Cubicle 7 Announces Dark Heresy 3rd Edition… Sort Of

It’s Gen Con season, which means the RPG publishers are all making their big announcements, and Cubicle 7’s pulled out a big surprise in the form of Imperium Maledictum – an upcoming new Warhammer 40,000 RPG.

This is a bit of an interesting move, not least because they’d only recently expended energy into salvaging Wrath & Glory, the previous 40K RPG, going to the extent of putting out an entirely revised version of the core book because the previous version by Ulisses North America, whilst it was built on some pretty solid ideas, had some fairly major quality control issues. And part of the selling point of Wrath & Glory, from its original unveiling under Ulisses to Cubicle 7’s adoption and resuscitation of the line, was its scalability – thanks to its clever Tier system it could handle PC parties ranging in power from baseline scum to high-powered Space Marines, Inquisitors, and other movers and shakers. What’s the need for a new game?

Reading Cubicle 7’s press release doesn’t give a ton of details – nor would you expect such from an early preview – but there are some bits that stand out and make me inclined to make some guesses as to what the deal is here. Imperium Maledictum is directly called “the spiritual successor to the beloved series of roleplaying games started by Black Industries over ten years ago”. There’s a little ambiguity here; Dark Heresy in both its editions is definitely included, because Black Industries did publish the earliest 1st Edition products before Games Workshop shut it down; whether Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, Black Crusade, and Only War are also intended is something where there’s a bit more wriggle room for, because whilst Black Industries did plan for some of those games to be part of the line eventually, they were shut down long before they were actually made.

The fact that they cite the new game as a “d100 based system” which “builds on previous Warhammer 40,000 d100 roleplaying games” suggests that all of the Black Industries/FFG-era games are in play in principle, but Cubicle 7 are giving themselves room to vary the exact extent to which they’ll feed into the new game and it might lean on some of them more than others. The fact that WFRP 4th Edition is also cited as providing inspiration, in conjunction with the rest of this, suggests a system approach very much in like with those games, since Dark Heresy 1st Edition showed every sign of having taken WFRP as a starting point to then build on; the fact that they are explicitly stating the WFRP influence suggests that they are keeping that system lineage in mind, which feels sensible to me – 1st Edition Dark Heresy was, to me, the best of that generation of Warhammer 40,000 RPGs, largely because the later games seemed to lose sight of the fact that they were building on a WFRP-ish foundation and some stuff just doesn’t work as well in that framework.

The second paragraph also makes me think that a Dark Heresy-like experience is what is primarily intended:

Players take on the roles of citizens of the Imperium in service to a powerful patron, with games focused on investigation and intrigue. The Imperium is a deadly place, and the players must tread carefully if they hope to survive. Your service to your patron allows you to move through Imperial society where others can’t. The Influence you and your patron have with the many factions of the Imperium will determine how your investigations proceed, where you can go, and what resources you have access to.

This sounds far more like Dark Heresy than it does any of the other games from the Black Industries/Fantasy Flight era. The emphasis on investigation and intrigue is Dark Heresy all over, and the point about the players needing to use care and cunning to survive in a deadly universe calls to mind the low-powered approach of 1st Edition Dark Heresy in particular. (The 2nd Edition, and the Ascension supplement, attempted to cater to players who really badly wanted to be able to play full-blown Inquisitors, not just their agents.) The idea that the influence of one’s patron, and the cultivation of relationships with Imperial faction in order to get privileged access to resources, information, and key locations is a smart one, and further serves the idea that this isn’t a game about just showing up and blasting stuff.

So, is this just Dark Heresy 3rd Edition? It certainly sounds like you can play it that way, but there’s one difference which I think is notable: Dark Heresy‘s core concept was “you are agents working for an Inquisitor”, Imperium Maledictum‘s is “you are agents working for a powerful patron”. That suggests similar power levels and fundamentals of gameplay, but a broader range of concepts supported by the core book… at least in theory. In practice, nothing stopped you running core-book-only Dark Heresy 1E but instead of having an Inquisitor giving the orders you had an Ecclesiarch, or a Mother Superior of the Sororitas, or a high-ranking Adeptus Mechanicus Magos. Heck, if you extend the patrons outside the realm of Imperial law you could also have an all-crooks game, or even something like a low-powered game of Black Crusade with the PCs working for a Chaos cult leader.

