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Kshatriya

Making GMing fun in a combat-heavy system

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Hey all,

 

I'm currently running a weekly Deathwatch game and I'm worried it's going to go the way of its predecessors, namely: me being bored with running the game because of the game's inherent single-mindedness and my players' lack of interest in subverting this singlemindedness. 

 

Namely, to begin, a comparison of the premise/main mechanics of the other FFG40k systems.

 

Dark Heresy: Inquisitorial acolytes//investigation, undercover operations, rooting out heresy

Rogue Trader: eponymous//social and economic domination, ship-to-ship combat, exploration, politics

Black Crusade: fallen to Chaos//subverting Imperial order, converting people, gaining personal power

Only War: Imperial Guard//fighting as a member of non-superhuman squads, human drama

 

My biggest issue with Deathwatch seems to be its combat focus. Every 40k RPG includes combat mechanics (for good reason) but I feel like the other systems, especially DH/RT focus equally on social/investigation and puzzle-type "missions." Whereas the whole point of Deathwatch is finding the enemy and killing them dead.

 

This isn't to say there is not a myriad of creative, fun ways to run/play Deathwatch that might incorporate any number of tactics for the creative-minded Kill-Team. More, my issues with the game stem from the extremely combat-centric premise. I do wonder how many people actually enjoy this game, because it LOOKS like it could be fun but in practice I rarely find shuffling from combat to combat anything but tedious.

 

Part of the issue is my players want to focus on the combat. The last mission I ran for them was the first module from The Emperor Protects, which attempts to push the Kill-Team to behave like diplomats, investigate some disappeared people and resolve the situation so a planet decides to assist the Achilus Crusade.

 

About half my players are very setting-savvy and have experience with DH, RT, etc. These were the same players who were extremely critical of these mission parameters, calling them "acolytes' work." In their mind, the job of DW Space Marines is not to go make nice with semi-superhuman primitives or respect their customs in order to uncover the planet's unpleasant secret and purge it. Their job is simply to purge it, after receiving intel from a DH-esque team of Inquisitorial acolytes. They did not like the fact that the module set up exactly why an acolyte/IG Intel team could not do the "legwork" for them. While they ultimately enjoyed how the module went, the complaints I got about the investigation and social-centric aspects of the module were near-constant. 

 

So Deathwatch seems to be effectively the RPG to indulge one's murderboner. It's certainly not the only RPG that features ultraviolence (nor do its extensive and clunky mechanics remotely facilitate speedy and fun combat) but in every other violence-oriented RPG I have either run or played (L5R, Shadowrun, Dark Heresy, Werewolf) have I ever experienced a game premise where the violence was not a means to an end or even one of several methods possible to complete a mission, but the end objective of the game itself.

 

I can see where this could be fun for players. Show up once a week, have a well-thought-out space monk (or not - DW hardly penalizes your character for being a brainless cookie-cutter Chapter-stereotype, or at least the modules I have seen don't care if your Fel is 32). I have actually had a lot of fun playing small amounts of DW, trying to play interesting characters. Certainly the GMs I've played with (and myself as GM) try to play up the massive awe that Imperial characters express when meeting or seeing a Space Marine.

 

This isn't my issue, though, my issue is how the system originates from a point where it's not only OK but reasonable for my players to say "this investigation and social-dealing scene is acolyte-level ****, when do we get to shoot some genestealers?"

 

I guess my problem is, I don't understand how I as a GM can get satisfaction from a game when many of the DW games I've GMed or even play in start and end at combat dice rolls. I use roll20 and anyone who has knows it can take time to set up maps and player/NPC tokens for combats. That there are few true scenes for non-combat is the problem as well here - a couple hours of map-making to be used in a couple hours of one combat scene.

 

Maybe I'm fed up and bored, or maybe my GMing preferences are telling me I should run Rogue Trader or Edge of the Empire - games where violence is presumed but not expected to occur 3-4 times per session, where the player characters are expected to have some kind of non-combat savvy and don't see it as either beneath them or outside the in-setting scope of their characters.

