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Dark Heresy is the first official RPG set in Games Workshops (GW) Warhammer 40,000 universe. It’s a grim and brutal sci-fi universe of unending war between the galaxy-spanning but decaying Imperium of Man and its enemies within and without- traitorous heretics, bloodthirsty aliens (Xenos) and corrupt Daemons of Chaos. Many older GW fans have been waiting for such an RPG since the late 80’s and the original 40K book – Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader (1987). The interest is due to its eclectic mix of dystopian science fiction, heavy metal attitude, incredible artwork and one of the most developed and explored backgrounds of any fictional universe. In 2006, Games Workshop announced they planned to produce 3 RPG’s for the 40K universe- Dark Heresy, to be followed by 2 games with more powerful PC’s – Rogue Trader (Merchants and Privateers) and Deathwatch (Space Marine superheroes). This game was initially designed and developed by Black Industries (BI), a subsidiary of Games Workshop who announced it would be out in 2006. This was delayed by over a year and the first rulebooks (200 Limited Editions which sold out in under 6 minutes!) came out in Dec 2007, followed by the main release in January 2008. Despite this print run also selling out a few days later, Black Industries was closed by Games Workshop as it struggled financially and the rights licensed to Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) in February 2008. FFG have promised to honour the original publication plan of 3 40K RPG’s with their own line of supplements.
The setting of Dark Heresy is, as I mentioned before, dystopian sci-fi -our descendents 38,000 years later have forgotten much of scientific reason and method and have adopted a fascist, mediaeval, feudal outlook on the universe – they now hold technology in religious awe and veneration, tended to by the secretive Tech Priests of Mars, the Mechanicum. The Emperor of the Imperium has been held on the edge of death for 10,000 years – kept from final death by the sacrifices of thousands of psychics (themselves hated as witches) brought to him from across the Imperium. Should he ever die, then the psychic beacon which allows humanity to traverse the Warp (hyperspace) will go out and a million human worlds will now be isolated from each other forevermore. Were this not enough, Mankind has explored the stars and found the aliens living out there to be generally hostile – (not always helped by mankind’s last ‘Manifest Destiny’ push 10,000 years ago) from the green skinned, savage Ork hordes, sadistic space elves, to the implacable Terminator-like Necrons and the obligatory Alien-like Tyranids who seek only to eat and absorb all organic life. As a response, the Imperium is a fascist and xenophobic society which distrusts change (since it’s always for the worst), outsiders (since they may be a threat), and dissent (since the existing hierarchy would lose power). Finally, its been discovered that Hell is real- an alternative dimension of Chaos, called the Warp and ruled by 4 Great Chaos Gods seeks to corrupt and damn the souls of man, the only protection against Chaos is absolute and unquestioning faith in mankind’s only God- the Emperor on Terra. Any other belief is heretical and may lead to the corruption or damnation of entire planets if it’s allowed to spread.
And that is the premise of Dark Heresy- the PC’s play Acolytes in the Holy Inquisition – an organisation tasked with rooting out heresy, deviance, mutation, alien influence, or Daemonic corruption in the worlds of the Imperium. Inquisitors themselves are powerful and terrible individuals given huge authority and freedom within the normally confining rules of the Imperium- to the extent that a single Inquisitor can order the planetary genocide of all life on a world with an Exterminatus order. However that is one of the original sources of controversy with Dark Heresy. Many people (including myself) came to it, expecting to be able to play Inquisitors in the mould of Eisenhorn or Ravenor or even Jaq Draco- kicking daemonic ass and destroying planets at will. That wasn’t the intention (nor was it advertised as such in fairness) of Black Industries who have created a game where relatively low powered Acolytes instead investigate mysteries and leads for which their Inquisitor is interested in but doesn’t have the time to give it personal attention. Unsurprisingly since Mike Mason was the BI manager and he has been a long time ‘Call of Cthulhu’ fan (I first met him when he was publishing his “The Whisperer” Cthulhu fanzine) then Dark Heresy can be seen as “Call of Cthulhu in SPACE” with a similar focus on human fragility – physical and mental as the heroes struggle to stave off inhuman, unstoppable forces for a few more years before the inevitable destruction of mankind.
