of people who would endorse this behaviour, effectively making them more sociopathic;
- if the sociopath constantly tends towards behaviour that's considered extreme and undesirable by their allies, it becomes hard to justify their continued cooperation;
- in many cases, the behaviour is extreme enough that allies might consider it better for their own interests to imprison or kill the sociopath, aside from any questions of their own moral codes;
This situation is particularly exacerbated by the second axis of Black Crusade, madness. A reasonable sociopath might not care about other people, but is likely to consider logical arguments such as their own convenience, the consequences of behaviour for their long-term goals, and so on.
If the sociopath is also mad, however, this doesn't apply. And this issue can creep in particularly as Black Crusade characters head along the path from mere ne'erdowells to full-blown worshippers of the Chaos Gods. As "cause indescriminate death, as much as possible" becomes more important to you than remaining alive, for example, it's hard to see good reason for self-restraint.
As a tertiary factor, since in Black Crusade the whole party is fairly sociopathic and murderous, it makes a lot of sense for them to kill off an ally who they decide is becoming a hindrance or a potentially disastrous wildcard, let alone someone who might actively threaten their interests. This is rather different from the Paladin Problem, where often the whole party is Good-aligned and therefore inclined to work hard at resolving things in everyone's best interests.
So here, what can happen is the Overton Window is drawn towards the most outrageous of the characters, and the party is in danger of becoming Crazy Murderweasel and their Lackeys: a group directed and constrained by the whims of the Sociopath.
As a result, I think it's really important for players in this game to ensure they are on the same page about the expected level of sociopathy and madness, and also to discuss it as the campaign progresses and their characters change (becoming more of both those things).
A quick example
As an example, our campaign featured a point where we were discussing whether to use immortal, eternally-dividing daemon-rats to wipe out the cops terrorising our settlement, as our mad scientist proposed. I mean, he'd accidentally made them, might as well put them to good use, right?
There are some obvious disadvantages to this strategy - the annihilation of both the city and, eventually, the planet being the main one. Other suggested options included demolishing most of the settlement by dropping the hive-dome roof onto it, and so on. All of them workable and (as a player) highly enjoyable, but with consequences serious enough to be undesirable. Our mad scientist, however, doesn't care much about that kind of thing, and at the time was inclined to revel in the potential havoc that might be wrought while hubristically insisting that he would escape the planet before it was destroyed. It would, after all, be an amazing demonstration of the power of science.
Now, since our group are all pretty reasonable people, we had a discussion about the currently-expected levels of sociopathy, and our mad scientist decided that on balance he probably wasn't that mad yet. He continued to throw out the suggestions in-character, but reluctantly accepted our counterarguments about damaging our own interests, drawing unwanted attention and so on. The rats were put away for another time, and perhaps a bit more research into countermeasures.
(We settled instead on capturing some cyborg police dogs and surgically altering them to breathe a horrifying mutagenic gas on anyone wearing police armour, because appallingly dangerous gases, like rampaging mutants, are well-known for staying entirely under control.)
However. With a less reasonable group of players or less group consensus on expectations, this situation could have gone badly. The other players might have felt obliged to go along with one of the mass-destruction plans, essentially turning their characters much more chaotically-deranged than they were originally intended to be. Or, if the mad scientist continually demonstrated an unstable sociopathy that threatened the other characters' interests, those players might have felt pushed into taking drastic action against the scientist.
It is, after all, quite easy in a game like this for a powerful PC who's linked to your group and interfering in local events to present as a far greater and more immediate threat than the supposed enemy. The Imperial forces are technically everywhere, but generally only interfering in your life in a rather distant way, and are ubiquitous enough to be a major long-term challenge. The ally who might suddenly decide to settle a score with your neighbours by razing your hometown to the ground, or inspire a general witch-hunt by publically unleashing daemons upon a rival, is a threat right now and one that you're in a position to do something about. You don't need complications in your plans for galactic domination, and a simple bolt shell in the back of the skull will take care of one complication.