 

For me, I sort of just feel like a failure for very much wanting to call this newest game quits, even though my players are enjoying the plot twists I've injected into some of the models immensely, I am just ******* sick of running 4 combats per night. No matter how clever the players are, running that much combat is just very boring to me, but we're playing a game that focuses heavily on those mechanics. Needless to say I get very little enjoyment out of that. 

 

So, a lot of that was venting. Some of it was an indictment. And finally I'm asking other GMs: what do you do to keep it fun? What do you do to make it more than just combat, or to break player expectations that combat is the be-all, end-all to DW? What do you do when your players aren't that interested in being tactical, knowing that the back and forth volleys will end up favoring them in the end? I am sad because my current player crop has made some amazing characters, I'm just so fed up with the endless combat slog that I can't enjoy them.

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We're playing Rising Tempest, it has a hell of a lot of social interactions other than shooting someone. i recommend it, you can upset some important people if you just go in all guns blazing. It has its flaws but its still good so far. 

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All the published DW adventures contain quite a bit of investigation and diplomacy.

You missed the point. I'm not saying the adventures lack for a degree of investigation/social interaction. I'm saying I've had players who felt it's not the job of the DW or Astartes in general to do investigation/diplomacy, it's their job to drop the hammer. It's all well and good to have those scenes in the book, it's another thing if the players aren't interested in them and want to move on to the next fight.

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All the published DW adventures contain quite a bit of investigation and diplomacy.

You missed the point. I'm not saying the adventures lack for a degree of investigation/social interaction. I'm saying I've had players who felt it's not the job of the DW or Astartes in general to do investigation/diplomacy, it's their job to drop the hammer. It's all well and good to have those scenes in the book, it's another thing if the players aren't interested in them and want to move on to the next fight.

 

 

Well your problem is your players then. :)

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Well, this as the same trouble i had through my playthrough... However, we decided to do something a bit drastic. I was the one who had the plot written, but since Deathwatch missions (from my point of view) don't always follow a line, (read: there are lots of other missions outside the main plot that have nothing to do with it), some of the other took turn in GMin. And some of the others would be in charge of the different missions (indeed every person, including me, had their own character that they would play in tandem with their mantle as GM)... Granted this would probably seem strange to most, and pushing it on already running group might just go wrong...

 

Well i can't really give you single solution...  but my suggestion is to put them in various different possitions where they can't just point and shoot might help. For instance having to meet Ebongrave,(hologram, not in person) would require them to roleplay (indeed if their longterm goal is kill him, they will need no small degree of subtlety).

navigating the  various factions on the deathwatch on their "downtime" at the watch fortress will likely give them few chances to use a bolter, if any. Indeed if they have to curry favor with a specefic person they will have to talk to the person in question..

A personal favorite: fighting between inquisitors and their acolytes break out... then they have to tread carefully, they can't really return fire on the emperors faithful, can they? they will also have to dicern what started it all, what happened, and who are to blame

Maybe Send them as body guard for a man responsible to negosiate with the Tau, and then let him die. Who killed him? or maybe his ship never arrives? and if this a once-in-a-lifetime chance they will have to try and be stand-in... maybe they lack the charm and fellowship strength, but you always let them roleplay, and maybe let them find new common grounds? an assault marine might find some sort of common ground with their jump troopers? maybe they have all fought against the tyranids? ofc, the mean they will have to bite the sour apple and talk with the Xenoes...But will they let their pride stand mean the end of the imperium at the reach?

Heck i even planned to let an inqusitor that felt insulted by the group, take an advangtage of a blunder, and pushed to get them assigned to protect a key negosiator who life was in danger from a dangerous xeno up to an important negotiation (The negotiatior, well turns out she weren't any danger as the inquisitor faked the "evidence" in order to keep the group out of the way so he could get another group of spacemarines that supported his hidden agenda, and and laugh at the team behind their backs at the same time.. he can be really petty) They wouuld have to run around being bodyguards for a headstrong noble, looking for dangers that didn't exist in the noble district...

Also you can also put them in charge of protecting someone.. who either has a idea of combat tactics that is the opposite of the group (if they are very direct he argues -loudly - for stealth) or give them someone to talk to?

