Warhammer 40’000: Dark Heresy

Dark Heresy cover

“Innocence proves nothing”, the tagline bellows, painting a picture of an uncompromising tome to fulfill the two-decade-long wait for a roleplaying game in the world of Warhammer 40’000. Put simply, Dark Heresy is everything the fans wanted.

The book sufficiently condenses the scope of 40K to present it in a single book. You’re given a single region of space, the Calixis Sector, and you can only play an Acolyte, a low-ranking servant of an Imperial Inquisitor. Your job is to seek out heresy, alien incursion and mutant corruption, more than likely laying your life down to serve the Emperor. Because of the heavy theme, I feel this is surprisingly close to the concept-heavy roleplaying of the likes of Call Of Cthulhu, much more so than the Warhammer 40K tabletop game. Even the introductory adventure is very likely to result in the deaths of all of the players’ Acolytes.

The game system is very old-fashioned, but lovingly crafted. You get randomized tables for everything you might want, including naming your character. Combat is so brutal that wise Acolytes will steer away from it whenever possible. Despite being a relatively rules-heavy system, it’s all streamlined intelligently to keep dice rolling to a minimum and everything in a logical fashion.

There are some things you might find lacking, like the very sparse information on demons and aliens. 40K’s iconic Space Marines are not within the scope of this book, although the armory is extensive enough to cover the military-grade. Vehicle rules are not included, but they’re a free download away.

What the book excels in is the quality of the atmosphere setting. They have used the Warhammer novelists to good effect, easing the reader into the mindset of an Imperial citizen and that of an Inquisitor. You will be quoting Imperial wisdom in no time and have a good grasp of how an Imperial thinks like, even though much of the day to day details are vague.

Black Industries, the book-publishing division of Games Workshop, decided to discontinue all of their roleplaying lines on the week of Dark Herery’s release. Considering that Dark Heresy’s first printing sold out on preorders alone, this is unfortunate. It’s well worth tracking down now that it’s still probably not too expensive.

I do hope they licence it out to someone, as Dark Heresy is a great start and deserves to be expanded upon in future releases. Most importantly, the game lights that ol’ spark to create characters and get down to playing the game.


Actual play: The Mountain Witch RPG

A writeup of our latest Mountain Witch RPG session follows. I’ve probably made mistakes and omissions; my players are most welcome in the comments section.

We had four players, with myself being the storyteller. It was my third time running the Mountain Witch. One of the other players had played the game twice before. We have not gamed together for quite some time, but it was pretty smooth sailing. In a nutshell, the game is played the same way each time. The story is formed during play, but the context is always the same: a group of ronin set out to claim the prize on the head of the witch of Mount Fuji. The storyteller does not prepare a story. Instead, he throws out a series of hooks for the players to use in their own storytelling. But as long as the players are proactive, the storyteller merely challenges them, throwing in adversity after another until the story progresses as needed.

Character creation is a matter of thinking of a color to know your character by (think Reservoir Dogs) and a single feature to make him stand out. There are no numerical statistics. Finally, you draw a horoscope card to determine your nature and a fate card to determine your goal in the game. Thus every player has an actual goal: to meet his fate, in as dramatic a manner as they can manage.

The basic structure is split into scenes. The idea is to build up a satisfying dramatic arc, starting with hints towards the fate and culminating in a satisfying fashion in the final scene. The players get to progress to the next scene once everyone has advanced their fate. They want to be quick about it, because their resources are very thin. The single mechanic keeping things interesting is trust, which allows the ronin to help and betray each other. It’s expendable, and refreshed between scenes. You cannot survive without it.

My players were initially baffled, but everyone got the idea soon enough without much pause. The idea of being free to invent scenes and encounters can be difficult to grasp if you’re used to the game master driven model of roleplaying. After an introductory scene in a teahouse on the foothills of Mt Fuji, the ronin set out.

