I thought I'd give you guys a short overview of the background and gameplay covered by the main Deathwatch rulebook, and leave the expansions for later reviews.
The Deathwatch, aka Ordo Xenos, is an order of the Inquisition that seeks out and combats alien threats to the Imperium. Others facets of the Inquisition combat daemons and heresy, but it is up to the Deathwatch to fight the less overt alien threats that endanger the Imperium. What makes the Deathwatch unique is that its combat forces are comprised of Space Marines from scores of chapters throughout the galaxy. Space Marines chosen to serve in the Deathwatch, either on a volunteer basis or by command, leave their Chapter for a certain amount of time to serve with other marines in the Ordo Xenos.
Thus, player characters in the Deathwatch game are Space Marines: the seemingly incorruptible paragons of humanity. On the surface, Space Marines would seem to make fairly weak RPG characters. A good RPG narrative thrives on character development - what would highly-trained, single-minded marines contribute to any sort of character evolution?
This leads to one of my over-arching commandments concerning all RPG's: the game will be what you make of it. The rules are there to help players along and provide some parameters for gameplay, but it's up to the players to make the game an immersive experience. And the fact is, in the Warhammer 40k universe, there are many loyalist Space Marine chapters that simply don't get along with each other, and none of them are particularly friendly with the Inquisition. The players are marines that have left their brothers, left behind the only structure they've ever known, and must now fight alongside those they don't know and take orders from an authority they inherently distrust. It may take a little extra effort, but there's a ton of narrative opportunity there for a group of players to exploit.
Now, having said that: these guys can bring the pain, and one of the joys of playing Deathwatch is being able to play out the "fluff" version of the Space Marines; where a few well-armed supermen pit their skills against the worst that the galaxy has to offer.
Alright, now that the background stuff has been covered, let's briefly cover the book itself and the rules.
The main rulebook is simply a triumph. 400 pages of full-color artwork, background, and rules make this one of the best buys you could find in an RPG. This book is a great buy even if you're not planning on running a campaign, but you're a fan of the 40k universe. The artwork, fluff, and layout is outstanding.
The mechanics themselves are relatively similar to the other main 40k RPG's, Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader. All of these titles use a d100 system, which can be daunting at first but ultimately leads to streamlined and varied gameplay.
The big difference between the RPG settings is the level of abilities that the player characters bring to the table. These are Space Marines after all, and their attributes make a mockery of the player characters in the other games. What makes Deathwatch stand out is that while the characters have unique individual traits that are very strong, they have to enter what is called "squad mode" to make the most of their combined might.
The potential for gripping storytelling is very strong because of this combat mechanic. Will a headlong Space Wolf be willing to play second-fiddle to a Dark Angel? Or will his pride get the better of him as he tries to tackle the threats alone? On the flip side, for example, entering squad mode could sometimes lead to a Xenos escaping the Marines' clutches because they didn't exploit the speed of a Blood Angel to catch their quarry.
Dark Heresy, and to a greater extent, Rogue Trader, were not reliant on having miniatures available to represent combat scenes. While it's not required for Deathwatch, I've found that having models and a small grid-outline battlefield can be very helpful for Deathwatch. Of course, I already have the miniatures that are needed for this. If you don't then you should be fine committing to an abstract combat system.
All in all this is a great system that can be very entertaining. If you're a fan of RPG's and the 40k universe then there is simply no reason why you shouldn't give this book a try. You could probably find a copy on Amazon for $15 - you won't regret it.
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