Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay: Dark Heresy

Introduction and Product

The arrival of Dark Heresy was greeted with some excitement; for many years the setting for the Warhammer 40K minature game was considered most opportune for a table-top RPG. As a result there have been a number of games in this setting; Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, Black Crusade and most recently Only War. These are really the same game, kinda-sorta, sharing a great deal of similarity in the rules and should be considered to be a line of related RPGs; Dark Heresy concentrates on Acolytes working for an Inquisitor, Rogue Trader for interstellar semi-legal activity (think Han Solo but with more grit), Deathwatch for Space Marines, Black Crusade, for Chaos-corrupted characters, and Only War (in development) for guardsmen. The production of multiple hefty books in this method could be considered by cynics as part of a continuing strategy to fleece the flock of loyal customers. A more generous assessment would suggest it gives the opportunity for a deep evaluation of each character type and setting. In this instance, I think the cynics are right.

The physical product is a 400 page heavy hardback rulebook, but perhaps insufficiently bound for the weight; it's a good combination of glue and stitching, but handle with care. The text is typically in two-column serif font in full-colour throughout with clear page and chapter markers. The artwork is certainly impressive throughout, with skill and imagination, and with a consistent style for a popular-gothic science fantasy, and usually with some contextual appropriateness. The text provides new levels of verbosity, but comes with a good three page table of contents with sidebar references and four-page index with table references. The writing style itself uncomfortably jumps between the informal and formal without a real evocative sense of the setting. The thirteen chapters of the book, reasonably well ordered, covers character generation and experience, skills and talents, equipment, psychic powers, setting and play information (including aliens and other antagonists), and a sample scenario "Illumination".

Character Creation and Development

There are five stages to character generation; home world generation, characteristics, career, experience, equipment, and background. Homeworld is determined either by a random roll or choice, with each selection (Feral, Hive, Imperial, Void) setting career path limits, along with automatic background skills and talents. For example, a character from a Feral World, may take the assassin, guardsman, psyker, or scum paths, receives a regional language skill, and the iron stomach, primitive, rite of passage, and wilderness savvy talents. These are not necessarily balanced; those originating from the Void have somewhat greater advantages to a Hive-born character, for example, and by mid-level onwards psyker's will be increasingly powerful relative to other PCs.

There are nine characteristics (Weapon Skill, Ballistic Skill, Toughness, Agility, Intelligence, Perception, Willpower, Fellowship), rated from 00 to 100. It remains a rather horrible historical feature that skills with weapons and ballistics are counted as "characteristics". Nevertheless, all characteristics are are based on a 2d10 roll, arranged according to the player's wishes, with one optional re-roll (which must be kept), and with some fairly modest homeworld modifiers, typically +20, then added. Characteristic bonuses are typically rated at the decile magnitude (e.g., a characteristic of 38 is a bonus of +3). The character's Agility bonus determines their movement rate (average of 18 metres per round, running - quite quick!). Starting Wounds are based on a d5 roll plus a base value according to home-world.

There are eight potential career paths, limited by homeworld, and determined either by the player's choice or random roll. Their names are fairly self-descriptive; Adept (scholar), Arbitrator (law-enforcer), Assassin, Cleric, Guardsman, Psyker, Scum, Tech-Priest (preserver of technology). The career paths also establish several starting skills, talents, and equipment. Each starting character begins with 400 experience points to spend on career paths (below). Characters also receive a variety of random rolls to determine build, starting age, colouration (skin, eyes, hair), physical quirks, social background, and a random divination, which give a highly effect on character abilities.

Characters advance through a career with an experience point system which determines rank with a couple of path choices. Ranks also determine the availability and cost of skills and talents which are purchased by experience points, with the latter typically being somewhat more cost efficient. Improvements in characteristics can also be purchased with experience points, but only within a fairly limited increase. The net effect is that the player has to keep track of two experience point tracks (points acquired, points spent). There is also the issue that some skills available earlier in a career are not available in later ranks without a special "elite advance". It is true when the game describes the career path system as "simple", but it is certainly more complex than it needs to be, far longer that it needs to be, and overall is an example of inefficient design and poor workmanship.