But since this is 40K, Acolytes can also vent their righteous fury with explosive boltgun fire, flamers, lascannons and whirling chainsword carnage- at least upon human gangers, cultists and the more humanoid aliens. One other thing that this game leaves open is exactly how ruthless and grimdark you want your games to be. The 40Kverse has seen considerable shifts in tone, emphasis and detail over the years- originally agents of the Inquisition could be seen as ruthless and brutal Gestapo agents ensuring loyalty to an overtly fascist regime. Now Dan Abnetts popular Inquisition novels portray them more as heroic pulp protagonists up against cackling, immortal masterminds and cataclysmic forces. Fortunately the setting, and the game are broad enough churches as to support nearly all the interpretations of the Imperium and Inquisition that 20 years of universe building has thrown up.
Dark Heresy takes as its bailiwick a single sector of the vast Imperium- the Calixis Sector. Founded relatively recently by Imperial standards, a mere 2,000 years ago, it was carved out from xenos hands and the anti-Imperial Adranti League and their vile biological and genetic experiments. It stands on the edge of the galaxy and Imperium, abutting the Halo Stars of the galactic Rim. The sector is plagued by a mysterious and spectral ‘Tyrant Star’ – a black sun that manifests in different systems and whose light leads to planetary madness, rioting, mutation and geological disturbance. The mystery of this Tyrant Star is at the centre of many Inquisitorial investigations and the solution and explanation behind it is for each GM to decide. The planets vary from quiet Agri-worlds to immense mining worlds, with the usual giga-populated Hiveworlds and 3 isolationist Mechanicum forgeworlds and more.
The system is a relatively straightforward Percentile system. (in fact the game only requires you use d10 and no other dice type). Characters have the traditional type of attributes, familiar to those who have played Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay – Ballistic Skill , Weapon Skill, Strength, Toughness, Agility, Intelligence, Perception, Willpower and Fellowship which range in general from 20-60%. Skills are linked to attributes and generally success is measured by rolling under the associated attribute on percentile dice.
This leads to one of the main complaints about the system- “How can I shoot someone when my Ballistic Skill is 30%? I’m going to miss/fail/whiff most of the time!”. And this is a valid complaint if you are comparing it to say Call of Cthulhu where you could easily have an 80% in shotguns as a starting character. But unlike Cthulhu, Dark Heresy has a lot more modifiers that you can bring to bear – be it taking time to aim (+10% per half action aiming) equipment (+10% to aimed shots with red dot sights or Accurate weapons), closing the range (+30% for close range!) which means that if your character correctly positions himself and collects the bonuses within the mechanics then an 80% chance of hitting is entirely achievable. But its fair to say that if you want a simple system and don’t want to work the modifiers, then perhaps some of the complexity of Dark Heresy isn’t for you.
Combat is fairly brutal and unforgiving – it’s quite easy for a PC to be killed if they lack good armour, high toughness, or simply run up against heavy weapons or the nastier monsters. To avoid the anguish of constant character creation, PC’s have Fate Points – usually 2-4. In a session they can spend them to heal wounds, reroll failed dice rolls etc to keep them being heroic or succeeding when they really need to. But they can also burn a Fate Point (reducing them by 1 permanently) to avoid death or maiming- essentially giving you some ‘cats lives’ to keep your PC in the game. This is also a game where tactics like covering fire, taking cover, ganging up on opponents are all rewarded mechanically- so playing smart Acolytes can make a huge difference to your survivability as well. This is also a game where Critical Hits have their own amusing and gory tables which can result in your head exploding like a ripe watermelon, people slipping up on your lifeblood or your bone shrapnel taking out someone’s eye.
Corruption by the Warp and Daemons is also tracked (it can lead to physical mutation- not good in a society where mutants are burned at stakes) and the game also has an Sanity mechanic- encountering terrifying aliens and cosmic evil can also drive the weak-willed mad in a variety of interesting ways- again think Cthulhu.
