Regular visitors to Strange Assembly may notice two unusual things about this post. For one, it’s the first time I’ve done a written review (as opposed to a discussion on the podcast). For another, it has nothing to do with L5R. Or another AEG game. Well, it turns out that I enjoy a range of games and not just L5R. And I’m guessing that many of you do as well. So, since I’ve got this website thing sitting here, I decided to try reviewing something (and I’ll probably do it again in the future). Don’t worry, this isn’t replacing any L5R content – it’s entirely in addition to it (and you can just click on the “L5R” tag over there on the right and anything non-L5R will vanish). Oh, and if you’re a non-Legend of the Five Rings player who has come here just to read this review, you should check out L5R as well. I highly recommend the 4th Edition of the RPG (I recommend the CCG as well, but this is an RPG product review, so that’s probably of more interest to you). Anyhow, I hope you enjoy the review, and here it is:
Rites of Battle is a supplement for the Deathwatch RPG, one of the three products lines in Fantasy Flight Games’ Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay series. Rites of Battle is a full-color, 256-page (one page of advertisement) hardcover that retails for $49.95. This review will give a general impression of the book, followed by a more detailed examination of the separate sections, and then a summary opinion. 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 Deathwatch RPG (along with Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader) 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 two 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). Like these missions, the game is heavily combat-focused.
Rites of Battle bills itself as “The Deathwatch Space Marine Handbook,” and on the back advertises a host of new character options, vehicle rules, and new equipment. All of these things are present, but I would say that many of the new options lend themselves to a different style of game than the core concept, and are most suitable for high-level characters and/or campaigns that shift focus to include the Imperium’s broader war effort. This is highlighted by the back cover’s mis-labeling of the new Specialties as “Alternate Specialties” – they are call Advanced Specialties in the book and are primarily useful for high-Rank characters. Not that these options are bad, but they may not simply be able to plug into an existing campaign for more than NPC use or one-shot appearances.
Rites of Battle is well-written and evocative. The rules writing is clear, and the fluff keeps you immersed in the flavor of the setting. Those who aren’t too enamored with the WH40K setting may find the book to be a bit heavy on setting jargon but, really, why would you be looking at a wH40K roleplay book if you don’t like the setting? I found some of the tables in the Deathwatch core book to be a bit flowery, and that doesn’t seem to be so present here (maybe because there aren’t several pages of “ways to die” tables).
Like the Deathwatch core book, Rites of Battle has great and flavorful layout, and I did not observe any layout errors. The graphics are plentiful, without overly limiting the text, and include both full-page spreads and well-placed insets. Some of the art appears to be re-used from other sources (I’m not going back to check, but they seem familiar and are non-Deathwatch specific), but they are still drawn from WH40K Space Marine material, so with one exception they are consistent with the style and flavor of the graphic design (that one exception is the first page of the Vehicles Chapter, which features a bright-blue Ultramarines biker; the image is a relatively bright one amidst a lot of darker images, and I would have expected a Deathwatch-specific vehicle image for such a prominent art placement). Editing overall was good. There were several instances of writing goofs (missing words, repeated phrases, and such), but they weren’t common and weren’t major. Rites of Battle does have an index of several pages.
Trials of the Aspirant (~5 pages) – This section gives several examples of trials that an aspirant might have undertaken to be accepted into the Space Marines, and suggestions for how this might affect a character. Since the suggested affects on a character are non-mechanical, and fairly generic, this section seems most useful in conjunction with the Create Your Own Chapter rules.
Creating Your Own Chapter (~30 pages) – One of the marquee sections of Rites of Battle, the rules for creating your own Chapter can be used fully randomized, or as a guide for a player (or GM) in generating ideas for a Chapter. Each step of the process contains a chart for all sorts of aspects of the Chapter’s nature – founding, gene-seed purity and flaws, Codex Demeanor (a fancy way of saying focus, these include emphases like having an anti-heretic bent or focusing on mobility), Chapter heroes, nature, environment, and relationship with home world (e.g., a desert hive world that is directly ruled by the Chapter), how far the Chapter diverges from the Codex Astartes, favored combat doctrine, solo and squad mode abilities, advancement tables, favored special equipment, religious focus, allies and enemies in the Imperium, and even name. As you can probably tell from the list, it’s quite a lot of detail. It seems a bit much at first blush, but ultimately I think that level of detail is helpful if you’re trying to create a Chapter with the breath of life to compete with the detailed history of the well-known canon Chapters.
