Tuesday, 28 May 2013

It’s Grim in the Far Future, Much Like Birmingham - Origins of Rogue Trader 40k

It’s Grim in the Far Future, Much Like Birmingham

If like me the main influence on your hobby has been Games Workshop then you can’t help but harbour an inner fanboy that squeees in delight every time a new range is announced or a new edition or supplement crash lands on your table top.  While we may have issues with how management runs GW none of us can deny that the game developers give us that sweet hobby hit we all desire. 
My favourite range from Games Workshop is Warhammer 40,000.  40k is currently in its sixth edition and has been around in one form or another since the eighties.  Every large milestone White Dwarf may pay lip service to what went before but rarely do they go into any great detail about the past.  So here we are going to look at the beginnings of 40k and take a look at where it all began, Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader!


In 1986 there was an announcement in the pages of the Citadel Journal that Games Workshop were working on a science fiction tabletop battle game that was billed as an opportunity to create your own space opera full of all kinds of wild and weird characters and put them all kinds of outlandish situations be it hunting warp vampires or visiting a psycho circus!  It would be another year or so before the fruits of this labour were realised.

Rogue Trader was the genesis of the Warhammer 40,000 (WH40K) game and universe.  It laid the foundations of the Imperium of Man, warp space and the denizens that dwelled within and without its sprawling mass.  From this RPG led skirmish game erupted the behemoth that is WH40K today and it deserves some recognition.

When Eldar got their armour from the tribal tattoo planet.

When Rick Priestly joined Games Workshop he had already written a game called Rogue Trader.  Originally Rogue Trader was a spaceship and combat game set in a sprawling medieval realm precariously spread across warp space and populated by advanced humans, Ork raiders and space elf Eldar.  Rick had even designed a number space ship designs that later found their way into Space Fleet, a spaceship miniature game based in the WH40K universe.

Rick intended to develop the game as a pack in ‘freebie’ to be mailed out to Games Workshop customers who purchased their products.  This initial plan for Rogue Trader was put on hold as Games Workshop wanted the first game of this series to be set in a fantasy world.  Games Workshop had come about on the coat tails of the fantasy RPG boom of the 70s and 80s.  Back then they predominantly sold other companies products and White Dwarf was often filled with reviews and content for other company’s wares. 

This first ‘freebie’ game would eventually become Warhammer Fantasy Battle 1st edition (WHFB) written by Richard Halliwell, Bryan Hansell, Graham Eckel and Rick Priestly.  From a pack in game that went out with orders it morphed into a boxed game containing three booklets.  The popularity of WHFB meant that Rick went back and rethought Rogue Trader from the ground up.  It was rewritten to include the WHFB rule mechanisms and format.  This created a game that would be quick for players of WHFB to pick up and help to set a recognisable rule set that stretched across GW products.

This development was interrupted once more as other games demanded attention.  GW had won the license to 2000AD’s Judge Dredd which was released in 1982 which Rick contributed to as well as WHFB 2nd edition which was released in 1984.  In an effort to keep momentum on Rogue Trader going developments in the rule set of RT were folded into WHFB2E.  By this time Warhammer had developed a dark and dangerous background thanks to the miniature’s coming out of the studio and the accompanying art.  However, even after the completion of WHFB2E yet another distraction appeared in the form of Warhammer Fantasy Role-play.

Three guesses who this is.

By this point Rogue Trader existed in only two places, Rick’s head and an early computer printout.  GW had moved its development to the emerging technology of personal computers.  Rick decided this was an opportunity for another rewrite but even when this was completed there was to be one last hurdle to leap.

Games Workshop had acquired yet another license.  Coming from the same 2000AD stable as Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper offered a brand distinction headache for Rogue Trader.  It was not a simple fix.  Simply calling the game Warhammer 40,000 wouldn’t do either as this was too similar to Warhammer Fantasy which in these early days of GW’s development was still cutting a niche for itself.  In the end the two likeliest candidates were merged and in September 1987 it was White Dwarf #93 that heralded the release of Rogue Trader Warhammer 40,000 (RT).   This was a bit of a mouthful so ended up being shortened to the familiar ‘WH40K’, ‘0-kay’ or occasionally ‘warty thou’.  This is a tradition that exists to this day. 


