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.


  1. You might want to hold fire for a bit just to see what difference dual-wielding power swords makes: if I recall correctly they put your melee attack damage up to 1D10 + 18 Pen 6, which compares favourably with heavy bolter damage.

    Also, while it's nice of you to try to accommodate us, I think there are also things that the Librarian and I can do to make ourselves a bit more amenable to melee combat. Iacomo's WS isn't terrble (although it's annoyingly expensive to raise as a Devastator) and strangely Devastators *do* get some melee bonuses.

    I also suspect that the way we play undermines a lot of the advantages of an Assault Marine. Because the game is fairly lighthearted and focuses a lot on a very OTT playstyle, it doesn't really matter if we respond to every threat with a hail of heavy bolter fire and Force Lightning. If we did more stealth and recon missions, our massive arsenal of pyrotechnics would be a lot more difficult to use.

    Of course, the way we play, stealth and recon really aren't sensible options, not least because we're all wearing bright yellow armour.

    Similarly, I suspect that a lot of the things we ignore - like limited ammo or the sheer impracticality of toting multiple heavy weapons - would likewise shift the balance more towards the lightly armed melee fighter.

  2. I'm not sure if it came across that way, but this was definitely supposed to be an observation-discussion post rather than a complaint...

    It looks like various things, power swords and newly-rockin' initiative amongst them, will push Nikolai into being more dangerous in melée, and that's fine with me. That being said, it doesn't do much about the party dynamic and general design stuff, which is possibly more significant. Very broadly speaking, it doesn't especially matter what number of damage Nikolai can do in melée, only whether charging into melée is a good option. If it's not a good option quite a lot of the time, then focusing *all* my XP on improving his melée capabilities isn't the most useful thing to do with it. And let me point out, I genuinely like skill-monkeying and I always imagined him that way inclined.

    As you say, our playstyle as well as our group is reasonably supportive of a noisy shooting approach to problems (although it must be said that jump packs, grenades and chainswords aren't precisely subtle either), and unless you're proposing we change that, which I'm not sure anyone would be in favour of, it's not especially likely that assault is going to become a big part of our games.

    The thing you may be forgetting a bit is that Nikolai is already really very good at fighting things in melée. He's very nearly as good as he could be at this level. So I'm not talking about turning an assault marine into an elderly short-sighted botany professor with an interest in Icelandic cuisine here. What I'm thinking is that instead of spending XP at ever-spiralling rates to make him even better at melée when it eventually breaks out, I could use it to make Nikolai significantly better at some other things that come up regularly in missions, and make sure to buy him a weapon with some decent range. Melée stat increases are looking diminishing-returnsy at the moment, and I suspect breadth rather than specialisation is currently more likely to increase fun.

    There's a certain amount of accommodation, I won't lie, but I think it's a fairly sensible approach in the circumstances. I'm happy to have a bit more melée if it seems like fun, and certainly I'd probably enjoy some recon missions, but it strikes me that it would actually be a bit daft for Iacomo to start wading in with a chainsword if the option of the heavy bolter presents itself. We're really not having a problem where my dreadful gaming buddies refuse to indulge me in melée combat here.

    On the whole I suspect outside a dedicated assault team à la tabletop, the most sensible use for an assault marine probably is the point man with... I dunno, probably a bolter's as good as anything, although flamers are always fun. He's the best equipped to deal with things dropping on his head, he can get out of trouble faster than anyone else, and if anything does look like surviving into melée he can rush across with chainswords and turn it into hamburger.

    Incidentally, given the heavy bolter can go for 25 rounds on an ammo load and the average encounter lasts two rounds, I'm not sure limiting ammo would make too much difference!

    1. I wasn't so much thinking about us wading into melee for no clear reason as being more culturally open to situations where things fall back to melee combat.

      For example, the current division of labour tends to be that Erec and Iacomo zap the heavies while Nikolai ties up the Hordes. Part of the reason we do this is that Arthur is actually a little bit generous in his interpretation of how Hordes work. There's no particular reason that a Horde couldn't attack all of us at once (tying up my bolter, freeing Nikolai to go after high-priority targets). Of course the flip side of this is that it could encourage us to engage from even greater distances.

      Also, as you've observed, one of the problems with being a skillmonkey is that the 40K system really doesn't reward it that much. Partly for the slightly metagame reason you mentioned after the game (if nobody has the skill, the GM will probably find a workaround, if somebody does have the skill, you can roll and fail), partly because the highest level of skill you can get in the game is +30, which is a huge investment of XP for a bonus you can more than make up for with equipment and circumstantial modifiers. It's made even worse by the fact that the game strictly restricts the amount of points you can spend on a skill at any given rank, and by the fact that any given skill is likely to be rolled less than once a session on average, meaning all you get for your XP is a 10% chance per session of succeeding at something you would have failed at. 90% of the time your investment does literally nothing.

      Case in point, I seem to recall that Nikolai *does* already have training in Demolitions, but I'm also pretty sure that he has *never actually passed a Demolitions check*.

    2. Fair enough, I get it now. As you say, I'm not sure how much can be done. The more I look at it, the more I'm inclined to think the heavy bolter itself is the root of the issue, but that may be lack-of-sleep-induced excessiveness.

      That's true enough - I had it for Stony Sleep and failed the roll that came up.

    3. I'm inclined to agree that the Heavy Bolter itself is at least a big part of the issue.

  3. Another thought that I really ought to have had earlier:
    Coming back to the issue of getting into melée, there's an additional problem with surprise melée encounters, which is that the kind of enemies who want to end up in melée with you are almost certainly enemies that you don't actually want to fight in melée anyway. In fairness though, an assault marine is likely to do better against them than anyone else.

    1. I think that's partly true, although I think we were probably scared a little by genestealers.

      A Chaos Space Marine might well want to fight in melee, but would probably be even deadlier fighting with a bolter. Quite a lot of tyranid creatures are melee-only, but not the powerhouse you expect from a 'stealer or a full blown 'nid warrior.