An Appreciation of Dark Heresy 1st Edition

To the tastes of many, and for the purposes of many styles of campaign, the 2nd edition of Dark Heresy is a clear improvement over the first. The tuned-up system improvements make combat more balanced, the character generation process yields more capable characters and offers more flexibility, you can viably play an Inquisitor with just the core book, and the Influence stat and the various things it can be used for (including the summoning of high-powered Requisition Characters as backup) really helps to support the idea that the player characters are Inquisitorial agents with institutional power behind them, rather than disposable schlubs thrown out there to make their own way on a “the Inquisitor will disavow all knowledge” basis.

On paper that all looks good… but there’s a particular style to 1st edition Dark Heresy. For all its roughness compared to the rather smoother 2nd edition, there’s an itch that the 1st edition scratches better than everything else. Yes, your characters are about as incompetent as starting WFRP characters due to the system being adapted wholesale from 2nd edition WFRP. Yes, your psyker will very occasionally detonate and wipe the party. Yes, your character progression is about as rigid as you’d expect in a society as fascistically regimented as the Imperium. Yes, the basic assumption seems to be that you are thrown out there to investigate hideous threats to humanity in a universe where humanity itself is pretty hideous with precious little backup, making your party somewhat more competent equivalents of Paranoia Troubleshooters.

The thing is, that’s all awesome. This is a game where you fail a lot unless you do your damnedest to get positive modifiers on your side and where a fair fight is for suckers, and I am down with that because it encourages smarter play than brazenly confronting your foes like this is yet another Hollywoodtastic power fantasy. This is also a game where the unfair laws of chance will sometimes curbstomp you even if you’ve done everything right, and I’m cool with that because most of the extreme failure states are at least everything. I note a lot of 40K fans, particularly but by no means exclusively yankerdoodles, dislike baseline 1st edition Dark Heresy because they don’t think it’s particularly heroic, which just shows that they don’t get the setting – there are no heroes in the 41st Millennium and if you believe they are you’re a chump who like so many others has swallowed the setting’s internal propaganda like it’s actual fact. (There’s a distressing number of 40K fans who believe that the Emperor is actually canonically intended to be infallible, rather than just being claimed to be infallible by the Ecclesiarchy whose very existence makes a mockery of all that he strived for; proof, if ever any were needed, that reading comprehension and critical thinking are just as lacking in geek circles as they are in wider society.)

In terms of setting a template for all Warhammer 40,000 RPGs to follow, Dark Heresy may have bedded in rules which work fine for my beloved Acolytes-as-Troubleshooters approach but which became increasingly inappropriate for other expressions of the setting, but aesthetically it was excellent. I particularly appreciate the diversity and richness of the artwork; it would have been easy to go for a more cleaned-up and homogenised art style (as WFRP2 was doing at the time), but they went for the wilder and more characterful stuff instead, and whilst there are missteps (almost all the illustrations of woman assassins are basically fetish art with sci-fi weapons added, and c’mon folks, I dig that particular set of fetishes as much as anyone but there’s a time and place) but these are well outweighed by the quality work (like all the lovely John Blance pieces). This may seem like a small thing next to the overall game design, but I would say it is crucially important for setting the tone and atmosphere of the game and conveying the fact that when you get deep into the lore the setting is a much more baroque, Byzantine and gothic place than it’s given credit for in the smoother, cleaner artwork sometimes used for it.

Precisely because of the freedom offered by the tabletop RPG format, an RPG will tend to drill down into the nitty-gritty of a setting much more than a wargame or boardgame will; this goes double for investigative RPGs, where the order of the day is specifically about poking overlooked stuff and inquiring just how it’s supposed to work, and where to have a deviation from the norm acting as a clue you need to establish what the norm is in the first place. Dark Heresy may not provide orders of magnitude more depth than the core wargame book in terms of dry facts about the setting, but I’d argue that it was by far the most flavourful Warhammer 40,000 product released since the original Rogue Trader; it’s certainly the game that got me hooked on the universe in a way which no previous media had ever managed to do.

I’d always been a Warhammer fantasy boy growing up, writing off Warhammer 40,000 as an overblown power fantasy (in part, I suspect, because I’m of the generation which would have been passed by by Rogue Trader and first took note of Warhammer 40,000 in the 2nd edition era). I’d been somewhat drawn in by peers playing the wargame in the mid-2000s, but Dark Heresy would mark the point where I became well and truly hooked on the setting, and so it has a place in my affections that no later edition can shake. Perhaps the best thing about the update between editions is that the two games cater to sufficiently different playstyles that there’s room for both in my life, whilst they’re close enough in system terms to drag ideas from one into the other when it would be particularly useful to do so.

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Fantasy Flight’s Last Inquisition

The Fantasy Flight era of Warhammer 40,000 RPGs is over; the licence has gone to Ulisses Spiele’s North American division, whose Wrath & Glory system is designed to depart from the WFRP-derived system of earlier 40K RPGs to more smoothly cater to characters of a wide range of power levels.

It’s timely, then, to do a little look over those 40K RPG products I’ve not yet put under the microscope here, so I’ll start off by taking in the supplements for 2nd edition Dark Heresy – the last major RPG product line they put out before shuttering their Warhammer ranges for good.

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Dragon Meh-iors

Back in the height of the Fighting Fantasy craze there were a number of RPGs released in the UK market not as standard-format RPG rulebooks issued via game publishers to the gaming market but as small paperbacks released by book publishers to the book market. This provided a range of gateway drugs into the hobby marketed to young readers outside of the usual channels. Fighting Fantasy had its own RPG adaptations, of course, and the Corgi reprint of Tunnels & Trolls arguably falls into this category; there was also Maelstrom, whose rich historical flavour made up for many of its system quirks, and Dragon Warriors.

