Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Dark Heresy: Musings on System

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.

Dark Heresy actual play: Two sessions in, feeling fine...

We played the second session of our new Dark Heresy campaign last weekend. Since last winter, I've done some freelance editing for Fantasy Flight Games on the Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader game lines, but it wasn't until very recently that I was actually got to play the game.

I must say, the two sessions we've played have been "quintessential" 40k games: brutal, gritty, gory and full of insidious corruption and planet-spanning conspiracies. We actually started out playing a published module (I'm not going to say which one; the players read this blog!) but we quickly steered off the "adventure path" and started plotting our own course through the Dark Heresy universe.

In brief: the characters were recruited by an Inquisitor—part of an elite cadre of powerful warrior statesmen who safeguard the vast Imperium of Mankind from dangers both within and without—to investigate a grisly murder in a backwater hive community.

Although the adventure was set on the hive world of Scintilla, which is dominated by massive hive cities covering hundreds of square miles and full of billions of citizens, the investigation itself took the characters to the decaying fringes of the underhive. Both vital resources and law enforcement is tenuous down here; blackouts frequently plague the crumbling tenement blocks, while savage narco-gangs patrol the dark alleys. Overhead, lost in the featureless steel sky, trains rumble along, carrying passengers to other, more prosperous sectors of the gigantic hive.

Anyway. We had a bit of action, a bit of intrigue, and a lot of scrappy first-level characters struggling to carve out their own little fiefdoms in an unforgiving universe. We've also had player deaths: two of them so far, one in each session. Both were totally awesome and over the top in a way that only Dark Heresy (and the 40k universe) can offer.

The psyker character failed her dice roll when using one of her powers, and she had to roll on the Perils of the Warp table. This is a percentile-based table used to determine exactly what horrible fates can befall psychic characters. Results range from "The character laughs hysterically for 1d5 rounds" to "The character's body is ripped apart and 1d5 daemons spill forth from the warp." The psyker's player rolled 100, and she was sucked screaming into the warp. Scratch one character.

The next character death took place during a chase sequence through a decaying hive transit tunnel. The characters were aboard a quad-wheeler—a cross between a monster truck and a dune buggy—pursuing some villains in a similar vehicle. During the scuffle, the assassin character (who apparently wore no armor) got too close to a thug with an autogun, and his leg was blown off at the hip. He would have been dead from blood loss, but the assassin's player burned his Fate Point (the only way to trump a PC death) and we ruled that he remained alive, unconscious, missing a leg. It was awesome!

The game itself is very gritty. At first level, the best the characters could hope for was a one-third chance of success on an unmodified roll—pretty stark odds, considering how dangerous the setting is.

The players were somewhat disappointed initially with how few options first-level characters get. But the career path (think D&D class) advancement tables allow players to plan out their character's career, which gives them a decent degree of control over how they'll develop over time. But still: the players failed their rolls (often spectacularly) far more often than they succeeded.

We also had a lot of fun with Dark Heresy's wacky random tables. The psyker death and the blown off leg were both the result of random chart rolls.

Where we go from here is up to the players. They've yet to meet their Inquisitor, but they do know where he is—he's investigating something on the mining world of Sepheris Secundus. Likewise, they've gleaned a few important clues about this current conspiracy, so it remains to be seen how far they'll pursue it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Old School, New School, and Middle School

If you're bothering to read this blog, you're probably already well aware of the "old school" revolution in rpgs. There have seemingly been so many arguments about what "old school" is, so I'm not going to bother defining it beyond the idea that it uses ancient systems, relies on player skill (vs. character stats), and involves deadly monster/trap/gm madness. I played in an old school session recently at a con, and it was a hell of a lot of fun.

I'm not sure what "new school" is, but it's probably either D&D 4e, indie games, or something else that's been coming out recently. For what it's worth, I find some indie games fun and groundbreaking, and I don't really like 4e.

For some reason, old school games and new school games seem to be getting all the press lately. I'd like to shift the discussion to "middle school" games:

I recently had the opportunity to GM an arc of D&D 2e for a bunch of my friends. It included some aspects of the old school - wandering monsters, rolling randomly for treasure, etc. And it included some aspects of the new school - it was a very character guided game. But it was definitely a 2e experience - THAC0 and just the organic chaos of it all. Lots of laughter, some genuinely tactical play that wasn't confined by the rigidities of a battle map, and wacky interactions of magical effects with pretty robust descriptions that I had to judge on the fly.

There's just something about 2e. I started with the red box, but 2e is the game that has bored into the recesses of my consciousness. Maybe it's the cover of the DM's guide, with that robed DM opening the doors. Maybe it's the random magic item charts that I completely absorbed in ... middle school. Maybe it's the way that, after all this time, I could still open the PHB or DMG and find what I needed way too fast.

Like other games built around the time, the system is far from perfect - it's really an organically grown mess. But the energy and the way the game bubbles with ideas is irreplaceable. While I look for many things in rpgs, one of the primary things I still look for is whether a game can bring out that sheer middle school fun. Perhaps more than any other game I've ever played, 2e still informs my gaming sensibilities today.

The time for the middle school revolution is here.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Chicagoland Games wins chamber of commerce award

My local game shop, Chicagoland Games, recently received an award from our neighborhood economic development group. Not bad for a store that hasn't even been open for a year yet! This announcement is about a month old, so I'm a latecomer to the action, but click here if you want to read more.

Congrats to J.P. and Lex for getting off to a great start!

Friday, June 12, 2009

New Dark Heresy campaign begins tonight!

Just a quick note to say that my local group is about to start a new Dark Heresy campaign. I'll be the GM; we're making characters tonight at Chicagoland Games, our local game store.

It should be a lot of fun—Dark Heresy is super crunchy, far moreso than any game I've played in the last couple of years, but sometimes it's nice to sit back with a couple beers and thumb through a rulebook for 4 or 5 hours.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm from the crew at Chicagoland Games. Word on the street is that they're pretty ecstatic that we'll be making characters tonight, and they've set aside the big table for us. I'm not sure if we'll play there regularly, but it sounds like we'll get a warm welcome if we so choose. Game on!