Overall, I find the system fairly easy and functional to play – it’s a little simpler than say D&D 3.5 and probably on par with Savage Worlds. Probabilities are easy to understand though the GM has to work with the players in describing the environment and allowing them to take advantage of available modifiers in a fire fight. PC’s can also be made more competent and powerful simply by giving more starting XP- normally they begin with 400 xp, but I started my group on 1,000xp to round out some gaps in their skills, and once you get to 2-4,000 xp they are very competent indeed.
Looking at the books individually, I should mention that all the Fantasy Flight releases are all full colour hardbacks with a mix of original and GW archive artwork. Black Industries released softback monochrome versions of the Inquisitors Handbook and Purge the Unclean- while the text is identical, they don’t quite hold up as well as their hardback successors. Don’t let anyone sell you them unless they take that into consideration with a discount. The books are filled with art and laid out well with contents pages, but only the rulebook has an Index. All of the books have extensive game fiction in the form of in game documents, notes from Inquisitors etc. Not actual short stories in the White Wolf sense, but plenty of excerpts and extracts to flesh out and add colour to each subject.
The Dark Heresy rulebook is a hefty tome of nearly 400, full colour pages priced at (£35/$60). It contains the rules, background, monsters and antagonists and an introductory adventure for the game. On the player side it has Character generation (you roll up stats and can randomly generate at nearly every step, though selection is recommended) which lets you choose a character from a variety of backgrounds – Feral Worlds (primitive societies without high technology) Hive Worlds (over-populated urbanised worlds) Imperial Worlds (moderately populated, high tech worlds) and the Void Born (those strange outsiders born and raised aboard starships and space stations and from the following Careers- Guardsmen (warriors both in and out of the Imperial Guard), Clerics (clergy of the Imperium, skilled at moving crowds and inspiring faith and Xenophobia), Assassins (solitary ranged and melee killers who specialise in taking out a target), Scum (thugs, crooks, hustlers and bounty hunters), Arbitrators (Cops who enforce brutal laws with shockmauls and shotguns), Adepts (the scholars and scribes of the immense Adminstratum that runs the Imperium) Tech Priests (the scientists and engineers of a feudal society that distrusts technology), and Psykers (psychics hated and feared by the populace).
The Careers system allows you to pick the relevant skills and talents you desire from a menu, paying for each advance with XP. When your total XP reaches certain levels, then a new rank in the Career opens up. Talents are similar to D&D feats- they allow you break the usual rules in small ways or do something unusual or specialise in. You get cool sounding Talents like Bulging Biceps (shoot big guns unbraced, Arnie-style) Flagellant (whip yourself religiously to strengthen your mental fortitude), and Into the Jaws of Hell (lead men against terrifying monsters or heavy machine gun fire without them needing to check morale).
There is an extensive Psyker section with assorted minor powers and 5 Major Psychic Disciplines like Biomancy, Telepathy, Telekinesis, Pyromancy and Divination. A large equipment section gives a large selection of guns, armour, goods, services, cybernetics, drugs, lucky charms and other gear for your PC’s to pick from, including such favourites (when they can afford or salvage them) as Power Armour, boltguns, Power swords, chainswords and Meltaguns.
GMwise, the book has several chapters on the setting (both the Imperium at large, the role of the Inquisition and then specifics on the planets and organisations of the Calixis Sector. These are great, introductory chapters that will introduce even 40K virgins to the details of the setting. There then follows sections on Daemonic Pacts (always fun to tempt PC’s with), madness and damnation. There is a chapter on Aliens, Heretics and Antagonists which has write ups and stats for everything from a noble House guard to a Grox to a Servitor to a Cult Magus to a Bound Daemonhost. Finally it ends with a railroaded adventure called ’Illumination’ set on the Feral world of Iocanthus as evil portents and daemonic activity plague a newly built cathedral to the Emperor. As with many starting adventures, this is an intentionally linear plot to help a starting GM get through a set plot whilst he learns the mechanics. More advanced GM’s might well give this a miss and run Edge of Darkness instead (described below).
