Dark Heresy – playtest review

Warhammer 40k, maybe you can describe the setting itself best with one word, as the ultimate Dystopia. 41st millenium and humankind had gained a lot in technology over the time but even more have they forgotten. If you’re not familiar with the setting, I’m sure you find 1001 pages like the wh and wh40k lexicanum. Dark Heresy, published by Fantasy Flight Games is an approach to roleplaying in this dark setting. Now let’s have a look at how our playtest ran:

Initial position

At the very basis we had three players and the dungeon master for the first session and we started off with two of us familiar with the setting and two of us who had not heard a lot more than the sheer existence. As a dungeon master I would recommend strongly that you go through the Dark Heresy rulebook which gives you a very good idea of the world and setting and introduce your players with your version of it. That’s how Tom, our dungeon master, started off into the game yesterday and he did an astounding job that captivated us from the very beginning.

Once you know a bit about inquisition, the various orders, what Space Marines and Inquisitors are for and tend to be like you get very quickly into the game, for the first session this still means you have the hurdle of character generation before you, but fear not – this is quite easy and fast.

Character Generation

For character generation you start off selecting a region where you come from your options ranging from overpopulated hive-worlds to wild and bestial feral worlds, standard imperial worlds to void born. This list is adapted in the DH players handbook with a few more options but for 95% of your games these four should do it as they already give you quite a few options, differentiations and distinctive pros and cons.

Second step is rolling the dice for basic attributes, split into eight attributes (melee and ballistic weapon skills, strength, toughness, agility, intelligence, perception and fellowship) you get a fair chance to roll quite some characters ranging from ~15 – 45% for starting characters in every category. We had two characters with an average of 270 points and had an exceptional one with attributes of ~330pts. While the later might have a slight edge, it was not visible in the first session (to me).

Third step is picking your class, you can select from adepts, assassins, arbiters, psykers, guards, scum, tech-priests and with the players handbook you’ve the additional option of a sister of battle. Our choices for the first game was an Arbitrator, one Tech-priest and an Adepta Sororitas.

The main advantage of the character generation is, you can pick virtually every option you like, but if you don’t feel like deciding on your own, you’ve a “roll a dice” table for everything as well. My personal favorite are the birth divinations, that grant you little boons while adding a very stylish element of fluff to the game. (The usual divination is really – dark.)

Off you go

So, finally we were ready to start, the initial character generation is in my opinion quicker than in most other systems, while it seems more work to actually create a more experienced build than in other systems. (at least it’s seemingly more complex). We started straight into cold water, recruited by an inquisitor (named Inquisitor Stahl / Steel) our first assignment was investigation on a heretical murder of a farmer that was found with a heretical device. We got our travel arranged and had to figure our way out with colonists on a planet.

On our way to our destination we had to travel through the warp which left the first confrontation almost within our graps. The journey itself gave our dungeon master a very good start on creating the lethal atmosphere. For the landings on the planet we had the options of sedadives or enjoying a stomach turning landing.

I won’t go more into the details of our adventure here but investigation can be fun, it’s a very social based, encounter heavy gaming experience and according to my gut, should be very much like this. The players are working for the inquisition and pick either to openly display or try to cover their operations (with the later being usual the wiser choice) their inquiries on town folk. The misinformation of 41st century people is a very flavourful experience, giving a lot of room for thoughful philosophical out-game thoughts while enjoying the difference in-game.

Combat and Lethality

We ended our first session with combat. Attacked by some lunatical misguided heretics we had a three on four situation for our first armed conflict. Cover takes an important role in the game, especially for novices (inexperienced acolytes that we are) it is very important to make good use of aim and obviously should be important to stick together in combat. The lethality is lower than what we expected. (This is mainly due to a combination of toughness and armor ratings when resisting damage). When taking into account that neither we nor our adversaries were armed very well the battle took quite a while, but left us agreeing on combat being a very stylish thing in Dark Heresy. Especially the mixup of melee and ranged combat with partially archaic weapons leaves a dense atmosphere when you’re trying to retreat from a melee situation which tends to be quite an act. Especially critical hits which rely on “overdamage” (excessive damage in relation to your wounds / constitution) tend to add some flair to the game and can appear more often as a result of players characters actions than they actually did (there were a lot² of combat moves, but not a single “10”  for the damage dice).

Conclusion and system

Well, it was only the first session of the playtest so far, but I have to admit – I really like the game. All you need to go is 2d10 preferably either one with 10-90 or in a different color than the first one. Skill-tests go smoothly but results are very hard to predict (for a dungeon master). I got the impression the party setup is a key element to the game and especially during our final discussion it turned out to be a key decision to pick a more stealthy approach and investigative (soft) skills than solve everything through presence.

As for me, I’m looking forward to the second half of our playtest and already have fallen in love with the setting.

2 thoughts on “Dark Heresy – playtest review

  1. A word to the wise: the low damage on player weapons can get very tiresome after a while. It’s a good idea to either use the weapons tables from Rogue Trader (which are more balanced) or add a selection of homebrew weapons to up the damage.

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