Skill, Talents and Psychic Powers

There is around fifty core skills in Dark Heresy differentiated between basic and advanced skills, designed with a simple "characteristic plus skill bonus" method, with three skill mastery levels (0, +10. +20), which makes skills highly characteristic dependent. All basic skills can be attempted with at half the related characteristic level. Skill resolution is a simple roll-under percentile die roll with situational modifiers, which introduces some difficulties with the fairly low characteristic and skill caps. The skills themselves have a modest bias towards the setting and character context and are typically described in a few paragraphs without example difficulty levels.

Talents are not dissimilar to the Feats of d20 games; they provide a special bonus to activities that is not represented by a skill test, and are come with prerequisites, either of characteristics or other talents. There are about 130 talents altogether, the overwhelming majority for combat-based activities, although psychics will appreciate the Psy Rating talents which improve bonuses to powers. There is also a small number of psychological bonuses, and machine empathy talents. The character sheet that comes with the game is woefully inadequate to fully list the talents that characters will develop even by mid-level.

A chapter out of sequence in this review, psychic powers come in two flavours; minor and major disciplines. The resolution method for both consists of a rolling against a target number based on a the level of psychic power talent plus willpower bonus. There are some thirty minor powers, initially picked up at low levels with low target numbers. There are ten powers in each of the more powerful psychic disciplines (biomancy, divination, pyromancy, telekinetics, telepathy). These have a higher target number, but once a character has all the powers within a discipline the target number is reduced by 5, to around the requirement of a minor power. Because psychic powers tap the warp, which is intrinsically chaotic, there is a modest chance that the use of such powers will result in a disturbing psychic phenomena - up to demonic possession to the psychic and even a rift which consumes the psychic.

Armoury, Resolution Methods, and Combat

As the title suggests, the Armoury chapter has a heavy orientation on military equipment, appropriate to the game. There is some fifty options for ranged weapons of all sorts, and around twenty melee weapons, plus close to thirty armour types. All of these come with quite an array of options. In addition to this there is a smaller selection of clothing items, drugs and consumables, utility tools, and a handful of cybernetics, full of science fantasy gothic flavour. Income is measured in "thrones" per month as a unit of currency with a career-based income structure (e.g., Clerics earn ten times the base, unranked, income per month to Scum). Finding items is a task or time-based challenge in its own right, with a difficulty based on general availability and population size. Craftsmanship also has some fairly realistic price multipliers as well. Most characters will find that they are surviving, but itching for more money.

The chapter on "Playing The Game" starts off with the simple, roll-under percentile resolution method and the influence of characteristics on various tests. Test difficulty is reduced by one level (all the way to Easy, at +30) for each assistant in a test. There are multiple degrees of success and failure based on every ten points from the chance of success. Characters also come with Fate Points as determined at character generation and with very slow increases. Fate Points may be used during the game for re-rolling Tests, counting as 10 in initiative, adding a degree of success, etc., and may be permanently used when it is required to save a character's life. Investigation and research tests have modifiers based on time, difficulty, and complexity. Positioned after combat resolution are various rules for lifting and movement, including encumbrance, climbing, flying and swimming. This said, the entirety of non-combat resolution methods comes to around eleven pages with twenty-five or so dedicated to war and injury.

The combat system is resolved in five second rounds. A second initiative roll is used for an entire encounter, based on 1d10 + Agility bonus. If a surprise round is in order attackers receive a +30 bonus for that round without response or reaction. Actions during a round include full actions (all out attack, charge, disengage, run, etc), half actions (standard attack), free actions, extended actions, and reactions (such as dodge, parry). A character only receives one reaction per round. As example common actions with effects on combat chances, a full automatic burst weapon receives a +20 bonus to the skill test, with one hit for every degree of success. A semi-auto burst receives a +10 bonus and one hit for every two degrees of success. Both these actions increase the chance of a weapon jam from an already high 96+ to 94+.

A successful hit has location determined by reversing the unmodified die roll and comparison with the hit location table. Damage is based on a d10, open-ended, roll plus modifiers, and applied by subtracting armour and the target's Toughness bonus. High-tech weapons also have a penetration value which reduces the effectiveness of armour; the classic Warhammer problem of the high-Toughness naked Dwarf has not entirely gone away. Damage is subtracted from wounds, and once a character goes into negative then locations suffer colourful critical damage. Note that this means that a character can take all their damage to their legs (for example) and then suffer critical wounds to their previously undamaged arms.

