One Module, Every Game: Dark Heresy

The second session of the One Module, Every Game project was played yesterday, perhaps slightly spilling over into today. Time flies when you’re having fun, and nobody told me it was getting that late.

This time, the game was, as I declared a few weeks ago, Fantasy Flight Games’ licence RPG Dark Heresy. Unlike originally intended, this was actually a game I had previously run, but there was some public demand for it and it’s not difficult to persuade me when it comes to Warhammer 40,000. Knowing the how the game works did give me more time to prepare the adventure itself, for which I generated a cast of premade player characters with short backgrounds and motivations, as well as secret agendas for each. Someone gave me a very good idea over the weekend, which I think I managed to put into practice reasonably well.

I prepared five characters but ended up with only three players because of a number of last-minute cancellations. I think four players would have been ideal, accounting for everybody being unfamiliar with the ruleset, and five would’ve worked perfectly if all players had known the rules. The setup I worked out relied a lot on the players escalating things between themselves and with three, I think it dragged out a bit too long. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, let’s see what we were getting into.

Heresy, Dark

Dark Heresy is the first of three roleplaying games set in the Warhammer 40,000 setting from Games Workshop’s miniatures wargame of the same name. I can recommend almost everything related to Warhammer 40,000 except for Warhammer 40,000 itself. The second game of the trilogy, Rogue Trader, was released late last year and the third, Deathwatch, will be coming out this summer. Whereas Rogue Trader deals with, free merchants and Deathwatch will put you in the size 80 shoes (continental European system) of the Space Marines, Dark Heresy deals with that most unexpected of organisations, the Imperial Inquisition.

For the best description of the setting, check out the TVTropes article. I love that setting. There’s an insane sense of scale – the Imperium of Man spans across the galaxy and a million inhabited worlds. In its armies, it fields everything from lowly footsoldiers with their lasguns to armored personnel carriers for tanks and Gothic, mile-high walking robots. The spaceships are Gothic space cathedrals five miles long and thousands of years old. Everything is BIG. Everything is OLD. Imagine living in there.

In Dark Heresy, the PCs are agents of the Inquisition. They aren’t Inquisitors in their own right, or even the retinue of one, but an independent cell of lower-ranking operatives who may then ascend through the ranks as the game progresses. There’s a recent sourcebook, Ascension, that apparently covers Throne Agents, Interrogators and the Inquisitors themselves as player characters, but I haven’t yet picked it up. It is said to be most excellent, however.

Dark Heresy has a class-based system. The character classes are the usual WH40K fare – Assassin, Arbitrator (from the Adeptus Arbites, the Imperium’s equivalent of the Interpol), guardsman, tech-priest, cleric, psyker, and so forth. They gain experience and use it to purchase skill, talent and ability advances, and when they have burned enough experience points, advance to the next pay grade and unlock a new set of advancements. The character generation and advancement system is highly customisable and reminds me of Dungeons & Dragons, in that there’s a wealth of different abilities to pick and choose from, as well as interesting special stuff in the accessory books like Inquisitor’s Handbook.

The system seems to owe a bit of a debt to the miniatures game. The characters have the some of the same basic stats as the figures in the minis game – Weapon Skill, Ballistic Skill, Strength, Toughness, and so forth. Agility replaces Initiative, however, and the stat line extends to Intelligence, Perception, Willpower and Fellowship. These fall somewhere between zero and hundred, with the starting characters’ stats averaging around 30. That’s the target number you try to roll under. It may seem low, but the system offers up a bunch of ways to raise your odds and stacking bonuses – aiming, burst fire, and so forth. There’s also the level of difficulty, which gives an adjustment of +30 to -30, but which I found a bit unintuitive, probably because I’m used to D&D. In D&D, you need to set the Difficulty Class of every roll and then the roll must exceed it. However, in Dark Heresy, there’s already a built-in Difficulty Class in the ability score, and slapping on adjustments to this didn’t come naturally. I expect I could get the hang of it were I to play it more, though. Then there are these Degrees of Success. You get one additional Degree of Success for every ten points your roll is under the target number, which occasionally matters, such as when you’re firing bursts, when each additional degree of success scores another hit.