The next paragraph provides further insight into this, after the bumph about the default setting of the game. (It’s another new sector, as has been the case with all 40K RPGs so far; Games Workshop like assigning specific areas of space to spin-off games to let people do what they like within that sphere without affecting the rest of the setting.) We’re told “Future books will focus on specific factions, allowing players to take on the roles of agents in service to a powerful Inquisitor, or perhaps as dedicated servants of the Ecclesiarchy”; that sounds an awful lot like the later Dark Heresy 1E supplement line, where you had books making Ecclesiarchy, Adeptus Mechanicus, or Arbites-focused games more viable. What they’ve done here is effectively devolve some of the deeper Inquisition-specific stuff to the supplement line, though with releases like The Radical’s Handbook the 1E Dark Heresy line kind of did that too.

Between all this, I think it is deeply unlikely that Imperium Maledictum will let you play a very powerful combat-focused character. It may well not even let you ascend to the level of Inquisitor, like the old Ascension supplement or the Dark Heresy 2E experience system allowed you to – because that would break the core premise of “you work for a patron”. Perhaps, at most, there’ll be a way for PCs to ascend to then become patrons as a “retirement” mechanic, with them effectively becoming NPCs after that; it’d be neat to have some snacky bonuses which come into play if you’re working a mission on behalf of an ex-PC.

I would be willing to put a modest but real amount of money on the new game not having Space Marine player characters at all – not Loyalists, not Traitors. Even though a squad of Space Marines could conceivably go off on a mission at the behest of their Chapter Master (or, in the case of Traitor Marines, at the prompting of their Chaos patrons), I just don’t think the sort of high-octane action which the Space Marine concept really lends itself to is compatible with the sort of game that Cubicle 7 are describing here. Likewise, I don’t think being a player character Rogue Trader is on the cards – that’s much more of a patron concept than an agent concept, though I’m sure “your patron is a Rogue Trader” is an option on the cards. Imperial Guard-themed parties might be possible, if they can find a good way to direct them towards the sort of investigative, cautious play that’s being described, but if people want Imperial Guard for battlefield-focused stuff I suspect a lower-tier Wrath & Glory game will work better.

So, in short, the new game looks like it’ll handle Dark Heresy absolutely fine (bar for the upper reaches of 2E or Ascension), will be perfectly cromulent for the lower-powered type of Black Crusade game, probably won’t be good for Only War and Rogue Trader stuff, and is deeply unlikely to cater to Deathwatch-esque material or the sort of action you got at the Chaos Space Marine tier of Black Crusade. Frankly, that’s fine by me, because the stuff that Imperium Maledictum isn’t targeting is also the sort of stuff I think works much better in Wrath & Glory‘s system anyway; the Black Industries/FFG-era games were always a bit clunky when it came to handling stuff like Space Marine characters, in my view, and the low-powered end of Dark Heresy or Black Crusade are really the only campaign concepts from that era which I think the old systems handle better than Wrath & Glory, so Imperium Maledictum sounds like it’s playing to the strengths of the old system whilst steering away from the sort of material that’s more in Wrath & Glory‘s wheelhouse.

Sure, in theory you can run a low-powered game of Wrath & Glory – but in practice, Tier 1 is pretty thinly catered for. Part of the issue is that whilst you can take lower-powered Archetypes in Wrath & Glory and upgrade them to higher Tiers, you can’t do the reverse – which inherently means that Tier 1 has vastly less character types available for it than any of the Tiers. Indeed, the core book doesn’t even offer any Adeptus Mechanicus-themed Tier 1 character types – if you want that you need to look to the Forsaken System Player’s Guide and the Tech-Adept in that.

(In some of their statements to the gaming press about the new game, they’ve likened Wrath & Glory Archetypes to units from the wargame, whilst emphasising that Maledictum PCs will be lower-powered than that – so by that analogy Tier 1 represents the baseline troop types in the wargame, which are usually going to be less interesting than flashier characters; perhaps going forwards we’ll see more of an assumption that Wrath & Glory games start at Tier 2 or something.)

In the last paragraph of their post, Cubicle 7 offer reassurance to Wrath & Glory fans – the line is going to continue, they have a fair number of new products planned for it. That said, I do think it’s interesting that they describe it as our “currently available action-focused Warhammer 40,000 roleplaying game”. Note the part I have bolded, in particular – they’re specifically pushing Wrath & Glory as the action-packed high-octane 40K RPG, which leaves Imperium Maledictum to focus more on thoughtful investigation, delicate politics, and careful navigation of a hostile universe. Those are all types of gameplay which can be tense, exciting, and fun, but tend to be slower-paced and less action-oriented. (I remember plenty of Dark Heresy games where combat would, rather being a regular default option, instead be something which broke out infrequently but viciously, often was very lethal when it happened, and was generally something you tried your best to initiate on your own terms – because in that system a fair fight is for suckers.)