Overall, this weighty and hefty tome is a comprehensive and beautiful rulebook. The only major thing missing from it is vehicle rules (starships are more a background setting at this level of play) which were cut due to space and released as a free download (here – http://www.darkreign40k.com/downloads/gaming-aids/dark-heresy-apocrypha-vehicles/details-2.html). This book also misses out on some of the things many players wanted too- rules to play Inquisitors, stats for the common 40K wargame opponents such as Tau, Necrons, Orks, Eldar, Tyranids and Space Marines etc. But what is included is more than enough to run a game of domestic Imperium security with its concentration on Cults, heretics and daemons. In terms of production quality its simply fantastic, filled with evocative artwork, nice layout and a decent index. Occasional typos and errata are present (as they are with every RPG) but some of them were cleaned up in the FFG version of the rulebook. Rates a 5 out of 5 in terms of necessity and quality.
Game Masters Kit (32 page booklet & screen, £12/$20) A heavy and thick 4 panel card GM’s screen with nearly all the useful tables you’ll need. The 8 pages of Critical hits couldn’t be fitted on the screen, but the pages are referenced for quick lookups in the rulebook. Its accompanied by a short booklet allowing you to generate Xeno beasts and a section on poisons missing from the rulebook. It also has an interesting but deadly adventure called “Maggots in the Meat” which has the PC’s try to infiltrate a besieged Musket powder tech level city as cannon balls fly overhead in order to investigate some mysterious deaths. Rates a 3 out of 5 as I did get some use out of the screen when initially running my campaign.
The Inquisitors Handbook (256 pages, £30/$50) is a big book of player add-ons and power ups. Feel your character doesn’t have enough stats? Buy a background package with your XP to up some key skills and stats. Guns not powerful enough? There are several hundred new weapons and gear to shop for, including Graviton guns, Eviscerators and Rosarius! Want a power-armoured kick-ass class with special Faith abilities? This book has a new Career – the Battle-Nuns, the Adepta Sororitas Sisters of Battle, a powerful new Career. If that’s not your poison, you can buff up with the equivalent of Prestige Classes- alternative or specialist careers which again help the discerning player specialise their PC such as Commissars (OK but not brilliant), Bounty Hunters, near-Jedi Pyskers with forceswords and the like. In essence this book is a players guide for upgunning your PC with more careers, equipment and starting packages that can help overcome some of the low level incompetency issues. As a GM resource the specialist equipment can be as useful for memorable opponents in unusual environments like mining colonies, Starships/space stations or feral worlds- its organised into what different planets/situations might have which is useful. Also it serves to give example and encourage the GM to design appropriate background packages and alternate careers for their campaigns, though no specific rules are given to balance them. Overall a very useful book for players but not absolutely necessary – 4 out of 5
Disciples of the Dark Gods (238 pages, £30/$50) is a grab bag of antagonists, plot hooks, background villainy and heresy for GM’s. Filled with alien conspiracies, ancient heresies, daemonic cults and the Top Seven of the Inquisitions Most Wanted enemies in the Calixis sector it is a brilliant book for the GM looking for a campaign or adventure idea along with stats and new monsters. There are the rules for Psychic Untouchables (not as powerful as you’d imagine), a Twin Peaks Red Lodge-like Murder Room which turns men into serial killers, a Tzeentchian carnivale of horrors and freaks, Alien Bodysnatchers and tonnes of other good stuff. There is also a quite social adventure called “House of Dust and Ashes” which revolves around the estate auction of a Rogue Trader Erasmus Haarlock in a Gothic crematorium- which serves to re-unite past opponents and kick off the Haarlock Legacy series as a sort of Prelude. Overall, this book is as important and useful for equipping GM’s for a DH campaign as the Inquisitors Handbook is for players. 4 out of 5.
Creatures Anathaema (144 pages, £28/$40) is a monster book for Dark Heresy. Whilst Disciples had plenty of monsters and villains included amongst the plots and background, Creatures Anathaema focuses instead just on what is commonly known about assorted xenos, aliens, daemons and creations of Forbidden Science. While such cool new monstrosities as the Fenksworld Pit Thing, Sinophian Boreworms and Praedertorius of the Starry Order (Hounds of Tindalos), most GM’s will want this book for the old 40K favourites that it stats out like Eldar Rangers and Dire Avengers, Genestealers and Lictors, Ork Boyz, Nobz and Gretchin, Enslavers and Astral Spectres. Rates a 3 out of 5 as it still doesn’t cover some popular bad guys like Chaos Marines or Necrons.