A brief tangent
This stuff is, of course, absolutely not restricted to Black Crusade, or even to groups of "evil" characters. I've seen accounts of Chaotic D&D characters going wild (usually setting things on fire for little or no reason), leaving the rest of the party with the option either to cover up and support their behaviour, or to kick them out of the party. I've seen accounts of Call of Cthulhu characters going right off the rails: threatening innocents, attacking police rather than risk arrest, and of course, setting things on fire for little or no reason.
In all cases the problem is the same: if one character does pull this kind of stunt, the rest of the characters (and players) have to decide how to respond to a drastic situation. In most cases, the realistic in-character response is to assume the Sociopath is either insane or sociopathic, and therefore to put a stop to their activities, or at the very last get away from them ASAP. This means things like trying to turn them in to the authorities, or indeed killing them.
All of these come with a lot of associated problems, often of a practical nature. If you're a Call of Cthulhu investigator, turning your crazy friend in after they threaten a bunch of pensioners and then burn down a police station is a serious problem, because they probably have a lot of evidence against you for all the B&E you've been doing, plus the stolen arcane tomes in your study. At the very least, they might start ranting to the police about the weird things that are happening, and you might have to come up with some convincing explanations for your own bizarre activities, or some very hasty alibis, which puts you at risk.
But there's also the metagame consideration, which is that you wanted to play Game, and this other player is part of your group, so kicking their character out creates an OOC problem. So do you, instead, sigh and OC overlook the bizarre IC behaviour? But that affects the IC universe, since now your character is someone who overlooks that kind of thing.
It cuts both ways, of course. Since I'm playing a character who (nominally) cares about the Common Citizen and wants to overthrow the Imperium so as to bring them something undetermined but definitely worth the deaths of countless billions, my character tends to be more interested in the NPCs than some others. There's also the practical point that as someone trying to start a mass movement, people are very much his raw material. But I'm used to playing in heroic games, and I do need to constantly remind myself that my character is not actually a hero, even if that's how he sees himself, and needs to maintain a relatively utilitarian attitude to the masses around him. A few will, of course, become great heroes of the Revolution... but all are ultimately expendable. If I drift too far into Good-type heroic behaviour, I become the Paladin Problem myself.
Corruption, Insanity and Your Glorious Future
One of the great strengths of the game is its mechanics for, well, becoming a terrifyingly inhuman champion of the Dark Gods.
The Corruption and Insanity rules aren't new; they've existed in previous games, most notably in Dark Heresy, whose noirish tone lends itself easily to the slow degradation of those who would fight the darkness from the shadows. However, they really come into play here with the way the progress of characters in the service of Chaos is tied to increasing Corruption.
As your character commits deeds that serve the Dark Gods, shatter their humanity, or simply corrupt them in generic ways (such as exposure to horrible mutagens), their Corruption increases. At 10 and then each multiple of 20 points, they receive a Gift of the Gods. Depending on how successful they're being, and the luck of the dice (for Chaos is nothing if not chaotic) this might manifest as a major boon, a relatively beneficial change, something fairly neutral, a change with serious advantages and also strong disadvantages, or a serious impediment.
- A very successful character who's also aligned to one of the Chaos Gods may receive a Mark, bringing several advantages. An unaligned character might gain an Illusion of Normality, which not only brings its own benefits, but also conceals even the most bizarre of mutations.
- The character might gain the ability to spit fire, inspire terror or occasionally phase out of reality.
- The character may gain a small benefit to a particular stat or skill, with a counterbalancing penalty
- The character may be wreathed in flame, good for intimidation but bad for most interactions; or have one limb replaced with a powerful blade.
- The character may lose a limb, go blind or become seriously deluded.
In general I find it a very flavourful system, and I think mechanically it's okay. A lot of the time you have relatively good control over what happens to your character, as you can usually choose from a few different effects.
It can have some serious downsides, though. If you get unlucky, it's quite possible that your character is rendered very hard to use (at least as you intended them) on your very first roll. Now, in this game it's important to bear in mind that you mustn't get too attached to a character's appearance, since mutation is very much the order of the day! However, mechanically speaking there can be genuine problems here.
