Masters of the Forge Narrative Play Review – Deathwatch Codex

Adam “Loopy” Fasoldt from the Masters of the Forge podcast (hence the cool logo) has returned to start a new series on the Warhammer 40,000 factions in narrative play. He’s got his grubby hands on the Deathwatch Codex, so this installment will be about narrative gaming with these veteran Astartes.

Unimaginable Threats

The void is dark and full of terrors as we all know. The galaxy’s history stretches far beyond the memory of mankind. There are, however, xenos races who boasted their own galactic empires long before mankind discovered fire, let alone set out for the stars. These species are under the mistaken impression that their failed cultures have a place in the domain of humanity. It is for the Deathwatch to ensure that these sad, tiny sparks of alien societies are wiped out once and for all.

Although the Cicatrix Maledictum has split the Milky Way in twain and unimaginable horrors spill from its black maw, this is no time to be complacent. There are those in the Imperium who feel that common cause can be found with the alien in the fight against the Ruinous Powers. Such is the folly of our times.

Were the Imperium to allow even one Xenos star to rise again, it would spell the end for all of humanity. Save for the Emperor himself, only the Deathwatch and the Ordo Xenos know the true gravity these threats pose. Only they understand the history and potential energy at the disposal of the likes of the Necrons, Orks, and Tyranids. All it would take is one critical mistake to upset the delicate foothold humanity has in the galaxy. There is no room for error. There is no room for quarter. Suffer not the alien to live.

The Imperium’s Response

The Deathwatch is comprised of elite teams of Astartes whose sole purpose are to quickly respond to alien threats and eliminate them with extreme prejudice. This is a task they have performed with exemplary results from one edge of the Milky Way to the other since the War of the Beast. Their numbers are few, so they aren’t used in massive full-scale assaults. Rather, they are employed in precision actions meant to hamstring the enemy, either weakening them to the point where other Imperial forces can easily destroy them, or at least delay their inevitable rise.

Astartes chosen to serve as members of the Deathwatach are are heroes who have shown great aptitude at fighting alien threats. These warriors are hand-picked from many different Space Marines chapters. Few Deathwatch return to service with their parent chapter, so their departure is usually marked with a level of pomp and ceremony. The same can also be said about their return, alive or dead. From the moment they arrive at their Deathwatch Fortress their skill and knowledge grows thanks to training and hypno-indoctrination. There is no xenos threat for which a Deathwatch Veteran is not prepared.

Deathwatch Narratives

When considering a Deathwatch narrative, it’s natural to think about the kinds of things that Miniwargaming does in their videos which feature highly elite Kill Teams where players are using a specialised ruleset to turn every model into a unique character. In 40k, we’re crafting one of two narrative angles for your kill teams: either as allies to a larger force or as a large force composed entirely (or mostly) of Deathwatch designed to bring down a major threat. The latter scenario is becoming more and more common after the emergence of the Cicatrix Maledictum.

When crafting missions for an all-Deathwatch army (as with any army) you must keep the motivations of your army and your opponent’s army in mind. Quite often, these motivations will be at odds with one another or even independent of each other. For example your Kill Team may be looking to eliminate an Aeldari relic hidden away on a world overrun by Tyranids. The Tyranids couldn’t care a whit about the relic; they just want to consume the Deathwatch and turn them into Tyrant Guard. Your mission objectives should reflect this.

In any scenario, though you want to keep in mind that the Deathwatch are rarely there to “kill all the things” or “hold all the objectives”. It is more likely that their mission is to cut the head off one thing or secure a single objective.  That’s not to say you can’t put six objectives on the battlefield to represent the Deathwatch searching for their quarry, but only one objective is significant to them. Focusing on this narrative reality allows the Deathwatch player to close ranks and fight for what’s important rather than spreading themselves thin and being pecked off one small unit at a time. That’s not to say that they can’t or shouldn’t, but at least it’ll be on their terms.

I strongly recommend harnessing some of the “sentries” narrative missions in the rulebook. If you’re unfamiliar with these scenarios, the defender starts the game not knowing the attacker is on the battlefield. Single-model sentries randomly patrol the battlefield and you roll to “spot” the attacker’s forces in the gloom. These are perfect for a Deathwatch campaign. They check all the boxes for this kind of army — they feature a single objective and they are geared towards a covert narrative. Playing through those missions as-written in the core rulebook might inspire you to create your own scenarios along those lines.

Deathwatch Campaigns should culminate in a final deed of some kind such as killing the enemy warlord or sabotaging an important enemy device. In either case, the Xenos player should have at their disposal all of the tools they need to protect the object of the Deathwatch’s attention until the time is right. This way, the Xenos player feels like they have a chance and the Deathwatch player feels the accomplishment of a job well done. Allow the first couple of games to inform your choices as far as how the final games should go. Should the Deathwatch go in with a Power Level advantage or disadvantage? Should the target be protected by special rules other than those presented by their codex?  None of this should be strictly off the table because making the scenario challenging is part of the fun.