They were caught off-guard by a mudslide, but persevered to come across a fork in the road and argued which way to go. I prohibited them from arguing, instead opting to resolve the argument with a roll of the dice – this allowed them to give mechanical support (that is, dice) to each other and thus build on the allegiancies which are a major part of the game.

They followed the tracks of a wagon and finally ended up on a clearing next to a steep gorge. The wagon was there, abandoned, with the clothes of a woman and a child left there. Because the players had not advanced their fates yet, they were attacked by gray men (perhaps ghosts of a kind) from the forest. After the fight the ronin set deeper into the woods and made camp.

The next day saw the ronin climbing to the witch’s castle. They first came across an abandoned village, covered in large feathers. They were attacked by flying man-demons (I dubbed them tengu). After a bloody fight the ronin were free to make their way to the castle gates. On the way they spied a strange flying man – not a tengu – and a dead man grasping a note, telling of a noble coming to visit a nearby castle. This was the first time the players exhibited ownership over the narration, one player adding a detail to the scene (set up by me, as the storyteller) and another upset by this, having plans of her own which were now hampered.

On the gates, in the beginning of the final scene, things went every which way. There was a dead woman outside the castle walls. One of the ronin recognized her and promptly committed ritual suicide. Another ronin acted as his second. (Yes, we were all surprised.) At the same time one of the ronin took another’s gun (he had gunpowder weapons) and made her way to a side entrance. It turned out the one taking the gun wasn’t going to rush the witch – instead, he had made a pact with the witch to bring the strange ronin’s extraordinary weapon, which he now completed, then disappearing from the story.

The gunpowder ronin signalled for an artillery strike with a mirror, which crumbled the castle’s gates. Inside, the ronin faced the flying man from before. I forget, but I think he was one of the ronin’s brother, asking the ronin to not interfere with the witch’s plans. Torn and undeciding, the thus confronted ronin sided with the gunpowder man, who managed to access the throne room, where glowing energy spheres awaited. Something was stirring in the ceiling, but the ronin took hold of one of the spheres, and laughed victoriously. He had been after the witch’s secret source of energy all the time – and having secured it, ended his story. The one ronin left decided to accompany the gunpowder guy in his plans for world domination.

As before, the best time was had in debrief, when the secrets were uncovered and mysteries explained. Everyone’s story truly unfolded and people seemed to agree that the game would benefit from playing again, which we intend to do.


Great gaming, chore gaming

We had a great day of gaming on Saturday. First we played the Mountain Witch tabletop RPG, which was good (and a bit hysterical), then a medley of console games. We started with Halo 3 on the 360, playing Slayer on the same console, online. I was surprised that my friend could just load up a “guest” profile and join the fray in split-screen. I thought Microsoft would’ve not allowed non-paying gamers to join Live games, but I’m all up for it. We had much more fun as a result.

It was great to witness a friend’s first online frag. I guess you need to be a gamer to get that.

Then we switched to Warhawk on the PS3. With the Sixaxis motion controls, it was hysterical, and again, scoring a first kill after a couple of rounds of getting fragged and passing the pad around to the next contestant – it felt so good. (The neighbors must’ve appreciated it, too.) We concluded with a healthy dose of Tekken: Dark Resurrection on PSPs.

Gaming-wise, Suday was not so great. Oh, I gamed. Below is my tasklist for the next five days. I need to be reviewing this lot. Some ten hours later, I had spent the day on Halo 3 – completing it – Super Paper Mario, Heavenly Sword, NHL 08 and Enemy Territory. Good thing we’re heading out now, I’m exhausted. And there’s still FIFA 08 and Tiger Woods to go, which I haven’t even booted up yet. I’m beginning to feel that there’s such a thing as too much gaming. I guess I need to learn how to spread the load over a longer period.

The Sunday tasklist

roleplaying tabletop games

CCP busy as bees (EVE Online, White Wolf)

The Icelandic indie rebels of the massively multiplayer scene, CCP, have revealed their plans for the future of their long-running MMORPG (…) EVE Online.