It’s also a bit slower than you’d expect, even with newbies at the table. I’m not exactly a fan of opposed combat, since it adds to the amount of dice rolled. Now, it’s attack roll, parry or dodge roll, damage roll. Now that I consult the rules, I notice we also added a superfluous fourth roll to that, to determine the hit location – according to the rules, the hit location is found by reversing the numbers of the D100 roll to hit, so that a hit roll of 19 becomes the hit location 91 (left leg). There was also an element of option paralysis when the players started crunching numbers to figure out whether the optimum course of action was to take a single shot, shoot with both guns, shoot a burst, or aim and shoot, or whatever. I tried to counter this by hurrying them, to limited effect. I probably need to implement a house rule for declaring an action within ten seconds when it’s your turn or your character is gripped by indecision and freezes like a deer in the headlights.

They can even survive that, thanks to the Fate Points. Each session, your PC has an allocation of Fate Points, usually somewhere from one to three, determined at character generation. You can use them to add a degree of success to your roll, heal 1d5 Wounds, reroll a test, small stuff like that. You can also burn a Fate Point permanently to save yourself from dying, dropping to zero Wounds and unconsciousness. There are situations where the explanation may be convoluted. This does prevent the PCs from kicking the bucket immediately in the campaign.

The After-Action Report

The core idea of how I was going to tackle Frozen Fingers of Midnight in Dark Heresy was spawned last Saturday over a hearty meal with fellow gamers from Alter Ego and TYR. I believe it was Ruutiukko who reiterated his view of Dark Heresy’s similarity in tone with the sci-fi comedy RPG Paranoia, as he did in the comments to a news post I made a few weeks ago. (Come to think of it, he is also a source of one of the main building blocks of the Living Greyhawk module Bright Sun, Black Lion that wrapped up Living Greyhawk in Finland. I need to drink with him more often.) I picked up on the idea and thought: but what if I really run Dark Heresy like Paranoia? For the benefit of those unfamiliar with this most classic of games, in Paranoia the player characters are Troubleshooters working in the Alpha Complex, a giant, sealed city that is entirely controlled by the Computer. The Computer is your friend. As a Troubleshooter, your job is to hunt down Commie mutant traitors.

Of course, it wouldn’t be fun if your character was not both a mutant and a member of a secret society. A proper Paranoia party has conflicting agendas and it’s an accepted and expected fact that sooner or later the party members will start killing each other off. It’s okay, every PC has six clones.

So, in Paranoia, every player knows that’s how the game works and expects it to work out that way. So, I thought, what if I take this paradigm from Paranoia and transplant it in Dark Heresy? When every player has a slip of paper with a secret agenda and no idea whatsoever of what the other characters even might have, it generates… paranoia.

I had five pregenerated characters, anticipating a rush of players, but unfortunately I got three cancellations in quick success and the game day ended up a bit small. In the adjacent room, another GM ran Summerland for two players.

While it would probably have been even slower, I seriously think that four or five players would have been much better. More conflicting agendas at the table would’ve resulted in more tense roleplaying, a quicker escalation and less work for me.

The characters that did end up in the game were Wessell, a Metallican gunslinger assassin, who was actually a mole from another Inquisitor’s cadre of acolytes, planted into one of Inquisitor Jakobus Baur’s cells to gather evidence that Baur is a dangerous radical and employs mutants and heretics; Private Anton Wierzbowski, a guardsman from the Regulus Planetary Defence Force with horrible scars and secret mutations he was trying to keep hidden long enough to escape the clutches of the Inquisition; and Lugo, a mind-scrubbed Arbiter with a secret mission from Inquisitor Baur himself to root out a traitor in the party. I also had a Albus Dimitros, a tech-priest who was a secret member of the heretical sect of the Logicians, and Father Mordecai, a Redemptionist Cleric who would’ve been the only person in the group who would’ve had no hidden agenda whatsoever. It’s just that Redemptionists are heavily into the whole “burn the heretic” spiel, and Father Mordecai had a flamethrower. The flamethrower had a bayonet on it. That bayonet was a chainsaw.