Penned by Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson, this is another one issued by Corgi, and originally came out as a series of small paperbacks which each added a little more wrinkle to the system – so the fighter-y classes were in the first book, the magic-y ones in the second book, and so on. This was neat enough, but the format did mean that it could become awkward to play as you flipped about between the different books to find the information you needed.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Eldritch

Helmed by Kevin Ross, Chaosium’s Down Darker Trails is a major new Call of Cthulhu supplement that takes the action of the game into a whole new realm. Whilst previously most supplements along these lines have been dedicated to covering a particular time period, the era covered by this one actually overlaps the existing Cthulhu By Gaslight period – for Down Darker Trails challenges players to mosey on down, saddle up, and shake hands with danger in the Old West.

Though this is an area that Call of Cthulhu has touched on before – useful notes on existing adventures set out West are included – it’s one which hasn’t seen this extent of development, but it makes a lot of sense. As well as Lovecraft himself writing a few quite significant tales set in the American West – including The Mound, perhaps the most significant of his ghostwritten pieces – Robert E. Howard wrote a number of horror tales set there which drew on the history of the region. (Whilst I cannot say I especially recommend Robert E. Howard’s work, fortunately Chaosium’s treatment of the subject matter largely avoids the stuff which usually infuriates me about Howard.) So on a simplistic level, adding this allows Call of Cthulhu to more completely incorporate the action of its source material.

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Flashing Blades

As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews of their products, Fantasy Games Unlimited had a novel but rather effective business model: Scott Bizar, their head honcho, would solicit freelance authors to submit their games to him, and if they made the cut a deal would be struck for FGU to produce and distribute the games in question. This allowed FGU to put out a lot of product on a “throw everything out there and see what sticks” basis – game lines which became a hit could have supplements published for them, whilst those which didn’t gain traction could be abandoned – and also meant that FGU’s roster was impressively diverse, with games ranging from classic fantasy subject matter (like Swordbearer and early editions of Chivalry & Sorcery) to riskier experiments. Bunnies & Burrows was perhaps the greatest oddity of their back catalogue, but Bushido represented a bit of a departure as far as subject matter was concerned when it first came out and whilst Villains & Vigilantes was not the first superhero RPG, it was arguably the first one to really gain traction.

That deep roster has proven a boon for Bizar in the PDF age – whilst it would be obviously uneconomical to keep all of FGU’s different products in print at the same time, thanks to PDF distribution and print-on-demand Bizar doesn’t need to, so thankfully a large proportion of FGU’s releases have become available again through legitimate avenues. (A happy side effect of the Villains & Vigilantes ownership dispute is that Bizar went out of his way to get the extensive back catalogue on the game up on DriveThru – presumably to add weight to his claim – and the terms of the settlement between Bizar and the game’s designers is that he gets to keep almost all that supplemental material available.) Through this means we have available once again Mark Pettigrew’s delightful historical RPG Flashing Blades.

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The Empire Renewed, the Old World Refreshed

The Empire is often the focus of WFRP campaigns, and for good reason; whilst a British RPG publisher producing a fantasy world that was basically a twisted funhouse mirror version of our own world back in history times might have been expected to default to medieval England, Games Workshop elected to take the world less travelled and centre the gameworld on this strange take on the Holy Roman Empire circa the early Renaissance. (Albion, in the WFRP setting, is a near-irrelevant dirt pile haunted by horrors – like 2000 AD, Alan Moore, and Michael Moorcock, they were riding a wave of 1980s British fantasy that was out to burst the bubble of jingoistic British exceptionalism, and it warms the patriotism-despising cockles of my globalist Remainer heart to see it.)

For WFRP purposes, the main sources of lore on the Empire during 1st edition days consisted of the brief writeup in the core book and the welcome additional detail provided in The Enemy Within – later compiled in various ways, the most recent and easily-available version of which is the Hogshead Enemy Within Campaign Volume 1: Shadows Over Bögenhafen, which compiles the original Enemy Within set and the full-length Shadows Over Bögenhafen adventure, which is now on sale as a PDF on DriveThruRPG thanks to Cubicle 7. The second edition, which due to Games Workshop requirements takes place after the “Storm of Chaos” metaplot event, required an update to this material, and the main delivery mechanism for this update (aside from the core WFRP2 rulebook) was Sigmar’s Heirs.

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Why I Like and Dislike “The Enemy Within” (and Other 1st Edition WFRP Adventure Supplements)

Whenever people talk about classic WFRP, one of the products which always gets mentioned is The Enemy Within campaign. Originally released between 1986 and 1989, the campaign is to WFRP what Masks of Nyarlathotep is to Call of Cthulhu – an extensive campaign released in the 1980s that gets regularly reprinted and talked up a lot, and is a reasonably iconic example of a particular style of play, but at the same time actually has a number of issues which have become more and more apparent in retrospect as best practice in scenario-writing has moved forwards.

In fact, poke WFRP fans a bit harder and it becomes apparent that most of them are actually more keen on the idea of The Enemy Within than they are with the campaign itself. Some parts of it are held to be of much higher quality than others, and in particular whilst opinions do (as always) vary the consensus seems to be that WFRP‘s various publishers over the years have never quite been able to stick the landing when it comes to delivering the full campaign.

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