The Little Trader That Could

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.

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Supplemental Heresy

Is Allen Varney watching this blog? Hot on the heels of me doing my Dark Heresy 1st Edition appreciation, his Bundle of Holding scheme has unveiled not one but two Dark Heresy bundles, comprising more or less the entire 1st edition line. That being the case, I may as well follow through and give my thought on the rest of the support line.

The Inquisitor’s Handbook

This largely player-facing supplement is essentially a grab-bag of extras greatly expanding the character creation and gear options available. The new homeworld options are welcome, as are the homeworld-specific gear sections which help give you some idea about what of stuff might be more commonly available on particular types of world.

As the front cover not-so-subtly indicates, however, the main attraction is the addition of the Adepta Sororitas career – which impressively even manages to get a flavour of just how broad the activities of the Sororitas are – they aren’t just Sisters of Battle, though naturally they’re really good in that niche.

(It occurs to me that since in a Dark Heresy game you are likely to spend much more time interacting with Sororitas than with Space Marines, who by and large are well beyond the power level of the game, that the upshot of this is a much less masculinity-overdosed take on the setting with many more prominent women in the lead.)

Ascension

Whilst many enjoyed the low-powered high-danger WFRP-in-space style of Dark Heresy, there were also a good many folk who were disappointed at the low power level of the game – a common complaint, in particular, being the fact that people were hoping for a game where you could play an Inquisitor or their peers, and that’s very much not what they got.

The initial plan seems to have been that Dark Heresy characters who hit a particular level would graduate to one of the other games in the line; Ascension, then, represents something of a change in plan, instead offering an extended character progression system (adding in Ranks 9-16 to the base game’s 1-8), Ascended careers (including Inquisitor) for characters who hit these ranks, some fancy gear and high-level foes, and general support for running games at a substantially higher power level, and an Influence-based system for acquiring gear is introduced from Rogue Trader so as to get away from the Throne-counting currency system of original Dark Heresy.

The end result is not entirely compatible with the similarly high-powered stretches of Rogue Trader or Deathwatch, though I suspect that’s not so important – after all, if you are particularly keen on a crossover game, then you’d be using those materials to run a high power game, whilst Ascension offers a way to run a high-powered game that retains the Inquisition focus of Dark Heresy. The levels of experience points and character features you are dealing with at this point can be pretty burdensome, though some effort is taken to rationalise this – like the ability to just put down a bunch of XP to master an entire related set of skills, rather than doing them one at a time. The book does provide guidance on how to create characters starting at Rank 9, for those who want to skip baseline Dark Heresy entirely.

To be honest, my inclination is to say that the 2nd edition of Dark Heresy, with its overall uplifted baseline power level and the fact that you can go all the way to Inquisitor with just the full book, has made Ascension slightly redundant in comparison – the product exists, after all, to soothe the complaints of people who, based on their tastes, I suspect would prefer the 2nd edition anyway. Still, both for getting ideas of the capabilities of NPCs who can absolutely curbstomp you, and for the potential of running an extremely long-term Dark Heresy campaign (or the delicious idea of running a split campaign, where everyone had two PCs – a low-level set of Acolytes and a high-level Inquisitor and their immediate assistants), it’s not without its uses.

The Radical’s Handbook

Of course, if you don’t have Ascension in play, you can still get an edge on your opponents – especially if you are willing to do some dodgy shit. In that light, The Radical’s Handbook is a joy – a compendium of cool stuff for Acolytes to use if their Inquisitor (or them, acting without their Inquisitor’s sanction) decides that the Puritan route is bunk and if the Imperium is to have a hope against the nightmarish forces arrayed against it then it needs to be willing to use the tools of the enemy for its own advantage.

As well as offering extra kit, powers, and character options to help give a more Radical spin to your player characters, the book also gives in-depth looks at various different Radical philosophies (both major Imperium-wide ones and Calixis Sector-specific ones). They never did an equivalent Puritan’s Handbook, and to be honest that makes sense – the Puritan philosophies, by dint of their adamant adherence to Imperial orthodoxy, are nowhere near as useful as maybe-ally maybe-enemy factions and offer much less in the way of diversity compared to the Radical groups.

The nice thing about Radicialism in the Inquisition is that Radical Inquisitors and their retinues make great adversaries, even if your player party is just as Radical – because the Radical philosophies are not necessarily compatible with each other at all. In my experience, Radicalism in a Dark Heresy campaign works a bit like Godwin’s Law – the longer a campaign goes on, the greater the likelihood that the player characters will reach their breaking point and find themselves under enough pressure that they crack and decide to use Radical methods to advance their ends – so when they get tempted you might as well have some tasty treats to tempt them.