Even though we do not have strict 8th edition rules for it yet, I recommend breaking out your Zone Mortalis tiles in your Deathwatch narratives. These enclosed spaces are still perfect for fighting the kinds of scenarios that the Deathwatch are famed for executing.

It makes sense to also look into using Deathwatch to supplement one of your forces in narrative gaming, particularly if you’re an Astra Militarum player. Sometimes the narrative takes a turn where the objective is inexorably trapped behind enemy lines. This is a great opportunity for your force of guardsmen to put pressure on and distract your opponent while a Kill Team crafted to fight that enemy arrives using the Teleportarium stratagem.

You may even want to come up with narrative “summoning” rules for your Astra Militarum army to call down any of the Agents of the Imperium as needed during your games. It would be a simple matter of appropriating the summoning rules from the Chaos codexes.

As far as a game’s story, you need only look in the Deathwatch codex for inspiration. Check out the “Forbidden Lore” blurb on page 27 which talks about a mission to destroy a Haemonculus who has taken possession of Primaris DNA. That scenario practically writes itself.

Allies

In narrative play, it should not be uncommon for a Deathwatch player to have one or more Ordo Xenos Inquisitors on hand to aid them. If you want to keep your army Battleforged, but don’t want to include any Inquisitorial Henchmen, simply take an Auxilliary Detachment for your Inquisitor. In Open and Narrative play, you could also supplement your army with Assassins, Primaris Psykers, Sisters of Silence, and other agents of the Imperium using a Supreme Command Detachment or a Vanguard Detachment depending on the units you wish to add.

Building an Army

The Deathwatch are organised in the same way in each Watch Fortress. If you’re building a Deathwatch army, there aren’t a lot of narrative rules to follow for organising it. With the Deathwatch, you’re more likely to make more difficult choices at the squad level than the force organization level.

In a Watch Fortress, you have a Watch Commander leading the entire organisation. You shouldn’t have more than one Watch Commander in your army unless you’ve got a fairly unique story in mind. This Watch Commander generally has a team of support personnel which would be your Characters such as Librarians, Chaplains, and Apothecaries. Dreadnoughts are also organised as part of the Watch Commander’s brain trust.

The Watch Commander has several Watch Captains reporting to him. Each of these Watch Captains is responsible for four Kill Teams. That number seems concrete. The lore seems vague on how many Watch Companies a single Commander will be responsible for, but the codex seems to indicate that five is a common number. If you’re building an entire collection of Deathwatch, twenty Kill Teams is a laudable goal and would give you endless variety in your battles.

When developing the lore for your Watch Fortress, have a look at the heraldry on pages 16-17 of the codex. Each one has a stylized Imperial “I” surrounded by unique art. This is a great opportunity for breathing life into your army. Although there are no Infantry Ancients in the Deathwatch, these banners could be added to your Dreadnoughts and Characters.

Here’s an idea for a collection of Deathwatch designed for ongoing narrative play:

Command Structure:

  • 1x Watch Master
  • 5x Watch Captains (Terminator, Primaris, jump, 2x standard)
  • 3x Librarians (Terminator, Primaris, jump)
  • 3x Chaplains (Terminator, Primaris, jump)
  • 1x Primaris Apothecary
  • 3x Dreadnoughts (Venerable, Redemptor, standard)

Kill Teams:

  • 9x Veteran Kill Teams
  • 2x Intercessors Kill Teams
  • 2x Terminator Kill Teams
  • 2x Vanguard Veteran Kill Team
  • Reiver Kill Team
  • Aggressor Kill Team
  • Bike Kill Team
  • Inceptor Kill Team
  • Hellblaster Kill Team

Armoury:

  • 2x Corvus Blackstar
  • Land Raider Redeemer
  • Repulsor
  • Razorback
  • Drop Pod
  • 3x Rhino

A collection such as this will keep you prepared for any threat you may face and should also keep you busy building, converting, and painting for quite some time.

Building a Team

The Deathwatch represent the ultimate in Space Marine squad customisation. They are a conversion hobbyist’s dream come true. If you’re an Ork player or a Chaos player and looking for a loyalist army to collect, you can’t really go wrong with the Deathwatch. If you want to, from a hobby perspective, treat each model as a separate character, you can. In fact, the way the sprues are set up, it seems like it’s encouraged.

