Earlier today, Pat posted about our first two sessions of Dark Heresy. I thought I'd post a slightly different impression of the game and focus on the system.
A very brief overview: The system is percentile-based, and a player succeeds by rolling under the relevant ability. At least at first level, most things are pretty tough to do - 35% is a pretty damn good ability score. It's very difficult to do anything unskilled (you halve your relevant ability score when you roll), and skill descriptions are very narrow. This means that instead of having a few things you're good at, you just suck to different degrees at a small handful of things.
Though, there are exceptions. As we quickly found through play, the tech you use makes a huge difference. A huge part of character advancement is opening up your ability to use certain tech rather than actually being good at using the tech.
And then there are all the random tables that can really screw you up. And there's lots of evocative, scummy source material. As Pat said, it's a gritty game.
Before going on, let it be said that Pat is doing a typically great job of GMing. He's very descriptive and even-handed. He excels at "street-level" type play, so much of this game is perfect for him.
But as a player, I absolutely detest the system. In no particular order, here's why:
(1) The skills and psycher abilities (they operate like magic) are very narrow. This makes it difficult to use your skills in creative ways besides the obvious "I shoot him," or "I pick that lock." This actually would kill me if I were GMing - when characters have broader skills or abilities, their creativity can really take the game in unforeseen directions in ways that are quantifiably supported by the strength of their stats. I think this is super cool.
(2) Ability scores are so low that anything you're not teched up for seems next to impossible. For example, there was a scene at the end of the game where a spaceship was taking off, and we wanted to stop it. Somewhere in the back of my brain, I wanted my very agile character to use the momentum of a moving vehicle to launch herself toward the spaceship so she could get inside, destroy it, or whatever. But I had no directly applicable skill, and I thought there was no way I could succeed. So I didn't do it. But it would've been cooler if I thought I could. The system just doesn't encourage anything near cinematic play. (I guess some just favor it that way.)
(3) There're too many moving pieces in combat for me. Things slow down too much when you get to the level of figuring out armor penetration. This is for some, but definitely not me. I couldn't care less about modeling this stuff.
Here's what I love about the game:
(1) The deadly random tables. It was my character who got sucked into the warp on an instant death 1/100 roll, and it was indeed awesome.
Final verdict: I'm having a great time, as always, playing games with my gaming group. The dark heresy source material is robust and evocative. I don't think the rest of my gaming group cares about system as much as me, and I'm pretty sure they don't prefer as freewheeling a game as I do, so I don't think they really care about this stuff. But this system feels way too constraining for me. The chaos and unforeseen circumstances generated by the random tables are great. But the mechanics are plodding in combat, and with narrow skills combined with predictably difficult odds hardwired into fundamental parts of the system, much of the system stands in stark counterpoint to the awesome tables.