Review – First Founding (Deathwatch RPG)

First Founding is a supplement for the Deathwatch RPG, one of the four products lines in Fantasy Flight Games’ Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay series. First Founding is a full-color, 144-page (two pages of advertisement) hardcover that retails for $39.95. This review will give a general impression of the book, followed by a more detailed examination of the separate sections. If you’re like me, you will purchase more roleplaying books for more game lines than you’ll ever have the time to do a campaign for, and so my opinion of an RPG book considers not only the perspective of a potential player/GM, but also the perspective of a simple reader.

The Basics

The Deathwatch RPG (along with Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and Black Crusade) is set in Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40K universe (motto: “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.”). Unlike the other product lines, there basically is only war in Deathwatch – the player characters take on the role of the Empire of Mankind’s elite, superhuman Space Marines. In particular, Space Marines who have been assigned to the elite Deathwatch organization, which includes marines from many different Chapters and concentrates on squad-level action against alien threats (thus setting up a party-sized group of marines, and letting players draw their characters from their favorite Chapters). The game, like these missions, are heavily combat focused.

First Founding bills itself as “a definitive guide to the Space Marines of the First Founding,” and advertises the ability to play as a member of the four not-previously-appearing First Founding Chapters (the Chapters that were originally the 20 Legions directly founded by the Emperor from a Primarch’s gene-stock; there are nine Loyalist Chapters, nine Heretic Legions that fell to Chaos, and two of which no record remains), wield Chapter-specific wargear, and acquire followers. All are present, although the followers section is a bit weak, and doesn’t feel worthy of including on the back cover copy. Also, although not mentioned on the back cover, First Founding includes write-ups for new Specialties and other mechanics for the First Founding Chapters that were previously available for play.

Layout/Graphics/Editing

Like the Deathwatch core book, First Founding has a beautiful layout, and I did not observe any layout errors. The graphics were plentiful (without overly limiting the text), and include both full-page spreads and well-placed insets. The art is consistent with the style and flavor of the graphic design. Editing overall was good. There were several instances of writing goofs (mostly seemingly-random wrong words) but they were not common and weren’t major.

Contents

Honour the Chapter (30 pages) – Provides full rules for playing the four previously-undescribed First Founding Chapters – the Iron Hands, Raven Guard (not to be confused with the Ravenwing), Salamanders, and White Scars:

– The Iron Hands are focused on technology, and over their careers slowly replace their bodies with bionic implants. The flavor write-up of the Iron Hands ends up slightly awkward, as the Iron Hands are presented as both “fuelled by 10,000 years of anger, hatred, and bitterness” and yet still displaying a “cold, mechanical resolve.”

– The Raven Guard are sneaky masters of subterfuge and infiltration – to the extent that 10-foot tall superhuman soldiers wrapped in several tons of metal can be stealthy, anyway. They avoid frontal assaults and like to use ambushes and assassinations.

– The Salamanders are characterized by heat, flame, and the forge. The favor melta and flame weapons, prefer to craft their own weaponry where possible, use relatively few anti-grav vehicles (preferring treaded war machines). The ebony-skinned Salamanders are slow to anger, but once they decide on a position, it will take some real convincing to get them to change their minds.

– The White Scars are basically a Mongol Horde of Space Marines, except that horses are replaced by bikes and troop transports. Devastator Squads and Dreadnaughts are disfavored. The White Scars have also been known to demand duels of honor when offended, which may be often.

Three of these Chapters (all but the White Scars) share the distinction of having been pretty well mauled on Istvaan V by the Traitor Legions when the full extent of the Horus Heresy was revealed. In addition to flavor discussions of its history and combat tactics, each Chapter gets the full mechanical treatment, including the base stat modifiers, Solo Mode Ability, two Squad Mode Abilities, Demeanour, Pasts table, Primarch’s Curse, Chapter Trappings, psychic powers, and Chapter Advances table (including a few new Talents).