Character Folio (24 pages, £10/$17) – a super duper character sheet. Nice if you like that sort of thing. 1 out of 5.
Edge of Darkness (46 pages, PDF only, Free to Download from FFG here http://www.fantasyflightgames.com/ffg_content/dark-heresy/pdf/edge-of-darkness-(web).pdf ) This is an excellent non-linear sandbox style of adventure which is perfect for beginning Acolytes. It sends them to the depths of a Hive with a decaying dome called the Coscarla division. Someone has been conducting blasphemous biological research here, with people going missing, ghosts stalking the night-cycle and the locals deeply scared. It reminded me very much of getting off Joe Sargents bus in Chaosiums Innsmouth campaign frankly, which is high praise. I’ve run it and it is very good, producing many memorable moments. I’d recommend this as everyone’s starting adventure as its superior to the corebooks railroaded adventure. Especially given its value for money quotient is near infinite, I rate it a 5 out of 5
Shattered Hope (34 pages, PDF now, originally a demo booklet, Free to download from FFG here – http://new.fantasyflightgames.com/edge_news.asp?eidn=142) this was the Dark Heresy demo adventure that came out in 2007 before the game was released. Very much a ‘training wheels’ exercise, I’d only recommend it for GM’s to run if they have never run a game before and want an easy start as it is the definition of a linear dungeon crawl. It serves its purpose in taking you through different types of test, and setting up some simple combats but lacks any roleplaying or tactical depth. Its only strength (other than being free) is that you can run it as a useful 2-3 hour demo if you are recruiting new players at a con or game store- 2 out of 5.
Purge The Unclean (144 pages, £20/$40) – an anthology set of 3 very different and mostly unrelated adventures (a single cult connects them, but blink and you’ll miss it) set around the Calixis sector. The first “Rejoice For Thou Art True” essentially parodies a Scientology-like cult as it tries to become an official, mainstream Imperial Cult and a missing noble girl who bought their Kool-Aid. I’ve run it and it’s a very social adventure, with lots of parties and interactions with Hive nobles and a distinct noirish feel in certain parts of the mystery. There are some cool revelations but the ending is fumbled a little bit with a strange deus ex machina plot explanation. I found it a real contrast with my mostly under-hive PC’s (who’d excelled in Edge of Darkness) as they tried to infiltrate the opposite side of the social spectrum as Nobles. The second adventure “Shades of Twilight” , I essentially ran as a giant Space Hulk game (with the tiles and doors!) , as the PC’s race against a time limit to board and investigate a mysterious Space Hulk as it falls towards the capital Hive. Notable for having the first Space Marine statted up for Dark Heresy, it also includes Dark Eldar, secrets of the Inquisition and betrayals. Strong on combat and distinctly railroaded, it’s a lot of fun as a high powered race against time, Hollywood action type of game. Finally “Baron Hopes” is a strange scenario drawing a lot from horror movies- lots of zombies and mutants down in mines as the Inquisition makes a deal with a known rebel. I haven’t run it and shied away slightly from it because I couldn’t bear to run another railroaded plot. Overall, these 3 adventures are very good at showcasing 3 distinct Imperial worlds, have a variety of memorable opponents and situations and can easily be slotted into most campaigns if the GM is short on time. Rates 3 out of 5 – useful but railroaded.
Tattered Fates: Part 1 of Haarlocks Legacy Trilogy (74 pages, £18/$25) is one of those adventures where the PC’s start off naked, unarmed and captured by sadistic hunters who force them to run a lethal maze. While stripping PC’s of all their awesome gear and authority can be an interesting change of pace, it’s certainly not for every group, so GM’s should be aware of that premise. After that it turns into an interesting exploration of a decadent pleasure planet, making deals with assorted ne’er-do-wells as they seeks to regain the equipment and money they need to investigate the bacchanalian excess of Rogue Traders Erasmus Haarlocks Revel of Darkness as it all goes “Masque of the Red Death” with a visit from the Tyrant Star…. Horrific, atmospheric, but very expensive for the page count (initial UK price was £19) and with a starting premise that wont work for all groups, I’d rate this at 3 out of 5.
