What with all this fuss about the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, it’d be easy to miss the fact that Fantasy Flight Games have put out a 2nd Edition of Dark Heresy. Replacing the previous edition of the game – the only Warhammer 40,000 RPG which wasn’t developed under FFG’s auspices – the 2nd Edition was, like D&D 5E, subject to an open playtest. Whilst Mike Mearls has mentioned how the 5E playtest took the game’s design into an unexpected direction – in particular, the realisation that a sizable demographic of players preferred a more rules-light and loose approach to the game than both 3E and 4E had offered is cited as something which really changed the development team’s thinking – it’s rare that a game publisher’s intended direction with a game has been so comprehensively changed by an open playtest to the extent that Dark Heresy‘s was.
For those who didn’t follow what went down with the open beta, here’s my understanding of it (as someone who didn’t take part in the beta but kept an eye on the news): the first version of the beta rules which went out were substantially different to the product as released. In fact, it was substantially different to most of the prior Warhammer 40,000 RPGs. A substantial portion of the beta testers objected; they didn’t want the backward compatibility with earlier products to be nuked, and they especially didn’t want to break compatibility with Black Crusade and Only War, whose rules updates had generally been well-received. (Indeed, many had assumed that Dark Heresy 2nd Edition would mostly consist of applying the Black Crusade/Only War updates to Dark Heresy). Thus, midway through the beta test, FFG announced they were changing direction in response to this feedback and released an extensively revised beta which formed the basis for the game we’ve now received. (Cue wailing and gnashing of teeth from folks who liked the radical shift represented by the first beta version.)
It’s no surprise that Fantasy Flight would be sensitive to the possibility of a fanbase outright rejecting a major shift in a game system, particularly one which breaks backward compatibility. The 3rd Edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay can’t be described as a total failure – the use of special dice has been inherited by FFG’s various Star Wars RPGs, for instance, though those are pretty much the only special components they inherit from WFRP 3E – but at the same time it’s hard to describe it as a runaway success. The large boxes and high price point for the core game has proved off-putting to consumers and game sellers alike, and the original release was criticised for covering less ground than previous WFRP core rulebooks. Though some did embrace the game, others stuck with their 1E or 2E collections and showed no inclination to upgrade. It’s difficult to get any precise numbers on game sales in the industry, but FFG’s own handling of the line speaks volumes; there’s been more or less no significant new products for WFRP 3E for the past two or three years, and just recently Fantasy Flight made the de facto retirement of the line official by declaring it “complete” (despite fans being able to cite great swathes of the Old World that haven’t really been covered) and drawing a line under it.
Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if in the near future one or more of the Warhammer 40,000 RPGs got the chop. Aside from a PDF-only supplement or two, Rogue Trader has had precious little love recently and FFG seem to be at a loss to know what to do with it. Likewise, with the publication of the Nurgle-themed supplement Tome of Decay the Black Crusade line is arguably genuinely “complete” and it’s difficult to see where they can go from here with it. But it would be ridiculous for FFG to publish a whole new edition of Dark Heresy (or indeed any RPG) if there was a serious prospect of them cancelling it within the next couple of years, and that being the case it wouldn’t make sense for them to push ahead with a revolutionary revision of the system if there were indications they’d face a major backlash as a result.
To give them their due, however, 2nd Edition does actually work in some major new ideas along with applying the Black Crusade/Only War patch to the W40KRP system. Character generation now splits Acolytes’ former stations with the Imperium and their roles in the party, which is a useful aid for creating a cohesive party. Furthermore, the fiddly process of poring over your chosen career’s XP charts to work out whether you can buy a particular Skill or Talent and what tier you need to be at before you buy them has been done away with entirely; anybody can now buy any Skill or Talent they possess the prerequisites for, but your choice of Role, Background and Home World gives you a set of Aptitudes, and each characteristic advance, Skill and Talent has a couple of Aptitudes associated with it; if you possess one of the Aptitudes, you get a mild discount on buying the advance in question, and if you have both you get a more significant discount. This helps avoid the decision paralysis that might otherwise have come from opening up the advancement system – it makes sense to focus on buying the things you have double Aptitude for unless you really want take your character in a very specific direction, and taking the path of least resistance will save time, support your role in the group, and nicely reflect your character’s origins.
In addition, PCs now have a new Influence characteristic, which represents their clout. As well as being an important prerequisite for anyone who wants to become an Inquisitor in their own right (you earn Influence by pulling off successful investigations, and you need at least 75 before you can become an Inquisitor), Influence is used for requisitions and for throwing your weight around. If you want to take the “Hey, I work for Inquisitor Obiwan Sherlock Clouseau so you better do what I say” route, you can substitute in your Inquisitor’s Influence stat in place of your own, but this is explicitly calling on the authority of your Inquisitor and if you do this excessively or needlessly your Inquisitor is going to fuck you up.
One particularly nice use of Influence is to summon Requisition Characters. These are characters who would ordinarily be beyond the scope of Dark Heresy campaigns – a Sister of Battle, a Deathwatch or Grey Knights Space Marine, or an elite Eversor Assassin – who you can call in to provide backup when you really, absolutely need it. This requires spending some Influence permanently, which makes it a big deal, and also gives someone at the table to play a non-standard character for a bit who can come in and kick ass for the team. (On my readthrough I didn’t notice how much Influence you need to spend to call in an Exterminatus, but they might be saving that for a later supplement on Inquisitor-level play.)
Neatly, the Influence mechanic also ties in with the Subtlety mechanics, which track how low key the party are being and how likely it is people are going to start wandering that maybe the mysterious drifters from out-of-system asking awkward questions might be Inquisition agents. What’s fun is that sometimes you don’t want to be Subtle – taking actions which require throwing your weight around become more difficult if your Subtlety is so high that when you yell Freeze, motherfuckers, we’re the Inquisition! everyone just laughs at you, and the Influence you gain from missions is moderated downwards if you were so Subtle that nobody realises the good you’ve done.
For the most part, though, the 2nd Edition of Dark Heresy takes the safe but still welcome route of providing a version of Dark Heresy which takes advantage of the lessons learned from previous five Warhammer 40,000 RPG core rulebooks. With the Black Crusade/Only War update implemented, vehicle rules in the core book for once, and a reasonably detailed new setting to play about with, it’s primed and ready to go, and it’s also a really gorgeously presented book along with it. I don’t know if it will save the game line, but it’s got me enthused about Dark Heresy again and the next time I run some I’ll probably primarily use these rules.