New Chapter Options (~25 pages) – In my opinion one of the most useful sections of the book for the average player, Rites of Battle provides a whole stack of new canon Chapters that characters can be drawn from, giving players all sorts of new basic options and permitting them to have their next PC arise from their favorite corner of the WH40K universe, if it didn’t happen to get featured in the Deathwatch core book. The Imperial Fists gets the full treatment like the Chapters in the core book did, with its own multi-page background section and full independent mechanics (solo and squad mode abilities, advancement tables, psychic powers, and trappings). Additionally, the book presents information on Successor Chapters (Chapters that are offshoots of one of the nine loyalist First Founding Chapters) generally, and gives write-ups for 15 Successor Chapters. Each Chapter gets about three-fourths of a page. The Successor Chapters do not have their own full rules, but instead use the basic rules for their progenitor Chapter, with a tweak (for example, starting with a specific Talent). These write-ups strike a good balance between presenting enough information to make the Chapter interesting/distinct and eating up too much valuable page count. As Rites of Battle notes, two of the Chapters that got full write-ups in the Deathwatch core book are themselves Successor Chapters, but space restraints preclude full write-ups for that many Chapters.
Mash-Ups with other WH40K RPG Lines (~4 pages) – If you ever wanted to have a Deathwatch Space Marine come blow stuff up in your Rogue Trader game, or have a Dark Heresy Inquisitor help our your Kill-squad (despite the generally vast combat power level of the characters from the different game lines), this brief section gives you some tips for merging the somewhat different rule systems and getting the concept right. The Deathwatch Kill-Marine Advanced Specialty later in the book seems aimed at this sort of campaign/cameo.
Deeds (~15 pages) – Deeds are additional options that can be taken during character creation at the cost of XP (amount varies depending on how powerful the Deed is). Each Deed represents some singular and/or defining aspect of the character’s history before joining the Deathwatch. There are Deeds for different Chapters, military campaigns, acts of valor, Specialties, and moments of failure. Each gives one or more thematic mechanical effects (usually, but not always, benefits) to the character. The Deed system gives all players a different and flavorful way to spend their starting XP during character creation, and seems like a solid addition to the game.
Distinctions (~9 pages) – Like Deeds, Distinctions are packages of mechanical effects that represent recognition of some great deed/achievement by the character. Distinctions, however, commemorate actions taken during active play, and cannot be taken at character creation, but only bought with XP earned during your campaign (they seem to generally be much more powerful and expensive than Deeds). Each Distinction has a flavor concept, and one or more mechanical effects. These potential mechanical effects (confusingly called Marks of Distinction) are generic, and are packaged together to form the final, flavorful Distinction. For example, the Deathwing Distinction is comprised of the Chosen of the Chapter, Forbidden Lore, and Master of Secrets Marks of Distinction. Despite the confusing nomenclature, the Distinction system seems like a useful and flavorful tool to reward player achievement.
Advanced Specialties (~34 pages) – The Advanced Specialties primarily consist of ways to mark the PC’s ascension to high levels, or (probably more often) to distinguish important NPCs in the Deathwatch. For PCs, of the ten Specialties presented, seven are for veteran characters and another one (the Deathwatch Dreadnaught) is basically for when your character is mostly dead. Each Advanced Specialty has an XP cost, and provides the character with a variety of new options, new standard equipment, and a new advance table. In addition to putting a dying character into a sarcophagus to become a Dreadnaught, the higher-level options include the Deathwatch Champion (new combat abilities), Deathwatch Chaplain, Deathwatch Epistolary (high-level Librarian), Deathwatch Forge Master (high-level Tech Marine), Deathwatch Keeper (loremaster), Deathwatch Watch Captain, and First Company Veteran. The other two Advanced Specialties are appropriate for low-level/starting characters. The first – the Deathwatch Black Shield – is an appropriate standard PC option, representing a Space Marine who has abandoned (or been abandoned by) his original Chapter, and comes to the Deathwatch seeking redemption. It may only be taken by starting characters. However, the second – the Deathwatch Kill-Marine – is focused on operating alone and/or in conjunction with non-Space Marine forces, and appears to be designed more for use in a Rogue Trader or Dark Heresy game than anything else. All told, the Advanced Specialties section is well done, but unless your campaign is rising to the levels were the characters are among the leaders of the Deathwatch, it seems to be primarily a GM resource.
Expanded Wargear (~20 pages) – The Expanded Wargear section provides a good spread of additional equipment options for player characters, including new variations of bolters, plasma guns, flamers, missile launchers, power weapons, ammunition, upgrades, and wargear. The utility of this section probably depends on how bored the players are with their current selection of gear. Only a couple of items are iconic ones from the WH40K miniatures game (for example, the melta bomb and the Crozius Arcanum), so I don’t think someone playing with just the core rulebook would have felt like they were missing out on something. Rites of Battle also includes a variety of Relics, unique pieces of equipment (usually weapons) that the characters can Requisition to go along with their more mundane wargear.
Customizing Your Power Armor (~7 pages) – In addition to the different types of equipment that the players can Requisition, Rites of Battle also presents Power Armour variants, including older Marks from the distant past and new Armour History tables. Seems like useful stuff that players might be interested in.
