Wednesday, September 12, 2012
I call it an "important" book because I think Rogue Trader, as the inaugural volume of the larger Warhammer 40,000 game line, kicked off something that's had a lasting impact on the hobby. For one, Warhammer 40,000 is, like Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire, one of those properties that has some currency outside of the geek echo chamber. Not only are their 40K video games, but a great many malls across North America have Games Workshop stores filled with painted miniatures and terrain on display. On most weekends, there are demos being run and I've seen with my own two eyes how attractive the game is to kids of a certain age, who flock to the store to watch it being played. In some respects, it reminds me of how I used to view the hobby when I was younger, when going to a hobby shop meant, among other things, watching the older guys play and wishing that I could be part of their adventures.
But, as I said, I didn't notice Rogue Trader in 1987; it'd be quite a few years before I started to do so, by which point it had already become a genuine "phenomenon." It'd be several more years still before I had the chance to look at a copy of the book that started it all and, I have to admit, I can completely understand why it became so popular. Though, at base, it's little more than a skirmish-level science fantasy miniatures game, a great deal of attention was devoted to its far future setting. Indeed, more than half of the book is devoted to detailing what it calls "The Age of the Imperium," when humanity, under the rule of its God Emperor, contends with a variety of alien races for control of the galaxy. These alien races draw from both fantasy and science fiction ideas, which I think is part of their appeal. They are familiar enough to be convenient points of entry into a strange and dark vision of the future.
Even today, darkness -- or "grim darkness," I suppose -- is what 40K is known for and I think there's a good reason for that. Rogue Trader posits a future in which "there is only war" and even the ostensible "good guys" of the setting, the Imperium, are nasty and brutal. In many ways, it's a nigh-perfect example of what we, on this side of the Atlantic, saw as "British Fantasy." At the same time, Rogue Trader doesn't revel in its darkness. Rather, it presents it matter of factly, in a kind of resigned "that's just the way it is" fashion that is strangely compelling. Furthermore, it's also written with humor (albeit of a black sort at times) so that its darkness, while present, isn't oppressive. In fact, there are even glimmers of hope here and there, peeking through the gloom.
Among those glimmers are the eponymous rogue traders -- "vociferous Space Marine leaders, influential Navigators, liberal-minded Inquisitors and rebellion Imperial Commanders" -- who've been tasked by the Imperium to explore the unknown reaches of the galaxy in a quest for knowledge, resources, and materiel for use in the Imperium's wars. The game assumes that its battle scenarios take places against this backdrop. It's very clever, I think, since it provides a good excuse to keep battles small and ever-changing, as the rogue traders, with their limited resources, go from world to world on their quest.
What's fascinating about Rogue Trader is how much like a roleplaying game it seems. Unlike many wargames, there's an explicit referee (or gamesmaster), who adjudicates the rules in play. Likewise, because the scale is so small, the book can concentrate on little details, such as the various types of armor, weapons, psychic powers, etc. that might be less useful in games involving more miniatures per side. Likewise, the game includes rules for "personalities," named units representing heroes and commanders with unique abilities that can improve over time. Considering that roleplaying grew out of miniatures wargaming, it's no surprise that latter day miniatures wargames might borrow elements from RPGs. Even so, it's hard for me not to look at Rogue Trader and wonder why it wasn't released as a roleplaying game -- except perhaps that, even in 1987, there was probably more money to be made in miniatures wargaming.
Given how expensive it is to get into Warhammer 40,000, I can't say I'm sorry I never paid much attention to its original appearance, but I nevertheless can't deny that I've always found the setting of the game pretty intriguing, especially once I got the chance to see it in its ur-form, before it had decades of development and changes. It's definitely one of the great creations of the wider hobby.