The wargear options for Deathwatch Veterans are staggering and can be quite daunting when you look at the huge block of text and see all the options. Do not let this intimidate you. I also would, however, resist the urge to just start sticking bitz together. Really think about your squads and what they will do.

One of the reasons I suggest actually investing in nine Veteran teams for your collection is so that you can theme each one for fighting a specific threat. Of course, the Stratagems and weapons available to the Deathwatch make every squad a very deadly foe for any Xenos filth on the battlefield. Still, every unit in your army can be designed with a narrative and competitive role in mind.

Let’s put together an example Kill Team to illustrate this methodology. Consider a squad of warriors who have been fighting Orks for decades and have been assembled into a team which specialises in those threats. Let’s make their leader a Crimson Fist named Veteran Sergeant Aguillar. His Chapter has been fighting the Ork menace for centuries and he has several debts to repay the greenskins.

Rather than looking at the block of text on the Veterans page to fill out Kill Team Aguillar, think about the Ork foes you’ve had in recent memory. What units are they taking? What tactics are they employing? This exercise isn’t designed to give you a tactical edge, but inform you about the kinds of choices your actual Kill Team members would make when equipping themselves back at the Watch Fortress. Sometimes Narrative and Competitive play actually inform each other.

Next, think about the other rules you have at your disposal as a player such as stratagems. These represent the tactics your heroes will be using in battle. You want their wargear to support these tactics. Against the Orks, your Kill Team will have access to the Stem the Green Tide stratagem which reduces a unit’s charge distance by 1” for each casualty it takes in Overwatch. Both narrative and competitive Orks armies use Boyz, so another stratagem that might be useful against Orks is the Furor Doctrine which gives your team +1 to wound troops. Your teams will also have access to the Mission Tactics ability which allows Infantry, bikers, and walkers to re-roll wound rolls of 1 against a specific Battlefield Role.

This means that whatever weapon options you choose, even those that hit automatically, will benefit from these abilities and stratagems.

The squad’s Power Level of 9 represents a fairly heavily armed unit coming in at a median of about 180 in competitive money. Don’t feel too bad about equipping these marines with some deadly dakka. Each squad of Veterans has at least five regular vets, up to four of which can pick a Heavy weapon. Don’t get too wrapped up in thinking the Heavy Weapons are the only way to go, however. Each veteran may also take two choices from the Deathwatch Equipment list which has all manner of deadly things in it. These truly are Veteran squads with all the options thereof.

For my money, a pair of Infernus Heavy Bolters are the best. Although the Deathwatch Frag Cannon would also be a good choice, if I want to mow down loads of Boyz, the Mission Tactics already lets me wound on 2s with the Heavy Bolter’s Strength of 5. Moreover, you want to kill as many Orks as you can before they draw near. It’s not all about killing them with 8” flamers at close range. However, when the Orks do charge, they’ll either have to do it from 9” or suffer terrible losses in overwatch, thus reducing their charge distance thanks to the Stem the Green Tide stratagem.

For the other three standard team members, I personally like the idea of each taking a Combi-flamer. The Deathwatch Special Issue Ammunition can be used with the Boltgun portion of the combi weapon. Against Orks, you can more safely keep your distance by using Kraken bolts out to 30” (15” for rapid fire) and negate their armour save. Giving two of the regular warriors Chainswords for their 2nd weapon in order to get the extra attack is a great choice against Orks. Don’t forget that the Mission Tactics and many stratagems still work in close combat.

There’s no need for Veteran Sergeant Aguillar to have a Xenophase blade (which forces your opponent to reroll invulnerable saves), but the compulsion to do so is still strong. Having said that, Aguillar probably understands that their team may find themselves tied up with a Warboss or facing down a rampaging Battlewagon. For this reason, let’s give him a trusty Power Fist (of course) just in case.

Bolstering Teams

You can look at your collection in three ways. One is to build every squad as it is and give each one specific heraldry. This is great for folks with lots of time and expendable resources. Others may want to consider another method.

You can save yourself some pocket money by just building your Veteran Kill Teams as 5-man squads, then build some separate specialised teams in the Elites, Fast Attack, and Heavy slots. You can, then treat them like auxilliaries to be used within your Veteran Kill Teams if you like, or on their own depending on the mission.

Lastly, you could forego the specialised teams altogether and simply focus on the mixed Veterans squads. This is actually fairly easy to do when we have the Combat Squads special rule.

For Kill Team Aguillar, They would be joined by five Bikers in order to intercept any Speed Freakz the enemy might be employing. They can, if they want, use Combat Squads to detach from the Veterans and act alone. I also think this also makes a lot of sense against Orks because they can fall back and still charge which allows them to push through enemy lines. Their twin boltguns also gives them access to the Special Issue Ammunition. Since these bikes are also Troops, they also get the Defenders of Humanity ability which helps them score Objectives.

