Monday, 13 August 2012

Hordes of the Things! Further thoughts on Deathwatch

I'll get back to Parkour Murder Simulator in a bit, but for now I'm still thinking about the Warhammer 40,000 RPGs, and specifically about Deathwatch. Even more specifically, I wanted to say a bit more about the Horde rules. Once again, slight spoilers for The Price of Hubris follow.

The Horde rules in Deathwatch have three basic functions.
  1. Provide a way for comparatively weak enemies to threaten powerful player characters.
  2. Simplify the handling of large groups of enemies.
  3. Allowing scenes where you fight overwhelming hordes of enemies. 

The Price of Hubris attempts to use the Horde rules for a fourth purpose: making scary enemies even scarier.

The problem is that this doesn't work.

The first reason for this is one of naked game mechanics: a Magnitude 10 Horde of Genestealers is flat out less dangerous than ten individual genestelers. I have no idea what the stats for the 'stealers were in this setting, but they hit for about 10 points of damage through Power Armour and Unnatural Toughness, implying a Damage + Penetration of about 25. Now a Horde gets an extra D10 damage (let's say an average Dam + Pen of 30) but there's no way that a single Damage 30 hit is worse than ten damage 25 hits (admittedly a Horde can attack everybody it touches, but there were still only three of us), and Hordes are easier to hit than equivalently-sized groups of individual enemies.

The second reason for this is a bit more subtle, which is that large numbers of undifferentiated enemies are just less scary than smaller numbers of differentiated enemies. The scariest fight we had in the entire scenario was with four (count 'em: four) Genestealers that came at us out of the treeline.

Paradoxically, making an enemy literally be everywhere actually undermines the "they're everywhere" factor of this kind of alien-hunt. The tension in this kind of scenario comes from never knowing where the next attack will come from. If the attack is always coming right now there's no time to worry about it.

All of which leads me to the following conclusions:

  1. It is only really appropriate to use the Horde rules with individually weak enemies.
  2. Individually dangerous enemies are scarier in small but unspecified numbers than in large but well defined numbers.
  3. There's a cute Easter Egg if you Google for the term "zerg rush".


  1. I agree with Dan.

    I also felt that using both individuals and hordes of the same creatures in the same situations created an uncanny damage disparity, whereby if I was only fighting two genestealers I could kill half a 'stealer per round with my chainsword, but if I was fighting forty I could kill ten per round. It seemed to be a result of the different ways they model hits, damage, and dodge/parry, but I don't know the details.

  2. In future my plan is to only use hordes for enemies which fill two criteria:

    - An individual Horde member can be reliably killed in a single blow from a starting Deathwatch character without bringing heavy weapons to bear.

    - An individual Horde member, armed as they would be in the adventure, could reasonably expect to do absolutely no damage to a starting Deathwatch character even if they hit in the first place.

    I think if you add those two criteria together you get a situation where individual Horde members are precisely as fragile as they'd be in the Horde, and they're only dangerous in the first place in a Horde, so this seems a reasonable rule of thumb to me.

  3. That seems very sound. Basically I thought the infected Aurans worked fine as a horde, and contrasted well with the tiny units of amped-up 'stealers. It also felt very appropriate, and also awesome, to carve a fiery path through them as in [insert film of choice here]. It was only when 'stealer-hordes appeared that the cracks started to show.

    Similarly, if you were running a team of dreadnoughts or Phoenix Lords you could probably model even Marines as hordes.

  4. I think that's about right.

    I might add as a caveat that as long as you're *very clear about what you're doing* you can also use Hordes as a way to simplify bookkeeping for large numbers of enemies which *would* be individually threatening, as long as you're clear that your *only* goal is to simpify bookkeeping, not to make things more dangerous.

    Incidentally we *did* get a couple of things wrong with the Horde rules: Flamers do (Range/4) Horde damage as standard, not (Range/2) (this would have made a slight difference). You also actually do have to roll to damage a Horde, but you get a "kill" as long as you do at least one point of damage. This would have made no difference for the Heavy Bolter or the Heavy Flamer (at least I hope not), it might conceivably have made Shimmin's Hand Flamer less effective.

    I think a lot of the problem with Hordes is that they're very all-or-nothing. They get to attack *everybody* in melee, but can't gang up on one person.