Running The Game and Setting

A hefty component, somewhat under half, of the book is dedicated to setting and play information. This includes The Game Master chapter, Life in the Imperium, The Inquisition, The [default] Calaxis Sector, the Aliens, Heretics, and Antagonists Chapter, and even the sample scenario, Illumination. Yet for all this size, there is not a great deal to report in proportion, especially in the first three of these chapters. It is not that the writing or the content is bad as such, it's just much of it is repetitive, obvious, tangential, and extraneous - and all of that takes up a great deal of space with little substance in return. Apart from some fairly obvious advice on running the game, the GM's chapter does have some useful information concerning experience point rewards, results from interaction skills, insanity, corruption and fear (too many damn tables!), and how to create pacts with demons.

The overall setting is very well known; popular-gothic science fantasy, very similar to 2000AD's story of Torquemada and Nemesis The Warlock, with a dash of Rogue Trooper thrown in. A neo-fascist pure (*cough*) human empire in the forty-first millenium, understanding technology only in a ritualistic fashion (a deeply silly but very popular meme in science fantasy), is on the brink of collapse as it is confronted by aliens, heretics, and demons (oh my!). The human empire (Imperius Dominantus) stretches through a vast arm of the galaxy with unnumbered worlds and beyond. In this context the PCs take the role as a member of the Inquisition dedicated to rooting out heresy, mutants, xenomorphs and chaotic creatures. A high-level breakdown of the Imperium's governance and the Inquisition's orders and factions is provided, but it is largely "fluff" - a word that doesn't sound quite right in the context - heavy on the adjectival and adverbal, light on the nounal and verbal.

This contrasts with The Calaxis Sector chapter. Whilst still overly wordy, it also manages to include a fair amount of useful game content as well. Some major planets and cities are described with a modicum of detail, along with various power groups and major personalities among the Inquisition, and it is all topped with a description of a doom-laden prophecy, giving the area an extra sense of foreboding. Similar comments can be made about the Aliens, Heretics, and Antagonists chapter. Unusually for this book, this chapter is far too short, but it does give a lot of example beings according to the chapter title, plus additional traits and mutations for construction according to one's own imagination.

The final chapter is an introductory multi-session scenario, entitled "Illumination". It serves quite well for the purposes of introducing the setting, and even the main themes, however it does feel very contrived with the amount of initiative offered to the PCs somewhat lacking. Interestingly, it also provides feeds for further development once complete, which is a nice touch.


Over the past year I've played in a Dark Heresy game and have a small mountain of supplementary texts with the impending promise I might actually run a few sessions myself. There is no doubt whatsoever that this game scores fairly on the "fun" quotient (mostly due to the themes) and, of course, despite some arm's length silliness, the setting is kinda "cool" as well even if I do twitch at the notion of 40,000 years in the future. The production values are very high of course, the layout and readability are good, and the system is combines both the simplicity of a roll-under mechanic with potential for sophistication with degrees of success.

However there are some major downsides to the product as well, the most glaring being how little one receives for the four hundred page monster that takes up a sizeable chunk of your bookshelf. It is possible of course to have a completely different set of rules for potential PCs, such as the WW line of books for Vampire, Werewolf, and etc., but they're highly location and even ontologically divergent. It is really not acceptable to produce a book of such an enormous size and provide so little scope of potential character types and play. Further, even within that narrow focus, there is real lack of content to fluffiness. The theme of a grim, merciless world of impending disaster should be something that one generates in their own imagination from reading about the world the character lives in and what they do in that world; it doesn't need to be repeated ad nauseaum; to use a classic phrase: Show, don't tell.

As a result, I have little problem handing the game an excellent 4/5 for style, only 2/5 for substance.

Style: 1 + .7 (layout) + .9 (art) + .7 (coolness) + .6 (readability) + .7 (product) = 4.6

Substance: 1 + .3 (content) + .1 (text) + .5 (fun) + .4 (workmanship) + .6 (system) = 2.9

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