Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Rogue Trader: Gothic Baroque Space Piracy for Fun and Profit (Part 1 of 2)

Rogue Trader cover, from the Fantasy Flight Games site. Artist: Andrea Uderzo

I love the Warhammer 40,000 universe. I really dig the epic scale of it, the grim feel of constant danger, the unabashedly gothic design of everything. But I always thought that, given a chance to play a Warhammer 40,000 pen-and-paper RPG, I would jump at the chance to be an Inquisitor. Playing as a badass religious fanatic who hunts down the demonic enemies of mankind sounds right up my alley. But when I decided to buy one of Fantasy Flight's Warhammer 40,000 RPGs, I ended up choosing Rogue Trader over the Inquisitor game, Dark Heresy.

The reason for that has a lot to do with the image above. Before I saw that image, I had always thought of Rogue Traders as reckless fortune seekers who explore beyond the borders of the Imperium, only to inevitably uncover something that should have been left buried, get wiped out, and need the Inquisition and/or the Space Marines to come clean up the mess.

But then I saw the image above and something clicked.

I realized that there is more to being a Rogue Trader. I saw this rogue trader captain standing stand on his bridge's command-pulpit, with an ornate jacket whose braided epaulets almost reach its enormous cuffs, flanked by a cold and deadly warrior and a techno-mutant Navigator, holding a map leading to danger and riches where "X" marks the spot. I love things that are gothic, baroque, in space, or piratical, and a Rogue Trader is a gothic baroque space pirate. I want to be one.

Some Rogue Trader images take the whole "Space Pirate" thing further than others. Artist: Diego Gisbert Llorens

The Warhammer 40,000 universe is a grim, dark place. In fact, I suspect that the term "grimdark" was originally coined to describe Warhammer 40,000. All across the Imperium of Man, countless humans live, toil, and die to serve the Emperor on his Golden Throne on distant, Holy Terra. In the Dark Millennium, where knowledge and innovation have given way to superstition and ritual. The great machines of the past are the domain of tech-priests, who chant supplication to the machine spirits while trying to repair machines they no longer possess the knowledge to build. The theocratic agents of the Ecclesiarchy prowl the worlds of the Imperium, ever vigilant for the mutant, the traitor, and the heretic, who at any moment could open the way for demons to pour through from the Warp into our reality.

The various core rulebooks for the Warhammer 40,000 roleplaying game allow players to take on various roles within this universe. I have already mentioned Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader, which allow players to be members of an Inquisitor's retinue or a Rogue Trader and his/her most trusted officers; and there is also Only War, where players are soldiers in the Imperial Guard; Deathwatch, where players are superhuman Space Marines; and Black Crusade, where players are Chaos cultists.

Of those, I think Rogue Trader sounds like the most fun. As great as it would be to be an Inquisitor, playing a roleplaying game where everyone is an Inquisitorial acolyte sounds less fun to me, because it seems less special to be a terrifyingly fanatical religious badass if everyone else is one, too. I can imagine that being an Imperial Guardsman must be cool cool in a gritty, Dirty Dozen kind of way, but you pretty much have to follow orders all day because you're only soldiers. Being in the Deathwatch sounds like it combines the two, since Space Marines are both ultra-fanatics as well as super soldiers. As for Chaos, I personally would rather not play a game where you play as these miserable pawns of demonic forces.

Being a Rogue Trader and his or her crew allows players to engage in the kinds of activities that roleplayers love best. You can explore the unknown, fight monsters, uncover lost tombs and cities and gain ancient treasure. Just keep in mind that you'll be doing so on an epic scale. While adventurers in Dungeons & Dragons may base themselves in a town where they can stock up and rest, explorers in Rogue Trader bring a city with them wherever they go in the form of their vessel with its crew in the tens of thousands.

Because the explorers are united only by a yearning for exploration and a love of money, they cover a broad spectrum of possibilities. If you want to play as a religious fanatic, you can be a Missionary and spread the God-Emperor's cult to worlds isolated since the Golden Age of human expansion. If you want to be a badass soldier, you can play as an Arch-Militant, who can be a former Imperial Guardsman if you like. And if you absolutely must court the dangers of Chaos, you can do so as the Astropath Transcendant, with the added bonus of being a servant of the Imperium instead of Chaos, which allows you to fight for the protagonists of the Warhammer 40,000 universe (there are no real good guys) while still being almost as creepy.

Even though I have no definite plans for setting up a game, I still enjoy imagining the adventures of the Rogue Trader and his/her band of cut-throats. The Rogue Trader coolly negotiates with a burned-out Eldar pariah for a treasure map leading to a newly rediscovered world of cyclopean ruins. Or perhaps the Navigator, with gritted teeth and third eye blazing, fights to guide the groaning vessel through a howling warp storm. Or maybe the arch-militant charges through the decks of the ship, barking orders to the crew to fall in behind and stand by to repel boarders. Or an astropath transcendant, newly arrived in a mysteriously empty space station, is overcome with visions and voices nobody else can hear. And of course, all of the explorers, gathered around a wooden table in a space station tavern, raise tankards and belt out a space shanty, though the cyborg tech-priest explorator sings in autotune.

A Rogue Trader is the type of person who can look at the Warhammer 40,000 universe and say, yes, I think I can turn that to my advantage. Just give me a ship and a star to sail her by, and I will make my fortune. And if that ship is two kilometers long and shaped like a cathedral, and if that star is actually the psychic scream of the Emperor's deified corpse, well, you work with what you've got.

1 comment:

  1. For me, one of the most restrictive things about W40K has been the feeling of a lack of freedom. Although Inquisitors on remote worlds far from the heart of the Imperium might have a degree of autonomy (particularly when they're corrupt, or practice a twisted version of Emperor-worship), most humans in that world either follow the Emperor's will (filtered through several hundred channels of communication, of course), are completely isolated, or are under the influence of Chaos. I feel that living the life of the Rogue Trader is one of the few ways you can make your own fate in the grim darkness of the far future.

    So when you're stacked up on a towering hill made of dead mutants on the war-scarred streets of some hive world, your jurry-rigged chainsword smoking and your bolt pistol's barrel red-hot, with countless more mutants clawing their way up the hill only to get a face full of exploding bolter shell while you concentrate on shooting and posing like a boss at the same time, all while you and your closest friends slowly fill the room with shell casings, you can say with satisfaction: "Hail to the king, baby."