The second coming of my Warhammer fandom kicked off with the purchase of the second edition WFRP rulebook a couple weeks after our wedding and staggered along until the vicinity of our tenth anniversary. The purchase and frequent browsing of the tabletop RPG rulebook was the backbone of my renewed interest, but it was supplemented by licensed novels as well as various Warhammer-branded console and computer games. There even a few times when I came close to diving back into the 40k wargame, but lack of funds and the massive collection of mothballed miniatures already collecting dust in my attic held me back.
I wouldn’t call it an all-consuming passion, though I can fix nearly every major event in my life from that period — from the trip to Gettysburg to my dog’s first cancer surgery — to a specific Warhammer RPG publication I happened to be reading at the moment.
The intensity of my interest waned quite a bit by the end of the cycle. The Horus Heresy novels got bogged down in length padding wheelspinning and I quit scoping out publishers’ pages for info about upcoming releases. I didn’t realize Black Crusade was a thing until I got a “you might be interested in” prompt from a online retail portal, and my introduction to Only War…
…came from a non-fandom friend.
The book was the fifth and final component of Fantasy Flight’s 40k RPG line and focused upon the trillion-strong cannon fodder of the Imperial Guard. The Guard were my first and foremost love during my wargaming days, probably because the hordes of expendable troopers and chunky-ass armored columns evoked childhood memories of playing with “boxes of men” on the floor of our North Woburn apartment. My family was an “Army family,” which is something no amount of anti-authoritarian pacifist ideals could fully erase.
Playing a Guard force meant tossing all sentiment aside. When I threw a line platoon into close combat with a rampaging enemy horde, it was about buying time for my tanks to get into position and forcing my opponent to waste a turn hacking their way through a forty-strong meat shield. Only War sought to evoke that sense of disposable pathos on a personal scale.
The game’s mechanics are a lower powered hybrid of those used in Deathwatch and Black Crusade, as befitting a group of expendable schmoes on the front lines of a galactic perma-war. The characters’ regiment determines the starting equipment and general focus, with specialization archetypes available to individual squad members. Line troopers can shift between specializations at certain experience point milestones, while support auxiliaries — such as psykers, tech-priests, and abhuman auxilaries — are locked in by can gain additional bonuses to their characteristics. Each specialization is marked by a set of aptitudes which determine the cost of purchasing various advancement options (and nudge players into following logical development paths).
Gear is distributed, rather than purchased, and subject to the whims of the highly inefficient Imperial bureaucracy. Unlike the honor-bound Space Marine chapters, however, clever guardsmen can resort to guile or outright theft to supplement their kit (and run the risk of getting summarily executed by a Commissar).
The most significant innovation Only War brought to the 40k RPG realm was the use of comrades, essentially stats-free NPCs under the control of their PC siblings-in-arms. Most of the specializations grant players a comrade, who can be used to help enact special abilities in the form of “orders” to provide cover fire, assist in treating an injured character, or act as a spotter for indirect fire attacks. They also offer a handy alternate target to slightly lessen the lethality of life on the battlefields of the Forty-First Century. (Commissars are not granted comrades, but can execute those of other players to help stiffen squad resolve.)
If you couldn’t tell by the title, the Only War is extremely combat-focused. While the setting allows for more in-depth character interactions than Deathwatch and its stick-up-their-asses Space Marines, the entire point of the Imperial Guard is to throw itself into a meat-grinder at the orders of an uncaring absolute dictatorship. This means that the adventure and campaign objectives will be imposed from above with the execution left to the players. It does help to simplify the narrative logistics, but at the risk of getting bogged down in morass of indistinguishable operations and slow attrition. It’s certainly true to the wargaming source material, but I don’t know entertaining it would be over a medium-length RPG campaign.
Like every single other of my 40k RPG purchases, the real selling point was the copious volumes of fluff woven between the actual game mechanics. The core book and two supplement volumes did a great job of spotlighting the vast array of regiments, vehicles, and other details involving the Imperial Guard. A good deal of attention is given to the exclusive Forge World units and gear which hit the scene after I quit playing 40k.
(And thank Nurgle for that, because I’d have bankrupted myself assembling a Death Korps of Krieg detachment.)
Only War and its supplements were the last RPG publications I’ve purchased to date. I don’t anticipate that changing, but at least I ended things on a nostalgically significant high note.