Warhammer 40,000 is a worldwide phenomenon. It’s probably the only miniature game that has been played in what has to be nearly every country in the world. It has entire stores, conventions, books, resin art, video games, and just about everything else short of a movie devoted to celebrating the grim future of humanity (in which there is only war and stuff). 40K is easily Games Workshop’s strongest brand and that makes it the strongest brand in the miniature gaming world.
Unfortunately, in the two decades that the game has been around, it has gained a number of less-than-positive reputations. It’s expensive to get into. It’s expensive to keep up with. Tournaments require you to also take up the hobby of painting. The large fanbase contains a lot of people who are not fun to play competitive games against. The list goes on. I know I don’t play because of the sheer expense of it. That and I’ve been burned by Games Workshop in the past and really don’t want to give them my money anymore.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not a fan.
I think the reason that Warhammer 40K will always have a place in the cockles of my heart is because I picked up Rogue Trader, the original version of the 40K rules, on a whim five years ago. Now, I’m a man of varied tastes that hates the “it is better because it is older” nostalgia-orgy that seems to be the hallmark of we who grew up in the 1980’s. When it comes to games, older generally means slow rules with only a modicum of balance and a focus that is far more on the numbers that it is on the fun. Battletech, I’m looking at you.
Rogue Trader is not surprising in this regard. The rules are a bit clunky and resolution of various phases has steps that could be easily removed. Balance is questionable, but excusable as the game expected the players to have an impartial GM to judge the game. The rules actually work well, but it’s definitely got more unneeded fiddly bits that the more recent versions of the rules have since streamlined. Even if you didn’t know what game you were looking at, if you’re at all familiar with games you could easily say, “Yup, this game came from the 80’s.”
But what Rogue Trader lacks in elegance it more than makes up for in imagination. Ladies and gentlemen, this is one of those few, magical books that you flip through and immediately feel justified that you play with tiny little army men on a map full of felt terrain or spend your hours drawing out dungeon maps on graph paper. The book oozes ideas, excitement, and passion. There’s not a paragraph or illustration in the book that doesn’t pull you further into the setting and make you want to explore it. It’s a catalogue of geek love.
And for those wondering, the setting is magnificent. The modern-day incarnation of the 40K setting is far more strict and less malleable. This allows for very strong themes in the current minis games, but excludes a lot of the gonzo-chaotic nature of the original presentation. In Rogue Trader, the Eldar are nothing but alien pirate elves, the Imperium is fanatical but not nearly as stifling, Genestealers and Tyrannids are separate races, and you’ll see just why Catachan is a famous death world when you look at the stats of the indigenous life. It is 40K with a more ‘anything goes’ attitude.
And, happily, the rules back that up. Gone are army lists. Instead you get all the rules on how to build your own troops, robots, and vehicles. Think you’re choosing weapons? Nope, the charts will determine what your force gets. Need ideas for a campaign? There are pages of plots and subplots for you to use. Don’t want random? Fine, just pick. It’s freeform, it’s loose, and it fuels the imagination…three things that the current 40K rules lack since they’re used in such competitive play.
The book also teases here and there about how the Warhammer Fantasy world is just another world in the Imperium. It’s obvious the designers had a great deal of fun making this.
Rogue Trader has become a go-to book for me when I need to be reminded why I spend so much of my time pretending. It reminds you that it’s all good fun as long as you’re blowing something up and I think that’s a lesson we can all take home.