Normally, you can modify the results of a Gifts roll using your Infamy, and there are also God-related tweaks. If you gain Corruption points from a failure, though you don't get any choice over the results, but roll once and can't modify it.
The other important factor is that there is no level-type scaling in the severity of mutations. Everything's up for grabs from the off. So, try the following (assuming that you gain a Gift from a failure so can't affect the result):
- You build a sniper. Your first roll is a 12. You roll a random sense and become permanently blind, "with all the penalties that apply". This includes failing any vision-based tests and all Ballistic Skill tests. You can aim to get bionic senses eventually, which will require a roll on your Infamy (about 25 for starting characters). Until you find a way to do so your character is largely useless. Most characters would be pretty useless, but yours is particularly so.
- You build an acrobatic skirmisher with very high Agility designed to dart around the battlefield using speed and agility to compensate for fragility. Your first roll is an 85, Strange Walk. Your movement speed is halved, leaving you slower than the average scribe and easy prey for ranged weaponry.
- You create a plausible, charismatic character who manipulates others and does a lot of undercover work. Your first Gift is a Featureless Face, a Flaming Skull, Inside Out or any of the other mutations that both nerf your social skills and make you incredibly conspicuous.
- You are a two-weapon-wielding combat monster. Your first roll is a Limb Loss and you lose your favourite arm.
I also have some concerns about the turned-up-to-11 nature of the mutations. Don't get me wrong, this is very much in keeping with the source material. However, it does mean that any kind of covert operations can become very difficult very quickly, and in particular that operating on an Imperial world is extremely risky. You simply never know when you might suddenly start to look incredibly Chaos-tainted.
Of the 46 possible Gifts of the Gods, at least 21 are blatant manifestations of severe mutation and likely of Chaos taint. These at the very least make you highly distinctive and so make any kind of disguise (especially as a named individual) or covert operation extremely difficult. More likely, they will actively make bystanders afraid of you, inspire hate-mobs and draw powerful enemies down on you.
Several others are less blatant but still liable to mark you as a dangerous mutant if anyone notices them. And it's certainly going to be difficult to handle anything like washing, changing clothes in public, in some cases engaging in combat, or of course that favourite of Slaaneshites, debauchery.
I think here I'm slightly sorry that there isn't any kind of mechanical escalation. You're just as likely to grow wings on your first roll as your last. Narratively, this means a character who's only got a slight association with the Chaos Gods can suddenly become an obvious mutant right off the bat. It means there isn't any link between the epicness of your campaign and the chaoticness of your characters. If your mutations became more blatant and extreme as your characters grew in power, this would make a lot of sense; higher-level characters are likely to be engaging in open battle with the Imperium anyway, dealing with powerful entities, leading retinues, and so the fact that your have a skull for a head isn't making a lot of difference to your activities.
As things stand, I think it's going to be difficult to run a subversion-type campaign. That's a shame, because these are a classic tactic of chaos cults as depicted in the games and the literature. It's also a classic type of gameplay just in general.
Running any kind of campaign on an Imperial world also looks vulnerable. Here the issue isn't so much about plausibility, because in theory that campaign could be about openly battling the Imperium as horrible mutants. Rather, it's that at any moment, a switch could be flipped that's completely out of the players' and the GM's hands. You might begin by slowly corrupting the good citizens of the Hive, or even by running a cult in the wilderness and regularly passing through Imperial territory to gather supplies; but as soon as you roll a major mutation, that gameplay becomes difficult to sustain and you're pushed towards the more open conflict.
In fact, it's a particular problem because I feel there should be a link between your personal power and the type of action happening in the campaign, but that's not necessarily the case. Early mutation could push you into serious armed conflict before your character has really gained the power to handle it effectively. Of course, the GM can keep things balanced, but that's another bit of responsibility for them. In particular it may be hard to keep things at a plausible level of threat, if the PCs are low in power, but as Chaos-tainted mutants openly attacking the Imperium they should be meeting serious opposition.
