A miniatures games blog about Warhammer 40k, 15mm American Civil War (ACW), D&D, Classic Battletech, painting, terrain and anything else that rolls or shoots...

Friday, December 31, 2010

Rogue Trader - A Look Back

Well, the holidays are here and we're all in misery.  Nothing says glee like traffic, idiocy and relatives.  I guess it's stressful times like these that make all of us long for a better place and personally, when I'm not wishing I was a young rich English footballer, getting paid hundreds of thousands a week to swerve kicks into the top corner, I'm probably thinking about little plastic men.  It's a curse.

While sitting bumper-to-bumper on the parkway doing just this, I decided to take a look back at the grand daddy of the modern monster that is Warhammer 40k.  I present to you, Rogue Trader!

Pretty dramatic, eh?  I'm particularly fond of the Ork head/club. 

Published by Games Workshop in 1987, Rogue Trader was intended to follow on the heels of the already successful Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay games.  In fact, in the intro of the book even says, "Warhammer 40,000 employs the proven and popular game mechanics of the Warhammer Games System...and can therefore be used in conjunction; you will find creatures and weapons from one game will be perfectly usable in the other."  Nice!  I'd venture to guess that some intrepid souls out there were curious enough to see how this would have actually panned out and gave it a go.  Nowadays, games like that are the stuff of legend...

If the introduction was any indicator, the rest of the rules follow the example and freewheeling statements like the above are numerous throughout.  At the time of the game's release, there were only two box sets of miniatures, Space Marines and Orks.  Everything else was fair game model-wise and they actually encouraged you to find/create your own miniatures and even go as far as to make up your own rules for them.  No codices, no WYSIWYG rules, just your imagination.  Of course, it didn't hurt to have a shrewd tongue in order to convince your opponent that this giant Mattel robot of doom he was about to face was fair and balanced.

A large portion of the rules such as shooting and movement still remain relatively unchanged but there are a lot more elements to this version that hearken to a roleplaying game rather than the polished, speedy beast of miniature destruction that we are familiar with today.  The most obvious of these is the inclusion of a GM ("Game Master") to preside over the events that unfold on the tabletop.

As most of you are probably familiar with, the GM or DM (in D&D terms) is the main mover and shaker in the RPG world, and without these hardy individuals, there would be no game.  In the early days of Rogue Trader 40k, points values for units were non-existent and it was up to the GM to decide the forces for each side before the battle.  There is a small section that describes a skeleton method of assigning points values to individual models based on stats and equipment but like many other parts of the rules, GW leaves these open to interpretation, citing "common sense" as the best judge.  Once the battle had begun, the GM was in charge of doing things like tracking movement of hidden units and settling rules disputes.  Sadly, this position was only to last through the first edition, and like many other "common sense" related elements, was axed with the emergence of Second Edition in 1993.

So as not to make this quaint little trip down memory lane too long-winded, I'm just going to run down a list of my personal favorites...

  • Splitting Units -- During their movement phase, a unit can be split up as long as the controlling player provides a clear, written order to the GM. ie: "Send the missile launcher to that trench to cover us.
  • Hiding -- A unit that did not shoot in it's turn and is behind cover can "hide" where it cannot be shot at by the enemy.
  • Weapon Profiles -- Virtually unrecognizable from today's standards, the weapon profiles in Rogue Trader contained info like range bands (bonuses/penalties based on distance from target), armor save modifiers (ex. -6 penalty to save for a lascannon, -1 for a boltgun -- this would eventually be dumbed down to AP) and wounding, where many weapons had a variable amount of damage they would cause (d6, d8, d10 etc.)
  • Reserve move -- Any unit that was far enough away from the enemy and did not shoot during their turn was allowed to make an extra move.
  • Psychic Abilities and Psi-Points -- At the initial release, there were 40 powers to choose from.  These powers were then divided amongst four different mastery levels.  Each one would expend a certain amount of the psyker's Psi-Points and when these were depleted the psyker would have to rest to recover them.  Many of the powers had a devastating tabletop effect, but there were also a few that had virtually no tabletop effect and were seemingly intended for a set of off-table role-playing rules that never emerged.   
  • Mutants! -- Probably my favorite.  Extensive rules and random generation tables were included and encouraged players to create and do battle with their own roving bands of mutants.  Some of the more colorful random traits are Cloud of Flies, Bulging Eyes, and the unfortunate Enormous Involuntary Noise.  All of these would have some effect on the tabletop play, but were clearly included for roleplaying purposes.

When it was all said and done, Rogue Trader provided a very good groundwork for what was soon to come.  Although it singlehandedly launched a sub-genre that was to be copied many times over, I still feel that it never lived up to it's true potential.  Never quite a roleplaying game and not quite a tabletop miniatures war game, it straddled the fence between the two, using elements of both to somewhat mediocre effect.  However, the fluff is great and the artwork alone is enough to recommend trying to hunt down a copy of this book.  

This is also where I am going to announce my next great project (besides a ton of painting.)  This examination has inspired me to try and pick up where Rogue Trader left off and come up with a comprehensive system to link both the tabletop and roleplaying elements.  After a couple days of taking a good look at the system, I think I have some pretty decent ideas and will follow up soon with a post detailing these.  

Until next time!

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