Vehicles (~36 pages) – The vehicle rules are a new addition to the Deathwatch repertoire, and provide stats for pretty much any Space Marine vehicle you could want. Rules for Chaos Space Marine vehicles (where they differ from standard Space Marine stats) and Tau vehicles are also provided (the default setting for Deathwatch is the Jericho Reach, where the Tyranids, Tau, and Chaos are the organized opposition; there is a reference in Rites of Battle to stats for Superheavy tanks appearing in a later book, so perhaps stats for things like Ork or Eldar vehicles might appear there as well). The rules for vehicles in combat appear reasonable – enough detail to get the job done, but not so much minutiae that you’re getting bogged down. The space dedicated does seem like a lot for the utility it brings to a standard Deathwatch mission, where you might use one of the vehicles as an insertion method, or as a singular target to destroy. Full use of the chapter would seem to lend itself more towards larger-scale combat that moves away from the core, single-squad mission (there are even stats for a small Titan!). However, while it seems like a bit much, I can see why you’d err on the side of being more inclusive – WH40K fans will like seeing their personal favorite vehicle show up, and this way the GM never has to worry about that one particular type of vehicle he wanted for this mission being the one that got left out.
Honours (~8 pages) – Honours, like Distinctions, are gained by players during the course of play. Unlike Distinctions, Honours have no cost or mechanical effect. Also unlike Distinctions, they appear to be mostly wasted space in the book. The concept of Honours is interesting – they are little bits of recognition that a Space Marine receives from his Chapter (the most famous probably being the Crux Terminatus, which signifies that a Space Marine is a Veteran and may wear Terminator armor). However, the section ends up spending too much time on the concept, when most of the Honours entries can be summed up as “This Honour is given for [doing X]. Here is a picture of it. The roleplaying effect is that people will recognize that you have [done X], and act accordingly.” I don’t need a third of a page to tell me that. The overall write-up for the Honours makes them sound important and distinctive, but they are mostly generic-seeming concepts that one would think that most Space Marines have quite a few of, or are just automatically given to every Tech-Marine/Apothocary/whatever. Honours are, to me, the one poor portion of the book.
New Renown/Requisition Mechanics (~6 pages) – There are useful new rules for gaining Renown from a wider variety of situations (including non-combat situations), and more ways to “spend” it than simply being able to buy nicer wargear (such as Fellowship tests). There are also rules for spending Requisition for some of these effects. The primary new Requisition features are Imperial Assets (discussed below), and Reserve Requisition (letting you spend your remaining Requisition mid-mission to obtain Imperial Assets or other favors).
Imperial Assets (~11 pages) – Imperial Assets are ‘purchased’ for a mission with Requisition. They represent the Kill-team calling upon outside assets, such as Imperial Navy ships, Imperial Guard units, other Space Marines, and the Inquisition. However, I found this section disappointing. It makes perfect sense for the Deathwatch to be able to call in outside assets like orbital lance strikes or allied Space Marines. But many of these assets seem to amount to the Kill-team calling someone else in to do their work for them (for example, you can call in an Imperial Assassin to take out a hard target, which seems like the sort of thing that the PCs should be doing). It seems like you’d really have to work up a specialized mission just to make many of these assets have a good use that didn’t detract from the Kill-team, and then you’d have to worry about later mission design not getting mooted by the Kill-team being able to Requisition one of these (yes, you can always tell them no, but I’ve not a fan of rules that require the GM to tell players that no, they can’t do that thing that the book talks about). Along with the Advanced Specialties and the Vehicle rules, the use of Imperial Assets could be used effectively in high-level play but, again, that would seem to take away from the core small-team-focused concept of the game.
Watch Fortress Erioch and Environs (~26 pages) – An entirely flavor section, the final chapter of Rites of Battle provides more information on the default Jericho Reach setting of Deathwatch, and in particular on the Deathwatch Watch Fortress Erioch. The description of new areas of Erioch focuses on the storage of living (prisons), dead (ossuaries), and soon-to-be-dead (hunting grounds) aliens that are housed in the Watch Fortress. A variety of NPCs who make at Erioch appear, although they are a mixed bag (I’m not sure why the Inquisitor who died 400 years ago appears). A section on “Erioch Operations” essentially provides adventure ideas. After teasing you with all that, Rites of Battle finally provides a couple of pages on the most interesting aspect of Watch Fortress Erioch – the Omega Vault – but you can only fit so much in two pages. There are also three pages highlighting noteworthy sections of the Jericho Reach that one might want to incorporate into a campaign. All told, this chapter feels like it could have used some more space to flesh out many of the topics that it touches on. I wish it had absorbed some of the page count spent on Honours.
In sum, Rites of Battle features good writing, tons of flavor, and excellent production values. It provides quite a bit of handy new options for a Deathwatch campaign, but some of them are primarily of interest to the GM. The book is a must buy for a Deathwatch GM, and a good buy for the players as well (unless you’re playing in a high-level or broader war-focused campaign, in which case the book is must buy for you to). If you’re into the WH40K setting generally, or Space Marines specifically, Rites of Battle is also an interesting read, as even the crunchy bits contain a lot of flavor to them.
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