Mileage may vary on this. In many ways I like the sheer unpredictability, because that feels right for Chaos in many ways. It's random, it doesn't have any comprehensible affection for even the most devoted servants, and it's turned up to 11. On the other hand, I think there's an argument that sudden massive mutation is better suited to the turbulent tabletop games (where it's just part of a brief mad excitement) and to the fiction (where it's under the iron control of the author and used for dramatic purposes), rather than to a roleplaying game where you're strongly invested in a character and are aiming to create a long-running narrative experience that might be seriously disrupted by this kind of random factor.
The impression I'm getting is that the designers really expect this to be run as a pretty openly Chaotic game, where you start off either on a Chaos world or a non-Imperial one at least, fight your way to power against other warbands and aliens, and then begin open attacks on the Imperium. And that's a fine premise, it's just not the only possibility.
Experience and Advancement
As usual, you slowly enhance your character's abilities by gaining experience. There's typically a mechanic for tying some kinds of advances to your character concept more closely than others: in Deathwatch it's your military specialisation (melee, ranged, generalist, psyker, mechanic...) and in Only War it's a slightly complicated-looking system of favouring some attributes over others.
For Only War, obviously the system is alignment with the various Chaos Gods. So it's cheaper to buy advances that are tied to a god you align with, more expensive to buy advances tied to their opposing gods.
I find this thematically very pleasing, and for the most part it works mechanically. They've obviously had to make some slightly tricky decisions in order to keep things balanced: they want to give each god the same number of tied Characteristics, Skills and Talents. Naturally, the game not being designed from the ground up around that principle, it doesn't divide up neatly in a very organic way - even with most things being lumped into the Unaligned section. I think they were also keen to try and ensure that they didn't assign too many high-value or low-value things to any specific god.
Thus, we find that Strength, but not Weapon Skill, is assigned to Khorne, the god of wanton slaughter in (preferably) close combat. To be fair, other gods also use close combat a lot, as does everyone... and I'm sure a lot of motivation was that they didn't want followers of other gods having to pay a higher price for the upgrade. Moreover, because buying upgrades tied to one god pulls you towards their allegiance, making Weapon Skill a Khornate upgrade would punish other characters by pushing them towards Khorne and making it harder to maintain their chosen allegiance, even though they're just aiming to be mechanically competent at a core part of the gameplay (combat).
Along similar lines, Nurgle is left with the skillset of Medicae (makes some sense), Intimidate (really?) and Survival (...why?). The options for the other gods make rather more sense, but there honestly just isn't very much that fits with Nurgle.
How Do You Solve a Problem Like Nurgle?
I have to say actually, the RPG does for me really highlight the fact that I'm just not at all sure what to do with Nurgle. Each of the other gods has a fairly clear type of worshipper, who tend to have fairly obvious pathways to their allegiance. Khornates like bloodshed and fighting, and they are frenzied killers. Slaaneshites are hedonists who relish sensation and decadence, from narcotics to debate to the joy of battle. Tzeentchians seek hidden knowledge and change, and they're primarily psykers, occultists and obsessive conspiracy theorists.
But Nurgle is about pestilence, and I think it's actually quite difficult to come up with character concepts for that. It's great for the tabletop games, but problematic for an RPG. As such, I think it's correspondingly difficult to create the appropriate mechanical options. They've settled on making them very tough (they're already diseased and feel no pain, so...), and fearless (they laugh at the thought of pain or death, so...) and, somewhat randomly but I sort of get it, good at medicine. So you can be a mad plague doctor, although I have to say that crazy surgeons really sound more like a Slaaneshi character to me.
I think there's an interesting contrast here with the other gods. Khornate characters essentially choose from a range of melee powers, based around either berserking, mastery or raw power. Slaaneshite characters have options based on dexterity (those decadent supple cultists), speed (due to their heightened nerves), charisma and the artistry of murder. Tzeentchian characters may select from knowledge, uncanny marksmanship (guided by fate), psychic stuff and various foreknowledge-type abilities.
