Space Marines? About Damn Time!

Fantasy Flight Games has announced that they are finally putting out a Space Marine Warhammer 40k RPG called Deathwatch.

I never played the Warhammer 40k minis game, but it’s hard to be a gamer and not be aware of the general mythos.    Space Marines, Chaos Marines, Orks, Eldar…  But after everyone waited for 20 years for there to be any Warhammer 40k RPG, what did they come out with?  First Dark Heresy for Inquisitors, then Rogue Trader for… traders.  They’ve been successful enough, but they just seem kinda fringe to the core 40k experience.  I had at least head of Inquisitors, but I hadn’t even heard of Rogue Traders.  But the one thing everyone who has even wandered by a table of people playing 40k have heard of is the Space Marines!

It’s a pretty… daring plan to leave your big bang for the third game. I’m not a minis player, but liked the 2e Warhammer Fantasy RPG, and thought “Hey, a 40k RPG would be nice” – for some reason the “space marine” concept, though a super popular part of the genre, hasn’t been treated well in RPGs.  There’s a couple super old ones (Aliens, Bughunters), a new indie-high concept one (3:16), and you can do it “on the side” in Traveller…  But oddly, there’s not a lot of crunchy space marine games out there given the proportion of popular SF that features them.

I bought Dark Heresy, and thought it was OK…  I had done a lot of stuff along that Inquisitor line in Fading Suns…  Basically it boiled down to “this is nice, but I don’t think I’m going to run it.”  Rogue Trader, I didn’t even buy.  Other games like Traveller have traders as the core gameplay, I didn’t see the need.  A Space Marine game, though – that I’d buy and really want to run!

P.S.  In researching this article I discovered Rogue Traders do date back to the first edition of 40k (1989) so I guess they have nostalgia value to grognards, so that’s something.  I still think most vaguely informed bystanders have never heard of them.

P.P.S. Going and looking at the FFG forums, there’s a bunch of people hand-wringing about “Oh but how could this be a viable RPG, it’ll just be all combat!  What opportunity for roleplay will there be?”  Oh, come on.  Never watched Space: Above and Beyond, Battlestar Galactica, or Starship Troopers have we?  Never seen games like 3:16 or Bughunters?  Never read Hammer’s Slammers, Honor Harrington, or The Forever War?  Oh never mind, anyone who thinks a military genre is necessarily limited to “kill kill kill” clearly doesn’t want to think more than 2 seconds about it.  Heck, I’m watching an episode of “The Unit” on TV right now and that thing’s half military show half soap opera.

P.P.S.  I really hope they don’t go the component-heavy route that Warhammer Fantasy 3e has gone…  That’s not my thing.

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10 responses to “Space Marines? About Damn Time!

  1. In terms of rules, it’ll be the same as Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader, partly because they’re honouring the initial plan put out by Black Library/Green Ronin (Deathwatch was first announced years ago), and partly because it’s easier for them to copy and past the text from one book to another than write a new one from scratch.

    It’s also easier to make a shoddy and nigh-unreadable rulebook, but that’s a whinge for another day!

    Your point about the Marines being more famous than the Traders is a fair one, but I think you’re being a bit unfair to Rogue Trader as a game, as it’s a bit more than nostalgia for the name. It’s not really about trading as such, although that’s one thing you can do. It’s more about empire-building, so it’s more high-powered than something like the average Traveller game. You’re a proper mover and shaker, a noble essentially, and you’re the very people who send the Space Marines out to kill stuff. It’s a concept that doesn’t immediately seem to apply itself to rpgs, looking at first glance to be something more boardgame-friendly, but it actually works quite well, once you get past the atrocious editing. From what I can tell, three sessions into our game, there are even some vaguely indie sensibilities in the way you have to “metagame” it to get the best out of it.

    3: 16 has done a very good job of capturing the Space Marine concept, so FFG will have a lot to prove here. My guess is that it will be a combination of rookie-to-commander type career-building play (similar to 3: 16), and a sort of high-level Pendragon-like planetary commander approach (similar to RT, but planet-bound).

    We shall see. I’m looking forward to seeing what the play style will be.

