Can Deathwatch Make Fun In Grim Darkness?

The tag-line for Games Workshop’s fictional universe known as Warhammer 40,000 is, “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.”

It’s like an odd mash-up of The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones in space. Humanity is beset from all sides (and within) and hope is in short supply – some even see it as a mark of insanity.

Cover of Codex: Space Marines, from the Games Workshop web site.

In this twilit millennium, our greatest defenders are genetically engineered, powered armour-clad warrior-monks called Space Marines, and even they aren’t much better than the universe they inhabit – they’re xenophobic, shoot-first-and-let-others-deal-with-the-questions types.

It doesn’t seem like much of a place to Make Fun in. (Many have made fun of it, sure – the shorthand “grimdark” is used as a joke in gaming circles.) Most of the other science fiction premises I enjoy usually start with an optimistic premise. Babylon 5 was about different alien races meeting up to solve their issues. Firefly was based around the idea of starship-as-home, crew-as-family.

Hell, my favourite TV show is Doctor Who, which virtually guarantees you forty-five minutes of smile-on-your-face mischief and adventure, even when it’s dealing with serious drama.

Yet as I find myself getting back into the tabletop roleplaying game hobby, it’s the Warhammer 40,000 universe that I’ve made my most recent hobby purchase within.

Of the first three main sets of rules that publisher Fantasy Flight Games (who’ve licensed the Warhammer roleplaying rights from Games Workshop), I didn’t pick Dark Heresy, the game about investigators who seek truth in the dark corners of the galaxy, or Rogue Trader, the game of interstellar merchants out to make riches at any cost.

No, I bought Deathwatch – the roleplaying game that’s all about the Space Marines.

What the hell was I thinking? Why did I possibly think that it could be fun?

Space Marines Satisfy The Snow Crash Syndrome

Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so soften, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world.

– Snow CrashNeal Stephenson

What Neal neglected to mention is that, for many men, while bad motherfuckerdom passes into “too much like hard work” territory after twenty-five, that paragon of badassosity that wears their face never truly goes away.

You know that little “the ultimate badass” speech Private Hudson gives in the Aliens Special Edition? If not (or if you forgot), here you go:

Pretty funny (if a little scary-intense right at the end), yeah?

Well, while us fellas might be laughing at the blowhard, we’re kind of laughing with him, too. That’s why a video game dedicated to Aliens’ Colonial Marines is coming out in 2013, twenty-seven years after the film that introduced them.

And though playing as investigators in the service of an Imperial Inquisitor or a merchant noble plying the unknown regions of the galaxy for profit both seem to have more potential for intrigue… well, damn it, I wanna give my inner badass a little pat on the head.

Even though I’ll be GMing Deathwatch instead of creating an armoured alter-ego of my own (hm? Oh: Either Blood Angel or Storm Warden), I’ll still have a bunch of badasses wearing my friends’ faces for whom I can make life interesting!

Badass Gone Up To Eleven

One thing I’ve never been really able to do – well, since I got out of my teens, anyway – is take the Space Marines completely seriously.

Even their utter hardcore as sold in the Warhammer 40,000 source material (human boys trained, indoctrinated and surgically and genetically enhanced to grow up into Ultimate Warriors) is just like Nigel Tufnel’s nonexistent “extra push over the cliff” – it just makes them even more ludicrous.

And you know what? I’m cool with that.

One of the reasons I enjoyed the computer game Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II is because of its Marine characters, who take the fictional soldier stereotypes and add just enough melodrama to make them entertaining without being too silly.

Take this clip from the game as an example:

Yes, the dialogue is silly. Yes, it’s over-wrought. When Avitus ribs Cyrus about being afraid of the Tyranids and Cyrus snarls back, you just wanna go, “Aww, come on, you big lugs. How ’bout we hug it out, okay?”

But that’s the point.

You can almost see the poses that these guys are taking while delivering these lines, can’t you? Avitus with hands-on-hips Old Spice Guy style, Cyrus with chin on fist, scowling as he contemplates the coming doom?

I love that operatic quality to the “warrior-priest up to eleven” performances and I’d love to run a game where that sort of commitment to taking the silly seriously – exaggeration instead of satire or effigy – was a big part of the fun.