Each of those seems to me to suggest things about the type of character involved, and what they might be like. But with the Nurgle options, I don't really get that. I mean, a little bit - this character is very tough, okay, probably very stoic - but it feels a bit generic somehow.
I dunno. I feel like the other three gods have a much lower barrier for entry, in terms of making sense as a character concept. I can imagine the kinds of people who might have those inclinations, and be drawn along the path of Chaos. I still don't really get how a character would have got into "liking plague and being horribly diseased".
There's also some slightly odd knock-on consequences of the pricing structure, which end up being quite significant and counterintuitive.
So you want to align with Khorne, and the result of this is that buying Tzeentch upgrades will be more expensive, while Khorne upgrades become cheaper. This feels fine and right. You should be buying Khorne stuff, and this mechanically rewards you for doing so, while discouraging you from buying Tzeentch stuff.
However, at the beginning of the game you are not aligned at all. And this creates some very powerful incentives to behave strangely, because while you're unaligned, everything costs the same medium amount - neither cheaper nor more expensive.
Specifically, let's say you want your bloodthirsty berzerker to be strong-willed. Okay. Willpower is a Tzeentch upgrade, though. So the most sensible thing to do is this: when your character is first starting out along the pathway to Chaos Championship as a servant of Khorne, her first purchases are Tzeentchian. She buys up as much Willpower as she's ever going to want - taking care not to accidentally align with Tzeentch - before moving on to the Khornate upgrades. This feels rather odd in some ways, because narratively your progression is all wrong. You should be steadily drifting towards the service of Khorne, but instead you're going all mystical to begin with, even though your character concept is "likes bloodshed".
Of course, the pure-minded amongst you may be revolted. Why would you do such a thing? Surely, you should buy up the Khorne upgrades as you go, occasionally stopping to boost something Tzeentchian and forking over the extra cost willingly for the sake of maintaining your character's integrity. And I mean, I'm not going to knock that kind of devotion.
Here's the thing, though: As I make it out, if you think you want to pump one stat for an opposed god to the max, it will cost you 4750XP to do this while opposed, or 2500XP while unaligned, which is a huge difference. Even for Intermediate (two advances), which I suspect is quite common, you can save 500XP on a stat or 200XP on a skill, which is enough to buy yourself one or two extra advances.
I say common: the margin of 30% vs. 40% feels more significant than 40>50% and is also cheaper, so it's good value and well worth it for an important stat.
Although there are price reductions for aligned advances as well as price increases for opposing ones, in the vast majority of cases, the extra cost of buying up an opposed advance is far greater than the saving from buying an aligned one. And of course, more things are opposing than aligned - twice as many, in fact. So even if there's only a handful of tempting things, it's much easier to cost yourself money than to save it.
The general rule is that you save/cost 250/250XP on Characteristics, 100/150XP on Skills, and 250/250XP on Talents.
For some reason, buying the fourth upgrade on a Characteristic randomly costs 1500XP more for an opposed god, rather than 250XP more! That seems rather extreme (and very White Wolfy...). You can still only save 250XP by aligning.
There's a few other little anomalies too, mostly I think for the sake of making each progression look neat - 250/500/750 just looks nice. The biggest is that you can save more than expected on Tier 3 Talents by waiting for alignment. Since unlike other advances these don't come as a simple stacking progression (but may have prerequisites) this is one of the best areas for gerrymandering.
The upshot is that there's a very strong mechanical incentive to engage in the unintuitive behaviour. A would-be Khornate who begins by buying up their willpower to the highest level can pay 2500XP for this, rather than the 4750XP it will cost later. If you're muttering about nasty optimisers, bear in mind that means 2250XP spare for buying Khornate upgrades. Enough to pump your Strength to the highest possible (1600XP) followed by two or three cool aligned Talents. So you can get two maxed-out Characteristics instead of one, plus bonus stuff. And XP tends to trickle through fairly slowly (we got 2000 for our very action-packed first storyline) so that's a pretty sizeable deal.