  2. Oh, and just a follow up about the “Kill kill kill” thing. While it’s true that a military setting doesn’t have to be about that, the 40K canon pretty clearly shows that Space Marines are about that; they’re genetically bred for war and don’t really have independent human lives. This is where the fears are coming from, I’d suspect.

    That said, I’m sure FFG know this and have figured out a way to make Marines playable, otherwise there’d be no point.

    • True, and I’ll point out one of the characters in Space: Above and Beyond was “genetically bred for war”… As was the main character Kurt Russell played in Soldier… Hell for that matter my current character in our Alternity campaign is a Thuldan Warlion, same deal.

      I have a secret to detecting idiots… Whenever anyone claims RPGs should not incorporate something that over 20% of all literature ever written treats with (e.g. war, romance) then they are being idiots.

      • I’d agree, although I’m not sure Soldier is the best example of anything except how far Kurt Russell has fallen! 😉

        The critics also fail to take into account the fuzzy nature of GW canon where one source will show the Marines as mindless killing machines, while another will show them as perfectly capable of human emotion. The Rogue Trader rpg is itself a fudge of wildly different takes on the 40K canon, and they’ve made it work.

  3. Had to happen. Why it took so long is another question. Anyone thinking the Space Marines are just killing machines hasn’t read any of the stories.

    Looking forward to this one – though I do hope that it’s more Dark Heresy than Rogue Trader…

    • Yeah; I’ve never read them but I know there’s a lot of Space Marine novels and all; I assume they are more than unending descriptions of killing, Mack Bolan style…

      • Well, the good ones are! There are a couple of older ones which are of the “Marines walk into a room, kill everything, Marines walk into the next room, kill everything” type, but I doubt FFG are using these for inspiration.

  4. For what it’s worth, Rogue Traders were always sort of the ‘safety valve’ of the original 40k concept. The Imperium is a pretty constrained society, and in the earliest edition of 40k, Rogue Traders were the ones who most clearly mapped to a traditional RPG format. They gathered a band of disparate archetypes around themselves, and went out to Have Adventures. They were self-directed in a way that the more formal expressions of Imperium culture couldn’t ever be. I was actually surprised that DH was released before RT, when I first heard about the overall plan for the games. RT seemed a much more natural fit, conceptually, for RPG gameplay.

    The end-run around the ‘Space Marines are cogs in the Imperial war machine’ is that it’s specifically the Deathwatch, who are elites chosen from all the various Marine chapters. They’re expected to be a lot more independent — more like superhuman troubleshooters than a coherent military force.

    A great source for background on all three is Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn. Abnett is the only person writing licensed 40k fiction who is actually a *good* writer, and his novels stand up on their own without relying on the license to prop them up. Eisenhorn is specifically about the Inquisition, but also features both rogue traders and the Deathwatch company.

    • I see what you’re saying, but it seems like the lazy way out. I am not sure why anyone, at this point, would put out “a traditional RPG just like all the other past traditional RPGs.” I disapprove of the fact that sci-fi gaming seems to largely be stuck in the “free trader ghetto,” where that’s seen as the only sustainable campaign model. Seems like the justification for it is “that’s what Traveller did originally and what everyone else has done since then.”

      In general, too much of what people say is a fit for RPG gaming is completely colored by the major games that have gone before. Innovation is possible but scorned; it’s Hollywood syndrome.

      But other games have demonstrated that’s not true. Heck, Bughunters was a true “cogs in the war machine” game. As is 3:16.

  5. Yes, 3:16 will be what I will be measuring Deathwatch up to, I suspect.

    While the Rogue Trader setup might seem like a traditional rpg, and FFG have done their hardest to make it seem like D&D3 with a d100, I’ve found that in play it actually turns into something quite different from the norm, as the players find that they have thousands of people at their command, and that they’re dealing with whole planets and civilisations. If it’s like anything, it’s like high-end Pendragon, and not at all in the free trader mould.

    Of course, that’s just how I’m playing it, but it certainly seems to me from reading the book that just doing a Traveller-type trading game is missing the point a bit. If that’s how it seems to the outsider, then FFG may not have done a good enough job of promoting the game’s idiosyncrasies.

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