Also having the group trying to solve the death of an inqisitor or a space marines amongst houses of nobles or other spacemarines might force them to rely on their wits...

 

hope this helps a little :)

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Very helpful.

 

If you don't have an actual suggestion to help me with my game issue as a fellow GM, why bother commenting?

 

OK. My advice is drop the game. You're not having fun with it. It's not your job or obligation to GM; it's entertainment. If the players and you aren't expecting the same thing out of the game, one or the other of you is not going to have fun. So just drop it.

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One of the players I talked to said he thought I might enjoy playing DW more than running it - which is possibly true. I really love the fluff and lore of 40k, but GMing for DW hasn't been my favorite GM experience. So, we're going to try a but of alternating GM on different missions, give other people the chance to flesh out the 40k universe as they envision it. I'm actually pretty excited about this idea, wish I had thought of it but it, as well, was a player suggestion.

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One of the players I talked to said he thought I might enjoy playing DW more than running it - which is possibly true. I really love the fluff and lore of 40k, but GMing for DW hasn't been my favorite GM experience. So, we're going to try a but of alternating GM on different missions, give other people the chance to flesh out the 40k universe as they envision it. I'm actually pretty excited about this idea, wish I had thought of it but it, as well, was a player suggestion.

 

If I could make a few suggestions;

 

I remember a tip I read in the hilarious ‘How to be a munchkin’ for dealing with players who view a game just as an exercise in combat.  Basically play a session where it is literally one long fight.  No story line no reason no consistency with enemies just a long line of critters. After that your group should appreciate that actually a bit of roleplaying is important and fun.  That or they love it and you know GMing the group might not be for you……

 

 

In all seriousness though there are a few other things to try

 

  1. Acceptance.  Make shorter scenarios which focus solely on combat and allow the rest of the evening playing other board games.  Also your PCs may have a point.  The Deathwatch are a rare commodity, if you can think of another organisation who could do the same job equally well or better at short notice then the Death Watch probably wouldn’t be used.

 

    2. Compromise.  Accept that the Death Watch marines are there for combat but insist  

        that the PCs roll up non-combat based Dark Heresy acolytes.  Then split the

        scenarios into the investigation based scenes with the acolytes and the combat

        scenes with the Space Marines.

 

 

3. Explanation: Explain why it is Death Watch Marines have been sent to   

     investigate or otherwise act in a social setting.  There could be a number of reasons. 

 

Example I played a scenario where there was a non-Imperial human faction outside of the borders of the Imperium that were contemplating allying with alien pirates.  The Death Watch kill team were sent to act as diplomats for a number of reasons. 

  1. The faction hadn’t encountered Astartes before so the Death Watch were there for intimidating the faction leader
  2. As Peers of the Imperium they could act with an authority Acolytes didn’t have.
  3. The faction respected martial strength which the Astartes could demonstrate better than an Inquisitor or member of the Administratum
  4. It put an elite squad of the Emperor’s finest inside the palace of a potential threat under diplomatic immunity.

 

Example: Alternatively the Deathwatch kill team could be investigating in conditions deemed too hostile and impractical for normal humans to operate in, a high gravity planet or death world or a space hulk for example.

 

Example: The Inquisition have sent several teams of acolytes already…they all died.

 

Example:  The PCs are sent to investigate/negotiate in a situation where even the Inquisition does not have absolute power.  For example a Space Marine Chapter is accused of worshiping the foul xenos a charge they deny.  However the Inquisition is wary of condemning the Chapter outright as it doesn’t always go down well with the other Astartes.   Maybe if the Chapter was investigated by a group of its peers then the question of jurisdiction and authority could be avoided altogether... enter the PCs.

 

 

4. Trick the PCs.  PC’s think they are entering a combat situation but events conspire to

    shift things in a different direction

 

Example; The mission as described is a combat mission.  Rendezvous with an Imperial Colonel and help repel a Tau attack.  Except when the players arrive at the base 72 hours before the attack the Imperial officers are acting strange. There are fewer commissars about and certain anti-xenos veteran squads have gone missing.  Is this base infiltrated by Tau sympathisers? Is it just unlucky or are the officers incompetent?  Not enough time to call in some acolytes to investigate looks like the PCs are going to have to investigate.