They are looking to incorporate more social aspects into EVE, partly to make it more appealing to women. Not being able to walk my avatar around a space station felt too alienating to me when I tried the game (sidenote: goddamn the WordPress search function sucks). As it is, they’re adding that feature next year.

In addition to the ladies, CCP is also looking to push EVE’s player count way up – past Iceland’s population count, at least. I’m intrigued to see how they intend to go about this, because EVE is a poster boy for not designing for the mainstream.

An interesting tidbit was the fact that through CCP’s White Wolf connections, they’re putting the game’s client on a DVD for distribution in eastern Europe. I was wondering why they would do this, but it turns out the reason is that it’s still common to bill by downloaded megabyte over there. Sheesh, so stone age-ish!

Speculation is rife with what they’re going to do with the World Of Darkness online RPG they’re planning. I’m thinking the potential for a truly new kind of game, centered on social relationships, is absolutely stellar. Then again, if I need to “level” my vampire by killing rats, there is no chance in hell I’ll touch the thing. Actually just by doing away with items, loot and kill-based experience they could steer the game into a very interesting direction. Oh well, they’re saying we’ll see in another 4-5 years. No, really.

roleplaying tabletop games technology

Virtual tabletops

I’ve been looking at virtual tabletop software for roleplaying game needs. I’m not exactly sure why, just felt like it, and if the need should arise, I’d like to know what options are available. I found this neat list of 34 virtual tabletop applications over at the Battlegrounds site.

The problem with most of these virtual desktops is that they seem to be map-based. I can’t fathom playing anything but vanilla Dungeons & Dragons dungeoncrawling with basically a map software. Of course it could be that many of these would be suitable for me if I just disregard the mapping part, but it’s just backwards thinking. The one time I’ve looked for a map-based solution was when I was dreaming about playing Warhammer 40’000 without a physical board. In a roleplaying game the focus should be on communication, not avatars on a map. This is an often encountered problem in tabletop games, too: bringing out a map moves the action away from the players and onto the board – not a desirable outcome in most situations.

The TRIS solution appeals to me, but sadly is Windows only. It’s based on scenes instead of maps. Another that might work is OpenRPG, which I haven’t yet tested.

I was thinking why I would need a software for playing online at all. Isn’t a chat client enough? I think not. You want to differentiate between off-game and in-game chat, you want the option to easily present files (PDFs, ready-written text, images, whatnot) and roll dice, preferably graphically. But maps and rulers and ready modules to move through? Has roleplaying taken a sharp turn towards a tactical exercise or have I moved away from the way the masses want to play?

Last night I went through some old notes of campaigns past and was getting that RPG flame back on. Oh, the possibilities!


Dragon, Dungeon magazine cancelled

Dragon magazine is one of my most precious childhood treasures, a then treasure trove of inspiration for tabeltop roleplaying games, especially Dungeons & Dragons. I have not read it in years, the last issue I bought was released around the time Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition launched in 2000. It does move me a bit to hear that they have decided to cancel it after issue 359 (via GayGamer). It’s been a respectable 31 years.

Dragon’s sister magazine Dungeon is also being cancelled. I think I only ever bought one issue of that. The new magazine they’re going to release, Pathfinder, is a successor to Dungeon more than Dragon, I think. I do wonder why this is the case. In Finland, the roleplaying magazine Roolipelaaja (“Roleplayer”) is something I’d love to see in an international format. They’re going the way of a periodical, focusing much more on the culture of roleplaying and almost entirely bypassing the traditional “gamemaster’s aid” approach – which is just sensible, considering that a fraction of roleplayers are actually gamemasters.


Shadowrun (Xbox 360)

Penny Arcade’s Tycho has been playing an almost complete version of Microsoft’s upcoming Shadowrun game. It’s starting to sound very nice. I played my share of Tribes 2 on the PC back in the day and it is indeed still a unique experience. It bodes well for the game if they’ve taken a leaf out of the Tribes design – at least as far as proving they have a discerning taste in FPS teamwork goes!