This isn't a question of building an optimised character per se; it's really a question of building a character who has N worth of upgrades versus one who has 2N. The optimisation or otherwise of those upgrades is a side issue.
Because the Warhammer 40,000 line is fairly gritty and tactical in its mechanics, those points mean quite a lot. Small mechanical improvements can make a big difference to the outcome. This has two results. The first is that playing someone who has twice as many improvements will make you significantly more mechanically effective, and less likely to die. The second, more subtly, is that it will tend to make you mechanically better at being the sort of character you want to play, which means you will feel narratively more like that character.
So yeah, I'm rather torn about this one.
The rulebook presents a whole new sector of space, the Screaming Vortex, thus avoiding treading on any established toes. This is one of the assets of having such a huge setting to play with. There are lots of worlds offered here as seeds for the GM, several with attractive artwork, and all with some cool details to build on.
That being said, a slight disadvantage is that nothing is presented in very much detail; it's all at the level of the gazetteer, without anything very concrete for the GM to build on. I think if you wanted to even run a single game session on any of these worlds you'd have to do a significant amount of work to really benefit from it, let alone starting a campaign there. And that's a little odd, because there seems to be an assumption in the rulebook that you might well run most or all of your campaign within the Chaos-ruled worlds, either as a single planetary campaign or a sort of nightmarish space opera.
There are guidance notes on running such campaigns, and details of various power blocs, individuals and intriguing locations, but I still feel that the book would benefit from having even a single corrupted world presented in enough detail that the GM could easily begin a campaign there. This is particularly true because the normal rules of reality start to break down on these worlds, making them much more of a fantastical setting than the gothic industrial dystopia that is most of the Imperium. Without this, it's far easier and more natural to start on an Imperial world, where the way that things work has been much better articulated and depicted across a huge amount of writing, as well as in previous RPG books.
Don't get me wrong, I like what that have done, I just wish there was a fleshed-out example so the GM had a better idea what to do with these seeds.
I think the book does rather better when it comes to the adversaries depicted here. Each of them is given a tantalising description that makes them come alive, and often accompanied by illustrations. They tend to also include descriptions of how the creatures might behave, offering ideas for both combat and (occasionally) less direct challenges.
The mechanical profiles are rather complex, but that's an artefact of the system. I can't really criticise this, although in some ways I wonder whether it would be useful to find another more streamlined way to handle NPCs. The Bloodthirster, for example, has nine Talents and six Traits, plus three unique special abilities, and that's relatively modest. I wonder whether just summarising the actual benefits might be more usable. Then again, if the GM's memorised what all of those things do, it's easy enough. I... suspect that's rare. It's like the difficulty of remembering exactly how the twenty spells work that D&D 3.5 monsters ended up having.
I think the selection of adversaries is reasonable. There's a slightly tricky meta element, in that it's complementary to the other books in the range. Here you get daemons, some quite specific types of heretic including quite powerful ones (roughly equivalent to a PC), and a small selection of Imperial characters from the humble scribe to the bounty hunter, terrifying Grey Knight and deeply threatening Inquisitor. The aliens depicted are the necrons, plus a handful of dark eldar and the rather niche harlequins. I'm glad to see these appearing in a book, mind! However, if you want to encounter orks, tyranids, traditional eldar or tau you'll have to check out other books.
What is a little surprising is that I think you'll struggle to put together a convincing Imperial force to run games themed around either covert operations on Imperial worlds, or a straightforward campaign of warfare against them. There's the bare bones here, but not a huge amount of variety. In particular, vehicles are in the Only War rules, but you also don't have much in the way of elite units (you can go guardsman to space marine to grey knight, but nothing in between), special forces, or even the information to put together a straightforward Imperial Guard garrison. It's not a massive problem, but it is an obstacle to a GM who just wants to pick up the appropriate book and doesn't own all the others - or who doesn't want to cart multiple rulebooks around.