 

 

Example: The PCs act as bodyguards to an Inquisitor who is investigating the ruins of a city which is being excavated by some Ad-Mech researchers.  The Inquisitor voices some concerns about what the Ad Mech are doing but doesn’t act.  Later the Inquisitor is assassinated by an unknown assailant; looks like the PCs will have to finish off the case.

 

5. Focus on the non-combat scenes.  The missions themselves can be combat orientated

    but that doesn’t mean you can’t have plenty of interaction with fellow Death Watch

    marines, Inquisitors, ship captains and the rest.  Simply shift the focus of why this is

    important. 

 

Example: Increases in ‘renown’ only make sense if people know about it.  If the PCs act like complete meat heads always eager for a fight and with no interest in thinking then they will be treated as such and are unlikely to win much respect.  I would say give 50% renown for completing missions as normal and 50% only if those they interacted with actually have more respect for the PCs. 

 

 

Also bear in mind that there are a number of Space Marines chapters where social interaction is very important, Salamanders, Ultramarines, White Consuls to name a few. 

 

This is also to say nothing of the fact that Space Marines are not mindless warriors, they are respected peers of the Imperium who can go places and command a respect that in some situations even an Inquisitor would not command.  Not least because a Space Marine has a thousand brothers eager to avenge his death. 

 

Example: A single Ordo Xenos Inquisitor wants to investigate a Navigator House holdings.  He could send in an acolyte team or even go himself but Navigator Houses are notoriously independent and he might end up disappeared.  On the other hand a Deathwatch Kill team might be able to go places the Inquisitor can’t.  And if they do disappear it would be a shame if their mission and fate got leaked to their home Chapters, especially as one of them was a Flesh Tearer….

 

Finally the Astartes of the Deathwatch are chosen precisely because they are more than just warriors, they are able to act outside the normal confines of Astartes life.  I would argue that if the PCs characters are unwilling to engage in social interaction then the characters might not be suitable for the Death Watch. 

 

Anyway I hope this gives you a few thoughts about how to bring in investigation and social interaction into a DW game.

Edited by Visitor Q

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Somewhat late as a response (sorry)....

 

What do you do when your players aren't that interested in being tactical, knowing that the back and forth volleys will end up favoring them in the end?

Simple answer: Make sure that they won't.

 

Throw in a different sort of combat. There are two ways to do this:

 

1) Throw in recurring villains who are the character's equals or superiors. One of my favourite nemeses for my players was something dreamed up by a friend called the "Slaughter-Team"; essentially a band of Traitor Marines from different legions who formed a sort of inverse deathwatch team that made the player's lives hell for a good couple of months. The key element was throwing them fatepoints and escape hatches to ensure that the characters got to develop a bit - even if they only met them in combat. Nothing is more annoying than a GM putting effort into fleshing out a character knowing that he's going to throw him into a woodchipper next week and never use him again.

 

2) Make them come up with a plan. If they don't want to do investigation or diplomacy, fine, but make them at least do intelligence and reconnaisence. A mission briefing of "assassinate dude X" is fine and dandy but a bunch of guard veterans could do that. You're supposed to be space marines. Give them a briefing along the lines of "take out the Stigmartus 24th Grand Host and secure the planetary spaceport until guard reinforcements can land". Let them be fully aware that the Host is a reinforced infantry division with several squadrons of Defiler engine armoured support and fortified positions. In short, a frontal assault - in fact, pretty much any plan involving the word "assault" - will be near-instantaneous suicide. They need to figure out a (GOOD) plan and how to execute it, and come up with the requirements they need - both in terms of infiltration and exit strategy, what support they need from other units, etc, etc.

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I've had this problem with my current group of people.

 

The players are:

 

-New Table Top gamer: he is always looking to "win".  Whether it be in social situations or combat and so he doesn't do much.  Also, he has a problem of being a power gamer.  Which goes back to the first thing I said.  Isn't interested much about interactions with NPCs other than shooting them in the face.

 

-Other new table top gamer:  He "gets it" and is the kind of gamer you want to run for.  Imaginative and self-perpetuating.  Doesn't want to be the leader though.