Oh, and he also started with 63 Insanity Points, minor pyromania and enough self-righteousness to justify torturing babies to death, if need be.

A part of my vision for the game was that the PCs would be at each others’ throats before the halfway point and I could just kick back and watch the fireworks. Wessell and Lugo played off each other admirably in this respect, Wierzbowski was a wild card with a justification for killing the entire party, Dimitros could’ve worked the intrigue angle and Mordecai would be putting out the fires with gasoline.

In the beginning, the three acolytes had been invited by Throne Agent Adril Hestram to his office in Hive Sibellus, the largest of the hive cities of Scintilla, the capital of the entire Calixis Sector. Hestram informed them that a couple of hours previously, he had received a missive from other Inquisition agents that a Deathwatch Space Marine, Skelg the Ripper, had been afflicted by a strange disease during a mission to clear out a space hulk in near orbit. Skelg had been hastily dropped off to an Inquisition safe house on a lower level of the hive. No corruption had been detected on him, but they were unwilling to take the risk of bringing him into the main Inquisition facilities in the hive. The acolytes were to go to the safe house, interview Skelg about the events during the mission, and proceed from there. Understandably, they were queasy about things that take Space Marines out of action.

So, they head off to the safe house, take a cab, spend a few hours travelling across the hive. It’s a poor working-class neighbourhood. They locate the safe house easily and ring the doorbell. Nobody answers. They ring it again. Still no answer. At this point, Wessell takes out her Hecuter automatic and shoots the door panel. This does not help.

Having now made a scene (and with the guardsman and the Arbiter visibly in uniform), they start fiddling with the workings of the door, when it’s slid half open from the inside. There’s a guy there, pointing a gun at them, demanding what the hell they are doing. Wessell flips her badge at them, they flip her theirs. It says they’re working for Inquisitor Caruso. (Why, yes, I was improvising these.) They shout at each other for a moment, the guy inside refusing to let them in. Then Lugo spots that the badge is a fake, tips off the others, and Wessell opens fire. A short firefight ensues and ends with the fake acolyte missing an arm and his friend inside the apartment with some serious burns. They find Skelg the Ripper in the adjacent room, a huge man, three meters tall, with a beard down to his waist and shoulders like the doors of a loading dock. He thanks them for taking care of the scoundrels and tells that the original caretakers of the safe house are stuffed in the closet. Skelg would, of course, have slain the enemies of the Imperium himself, but was too weak rise from the bed.

They get the rest of the story from Skelg – his Deathwatch kill-team was clearing out a space hulk called Galactic North that has a reputation for being cursed, popping up here and there across the Calixis Sector seemingly without rhyme, reason, or a crew to man it, doing spontaneous jumps in and out of the Warp. Something happened in the Engineerium of the vessel and Skelg was the only survivor of his squad. He does not remember what happened, but the other squads found him sprawled at an intersection on their way back from other parts of the ship. After that, he woke up in the Medicae Bay of their Battle Barge and was hastily dropped off here when the squad was called off for some swift work elsewhere.

They also interrogate the criminals, who are still alive. Wessell’s interrogation technique is to shoot one of them in the head and then ask questions from the other, which leads to a bit of an argument between her and Lugo. They eventually pump out from the criminal that he was paid by a guy named Bengeirr to come here and take out the guards and wait for reinforcements. They also drag out this Bengeirr’s location – a cargo hangar in an even lower level of the hive. After a quick discussion of whose job it is to execute the second criminal, Lugo shoots him in the face with a shotgun.

Since the safe house has been compromised, they take over another nearby apartment and move Skelg there, then call Adril Hestram and update him on the situation. Hestram sends in a clean-up crew to take care of the bodies and the safe house and the acolytes are to follow up on this Bengeirr lead. Skelg drinks all of Lugo’s booze.

