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Deathwatch is the latest incarnation of the Warhammer 40,000 roleplay system, made by Fantasy Flight Games, under license from Games Workshop. It follows two previous games that use essentially the same mechanics (and can be mingled together if you so wish), namely Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader. The big difference with the earlier two versions is that those games deal with the niche corners of the 40k universe, the obscure and curious asides that litter the rulebooks of the tabletop game, but are rarely the main focus. You can, for example, play a tech-priest or an arbitrator, a navigator or an astropath, chasing after heretics and Chaos cultists. Deathwatch, on the other hand, puts you firmly into the ceramite boots of the Adeptus Astartes, as a member of the specialist alien-hunting chapter that provides the military might of the Inquisition’s Ordo Xenos. In fact, the Deathwatch draws its members from all the other chapters, which means you can be an Ultramarine, Blood Angel, Dark Angel or Space Wolf (or a Storm Warden – a new chapter created for the game). And with the bulk of the adversaries consisting of Tyranids, Tau and the forces of Chaos, straight away this is much more familiar territory for players who are used to the battle game.

The really great thing about being a Space Marine in a roleplaying game is that you are awesome – right from the start. There’s none of that problem you often get with RPGs where your starting characters are incompetent weaklings. Dark Heresy characters in particular are notable for struggling to beat even a Grot with a limp, until they’ve got some experience under their belts. Similarly, I remember starting a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign with some colleagues at Games Workshop, and getting beaten to crap in the first encounter of the first session by a bunch of overgrown spiders, as we repeatedly failed to hit the creatures despite the fact that most of them were crawling on our faces.

Deathwatch is different. As a Space Marine, you begin the game with super-human characteristics, proper Astartes weaponry, the hefty protection of your power armour, the strength to crush a man’s skull and the ability to smell poisons, spit acid and generally throw your weight around without having to worry about the first lasgun shot that comes your way. The game takes things even further with the Horde system. This allows your Kill-team of maybe just three Deathwatch Space Marines to take on dozens or even hundreds of bad guys without dying horribly (and without a single encounter taking six gaming sessions to resolve or the GM’s brain exploding). Single-handedly mowing down a tide of rampaging Tyranids is just proper behaviour for a Space Marine, the kind of image you read about in novels, picture in your head and hopefully one day will see in a movie. The Deathwatch RPG doesn’t merely replicate the idea of a Space Marine from the 40k battle game, because it has none of the same limitations of game balance and product ranges. Rather it elevates the iconic image to its rightful double-hard, ass-kicking place, which certainly feels a lot more satisfying than a Space Marine who dies if you roll a 2.

Space Marines and Orks. Which is the most reliable and which is the most random? Surely the bold and courageous Space Marines are the most reliable, and the battle-crazed Orks are random as hell, right? Wrong! It’s all about the dice…

Picture a small, elite Space Marine army, full of expensive troops like Terminators – perhaps it’s a Deathwing or Grey Knights force – probably numbering only 30 or so models for your 1,500 points. Then picture an Ork army, full of Boyz – maybe there’s a hundred models in the army. Now the key thing with dice, is that the more you roll, the more the results will average out. For example, if you rolled 50 dice, you’d never expect them all (or even half) to come up 6s – no, you can pretty much rely on a roughly even spread. On the other hand, if you roll just 5 dice then getting four or even five 6s is not nearly so rare – I’m sure we’ve all seen it on occasions, perhaps when an Ork player takes his 6+ saves (followed by a little dance to celebrate his good fortune). Which brings me back to the Space Marines and the greenskins. The fact is, a big Ork army will roll far more dice during a game, and all those extra rolls make the outcome far more predictable – luck becomes less of a issue.

Another factor is the effect of an extreme dice result. If the Orks roll five 6s to pass their saves, they’ve been lucky, sure, but it’s no big deal to either side. If the Space Marines roll five 1s (exactly the same probability) to fail their Terminator saves, it’s game changing. The elite army is far more susceptible to bad luck, and because they are rolling less dice, they are more likely to suffer unusual dice results. And it’s this double whammy makes the Emperor’s finest a surprisingly random army to play.

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