 

-Veteran Table Top gamer: He's being roleplaying for decades but, he tends to give up when he doesn't get things right the first few times.  Not much into social interactions either.  Really obsessed with being the tech guy but is new to WH40K and doesn't really know what that entails.

 

So, here's what I did.  They went to a port run by the Blood Angels as part of their "mission" and one had some interactions with really famous NPCs.  The guys who just milled around didn't and missed out on the fun of bro-time.  When they saw how much fun could be had through that kind of interaction they started walking around talking to the different delegations of Chapters there.  They met a couple of Space Wolves, Salamanders, and a handful of other Chapters.  Since then, they have been more willing to strike up social situations and interact with NPCs a lot more.  

 

Pretty much what you have to do to change their behavior is make it rewarding for your players to do it.  If some guys are just sitting on their  thumbs while the others are having a ball sparring with Capt Awesomesauce and forming camaraderie that they are missing out on they'll be more eager to jump in.  

 

As far as tactics go, same thing.  When my guys just slog it out it's a boring fight.  When the assault marine says he's going to flip in the air, mag-lock his feet to the ceiling, then proceeds to do more awesome things I reward that.  "Wow!  That's a really cool idea.  Have a 100 xp for thinking out of the box." or "Haha, that is appropriately ridiculous.  Gain a Renown." or whatever else you want to reward them for.  Just don't do it too often because it will be expected.  

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Really I think a main problem is I was running Final Sanction, which is a free module (read: not much invested in making it) and it provides little GM support and no variety of encounter. This coupled with my frustration with Tyranid missions because by their nature, they will involve less interaction with other sapients in interesting ways. Oblivion's Edge is SO much better, but one of my other players is looking forward to GMing something involving Alpha Legion/Stigmartus excavating a Necron Tomb World unwittingly, and then I'm picking up Act 2 of The Emperor Protects, which I find to be phenomenal.

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Haha, that is appropriately ridiculous.  Gain a Renown." 

This. So much this.

 

One of my players who was in a duel with a Tyranid Prime hit the body-swapping warp phenomena, and switched bodies with an unconscious Tac marine next to them. The Tac Marine, now in the Librarian's body, dropped the force sword they were holding, spun, grabbed their trusty chainsword off of their own unconscious body, and decapitated the Prime in one smooth motion. It was rad.

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I'd recommend some non-standard action sequences to break up the full on combat. I've run for similar groups before and here are a couple of scenarios that we had a lot of fun with:

*The Kill-team has to infiltrate an otherwise impervious fortress. The sheer number of archenemy troops would make an attack by even a Deathwatch Kill-team an ineffective suicide mission - it would require a Titan Legion to break the defenses and one isn't available. The enemy use a lot of slave labour in their work, including a large number of gene-stock. The PCs are commanded to infiltrate the base with no armour, no weapons but what they can scavenge, and breach the defenses so that a mundane army can assault the base.

 

*A mission set on a reclaimed shrine world. Explosive damage weapons are explicitly prohibited as the Kill-team deals with xenos infiltrators without any property damage. Renown can be lost for even a successful mission if damage is done to the sanctified masonry or pilgrims.

 

*Some "acolyte work" has come up, but early indications suggest it may have some clue to the nature of the Primarch of one of the Kill-team. If the group just ignore the plot thread, their chapter will contact them to inform them that the Inquisition/Ad Mech have taken the information and are not releasing it to the chapter and that the Astartes can either choose to recover the information OR not bother returning home. 

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Great read and a lot of good tips.

I will add. Throw in some real hard morale choices for the group every now and then.

Ohh and I am running my game on D20.net as well. I might suggest narrative combat instead of token movement based combat. It speeds things up dramatically. And personally I feel makes the entire game seem more cinematic.

I will put maps out there for the group to use as well sometimes. That way they can get an idea of the lay of the land? But if your good at being descriptive. It may not be needed. My group used to run all token based movement and one game session i told them I wanted to change it up and go narrative. We did and I think they enjoyed it more. I didn't get a single complaint.

Edited by computertrucker

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