Daemon Hunter

The Ordo Hereticus and Ordo Xenos didn’t get their own supplements like the Ordo Malleus did with this one, though arguably they didn’t really need it. The Ordo Hereticus’ work largely consists of going after the sort of human-scale threats that are the bread and butter of most baseline Dark Heresy games anyway. The Ordo Xenos are the same except for aliens; there’s plenty of aliens in the game that a human could viably fight, and when it comes to fighting the big bugs the Ordo Xenos has an entire game line’s worth of backup in the form of Deathwatch.

The Ordo Malleus, however, go gunning after daemons, and even comparatively low-powered demons are a bit of a nightmare. It’s only fair that they get a little extra help, and that’s largely what you have here, with character options and equipment geared towards tackling daemonic threats and Deathwatch-inspired details on the Grey Knight chapter of Space Marines who specialise in daemon hunting. The latter are the real killer app here because frankly sending Dark Heresy Acolytes after the bigger daemons is just a recipe for a TPK, so if you want to run a long-term daemon-hunting campaign you pretty much have to let the party have Grey Knight backup if you ever want to unleash the big beasts.

Book of Judgement

This is a splat-specific book which shines a bit more of a light on the Adeptus Arbites (AKA the Justice Department from Judge Dredd in space), along with the criminal sorts they go gunning after. Rules are offered for handling investigations in a more game-y way, which seem to have influenced some aspect of 2nd edition’s design, but the general assumption that you’re going to use this book in the context of an Inquisition-focused game misses a trick – with just a bit more details here and there and some more support for the internal structure of the Arbites you could absolutely run 40K Judge Dredd with this.

Blood of Martyrs

This was a better go-around of the “focused supplement” type, with a better appreciation of the way such a supplement can sneakily allow you to use Dark Heresy to run a game based around an Imperial institution which wouldn’t necessarily support an entire game line by itself. This time, not only is it entirely viable to use the extra careers here to do an all-Ecclesiarchy campaign, but it also really unpacks the potential diversity of the Adepta Sororitas, making an all-Sororitas campaign viable – even a low-combat not especially nuns-with-guns-focused Sororitas campaign.

The Lathe Worlds

Applies the Blood of Martyrs job to the Adeptus Mechanicus. I’ve seen some saying that the Mechanicus careers here are a bit overpowered, with skitarii ending up being able to do the combat character type better than the other careers. Then again, I would be hesitant to allow the entire scope of characters in the book outside of a deliberately Mechanicus-focused campaign anyway.

Disciples of the Dark Gods

This is an adversaries sourcebook which describes a fat stack of dire conspiracies themed around the various major Inquisition Ordos – as well as notes on the sort of shenanigans that happen when the various Imperial bodies start working against each other. It’s consequently rather Calixis Sector-centric, though most of the conspiracies could quite easily be transplanted to the Sectors, at least as far as their central concept goes. Naturally, most of the conspiracies are primarily comprised of humans, making them decent foes for any Dark Heresy party to come up against.

Creatures Anathema

As the name implies, the aliens collection. Some were unhappy that this had lots of new creatures but not many iconic xenos from the wargame, but given that most of the iconic xenos would trivially smush a Dark Heresy party that seems to be the right call.

GM Kit

It’s the usual GM screen/adventure/small rulesy bit combination. The GM screen began the terrible, awful, bad, not good tradition of having the panels in portrait orientation instead of landscape. The adventure is nothing to write home about. The rulesy bit is a rundown on the Slaugth (a tasty Dark Heresy-exclusive xenos species) and a generator to let you roll up your own alien horror.

Adventures

The first adventure supplement for Dark Heresy was Purge the Unclean, which kicks off the trilogy of linked adventures provided there with an honest to goodness Scientology parody. Scientology parodies have a long and storied history in tabletop RPGs – including a major development in the Shadowrun metaplot and multiple examples in the history of Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium put out one in Nameless Horrors, for instance, and there’s one in the original Delta Green book) – so it’s quite fun to see one applied to Warhammer 40,000, especially since that gives a little whiff of the more freewheeling take the setting used to have in its early stages.

That said, I rapidly lost interest in the adventure for several reasons. It’s very linear, and whilst it talks up how enticingly intrigue-based it is it’s a precious long time of playing through mandatory sequences before you get into anything especially intriguing. It also regularly a) makes the blithe assumption that more or less all the PCs will be male and b) presents women as variously prostitutes, damsels in distress, and silly noblewomen who want to play dressup with the PCs like they’re life-sized dolls. I gave up reading over it when I realised I could probably improvise a better Scientology-parodying adventure.

The rest of the published adventure supplements for Dark Heresy consisted of big fat adventure trilogies with predetermined arcs going through them. I am amused to note that many of the principle designers of the Dark Heresy adventure supplements – Ben Counter, John French, and T.S. Luikart – either started out as Black Library authors and got brought into designing these apparently for the name recognition or shifted into writing Black Library fiction after this. Certainly, the linear approach makes me think that most of the investigations here would work better as novels or short stories than as tabletop scenarios, since the writers seem to understand the requirements of the former better than the latter.

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.

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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