17 December 2013

Dark Heresy: Opinions

Assassins are basically acolytes, if you don't think too hard about it

I don't like the word “review”. It implies that I'm somehow a neutral arbiter of some sort of truth, or that I'm somehow able to separate my personal foibles, weaknesses, and neuroses from the world of objective facts and deliver to you an opinion in the form of a recommendation that's stripped of what makes me different than you, as though I have the ability to recommend to you what'd be great at your gaming table instead of mine.

So let me just write a what I think, what the problems are, and how I'd fix it. It's a long read, so if you're in the mood for something lighter, come back later and please, please, tell me when you agree or disagree. I very much want to hear alternate opinions on this one. 

Some background: I've actually been running a several months-long weekly game of Dark Heresy for my players, with a couple of breaks here and there. It's been a combat-light game of investigation, where the players are searching for a missing man who isn't at all what he appears to be, in a world of shifting allegiances and mutual mistrust. It's been a whole lot of fun. It might be one of the most interesting games I've had the pleasure of running. Top ten certainly. But here's the thing. The game is best when we're not actually playing it.

Talking to security guards and arguing with police officers is fun. Looking through boxes and dusty warehouses is fun. Tracking down missing persons is fun. But for the vast majority of the game, we haven't actually been playing Dark Heresy. We've been playing Acolytes of the Inquisition: 1st Edition, and while that's been great, the few times when we've actually had to play the game as written have been kind of shit.

The skills and talents, although they have some standouts here and there, are mostly boring and functional things that detail what your character has some sort of knowledge of. This is fine, for what it is, and some people very much enjoy having concrete details about their character's abilities. In practice, the strict delineation of skills means that each character class shines in a particular situation. You want to bring somebody who can talk to people, somebody who can work computers, machines, and tools, and theoretically you'd want somebody with Lore skills but those are so bafflingly useless in practice that nobody really bothers taking any.

So what you get in each character is the ability to roll and see if you get something given to you by the DM. You technically only roll when there's some sort of downside to it, or when failure would be dramatic. This means, of course, that most of the time you don't roll at all. The skills function as a pass or fail sort of system. If you have Tech Use, you can peek through computers for a while. If you have Barter, you get better prices. This is actually better than what I'm sure the designers intended, which is evident from the multiple examples they give, including a time where the player succeeded so hard that they got punished for it!*

Let's talk about the combat minigame. Unsurprisingly, it's an overly granular, individual initiative based percentile system. It uses the familiar rounds and turns system, where a round is over when everybody's taken their turn. It makes sure to separate Narrative Time from Combat Time, in case you thought that it was permissible to make things up now. No, it is not. There is no freedom here. You are to play the Combat Game as written.

Like nearly every other game written in the past 30 years, you use a D&D derived combat system. You determine surprise, roll initiative, and then go in that order. You get to use full, half, and free actions to do things. Shooting somebody is a full action if you are shooting more than one bullet or using a melee weapon. If you're only shooting one, you can do something else, too, like walk around while doing it. Combat is simple. Roll underneath your Weapon or Ballistic skill, then reverse the dice to get the hit location. There are a lot of rules about drawing weapons, falling over, and different types of weapon. There are rules about suppression and jumping around and leaving a swordfight and shooting lots of bullets. Sometimes your weapon will jam. The single interesting or useful thing in the entire combat system is the critical hit system, which will have interesting, permanent, and gruesome effects on its target, randing from eyeball removal to makeshift amputation. The critical hit system is really the best part about the combat system, which otherwise manages to take the exciting and terrifying danger of a gunfight and reduce it to literally the single most boring system I've ever seen. It's a “choose an attack, roll to hit, roll damage” back and forth that would be deadly dull in any setting but is especially poor given that the game is based off a very popular wargame.
This isn't dark heresy related, I just like the picture.

Now, to be fair, the best parts of the wargame are its colorful and varied units, which are impressive to look at and chock-full of interesting special abilities and powers that makes the game what it is. It also has an elegant and useful d6 based system instead of the percentile system on display in Dark Heresy. But you'd think that the designers of DH would take a page of notes from the wargame and perhaps try and figure out what makes it tick.**

Now I get that they're not even in the same genre- Warhammer 40k is in the science fantasy genre, where the game operates by the rule of cool more than any sort of common sense. Dark Heresy is a sort of a sci-fi film noire meets spanish inquisition Gestapo, where gangster mutants lurk in smoky bars and hideous cultists are actively plotting the downfall of the empire... but the combat and skill systems don't hardly fit that, either. We don't have bloody and senseless wars with hodge-podge technology that's regressed since our own 2000s era technology despite getting larger and flashier (for whatever reason) and we also don't have a system of street gang skirmishes with cops or the bloody and professional gunplay of gangster hitmen. What we have is a system that's equally poor at everything, including meeting the feel of the rest of the game.***

Because where, in the rest of the game, everybody's standing around and trying to contribute through ideas to the group as a whole, when it comes time for gunplay, time slows down to a crawl and everybody acts individually until the whole thing is over. If you're a non-combatant, then you get to sit and hide while the important combatants struggle and jockey for position and shoot each other in a system really more suited towards a miniature skirmish game between equal forces of combatants rather than a retinue of acolytes versus whatever it is that they're fighting, and not even a particularly good miniatures skirmish game at that.

