Through the rest of the spring and early summer of 1989, I got into the habit of picking up stray issues of White Dwarf from Excalibur’s large inventory of cover-priced back issues. I tended to stick to the ones that included relevant material for Warhammer Fantasy Role Play, but ended up spending more time checking out the articles and ads dealing with Warhammer 40k tabletop wargame.
The notion of elves and orcs battling in some far-future dystopia of struck me as pretty foolish at first glance, but the models looked cool as hell and the White Dwarf writing staff sold the fuck out of the concept through the long bits of fluff that accompanied every new vehicle type or unit list. I was especially fascinated by the “Harlequins,” a wandering troupe of warrior-performers who dressed like punk rock jesters and got a big write-up in issue #105 of the magazine.
I was still new to the whole punk thing, which was pretty dead around these parts at the time. Seeking further knowledge about the scene, I chased down anything remotely connected to it. That was a big part of my attraction to the Warhammer franchises. While D&D kept itself confined to the realm of Rush and Jethro Tull, Warhammer embraced punk ‘n’ metal aesthetics and attitude. The Harlequins were an incredibly visually striking and overt manifestation of that, and I reflexively latched onto it.
My first official 40k purchase was a blister of Harlequins (back when five bucks would net you a set of four models) picked up at the Compleat Strategist. I was in the neighborhood because my old gaming buddy Scott was interviewing for some kind of internship at Northeastern and his parents didn’t want him to visit that “bad neighborhood” by himself. By that time, the weekend visits with my old man had done much to dispel my suburban apprehensions about “the city,” so for me it was an opportunity to get dismissed from school early and spend an afternoon dicking around Boston.
I cleaned the stray molding bits of the models with a pen knife and did my best to paint them with various acrylic craft paints my aunt had left at my grandma’s place. They weren’t the best models for a first-time figure painter — thanks to the intricate details and wild color schemes — but I did pick up a decent sense of the basics through the experience. They ended up on one of my bookshelves, where they collected dust until I gave them to Maura a few years later.
Encouraged by that effort, I started picking up other random Warhammer figures that caught my eye. These were mostly from the 40k line, but did include a number of fantasy-themed models as well. My crate of modeling supplies grew as I slowly honed my skills, experimenting with techniques such as ink washes and dry brushing. My pal Damian also got into the act, propelled by a weird and one-sided sense of artistic rivalry. We even went halfsies on a boxed set of plastic 40k Space Marines.
For us, it was an artsier spin on action figure collecting. We weren’t trying to assemble armies. The game itself didn’t really figure into it apart from stoking our interest in the models through various bits of White Dwarf fluff.
I didn’t get around to buying a copy of the expensive hardbound Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader rulebook until later that summer, and under some really weird circumstances.
What happened was the full-time dude who ran my workstation at the hospital kitchen during the day shift somehow managed to rack up over ten grand in phone sex bills. In an attempt to extricate himself from the situation, he had himself committed to a psychiatric ward. Our supervisor asked me if I would fill in for him, and I foolishly agreed even though it meant pulling multiple split shifts for a couple of weeks.
Thus I found myself operating a industrial dishwashing machine for twelve hours a day during one of the worst heatwaves in New England’s history. The machine was the size of a panel truck, blasted skin-blistering gouts of steam, and was tucked into a poorly ventilated alcove. Even better, the job also involved dumping a staggering amount of food waste into a long metal feeder trench leading to a garbage disposal with periodic delusions of geyser-hood.
I was a skeletal hundred-and-thirty pounds when the two week stretch began. I was one-twenty when it ended. The stink of rancid milk and institutional gravy mix embedded itself in my pores and no amount of soaking of scrubbing could get make me feel clean afterwards. It was the reason I lost any enthusiasm about eating and why I started buzzing my hair short as a habit (though it did dovetail nicely with the whole punk rock thing).
It was an incredibly disgusting and shitty job and why I have nothing but contempt for those assholes who think service workers are overpaid.
When it was done and the checks were cashed, I had myself a grown-up sized wad of cash with none of the associated obligations. The responsible thing would’ve been to deposit my roll in my savings account, but fuck that — I’d spent half a month in the bowels of food service hell, dammit. I deserved to treat myself.
The bulk of the money went toward a NES and copy of Metal Gear, along with a copy of Rogue Trader picked up at Excalibur. (The rest went toward a Circle Jerks t-shirt and — at the behest of an audiophile ex-punk prep cook — the first three Clash albums on cassette.)
It’s weird looking back at Rogue Trader in light of the licensed behemoth Warhammer 40k has since become. While the basic mechanics and foundations of its fictional universe are contained within its pages, the most familiar components — the Horus Heresy, primarchs, traitor legions — of the franchise were later additions doled in White Dwarf, various supplements, and subsequent editions.
In its original incarnation, Warhammer 40k was designed to be skirmish-based wargame with strong role-playing elements. The game was scaled for a dozen or so units per side, with a high level of customization and emphasis on character advancement and campaign play. It lacked the canonical rigidity of later editions, embracing instead a tongue-in-cheek and darkly humorous vibe akin to 2000 AD comics which inspired it.
The game is much closer in spirit to what would become the Necromunda spin-off franchise, though far more open-ended. The rules allowed for crafting and conducting small-scale engagements at tech levels running from the Stone Age to the far future. In fact, the two times I actually played games with the Rogue Trader rules involved a medieval fantasy village raid and a test run where I tried to adapt the system for use with H-O scale WW2 figures and vehicles.
I primarily used Rogue Trader as a resource to mine ideas and concepts for various other games. By the time I started warming up to the idea of assembling proper armies to battle it out on the tabletop, the second edition of the game dropped. That revision formalized and streamlined what 40k had become since its initial release, jettisoning the hybrid messiness for an ever-escalating (and purchase-driving) power creep with codified army lists.
It was a logical step to take and I enjoyed the hell out of it, but it lacked the wild ambition of its predecessor.
Its confusing, nigh unplayable but eminently fascinating predecessor.