One of the biggest potential issues with Deathwatch is that the games will presumably consist mostly of combat. If all you do is line up the Marines against an enemy, and roll dice until someone runs out of wounds, then yeah, it’ll get boring very quickly indeed.
To keep a combat oriented rpg interesting and exciting, the GM has to be well prepared and make the combat scenes interesting, beyond the simple and obvious aspects of the actual fight. An experienced GM will already have an armoury of ideas to draw on to make a combat more than simply a series of attack and damage rolls until someone dies.
Here are a few ideas for how to keep combats more interesting and varied. Please add to this list any ideas you have, and maybe we can assemble a good collection of ideas ready for people to take inspiration from when this game does reach the shelves.
Attack or Defence:
A simple and obvious distinction, but one that will make the difference between two otherwise similar scenes. I have, in the past, used the same map for two combats. First when the PCs were attacking, and then when they were defending. The different tactics involved make for a different experience.
Pushing, Retreating or Holding:
Are the PCs required to push forward towards a specific location or target, are they performing a fighting tactical retreat, or are they simply tasked with holding a specific location on the battlefield? The three make for completely different fights.
Stationary or In Motion:
Does the fight take place in a single location or is the action moving? The PCs may be moving about as they search for new targets, or the fight could be taking place on a moving platform (iceberg / grav platform / descending hive elevator / etc…).
Melee or Ranged:
Again, a simple and obvious distinction, but one that can make two fights against the same enemy a completely different experience. You could either have a fight using one or the other, a combination of both, or start as one and develop into the other.
Obviously, the PCs will often have a specific goal or target that will be the objective of their mission. This objective can be one aspect of a larger battlefield, like an enemy leader that has to be eliminated, a piece of equipment that has to be destroyed or retrieved, a location that has to be taken and held, a bridge that has to be destroyed. The larger battlefield and numerous enemies are simply obstacles and distractions that have to be fought through to achieve that goal.
The terrain can make a great difference to the battlefield, and can introduce tasks and obstacles that have to be overcome or dealt with during the fight. Examples include: slippery surfaces like ice or oil, deep snow or mud that slows movement, staging the fight on narrow ledges or cliff-sides to necessitate climbing and/or jumping rolls, having visibility obstructed by trees, boulders etc…
Rural, urban, subterranean, zero-g, on a ship, moon/asteroid surface….Try to avoid a combat map that is centred on an open field with the PCs at one end and the enemy at the other. Vary the environment as much as possible, placing every fight in a new location.
Make the battlefield itself dangerous or volatile. Examples: have the fight on a crumbling mountain ledge, randomly determining an area that falls away every few rounds; place the action in a promethium refinery, where stray shots could have explosive consequences; have a volcano erupt; have water flood in and fill the area; the battlefield contains unexploded mines from a previous war; the planet is undergoing an orbital bombardment; there is a ferocious lightning storm going on over the battle.
Putting the PCs on a timer is always a good way to enhance drama and urgency. Maybe they have a limited time in which the pass-code they have to escape the enemy fortress will work; they have to attain the bridge of the ship and prevent it from entering the warp and escaping before the backup fleet arrives; the ship/station is going to self destruct in ten minutes; their extraction can only take place at a specific time due to turbulent atmospheric conditions. While they are trying to achieve their goal within the allotted time, every round spent fighting is slowing them down.
Give them something to protect, something that they have to worry about the safety or integrity of. It’s fine for them to be confident that they can take a hail of hits from some puny autoguns, but can the frail little human they are escorting and protecting? Make then responsible for warding a caravan of refugees escaping a battlezone; how do they protect everyone while fighting off the ork assailants? Giving them people other than themselves to worry about the safety of gives a whole different view of a battlefield.
They have been well briefed, know exactly what they are going to be up against, and have planned and equipped accordingly. Then a new, unexpected enemy arrives before or even during the fight, screwing up their plans.
Neutrals in the Way:
Throw some civilians in the middle of the battlefield. Apart from getting in the way, this presents a dilemma that the PCs will have to consider: do they help the civilians escape or accept them as collateral damage?
Precision or Destruction:
The exact goal of the battle will define the tactics and weapons required. Are the Marines required to make very precise strikes or is it an all out destruction scene?
While not renowned for their stealth and subterfuge skills, making the Marines try to be sneaky sometimes can add a whole new element to the mission. Maybe the target they are trying to get to will leave the scene as soon as word gets out that they are on their way, so they have to get as close as possible if there’s to be any chance of success.
Yeah it’s a nasty trick, but sometimes throwing in a big scary enemy that they don’t have the capability to hurt is a good GMing tool. Such foes can be used to herd them in a specific direction, or finding the weak spot (or proper weapon) can be the actual focus of the mission/scene.
Throw in a seemingly random event that disrupts or changes the battlefield. Examples: a stampeding horde of animals; a ship or shuttle crash-lands on the scene mid action; there is an earthquake or rockslide.
Everyone hates a super stealthy sniper. The favourite NPC of the GM when the party are arguing, disputing or wasting time. Nothing bonds them like coming under fire from a dangerous enemy they can’t see. You can also make any battlefield far more dangerous if the enemy they are involved in a pitched battle with has sniper support.
No matter how much you prepare for the enemy you’re going to face, or the environment you’re going into, if the intelligence you have been given is faulty (or has been deliberately tampered with) all of your prep work can be useless. Unexpected enemies or conditions are so much more than simply ‘unexpected’ when they are also ‘contradictory to expectations’.
Throwing unexpected friendly characters who the Marines will feel obliged to help into the scene can change it dramatically. You can’t spray autofire at the chaos marine if he’s holding the planetary governor in front of him. Imagine a communications mix up that causes some friendly forces to stray into the area the Marines have laid mines and booby traps in as they wait to ambush the enemy.
Nothing changes the feel of a battle like being shot in the back.