The 1987 Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader rules were intended to be a hybrid of small-unit wargaming and pen-and-paper roleplaying, with a heavy focus on improvisation and customization. It was a novel concept, but one which Games Workshop abandoned very early into the franchise’s history. The wargaming aspects rapidly eclipsed the rudimentary RPG elements, which were dropped entirely from the second and subsequent editions of the game.
The “Rogue Trader” concept receded into the realm of background fluff for two decades before emerging as the titular follow-up to the 40k-based Dark Heresy role-playing game. Where Dark Heresy concentrated on the disposable cadres deployed by the sinister Inquisition, Rogue Trader cast players as peers of the dystopian Imperium of Man. Acting under sacred warrant, a rogue trader and his inner circle of confidants are free to voyage outside the Imperium’s borders and comport themselves as they see fit. Trading with proscribed alien races, salvaging forbidden archeotech, setting up personal fiefdoms among isolated human societies — a rogue trader is free to do all of these, providing they didn’t slip into blatant heresy or outright sedition.
It was a clever way to get around the oppressive regimentation of the 40k’s fictional universe, one that added exploration and starships to the mix. A rogue trader is nothing without their vessel, a kilometer-long Gothic behemoth fitted out with ancient technologies, continent-shattering armaments, and hosting tens of thousands of crewmembers. Each interstellar voyage involves a treacherous journey through the daemon-haunted warp, while the material voidspace harbors all manner of threats to mind, soul, and body.
The game used a slightly revised version of the Dark Heresy rules, with additional mechanics for handling starship travel and combat, as well as updated system for psychic powers. Rogue Trader characters, being members of an entitled elite, begin at a slightly higher power level than their Dark Heresy counterparts. This also applies to character wealth rules, where nothing but the rarest or most proscribed items are beyond personal reach. For bigger acquisitions — say, a private army or a rare starship component — players must roll against a “Profit Level” representing the sum of their various holdings and which fluctuates based on the success or failure of their various enterprises.
The default setting of the game, the Koronus Expanse, was directly linked to Dark Heresy’s Calixis Sector by a recently discovered but unstable passage through a pair of warp storms at the edge of Imperial space. Beyond “the Maw,” loom countless unexplored or isolated systems ripe with immense rewards and deadly horrors. The back half of the Rogue Trader manual describes some of the more notable of these locations, from strange human societies to alien pocket empires to hyper-lethal death worlds.
Dark Heresy proved that a Warhammer 40k role-playing game could exist as a cohesive concept, but Rogue Trader is where it truly began to shine. I suspect that’s partly because it focused on something which existed outside the wargaming aspect of the franchise — the only out of the five 40k RPG sibling systems to do so. Space Marines and Inquisitors and Imperial Guardsmen and Chaos Marauders are fine and all, but they’ve also been covered in excruciating detail over the years. Rogue Trader offered something a bit different, a cyber-gothy blend of exploration, commerce, and intrigue conducted by violent narcissists in giant weaponized space-cathedrals.
There’s a sense of open-ended freedom about Rogue Trader which lends itself to all manner of interesting adventure ideas, and the last role-playing game I seriously considered considered running for an actual group of (online) players. Those plans never materialized, but the book remains a most favored bathroom and travel reading selection. It even came with me on my trip to Gettysburg in 2011, and there’s a clover plucked from Little Round Top still pressed between its pages.