Taking Behind Enemy Lines Behind Friendly Lines

You know, even though Deathwatch is Space Marine: The Roleplaying Game, if it focused on creating Space Marines within their Chapters (think a thousand-man special ops army with its own rituals and traditions) I may well not have bothered.

But Deathwatch does something interesting.

Just who will we discover beneath the uniform helmets of this Deathwatch Kill-team? From Fantasy Flight Games / the Warhammer 40,000 Wikia.

It presents the idea of taking individual Marines out of their Chapters – which give them broad, archetypal personalities – and putting them together in discrete squads called Kill-teams, dispatched to handle problems that are too big for an Inquisitor but too small or requiring too much precision for a regular Marine deployment.

Seen The Avengers? Yeah, that “team of superheroes with clashing personalities” is a good part of the appeal.

And while Space Marines normally find themselves deep behind enemy lines, beheading regular armies by eliminating their commanding units, the Kill-teams of the Deathwatch are more likely to find themselves operating within the borders of the Imperium of Man. They’ll have to deal with civilian authorities and the teeming press of Humanity who only know of Space Marines through Imperial propaganda as they hunt down their targets.

The may even have to… talk.

Negotiate.

Do things that will let their players and I as GM explore their personalities other than deciding how to take an enemy down in combat.

Maybe make allies of – and perhaps even befriend – the hated alien.

That’s what finally got me shelling out cash for the Deathwatch core rulebook: The idea of taking the sheer Space Opera Epicness of the Marines and putting it into the everyday (well, what passes for it in the grim darkness of the far future), of taking these War Gods and turning them into Investigators whilst still giving them the chance to fight someone their own size.

It’s like The Avengers by way of Taggart:

Oh, come on. Can’t you just see DCI Matt “Either we nail this soon or this city’s undertakers are lookin’ at boom time!” Burke as a Storm Warden?

And let’s face it, there’s always something fun about the idea of having a group of soldiers clad in hulking, black powered armour knocking on a door and saying to the poor unsuspecting soul who answers it, “Deathwatch, ma’am. We’re following up reports of a xenos infestation in this sector. May we come in?”

Yes, you can Make Fun with Deathwatch.

The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it’s a little grim and dark in the far future. Instead, embrace the exaggeratedness of it.

Beetle your brow like the Battle Brother you’re being, orate like an opera… tist (tor?), trade tirades of tribulation with your troupe of troubleshooters, play between the perimeters of pathos and parody and, most of all, be willing to treat your Marine as a man who may transcend his template rather than remain a cardboard caricature.

Yes, I know, cheesy. But still fun, right?

See? Now you’re catching on.

Putting Play Where My Plan Is

I already mentioned that one of the reasons I bought Deathwatch was because there’s a Games Workshop franchise store in town, but in between making connections with local players, I’m also organising some old mates of mine in Sydney to get together online using the Roll20 online gaming table /  video chat program. We’re looking at trialing the “Final Sanction” free adventure / minigame so that we can get a feel for the rules and the world before we brainstorm campaign ideas and create characters.

And I reckon that if everyone buys in, even with the rules being focused mainly on Doing Cool Things in Combat, even with the inherent grim darkness of the setting, we can still have good times telling crazy stories about armoured badasses in space… that might still have some genuine pathos in them.

But what about you?

Tell me about the over-the-top badasses you still have a soft spot for. How did / do they entertain you?

What sort of fun have you made in the Warhammer 40,000 universe? Which games have you played with it?

Featured image sourced from Fantasy Flight Games web site.

  • Gavin

    I find a lot of my love for the 40K universe these days is the fact that humanity are clearly doomed but still continue to fight. Enemies surround them, traitors lurk within and the Golden Throne that sustains the Emperor’s life is starting to break. They know they can’t win, but continue to fight and I dig that.

    Yes, I’m a sucker for doomed last stands, what of it? 🙂

    • 😀 Doomed Last Stands are awesome, aren’t they?

      Still, I like the idea that you keep fighting not out of spite, but out of the hope that something *might* happen. Hey, it’s still a big galaxy – who knows what someone might discover tomorrow?

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