Monday, August 27, 2012

Beyond Terrain and D6s: The Expansive World of Warhammer 40,000 Role-Playing Games

I’ve been a fan of Warhammer 40,000 going back to the late nineties, but it wasn’t until the last couple of years that I really embraced the game and hobby aspects simultaneously. The game is definitely fun, and the models are fantastic, but what appeals to a lot of folks is the lore, or ‘fluff’. A lot of us read the novels (usually turning a blind eye to the literary merits of genre fiction) and get inspired to create army themes and stories of our own.  But going back even further, to when I was just a kid, I remember the appeal of role-playing games. I had the Dungeons and Dragons red box at some point, and it even came with crayons that let you fill in the recessed numbers on the dice! Unfortunately, I never really got to the point where I got into it with a group of friends, and as I reached the stage in my life where being cool and meeting girls was everything, gaming sort of took a back burner. Well, now I’m older and uncool again, so it’s a perfect time to get back into RPGs, right?

Way back when, Games Workshop started as a miniatures casting company supplying games like D&D with Citadel miniatures for role-playing games. It wasn’t until the mid eighties that the Warhammer fantasy world and wargame began to take shape, and eventually the sci-fantasy spin off of the game we all know and love came into existence when a bunch of British nerds watched Star Wars, Mad Max, and Blade Runner while reading 2000 AD comics. So Games Workshop essentially has its roots in role-playing games from the very beginning.

It wasn’t until 2008 that the full potential of a role-playing game set in the huge 40K universe was realized, when Black Industries (which I believe was an imprint of the Black Library at the time) released Dark Heresy, a game where the players created characters who were part of an Inquisitorial task force. The game was a hit, and it led to Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, Black Crusade, and most recently, Only War. In addition to these core rule books, there have been many supplements and sourcebooks that have been released in a relatively short span of time.

So enough of the history lesson, right? I’ve been posting about Black Crusade (being a border line obsessive Chaos fan) over on my blog Ruinous Powers for a while now, and nearly all of us here at Fresh Coast 40K gave Deathwatch a try a while back. To me, it seemed that the games had tremendous potential, but we had some difficulty getting everyone to be available at the same time for an in-person meetup, and we were all coming to the system for the first time, or some of us were coming from d20 systems, which are different in some significant ways. All of the recent 40K RPGs released by Fantasy Flight Games use a d10 or d% system in determining success and failure for skills, combat, and nearly anything else. It’s not a particularly newbie friendly system, at least as far as I’m concerned. But like anything else, a little diligence, patience, and some experience running games can go a long way. I’m not a veteran of GMing, in fact, I probably have only a few years experience if you added it all together. However, I’ve read a lot on forums, blogs, and elsewhere about running a good, entertaining game. I think if you are playing a 40K game in the first place, you are obviously interested in the lore, and this is the biggest strength of these games so far. The artwork is very well done overall, and the background text and setting show a pretty solid dedication to the lore on the part of the authors. There are still a few kinks that FFG is working out with the rules, and they’ve taken the extraordinary step of putting out Only War as a beta version, with a possible second printing with corrections and errata based on player feedback – some people think this is a bit of a money grab, since beta playtests are generally free, but it would seem the demand for the 40K RPGs is strong enough to warrant it. One word of warning though – collecting all of the books in the line is an expensive proposition – in fact, the reason I held off from purchasing Dark Heresy for so long was the $60 list price. Now that I have all of the Black Crusade stuff that has been released so far, I wonder why I waited so long.The artwork and background make these books definitely worthwhile just as art books, in my opinion.

From the cover of one of the Dark Heresy sourcebooks.
Right now, some of the Fresh Coast 40K crew are indulging me by letting me do an intro game using the free RPG day adventure Broken Chains for Black Crusade. We’re doing it over on the FC40K forums, so take a look if you’re interested. Will the heretics Blurtin, Trajan, Emesis and Vulrath escape the prison ship Chains of Judgment, or will the unknown 'things' that lurk on the ancient ship lead them to an early demise? The wonderful thing about play by post is that I can look things up as I go, and don’t have to go through the ‘anxious DM’ thing of running a game in real time. I already overlooked a few things, but it seems to be going well so far.

I’m hoping to put up some more specific articles about the FFG 40K role-playing games here in the future, so if you’d like to see something specific addressed, let me know in the comments section!


  1. The fluff in these books are worth the prices alone.

  2. Nice - I'm a huge fan of the FFG books, and have run and played in several Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader campaigns locally (as well as a few games at GenCon recently). The system they use becomes second nature after a while, I really quite like it - the mechanics don't get in the way of the story.

    The books FFG puts out are a bit pricey, but the production values are truly excellent. Tons of new artwork (which is worth the price of admission alone), and the fluff is top notch. I'm actually glad they don't come out with new books more often, I don't know if my wallet could withstand the abuse! :)

    I look forward to seeing more!

    1. Holy cow yes, the artwork is amazing and worth it. I do love the production values.

      I'm not a huge fan of the system itself. I wish it was just simple D20, but I can understand them wanting to make their own thing. It can be a real bear trying to navigate how to play it for me at least.

  3. I wouldn't mind seeing an article about your GM process. How you prepare, wrangle players, etc. I need to prepare for IKRPG!