They hand over the situation to the black-clad Stormtroopers that show up and head to the lower hive. After a few hours, they arrive at a cargo hangar. The lights are flickering, the ground is damp, and the people are sickly and weak. There’s a bar nearby, which the flickering neon light proclaims “The Rosy Fi gers”. There’s the hangar, and in front of the hangar, there’s a guard. They can spot the bulge of his shoulder-holstered weapon.

The still-uniformed Lugo and Wierzbowski hang back while Wessell goes to bluff the guard, requesting that she be allowed to see Bengeirr. The guard waffles a bit, but Wessell has such a winning smile and bigger guns than the guard that he contacts his boss via an intercom. Bengeirr brushes them off, leading to Wessell shoving the guard aside and telling Bengeirr that the Inquisition’s agents are after him for what happened at the safe house. At the mention of the Big I, the guard takes off.

Bengeirr agrees to talk with them, but when the doors are opened, the gangers inside open fire. A prolonged firefight ensues. Among other things, Wierzbowski fumbles with a grenade and is perforated with shrapnel, which he acknowledges with but a stoic grunt. One of the thugs has his arm blown off with such force that the bone shards wound a second thug. Bengeirr is firing from an elevated position, but finally Wessell scores a telling hit with her Hecuter autopistol, flinging the enemy leader back many meters. Bengeirr strikes the wall and slumps down, leaving a bloody mess.

Dark Heresy has the best critical hit tables ever. There’s also one critical hit in the energy weapons table where the target bursts into flame, runs screaming 1d10 meters in a random direction, lighting anybody he comes into contact also on fire, and then his head explodes. But I digress.

A short investigation of the hangar and a short-range cargo vessel within turn up some minor murder cult paraphernalia, some illegal firearms and an altar and a decaying headless body in the cargo hold. They also manage to access the computer systems, which reveal that the cargo vessel has been scheduled to make a run today to a spot of empty space a day’s trip flight away. None of the acolytes knows how to pilot a spaceship, though (ironically, Father Mordecai was born and grew up aboard a Battlefleet Calixis battleship, and could’ve pulled it off).

They contact Hestram again and give another situation update – to which the esteemed Throne Agent replies: “I’ll send you a pilot.” The coordinates correspond closely to the last documented sighting of the Galactic North, and Hestram wants them up there now to check out the hulk before it disappears.

So, the pilot, named Hoban, arrives. He makes the cargo ship dance to his tune, spaces the altar in the cargo hold, and takes them to the coordinates. The trip takes some 12 hours. Well, sure enough, the hulk is there, big and dead. They dock.

At this point, the tensions finally surface. Lugo and Wierzbowski are heading to explore the hulk, while Wessell is of the opinion that Hestram is a traitor and trying to get them killed. She stays behind and closes the air lock while Lugo and Wierzbowski go in. Then she pulls a gun on Hoban, manacles him, and stuffs him into a closet while the other acolytes are trying to get her to open the door and talk about it, and calls her boss via a satellite link for . The reply is a curt: “Figure it out for yourself.” Unfortunately, she’d forgotten her com-link with the rest of the party was open when she opened the connection to Inquisitor Rykehuss. When she figures out her mistake, she quickly closes the comm with the party, while Wierzbowski explains to Lugo who Inquisitor Rykehuss is – something of a bogeyman, an ardent witch hunter and a tireless persecutor of heretics both real and imagined.

Finally, she opens the doors, with a gun ready and trained on the other two acolytes, requesting they drop their weapons and the whole bunch return planetside, now.

Yeah, right. A short-range, zero-G firefight ensues. Wessell is liberally toasted by las fire from Wierzbowski, but she manages to score a good hit on Lugo, breaking his ribs, and manages to nearly sever Wierzbowski’s leg with a well-placed shot (a Fate Point is the only thing that saved him). Lugo surrenders. All were bleeding badly and down to critical damages, with Fatigue points to the maximum.

So, Wessell, having the upper hand, tries to interrogate Lugo. She does this in her patented style – she shoots the unconscious Wierzbowski through the head and says: “Speak.” Lugo spills the beans about his secret assignment, Wessell tells that she was working for Rykehuss, and suspects Adril Hestram is the traitor who leaked the location of the safe house to the cultists.

