From the moment of Warhammer 40k‘s release in 1987, fans speculated whether the miniature-based wargame would be followed by a spin-off along the lines of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. While the original Rogue Trader rules did incorporate some rudimentary RPG mechanics, it was first and foremost a wargaming system, as were later skirmish-based side franchises such as Necromunda.
In the absence of an official product, a number of dedicated enthusiasts cobbled together their own homebrew 40k RPG rules. Most were built upon WFRP’s framework and expansive career system. The shared DNA made such find-and-replace reskins easy to pull off from a mechanical standpoint, but they also illustrated the fundamental difficulties the setting had when it came to things like balance and backstory. The super-human abilities of a Space Marine or unearthly powers of an Eldar far outstripped those of even the most talented baseline human, resulting in massive power gaps between the various player races and careers. Furthermore, the regimented dystopia of the gameworld made it difficult to justify how a Space Marine might find himself working alongside a hive ganger, clergyman, unsanctioned psyker, or some member of a feared-hated alien society.
Yes, it could be done with a bit of fudging, but then it really wouldn’t capture the grim, paranoid vibe of the setting. (I’m not saying it would be a bad thing, but it does contradict the whole notion of running a 40k RPG and not some other sci-fi system with a more logical ruleset.)
It would be twenty-one years before the Warhammer 40k franchise got its first official role playing game….
…Dark Heresy, released by the Black Library as a weighty hardback tome in 2008. I pre-ordered the damn thing, because there are some parts of my wayward youth I will never extricate myself from.
Like the homebrew efforts that preceded it, Dark Heresy pulled most of its core mechanics from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. The characteristics, skill/talent system, and graphic critical hit tables mirrored those in the second edition WFRP rulebook, and the psychic power rules were a slightly more forgiving reworking of that game’s magic system. Dark Heresy did drop WFRP’s open-ended career system in favor of a smaller spectrum of fixed classes with branching progression trees and background packages based on a character’s homeworld.
Where amateur attempts to translate Warhammer 40k into a pen-and-paper RPG stumbled over trying to fit the entire universe into a single system, Dark Heresy chose to focus on a single facet of that universe. The player characters serve low-level agents of an Inquisitor, wandering troubleshooters given sanction to investigate and deal with threats to the Imperium as they see fit. That patronage grants players latitude to act than the average Tech Adept or Imperial Guardsman, while also explaining why a by-the-books Arbitrator would associate with a petty criminal from the underhive. “Because our Master demanded it, and she could summarily execute us for refusing.”
It’s a solid conceit which keeps with the “life is cheap, death (or worse) is everywhere” tone of the franchise, and allows for all manner of adventuring possibilities without the need to explain a specific rationale in detail. If the dead drop message says “go to this death world and retrieve something” or “abduct this person from a noble house’s garden party,” the players need only sweat the logistics and pray that the reasons are sound. How the players advance within the bigger picture is left up to them and the gamemaster. If they manage to survive mindwarping horrors, soul-rotting corruption, and violent death, they might become (via the Ascension sourcebook) inquisitors themselves. If they don’t, there are plenty of possibilities in that as well.
The back half of the rulebook contains oodles of material about the 40k universe and the Calixis Sector, an ill-omened cluster of fringe worlds packed with all manner of threats from within, without, and beyond. It makes for some highly entertaining reading, especially for semi-lapsed fans whose interest in the franchise lore survived when their interest in the actual game faded. Like most of my 21st Century RPG purchases, Dark Heresy is thy type of game I can spend hours leafing through while thinking “damn it, why didn’t this come out when I was seventeen?”