Chapter’s Due (40 pages) – Four of the five previously-described First Founding Chapters is treated to some more history, a look at the presence of the Chapter (and/or its Successors) in the Jericho Reach, two new Advanced Specialties, a new Solo Mode ability, two new Squad Mode abilities, a new Pasts table, and a new Oath (the Imperial Fists don’t get the new Specialties). As the book expressly warns, many of the Advanced Specialities are generally not suited for player characters – PCs are unlikely to start as members of these highly-honored Chapter forces, and they are unlikely to be promoted to them while still serving in the Deathwatch. They are still workarounds, however – for example, the Furioso Dreadnaught emphasizes who it is almost unheard of for one of them to serve with the Deathwatch, but it also notes that a couple of Dreadnaught shells are kept in stasis at the Watch Tower. Regardless, however, each Chapter does get one Advanced Specialty that can be bought at Rank 1. The Advanced Specialties presented are:

– Blood Angels: Furioso Dreadnaught (assault-focused Dreadnaughts, including Librarian Dreadnaughts; the ) and Sanquinary Priests (as the Sanquinary Priests are essentially specialized Blood Angels Apothecaries, they are appropriate for starting characters, and the Specialty can be bought with a small amount of XP by any Rank 1 Blood Angels Apothecary);

– Dark Angels: Ravenwing Veteran (the Dark Angels bikers can also be taken by Rank 1 characters) and Deathwing Terminators

– Space Wolves: Wolf Scout (can be bought at Rank 1) and Rune Priests (kind of a combination of Apothecary and Chaplain);

– Ultramarines: Tyrannic War Veteran (these anti-Tyranid specialty can be bought at Rank 1) and Honour Guard.

Note that there is no new material here for the two Successor Chapters that appear in the Deathwatch core rulebook.

The Traitor Legions (20 pages) – The write-up that I was looking for in the Black Crusade core book to vary that tome up a bit! First Founding presents at least a page on each of the nine Traitor Legions (Alpha Legion, Emperor’s Children, Night Lords, World Eaters, Death Guard, Thousand Sons, Word Bearers, Black Legion, and Iron Warriors). The write-ups not only include history and tactics, but also what presence the Traitor Legion may have in the Jericho Reach. The non-aligned Legions as a group aren’t quite as flavorful as the Legions that are dedicated to a specific god of Chaos, but that’s to be expected since those four have gotten most of the development in the history of WH40K. It’s still nice to have all nice discussed. This chapter also presents four Master level Traitor Marine enemies to throw at the PCs.

Chapter Wargear (~30 pages) – This chapter presents ranged and melee weapons, armour, and other wargear. The lion’s share of it is Chapter-specific to one of the First Founding Chapters. The rest is Deathwatch-specific equipment. This Chapter also spends about 8 pages on Followers. Followers are bought with XP as an Elite Advance, and come in two varieties – background Followers, and frontline Followers. Frontline Followers are combatants who get stats, Skills, Talents, etc. of their own. How to build a frontline Follower is covered in some detail. Background Followers, on the other hand, exist to help the PC outside of combat and essentially function as Talents. Unfortunately, First Founding gives no explanation of how to determine an appropriate effect or cost for a background Follower, including only one sample background Follower with an XP cost and mechanical effect. Rather than presenting rules for background Followers, It felt like more of a “hey, it might be a neat idea if you could take Talents to represent a henchman helping you outside of combat; maybe you guys want to figure out how to make that work?”

The Chapter Is All (~10 pages) – This is a more conceptual chapter on how one might integrate Chapter identity into a Deathwatch campaign. This mostly amounts to iterations on two core themes. First, the character’s Chapter has some old animosity for another Chapter, and this causes problems. Or, second, the character is asked to do something to help his own Chapter, that may or may not contradict Deathwatch orders, and that he probably has to hide from his squadmates.

Traitor’s Dawn (~20 pages) – The final chapter is an adventure that involves the PCs having to deal with other Space Marines of three of the newly-introduced First Founding Chapters, the details of which I shall not spoil here.

Summary

Like the rest of the Deatwatch line, First Founding features good writing, lots of flavor, and excellent production values. It’s probably most valuable to (1) players/GMs who are fans of a particular Chapter (or the setting generally) and want more detail on it (or any detail at all, if the Chapter in question is one of the four new ones); (2) GMs who are looking to inject a little more variety and distinctiveness into the other Space Marines that the PCs interact with (or the Chaos Space Marines they fight against); or (3) you want more options for your character’s Oaths and Mode abilities. As with other Deathwatch books, if you’re into the WH40K setting generally, or Space Marines specifically, First Founding is also an interesting read, as even the crunchy bits contain a lot of flavor to them.

On the downside, although I usually don’t dip into the finance side of things beyond mentioning the asking price, I apparently feel compelled to note that $40 for a 144-page supplement is kind of starting to pinch. Maybe only WotC can afford to do $30 hardbacks of reasonable quality these days, but can’t a fellow get at least 192 pages for his $40? I much preferred the $50 for 256-page size and price for Rites of Battle to the slimmer format that most of the Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay books seem to have had lately.

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