Hoban is released from his comfy closet, Wierzbowski’s body is spaced, and they fly back to Scintilla to be debriefed and processed.

After a few days of gruelling interrogation, they are all released. A few days after that, Wessell is run over by a bus, which then reverses over her, parks, and explodes. Wierzbowski, having burned three Fate Points in quick succession, develops a mutation that allows him to survive hard vacuum. Go figure. Lugo is rewarded and sent on his next assignment, and Jakobus Baur explains the whole plot to him – it was all one big Batman gambit developed to ferret out a traitor in the ranks. Inquisitors Sipowicz and Caruso are both complete fabrications, Deathwatch Captain Skelg the Ripper is hale and whole and soon returning to rejoin his original chapter of Space Wolves, and the murder cult he had manipulated was in the process of being completely wiped out by squads of Arbiters. The hulk was some old trash heap that was being manoeuvred to re-enter the atmosphere, where friction should burn it up. The legend of the Galactic North was quite real, however.

What Went Wrong, What Went Right

First of all, the main sticking point in the adventure was the lack of players. Quicker escalation of the situation would’ve made for a much shorter and more enjoyable game. As it was, we played for nearly six hours, well into the night.

Another thing that stuck out was the Fate Point mechanic. It works in a campaign, but in a one-shot, there is no incentive for the players not to burn through their entire allocation of Fate Points. It got rather ridiculous when Wierzbowski burned through them all to survive a pair of critical hits and being spaced. It was nearly impossible for a PC to die in the game, which I hadn’t taken into account when I crafted the scenario. I think that were I to revisit it, I’d say that PC-on-PC violence cannot be survived with Fate Points or just cut their number to one per character.

Another issue I’ve noticed with the game, both now and in my previous campaign a couple of years back, is that the players too easily fall into the mentality that they’re the cops and the inquisitorial rosette is their badge, when the truth is closer to them being the KGB if the KGB was subject to the Vatican. In the 12th century. People don’t fear them, they’re utterly terrified, and flashing the rosette everywhere they go makes them targets for everyone who doesn’t want the Inquisition anywhere near their operations. This is one of those things that need to be explained to the players in great detail, and then explained again, and then kill off a PC or two to make the point before they learn.

I don’t understand how GMs get this so much more readily.

I improvised a lot of the plot during the game, which may be visible in the humongous plot holes and inconsistencies in the story as presented to the player characters. The last reveal by Baur sorta makes it work in hindsight, though – nothing was real, and it was just a gambit in a shadow war between Inquisitors of different factions.

We also experienced some of the same issues as with the Glorantha game I last blogged about. Two of the players were familiar with the setting, but it has a lot of depth and you can’t make safe assumptions about it, which led to Wessell’s player making a few bad calls that finally resulted in her being squashed beneath a bus, because loose ends are untidy.

I do think the scenario is viable for future use, though, and might fiddle with it for the con season, polish up the plot and the characters.

Next month: Eclipse Phase. We’ll see how that one goes…

2 thoughts on “One Module, Every Game: Dark Heresy

  1. Man, I am so far behind the curve when it comes to Warhammer. I tried to play in a Dark Heresy game and was totally lost.


  2. The game was enjoyable overall, and good introduction to the world of 40k and it’s inquisition. Some of the tension was obviously lost due to meta-discussion about the world itself, which I wasn’t very familiar of, henceforth making aforementioned discussion absolutely necessary for meaningful decision-making.

    My verdict would be that Dark Heresy does not easily make an fluid one-shot game for players unfamiliar with the quirks of 40k. That because of the immense depth and peculiarty of the world. 40k is not just a dataset of facts, it is a philosophy you must ‘get’.

    I think the printer example crystallized it well:
    Small mechanical hands ink elaborate handwriting into an parchment (which can be traced back to it’s manufacturer by looking at the stamps and markings on it).

    BTW. You forgot I obviously burn a fate point to survive that buss 😀

    thx for the game again.

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