Shadowrun is originally a tabletop roleplaying game from 1989, still played today, and incidentally my first English-language RPG. I never played it that much but the world did grow on me. When news of an online-only, FPS affair with the Shadowrun licence surfaced, the RPG backlash was palpable. Many cried out for a sequel to the SNES RPG version from 1993 (whoah! 14 years ago!).

I don’t like the aesthetics of this new version of Shadowrun, but it is indeed starting to sound interesting. I’m getting a bit tired of Battlefield 2, so another team-based online sport is called for! Mind you, I still like Perfect Dark Zero’s Infection mode, but I never really got into it.


655 pages of rules (Burning Empires)

We’re playing a campaign of Burning Empires, as was established in a previous post. How did the actual game turn out, after the excellent session of creating the world and central cast together? In a word, great.

The game features no prewritten story, instead relying on the players coming up with stuff that matters to them. The narration turn goes around the table, each player framing a scene in which their character is the star. You could imagine that this leads to a disjointed, unconnected game, but nothing of the sort happened in our game. Because every player wants to advance their characters’ Beliefs (goals in life) and every player gets a very limited amount of scenes to work with (normally three per maneuver), every scene holds meaning and advances the game. Indeed, the game’s pace was breathless, with major developments in every other scene.

The one real problem we had was that the gamemaster – yours truly – was severely outgunned. The players basically took turns bashing my teeth in. This was the result of bad planning on my behalf: my characters, the players’ antagonists, were all of soldier stock and simply lacked the skills to be useful in the bigger picture. I kept losing at the metagame level and looking for a chance to directly attack the players.

We’re psyched to continue the game. I’m actually planning ahead to see what I could do to even the odds. Of course it sucks to lose all the time, but this is a new kind of challenge to me. It feels weird and invigorating to have to try to out-think the players. Since everyone is playing with open cards and subject to the same rules (which can’t be tweaked!), it’s really a game, something you need to be good at to win. Still, being alone against the players, it feels unfair. But I suppose I’m just learning.

A word of warning: the game is a lot to take in. It weighs in at 655 pages and that’s almost exclusively rules. There’s next to no separate setting material and absolutely no filler. It is not hard to learn, as everything is simple and logical, but there are procedures to every stage of the game.


Let’s play together (Burning Empires)

The tabletop roleplaying scene has been undergoing something of a renaissance over the past few years. The theory and experimental games fashioned over at the The Forge community have slowly started to surface into the mainstream.

One of the main points the scene has come to realize is that we should play together more. The classic setup of gamers as an audience for the gamemaster has come under fire, and rightly so. The GM has to do all of the work and with the gamer generation now in their early 30s, we just don’t have time for that kind of play anymore. I can barely make time for one night of gaming, let alone several nights of planning the game. Ten hours of work to five hours of fun doesn’t sound very smart to me!

Many of the these new wave games are focused on the idea of shared effort: everybody works and everybody has fun. Ideally, no preparation work is necessary. I’ve tried a couple of these games, to a very good success, I think.

I’m currently reviewing Burning Empires for a magazine. Last Saturday we went through the first session, which is basically making the world together. It was not only fun, but the world turned out excellent – much better than what I could’ve come up on my own. Everyone could immediately tell that this was a good thing: there is zero unnecessary detail, no lecturing and everybody identifies with the world. Since the game’s focus is saving a world from an alien invasion, it’s crucial that the players care about the world.

An even better experience was creating the central cast together. Burning Empires makes the group think up the central cast (protagonists and antagonists) together and the roles are dealt to the players only after that. I can’t emphasize enough how much I like this. I think it’s a huge problem with many games that the players don’t identify with their antagonists, but this way absolutely everyone knows what the big picture is and what’s motivating everyone. All of the characters turned out multidimensional: several of them actually switched sides as we thought who of them would be the “good guys” and who the “bad guys”. I believe this bodes well for the game.
We have yet to see how the game actually plays out – there is no pre-planned story, the mechanics should force the game to a satisfying narrative. Expect an update next week on that!