Cubicle 7 have been even more explicit about that in their responses to their tweet about the announcement; as well as firmly suggesting that people very interested in playing xenos would probably do better with Wrath & Glory (fair – the Black Industries/FFG games were never brilliant at supporting non-human PCs), they’ve pushed the idea that Imperium Maledictum and Wrath & Glory will co-exist alongside each other and offer contrasting experiences, specifically citing the example of WFRP and Soulbound do.

The analogy isn’t perfect, because of course WFRP is set in the Old World whereas Soulbound is the Age of Sigmar RPG, but it’s pretty easy to follow what they are saying: Wrath & Glory, like Soulbound, is going to be the game focusing on over-the-top action and epic adventure, Imperium Maledictum is going to be about scuzzy space scum much like WFRP thrives when it focuses on low fantasy lowlifes. All that is very sensible, shows a good understanding of the already-extant systems in question, and proposes a sensible direction for developing Imperium Maledictum.

That said, this is pretty undeniably a shift compared to the way Wrath & Glory used to be promoted. No longer are Cubicle 7 going along with Ulisses’ old concept of Wrath & Glory as the one-size fits all 40K RPG: by explicitly stating it has a distinct strengths to Imperium Maledictum, they’re implicitly conceding that it has weaknesses compared to the old D100-based systems which even their latest revision of the game can’t correct for, and that there’s significant flavours of Warhammer 40,000 RPG campaign that Imperium Maledictum will be designed to cater to and that aren’t well-served by Wrath & Glory.

There’s an extent to which this narrowing of Wrath & Glory to better focus on its strengths has been ongoing already. The revised core book Cubicle 7 prepared didn’t just offer improvements and important additions – it also excised some material which had been in the Ulisses North America version of the core book. This was actually a plus in my book, because the bits which were pulled were by and large material which the original core book simply hadn’t handled well, and were sufficiently janked that a mere revision wouldn’t be enough to save them; starship travel was one example, and another was the investigative mechanics.

(In case you were wondering, the Ulisses-era investigative mechanics’ big problem is that they fell between two stools. For groups not interested in investigative play, they’d be dissatisfying because they were fiddly enough to take up a significant chunk of time which, if nobody at the table likes investigative gaming, the group could just opt to handwave. For those who do enjoy investigative RPGs, they’d be dissatisfying because they abstract out the entire investigative process – thereby actually bypassing the investigative process rather than getting to play through and enjoy it. In short, those mechanics are better off gone.)

In that sense, it’s clear that at the time they did the revision, Cubicle 7 realised that investigation in Wrath & Glory wasn’t working. But at the same time, half the scenarios in Litanies of the Lost were described as having an investigative focus – Grim Harvest and Dark Bidding – though Grim Harvest largely assumed that the scenario would end in a pitched battle and Dark Bidding seems likely (but not predetermined) to do so. What happened? Did they get customer feedback or do market research which suggested that the investigative scenarios flopped or that the combat sections flowed much better? It’d be interesting to know the thought process here, and how the existence of Imperium Maledictum will affect future Wrath & Glory products (because they won’t need to cater to the type of play that Maledictum handles better).

On the whole, I’m interested to see where all this goes. Cubicle 7’s overall plan for the game seems sound; now it’s all about getting the execution right.

3 thoughts on “Cubicle 7 Announces Dark Heresy 3rd Edition… Sort Of

  1. Umaran

    Hello. Thank you for your learned insights. Curious about the W40K universe and the idea of acquring this new role-playing game, I started reading “Horus Rising” a few days ago. I find the book’s tone to be utterly one-dimensional and humorless. Shockingly so. Is this what the W40K RPGs have been like too? WFRP does have some humor about it, which goes a long way to making it fun — no idea what the novels are like. But if “Horus Rising” is any indication, I’m concerned that W40K role-playing might be quite heavy-handed, full of self-righeous NPCs and B&W oppositions. Is this is a legitimate concern?

    1. I think it’s going to be very, very dependent on your GM. The 40K fiction lines – as I’ve chronicled here – are very varied in tone and range from fairly dull stuff like you describe (I find the more something focuses on space marines, the more likely it is to be a bit dull) to being somewhat more clever and intrigue-y (the Eisenhorn trilogy and other Inquisition focused-stuff) to comedic (the Ciaphas Cain novels) to horror, and that really reflects the flexibility of the setting.

      The setting started out as satirical as WFRP was but then went through an awkward phase when GW creatives seemed to forget that. There’s been a gradual process of rediscovering that, and the existing 40K RPGs are absolutely compatible with a more satirical approach, but it may need a GM and a group willing to read between the lines and find the dark comedy in it. If you’ve got the sort of group who finds Paranoia funnier when it’s played comparatively straight you’ll be on the right track.

  2. Pingback: Routinely Itemised: RPGs #165

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.