And I think that's the biggest problem I have with Dark Heresy. It's got a light in the dark with the permissive and useful skills and talents system, and the character creation is flavorful, although limited. But when it comes time for a fight, the game slows down to a crawl and starts to trip over itself. Where there should be either some sort of group-based affair like OD&D's original Chainmail combat resolution **** or at least some sort of simple and equally permissive individual combat system where everybody's doing something, even if it's not directly shooting/slashing the enemy, you instead get a system that clashes with the rest of the design and requires pages and pages of explanation that affect nothing else in the game. Where you should have a syncretic character with skills that range in usefulness from combat-useful to investigation-useful, you instead get a clear divide between combat-only and non-combat. It's a real shame, given that the source material is so much more.

So if you're going to play Dark Heresy, here's my advice- pick one half or the other.

If you pick the combat system, restrict everybody to playing combat or hybrid classes, grab some minis, and go to town. Have the players really be jack-booted KGB thugs, knocking down doors, demanding answers, breaking into cult dens with guns blazing.

If you pick the investigative system, have the players snoop around and investigate. Use all the skills at their disposal. Let combat-heavy characters take an investigation skill or two, or at least assist a lot, even with things that they aren't really very good at. When it's time for combat, use group (instead of individual) initiative and just have the highest person roll. Have everybody take their action at once, and have the other side take all their actions at once, so that combat is over in four turns at most. Concern yourself with the outcome and the risks of combat, more than the mini-game itself, because if you go about it the way that the book recommends, nobody's gonna be happy.

If you want to play a game of Dark Heresy as written, with a mix of every character class and equal parts combat and non-combat, I can't recommend this game system to you. It's not what you're after. Pick something else, and put a 40k patina over it yourself. Seriously, you'll end up with something better than this game. This game needs to be rewritten so that the two halves have something to do with each other instead of being completely separate and incomplete games stapled together and sold as something coherent.

*I'm not kidding, it's on page 184. It's really pretty terrible and proves to me that the bit of faff about only rolling when it's dramatically important is an enormous lie, because what would be the dramatic result of failing to convince some random Drill-Abbots of his incredible heroism, exactly? I'm reasonably sure that you're supposed to roll any time your character is using the skill, and then deal with the consequences. And, additionally, any time you're doing something that is covered by a skill you don't have (nearly everything) you're supposed to roll half your attribute... If true, that makes Dark Heresy truly the worst system I've played more than once and I would not recommend it to anybody, ever

**To be fair, most things are less interesting than a Tau Crisis Suit, or a Chaos Space Marine Defiler, but my point is that taking a decent system and taking away all of the parts everybody likes is not a good way to create a compelling game

***What would have worked infinitely better (and helped to reduce the stigma of playing a character with limited combat skills at the same time) would be to keep the “everybody's contributing” style of the rest of the game and have a single, large roll for the conflict as a whole. Each character could roll whatever they wanted to use to contribute to the fight with, with perhaps a modifier for types that aren't suited to the conflict at hand (a substantial penalty to melee if there's no clear way to get to the other side, or a penalty to shooting if there's no easy way to get a clear shot, and so on), and then you have both sides roll all their dice up at once. The players can determine themselves, or you can randomly choose, who gets injured, on both sides. The end result? The conflict is resolved in a couple of minutes, using the same style of play as the rest of the game, and without spending half an hour or more aping the combat subsystem mini-game from a 40 year old game from a completely different genre that DOESNT EVEN END UP PLAYING LIKE THA T BECAUSE THE ENTIRE SYSTEM IS DIFFERENT. WHY DO PEOPLE KEEP COPYING DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS STYLE COMBAT WHEN THEY DONT GET WHY IT WORKED IN THAT GAME HOLY SHIT THIS IS IRRITATING

****Where, from what I understand, both sides go through ranged combat phases, then close combat phases, then magic phases, and then morale phases; and then if both sides are still present, they repeat until one side breaks. Rarely do both sides fight until the death, although there are often casualties and injuries on either side.

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