It sometimes seems like Rogue Trader is the runt of the litter as far as the Fantasy Flight Games-published run of Warhammer 40.000 RPGs goes. Only War got a distressingly thin support line, sure, but it at least has a decent number of adherents and fans. Dark Heresy got the first-mover advantage, Black Crusade has the advantage of being the only game in the line that isn’t primarily focused on Imperial characters, and Deathwatch has Space Marines. All have their fans.
Rogue Trader, on the other hand, seems to have won over less people than it really deserved to. Perhaps part of the issue was that it’s harder to do a railroaded, linear story in Rogue Trader – when the party has their own starship, they’re rather in charge of the train (and if they don’t feel like they are in charge of the train then that will be frustrating in a way it isn’t in a low-powered Dark Heresy campaign where they expect to be told what to do by their Inquisitor a lot). I get the impression that a lot of people weren’t sure what you were meant to do with it. Sure, the whole “mirror universe Star Trek where you seek out new life and new civilisations and conquer and exterminate them for the glory of the Imperium” thing is a great elevator pitch – but somehow it doesn’t seem to have been communicated brilliantly to gamers, because I see a lot of people saying that they didn’t get it until someone made that comparison with them.
So, let’s nail down that concept once and for all. Rogue Traders are, despite what is probably a rather misleading name, not necessarily rogues after all. They are the lucky (often hereditary) bearers of a Warrant of Trade – a document, some of which date back right to the dawn of the Imperium, which empowers them to take their ships beyond its borders to trade with both xenos and unassimilated human cultures alike. They are supposed to use this to get their foot in the door to eventually bring human cultures into the Imperium and to destroy xeno cultures entirely – but given that the Warrant of Trade gives them ultimate authority outside of the borders of the Imperium, many use it for personal enrichment far more than they do for traditional means. Their power is only heightened by the fact that in the Warhammer 40,000 universe starships are small cities in space – perhaps containing all the personnel and equipment you need to conquer a sufficiently technologically disadvantaged world…
So, there’s the pitch, and hopefully you can see how a fairly sandboxy campaign can arise from this. Perhaps Rogue Trader faltered a little because the core book missed the potential for sandbox play (or was designed by folk who didn’t get it), although later on in the product line this was rather corrected. There may also be issues with the sample setting, the Koronus Expanse. Precisely because it’s the major focus of the setting, the Imperium is by far the most developed region of space in the Warhammer 40,000 universe – but the point of Rogue Traders is to go journey outside the Imperium. To a lesser extent there are various alien realms described, but most of these a places that a Rogue Trader either would have severe trouble surviving in or wouldn’t go anyway because there’s no opportunity for trade. (See: the entirety of Tyranid-occupied space.)
So, for the purposes of the game Fantasy Flight developed the Koronus Expanse, which is basically empty in terms of siginificant interstellar cultures – there’s some enclaves of orks and the like, but as presented in the core book it’s mostly ruined worlds and worlds at a primitive level of technological advancement and few if any groups capable of interstellar travel outside of Imperial forces. It’s got its mysteries and os on, but the overall impression is that it’s a bit sparse and empty, and precisely because it hasn’t been developed as richly as the Imperium has it seems less interesting. It would perhaps have been useful to spice it up (as I attempted to do in my home campaign) with some significant starfaring cultures – the sort of thing where they’re small enough not to have triggered a full-blown JOIN OR DIE ultimatum from the Imperium yet, but large enough to cause problems for a starting Rogue Trader. (Making the culmination of the campaign the overthrow and conquest of such a group would be pretty excellent.)
One thing which got teased out in the supplement line but wasn’t really there in the core book is the inclusion of xenos crew. It’s always been canon that Rogue Traders were willing to take on such – right back to the days of the original Rogue Trader product, but the core book is based around various Imperial sorts as the player characters. To be fair, these were both more high-powered and a bit freer in how they were designed than Dark Heresy characters, in keeping with the more freewheeling life of a Rogue Trader – you even get two different flavours of mutant, psyker Astropaths and three-eyed Warp-seeing evil eye-casting Navigators. The character path system offers a nice way of giving freedom of choice in character generation without turning that into full-on decision paralysis.
Rogue Trader was the first core rulebook produced by Fantasy Flight for the 40K lines – Dark Heresy was originally put out by Black Industries, remember – and perhaps slightly too much of it consists of following the formula of that. For instance, you could afford to put in a bit less detail on Imperial institutions you will spend most of the campaign beyond the reach of, and a bit less detail on the Koronus Expanse, and then you’d have space to include more sandbox tools. There’s also a lot of attention given to the game mechanical aspects of ship-to-ship combat but not much consideration given to the basic problem of such a system (namely, that if the PCs’ ship blows up the campaign is over).
There’s a really strong concept here in Rogue Trader, but unlike in Dark Heresy the core book doesn’t do as hot a job of getting it across. Fantasy Flight would improve on this score over time, and supplements would add some welcome wrinkles and features to the Rogue Trader line, but at the same time Fantasy Flight were infuriatingly coy about releasing some material. The major gap would be details on playing Eldar – you’d think some exarchs or maybe some Craftworld dropouts would make sense as part of a PC party, but apparently not. And with successive supplements trying to kindle interest in the Koronus expanse rather than giving people the “playing the xenos” options they really wanted (and which the upcoming Wrath & Glory RPG is promising to deliver), it felt like they also held back on improving it to the fullest extent that they could.
Still, the supplements offered enough improvements that, whilst I had fun as an early adopter running a campaign of this, at the same time I suspect I’d have got better outcomes if I’d had the various supplemental materials available.
Oh, and I defy anyone to resist adding a certain gravitas to their Rogue Trader sessions by playing this as the “opening credits” music…