Flexibility

Even though Kill Team Aguillar was designed to fight Orks, you can see where it would be very good against any other infantry threat. They’re still highly trained (read: psychologically indoctrinated) with all the tools they need to fight other species. For example, this Kill Team can still use the Synaptic Severance stratagem in to target synapse creatures with their hail of dakka and use that in conjunction with Vengeance Rounds to improve the AP, and Purgatus Tactics to reroll 1s to wound against HQs. Who needs Lascannons?

Now, you can go through and work on another team, this time focusing on monsters, vehicles, or characters. Play a few games with your first few teams. This will help you decide what you want to either create for a different team or add to these existing ones.

Again, don’t let all the options get you in a tizzy. If you keep each individual team’s story in mind, the choices you make will inform themselves. Remember, this is narrative gaming.

Conclusions

The Deathwatch Codex does exactly what it implies it ought to do — it allows you to build a hyper-elite force of Astartes which can eliminate threats with laser-focused efficiency. This is in total alignment with the Deathwatch narrative and, therefore, lives up to that promise.

From a narrative perspective, this book is probably almost everything it should have been. The stratagems such as Death to the Alien! and Decapitation Doctrine, as well as all the faction-specific ones really make you feel like you’re playing an army of Deathwatch and not just another flavour of Space Marines.

I do sort of feel like the inclusion of the specialised Elites, Fast Attack, and Heavy Support units is somewhat unnecessary and counter to the current stories which involve the Deathwatch. Were I to actually field a Deathwatch army, it would likely only include a mix of Characters with the bulk of the army made up of Veterans and Intercessors backed up by various selections from the Armoury.

What do you think about that? Has this article helped you think about your Deathwatch narratives going forward? Do you have any insight to give as well? We certainly didn’t haven’t had a ton of time with the book, so let us know in the comments below if you have any other cool narrative ideas.

Also, please be sure to check out the Masters of the Forge. We’re the podcast that brings the rich lore of Warhammer 40,000 to life on your tabletop.

And remember, Frontline Gaming sells gaming products at a discount, every day in their webcart!

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About adam Fasoldt

Loopy (Adam) has only been playing 40k since 2010, but is an active member of the community. He is a host of the Masters of the Forge podcast and also a moderator of the Independent Characters forums. He also belongs to gaming clubs at Grimfoe Games in East Greenbush, NY and Dirty Goblin Games in Queensbury, NY.

7 Responses to “Masters of the Forge Narrative Play Review – Deathwatch Codex”

  1. Chris Morgan
    Chris Morgan May 7, 2018 1:50 pm #

    Well, you outdid me for word count. Gonna have to be more verbose in the future to catch up with you! Thanks for the great read 🙂

    • Reecius
      Reecius May 7, 2018 3:24 pm #

      Yeah, I am very much enjoying these lore oriented articles.

  2. WestRider May 7, 2018 4:11 pm #

    A great read! Thanks! I definitely agree with you that sticking basically everything into one form of Kill Team or another is the way to go with DeathWatch. Fluffy and effective!

    Grey Knights materials are also worth looking at for narrative inspiration. Oftentimes, the same basic situation will arise, but replacing the Daemons with some sort of Xenos. In particular Orks, Necrons, or Aeldar can work well here, since they have teleport/Webway tech that lets them show up by surprise in a similar manner to Daemons.

  3. Rob Butcher May 8, 2018 1:50 am #

    That’s an interesting way of organising a Kill Team and make them feel more than just an elite army that seems pretty squishy.

    What about the role of Primaris Death Watch ?

    So would aggressors have a role vs orks to kill lots in overwatch ? Are they better/poorer than the weapon choices you’ve made?

    • loopy May 8, 2018 6:08 am #

      Hey, Rob. The Primaris teams can be mixed like the regular Veterans. I think they fulfill much the same roles except their weapons have better AP and range allowing them to be farther back and take to cover.

  4. Ytook May 8, 2018 2:39 am #

    This was a really great read, thanks!

    I completely get why Frontline is matched play, competitive focused, but it’s nice to have a bit of a narrative play highlight. I’m hoping narrative events for 40K pick up like they have with AoS.

  5. Lord Manton May 16, 2018 8:58 pm #

    I haven’t even finished reading this and I had to drop down to say how great an article it is. This is the stuff I want to read about. Unit structure, campaign organisation and actually having a point to the choices you make other than them being the most ‘powerful’.

    I can’t wait to read more articles from this series. Keep it up!

    Might I suggest one on narrative terrain at some point? As in, how to put together a board that fits a story, even if it’s not strictly fair for both players. But one that is still ultimately enjoyable to play on

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