Fantasy Flights official site has a fair amount of material to download- usefully including the all important Errata, character sheets, starting example characters, maps, handouts from the various adventures for easy printing and a selection of adventures mentioned above and some Fan produced ones entered into their adventure contest. – http://new.fantasyflightgames.com/edge_minisite_sec.asp?eidm=50&esem=4
Dark Reign is one of the most popular and used Fan sites (though badly organised and indexed). It contains a variety of downloadable gems such as fan produced Tyranid or Genestealer Cult supplements, Necrons, more adventures and scenario hooks etc. Recommended- http://www.darkreign40k.com/
First thing to mention is that Dark Heresy books tend to slip their deadlines fairly often. The original rulebook was delayed by more than a year for re-writes. The Radicals Handbook and Damned Cities, announced for 2nd quarter 2009 still are not out due to art issues. That said, FFG have announced they are producing the following books – the 2nd & 3rd adventures for the Haarlock Legacy are Damned Cities and Dead Stars respectively. Next out should be the Radical’s Handbook which concentrates on those Inquisitors who use the weapons of the enemy against them at mortal peril to their own souls. Then we should have Ascension, a book for higher level Acolytes gaining more power within the Inquisition and becoming actual Inquisitors themselves! For that alone, its bound to sell well.
Simultaneously FFG will also be launching the Rogue Trader RPG (Sep 2008) and then Deathwatch is expected in the next few years. These games are also set in the Warhammer 40K universe and will be broadly compatible (similar percentile system and weapon stats etc) but focus on the broader canvas of interstellar trading, exploration and conquest beyond the bounds of the Imperium and fighting against the most powerful Xenos threats respectively.
Dark Heresy is a great and atmospheric take on roleplaying in the 40K universe. Whilst many call it incomplete or unrepresentative of the wargame, it has to be seen as merely the first part of a much larger project to make the whole the 40K universe playable as an RPG. This is the book that’s lets you tell small, intimate, tales of humanity struggling to survive at the bottom of the most repressive and cruel regime imaginable. In a feudal society where freedom of movement is largely unknown, the PC’s had to be part of the Inquisition as it gives them that freedom and because they are Acolytes, just enough authority to get into trouble but not enough to blow up a planet when their plans go embarrassingly wrong. It’s a game that could easily be used to run Necromunda-style rpgs of gangers battling it out in the Underhive. Dark Heresy is a small but highly detailed slice of the Imperium with endless scope for intrigues, mysteries, betrayals, horrors and hard decisions. Acolytes can be powerful movers and shakers- either through long term development or the GM simply starting at a higher XP level, if that is the sort of game your group prefers. Its default power level is ‘Cthulhu/Delta Green in space’ so if that expectation is clear in your mind, then you wont be disappointed.
I enjoy it as it finally gives me an outlet for much of my reading, interpretation and enjoyment of the 40K setting. I like that it’s a game of often grey morality and hard decisions- I play up the dreadful compromises of the Nazi-like Imperium, whilst also indulging in over-the-top heroics and brutal carnage. The adventures I’ve run are as enjoyable and pulpy as any of Eisenhorns or Ravenors, so I do think the game permits all kinds of play. I enjoy the simplicity of percentiles and the assorted tactical rules and Talents are not too difficult to keep track of with a little preparation.
Overall I’d recommend it as great introduction to roleplaying in the 40K universe for anyone who likes the setting or Call of Cthulhu or investigative or action based games. If you are at all interested in it, then I’d recommend just getting started with the rulebook and the Edge of Darkness adventure and seeing how it goes from there. After that, you’d probably want to pick up the Disciples of the Dark Gods for the GM and the Inquisitors Handbook for the players.
Stephen Joseph Ellis
31 August 2009