As regular listeners to our podcast probably know, I’ve been playing more Dark Heresy recently than just about any other game. It’s become the de facto activity among my group of friends; we meet up around twice a week, sort out our character sheets, and get to some grimdark adventures. It’s tremendously fun, and as someone who is still working through the specific challenges that come along with tabletop gaming, I figured I should write up some field reports about the best aspects of the medium.
Among my favourite things about the game system are its flexibility and the way in which that can lead to some ridiculously convoluted outcomes for seemingly straightforward actions. The psychic powers, for example, are built to backfire; every attempt to cast them carries a 1 in 10 chance of producing at least one psychic phenomena. These range from the innocuous (everyone feels a slight chill) to the spectacular (a major daemon appears from the warp and begins attacking the party) to the catastrophic (the character is sucked into the void and killed immediately).
In one instance, the party was attempting to gain access to a facility but was having trouble with a desk clerk who would not let them through. The psyker decided that the best course of action, therefore, would be to use his psychic powers to create a muscle spasm in the clerk’s bladder, causing them to wet themselves, allowing the party to pass.
Upon rolling for the power, however, they caused a psychic phenomenon which reflected the effect back onto themselves. The stealthy entrance turned into a man concentrating incredibly hard and then peeing all over himself, to which the clerk reacted with such disgusted concern that the rest of the party managed to sneak past unnoticed. That’s the power of table top gaming; a video game would have to be ridiculously complicated to allow for that kind of approach, whereas a GM can simply say “Sure, that sounds funny and cool,” and suddenly anything is possible.
There is also a much darker side to this type of freedom. In my most recent campaign, players decided that the appropriate punishment for a merchant who supplied a heretical pamphlet to a novice sister of battle was burning his shop down with his wife and two children sealed inside. There was a noticeable moment of discomfort among my players in the wake of that particular scene, as I had forced them to take a vote about what the consequences for that relatively minor infraction should be. They were in complete control and had not been attacked at all; the punishment was entirely in their hands, and they were culpable for the outcome.
The 40k setting is fascinating to me as a writer precisely because the Imperium is an overtly fascistic organisation, which means the morality of the players is likely to be in constant conflict with the morality of the universe and their characters. I even noticed several of the players relying on coping strategies to mitigate their responsibility in that case. One said that they figured that I could have had the characters escape the burning building if I wanted, putting the responsibility on me, while several others voted in favour because to do otherwise would be untrue to the core of their character’s beliefs, despite feeling personally uncomfortable about that course of action.
Overall, that particular mission led to a notable distancing effect between people and their characters. In my upcoming campaigns with the group I hope to put them in more situations along those lines, which challenge the morality of both the players at the table and the universe itself. Hopefully I’ll be able to write up more of these campaigns as I conduct them; stay tuned to Oh No Video Games Dot Com for all your up-to-the-minute table top gaming news, I guess.