Of course, this is all a bit moot now, since Fantasy Flight gave up the licence and suddenly withdrew all their games from sale. This is a bit of a bummer since I'd have liked to add to my collection. I could, but I own PDFs for preference and don't really want to hunt down a lot of second-hand out-of-print books for completeness' sake. This leaves me missing a lot of NPC types, psychic powers, vehicle rules and all sorts of juicy goodies that would be generally useful. And, of course, all the scenarios other than those in the three core rulebooks I own.
I've spilled a lot of words trying to explain some reservations about the game, but fundamentally I like it very much. The actual game itself is a lot of fun so far, I think the writing is solid, the worldbuilding inspiring, and the mechanics work to create a suitably excessive-yet-gritty experience.
The impression I've got is that the game will be significantly better-suited to running a campaign themed around your rise to power amongst a Chaos warband somewhere on the fringes of space, where you can be fairly openly Chaotic and mutated. Such a campaign might well involve covert and subversive arcs where you undermine rivals or pirate organisations without it being 100% obvious who you worship.
It does seem as though the system is less suited to being the Enemy Within, since the Imperium is so very down on Chaos (understandably!) and since its manifestations are so very unsubtle. I'm somewhat concerned that this seems to shut down some of the playstyles that were offered in other lines. The Imperial forces have a wide range of choices: Dark Heresy permitted the whole "detective, covert ops, man with no name" sweep all the way up to "avenging witchhunters with the full weight of the government". Deathwatch offers tactical elite ops ranging from surgical strikes to exploration to turning a social order upside down. Only War has the ordinary soldier caught in the thick of battle, whether as mass combat or trouble erupting wherever you're stationed, as well as scope for something resembling normal social interactions.
The Chaos forces seem to get a much smaller slice of that; and of course it's a single game rather than three, but then maybe that's the point...
Basically, I think between the fact that you'll rapidly become obviously Chaos-tainted, the range of Imperial adversaries presented, and the presentation of the character archetypes as people already steeped in the worship of Chaos (rather than people in danger of falling to Chaos), it's going to be tough to run an Imperium-based campaign without a lot of work from the GM, some suspension of disbelief, and a certain amount of metagame understanding that you can't necessarily follow the rulebook at all times because there's the risk of a random roll blowing the whole campaign concept.
This isn't to say it's impossible; I just think you'll need a skilled GM, and probably to draw on the Imperium-centric rulebooks quite heavily to offer that kind of experience.
Similarly, a really gonzo Chaos campaign may be tricky to run. As I explained earlier, the information given doesn't seem to present any Chaos-occupied mundane worlds in enough detail to act as a setting, let alone the mad worlds that are actually Chaos-infused, or the full-blown Daemon Worlds.
A GM can of course throw descriptions about, but fundamentally you want to know how the social systems work, the power structures likely to occur and so on; and where a setting should be magical and warped, you also really want some mechanics to reflect the changes to the laws of physics. Yes, it's Chaos and therefore inconsistent; at the same time, I think in a gritty and mechanics-heavy system like this, players will want to know roughly how the weirdness operates and be able to plan for it or exploit it. I for one have no real idea how I'd populate a war world with warbands, or what kind of military and social power balance might exist between them, given how far the goals and philosophies of mad Chaos worshippers should differ from those of the sane.
On the whole, then, this seems like a good ruleset for running games themed around Chaos-tained piratical warbands raiding and pillaging and fighting aliens, or squabbling for power in relatively mundane settings. However, I think it doesn't quite provide the necessary support for all of the playstyles I was expecting, or that it seems to want to offer. There's much talk of the Screaming Vortex and the Daemon Worlds, but I genuinely think it would be a major endeavour for any GM to run games there. Yes, they explain that this should be at the highest levels of power, but at the same time there only seems to be a short amount of purely narrative description. To run a game there myself it seems I'd have to sit down and essentially write up a swathe of new mechanics, as well as making up the way these crazy worlds actually work from whole cloth. Frankly, avoiding that kind of work is precisely why I buy rulebooks instead of writing my own...
Don't let this put you off. There's a lot you can do with the game, and it's very evocative. Just be aware of the smoothest grain of the game, so you know how best to play along it, and where you might need to put in a lot of work if you want to try something beyond that.