This hasn’t been trumpeted as loudly as I’d have thought it would be, but Games Workshop has made a hardcover reprint of the original Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader rulebook.
Now, to be fair, it’s a Warhammer World exclusive, so it hasn’t been as widely distributed as it might be. But the fact that it’s out there has had a helpful knock-on effect on the price of second-hand copies of the old softcover release, so if you’ve been interested in that and have been holding off on getting it now might be a good time to give that a look.
What makes Rogue Trader interesting? Well, for one thing it’s mostly credited to a single individual, Rick Priestley, and that tends to shine through in the rougher, wilder, more idiosyncratic take on the Imperium than the 40K-by-committee we get these days. Some of that includes a certain amount of cheesy comedy – you’ve got the infamous Inquisitor Obiwan Sherlock Clouseau – but some of it is startlingly dark, even set next to what the setting has become. The artwork depicting the strongholds of the Imperium or the Mechanicus, in particular, is at points outright nightmarish, with not even a hint of the glorification of the Imperium that some later 40K art slid into when it forgot that they are the baddies (or at least one flavour of baddies).
Another interesting thing about it is that although it’s designed primarily as a tabletop wargame, it does actually assume the use of a gamemaster – though it is possible to play without one – as well as paying at least lip service to the idea of continuing campaigns with the players controlling allied characters against GM-controlled opponents. It almost feels like Priestley here was paving the way for a standalone RPG or a roleplaying supplement which never emerged as a result of Games Workshop pivoting away from RPGs, especially since in the rules as they stand the GM doesn’t actually have an enormous amount to do in a typical battle. (Then again, though the setting information describes Rogue Traders there’s sufficiently little emphasis on them that the title change from the working title of Rogue Trader to Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader to Warhammer 40,000 makes a certain amount of sense.)
Where Rogue Trader is perhaps most useful as far as roleplaying purposes go is in that deep background section. Erratic and at points openly cribbed from 2000 AD as it is, it’s intensely flavourful stuff, and at 100 pages accounts for a substantial chunk of the book (and there’s further bits of fluff and evocative art sprinkled across the rest of the book). It’s an interesting look at a very different age of the setting, a version where Chaos is an implied but not actually a directly named threat. There’s no description of the Horus Heresy, for instance – though Priestley apparently mentioned Chaos as a setting feature in the buildup to release, and since the first Realm of Chaos book came out a year later there must have been plans in the pipeline by the time the text of Rogue Trader was finalised. Plus you have Squats, Jokaero, Gyrinxes and all sorts of other interesting setting features that have rather faded by the wayside.
The fact is that the book is remarkably information-dense when it comes to setting information; there’s a tremendous amount about the current setting which comes down to a restatement of information presented here. Plus it has that gorgeous old-school Games Workshop art which the more standardised and polished art style of later products simply can’t quite imitate.