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.


Patrick W. Rollens said...

I definitely agree with your assessment about the system and how narrowly defined it it. (I'm the GM, btw.) It's far crunchier than D&D 3.5 even, which is saying a lot.

So, short of house ruling everything, the challenge becomes: how can you continue to have a decent game experience when, as Ben said, having a 35% chance to succeed at a particular skill is considered damn good?

I don't know if I have the answer to that. Certainly roleplaying becomes more important--finding a way to resolve a situation or encounter without rolling your abysmally low stats is vital. That's D&D 101, and it definitely applies to Dark Heresy.

Also, the characters are level one, which means a bit more in this game than in others we've played lately. In Savage Worlds, the mechanics are such that you can attempt all sorts of things with low stats and still expect to succeed more than half the time. Dark Heresy is re-introducing all of us (me included) to the concept that failure is the norm. We have to figure out how to have fun whilst failing!

Your comments about tech use and how important it is was very heartening, because I think that's exactly how Dark Heresy is meant to be played.

************************************ said...

The system is definitely meant for your character to be sculpted through the story/narrative and modules.

Because failure is the norm you have to be able to supplement your skills in creative ways. Which I think is good because you should realize how deadly things are. The fact this game makes you use equipment to succeed is important. There has been no other game I can think of where equipment really matters...except Necromunda or Warhammer. It really is a Warhammer Game in that manner..

It really makes me reflect on the decesions I make when playing our Tech-Priest Preatus. The story behind how your character goes insane or is corrupted is really intriguing for me and i find myself wanting tools or game mechanics that reflect upon what we have seen as characters.

I find this a fun game. I think your still open to creativity but when the Scum does not make his driving roll then our options are quickly limited. Players are definitely under the gun and under the microscope.

Besides your character smoked the bad guys when she did hit. Those were experienced fighters and you took like 3 of them out yourself. Just wait until we see the really nasty things like Aliens, Demons, or any sort of real heretic or fanatical faction.

Sanfio said...

Well I am one of the PCs in the game and I find the rules the way they are worded to be more freeing that constricting. If we go by your second item you could have used the acrobatics skill with some penalties to do what you wanted to do, to quote the book "From performing somersaults to tumbling, from flipping through the air to daring leaps and jumps, this skill expands your movement options. Use this skill to perform some spectacular feat of derring-do."

Oh you don't have this skill well its Agility at half, oh that only gives you about an 18% chance of making it, well tough, thats life in the imperium. You are not a superhuman space marine, you are not even an above average, you are an average human, one of untold trillions, you are but an expandable piece of meat to your bosses. So tell me do you really think and average human could stay on a glider that is going over the edge and as it start to plummet jump onto a ship? The normal human can jump 24 to 36 inches, ad to that the fact that you will be jumping from a vehicle that will be falling in the opposite direction and its practicly impossible so 18% is probably a gift.

Not to be mean to you Supah but this is why I love this system, you are human, you are fragile, you are not an overpowered suprehuman and I find that to be by far one of the more enjoyable pieces of the game.

As for the constricting rules stop thinking 3.5 and start thinking AD&D, in 3.5 if you do not have a skill to do something then you can't do it period, in AD&D most things are not describes in skills, just find the nearest appropiate skill, describe the cinematics in such a way that the use of the skill or attribute could be defendible and hope for an good ruling from the gm. Hey that life, you jump of the car as it plummets down and try to jump to the starship and if God (GM) decides you acrobatics skills are good enough to let you do it, hey you might survive ;-)

Dyson Logos said...

Having run a long campaign, a short campaign and a one shot, I feel I have a pretty good grasp of the system.

I too would prefer more general skills - and have considered a re-write of the skills into such general groupings, except of course that I would then have to re-write EVERY. SINGLE. ADVANCEMENT. TABLE.


For success chances, I scale encounters just like in D&D. A starting group usually deals with Easy tasks (+20 to +30 on the success chance), and gradually things get harder. It also gives them a good indicator of when something serious is happening as the difficulties ramp up, and when they are in over their heads when the difficulties don't ramp up, but suddenly leap up to a -10 or -20.

For one shots, I've taken to providing the players with more potent characters than level 1. This gives them a feel for the setting that gets them hooked. Nothing like playing an arbiter with a repeating shotgun and good armor, or an assassin with customized sniper weapon, or even someone with an honest-to-goodness bolter to get people psyched about the game.

Supah said...

First, thanks for the comments. Onto the responses...

@ Pat: I don't think it's the high chance of failure per se that bugs me, but just the ways in which failure occurs and the lack of incentive to try "cool stuff" beyond the range of narrow skill descriptions. One thing to think about may be making failure more interesting that just "you fail" to a failure that has some sort of qualitative impact on the story. That's the kind of failure I really like (though, this may be hard to do in reality when you fail so much). Also, remember what I said in my post: My character's death was indeed awesome.

@************: I'm not sure yet exactly how the corruption mechanics operate, but these seem like mechanics I could come to love. It reminds me of the sweet insanity mechanics in Call of Cthulhu. As far as my character being good in combat - that's true! I guess it's just not enough for me.

@porthios: I think I just get more enjoyment out of games that are (1) higher powered, because character abilities allow for weird and abstract effects that get me charged up, and (2) much more flexible categories, because the system then provides a flexible frame for what characters can do instead of specific rules. In past groups, we've gotten into some trouble with flexible abilities because players can argue for anything. But I guess I'd take that tradeoff for the on the spot and unforseeable impact that players can have on the game.

@dyson: I feel you. The system is impossible to tinker with.

Patrick W. Rollens said...

Well, as a GM there's not much I can do when a character fails a Ballistic Skill test in combat. That's just a miss, more or less.

But I do agree that failures on investigation-related skills should have more substantial results, beyond just "you fail to discover more information." Dark Heresy really is focused on investigation, and there are a ton of skills that expand on this aspect of play.

I think moving forward we should try to stress investigation (both using skills and using good old-fashioned roleplaying) where possible and see how it changes the game. Perhaps that will open up the more creative vista Ben seeks?