There were a number of game play mechanisms that could not simply be ported over from the fantasy rules and which required new mechanisms all of their own.  These mechanisms have stood the test of time.

The first problem was with movement.  In WHFB movement was strictly controlled and was far more convoluted than it is now.  Units were formed up into base contact and where one model went they all went.  This would not do for RT where models would be moving freely in loose skirmish formations.  The answer was coherency rules.  Models could move freely up to their own movement value but would have to stay within two inches of each other with detrimental effects applied for any models that strayed outside this range.

The second was the idea of true scale which was confusing weapon ranges.  Real life weapon ranges were far too long to allow any kind of tactical difference between weapons.  Most guns’ true ranges meant they would all have a chance to hit enemies from a board length away.  A decision was made to use abstract ranges so that on the tabletop there was a clear delineation between different weapon types. 

The only problem with using abstract ranges was with vehicle models.  Depending on the size of the vehicle it was entirely possible that a pistol shot may not be able to hit a model a vehicle length away.  Originally Games Workshop did not intend on making any plastic vehicle kits so this problem was accepted as nobody really expected vehicles to see much use and Rick was not in favour of seeing them on the tabletop either.  Rick Priestly reiterated his stance on vehicles again recently during interviews for the Beyond the Gates of Antares Kickstarter.

Not shown ‘Suck it knob head’ artificer embellishment picked out in gold leaf.

The third problem was with representing large or unusual rates of fire.  This led to the development of templates.  Though common now this was a new idea for its time.  In the beginning any weapon that fired more than one shot such as rapid fire, exploded on contact such as a missile or which laid down a spray of liquid such as a flamer used a template.  A template would be placed where the shots were deemed to land after any deviation and hit models beneath it.  Rick had to sell the idea pretty hard though he maintained that it fit into one of his important game design principles, a game rule must not only reflect what happens but the way in which it happens.  Eventually a compromise brought about the idea of ‘following fire’ where a weapon continues to role for damage against models in the same unit until it fails to wound.  Not a mechanism that would see wide use in future editions.

The final new mechanic was the idea of weapon strength.  RT used the same method of checking attack strength against a target’s toughness characteristic with a modifier to the model’s save linked directly to the strength of that attack.  In a futuristic world where even the simplest weapon may contain enough power to kill a man or even leave nought but a pair of smoking boots a rethink was needed.  The result was the link between strength and saving throw to be severed and instead the modifier would be dependant on the weapon type instead.  Along with this was the introduction of variable damage.  This meant that while two different weapons may have similar strength their ability to cut through armour and the damage they would do if the target failed to save would differentiate them.

From there it was necessary to introduce rules for vehicles which would not be found in WHFB.  Even though it was not envisioned that vehicles would be a huge part of game play they still required rules should the player wish to use them.  These original rules were not very different from those governing regular infantry with only movement being significantly changed.  In fact the familiar armour value system of today was not present at all with vehicles more closely resembling monstrous creatures with high toughness and multiple wounds with a critical hits system to represent systems damage.  There were even rules for flyers!

The last thing to resolve was equipment.  At the time (and even as now) rules were written to accommodate models.  Rick wanted to stop the possibility of having to release new rules for every crazy creation that would find its way out of the studio so decided on standardised equipment.  Therefore every Space Marine had a bolter and the threat of ten individually armed models all requiring their own special rules and considerations were averted.

This kind of thing was entirely normal

Tone and Influence

Compared to today’s ‘grim-dark’ and dystopian vision of the far future Rogue Trader was somewhat irreverent.  Inspiration was drawn from Sci-fi writers and television programs  from all over the 70s and 80s such as Harry Harrison, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Star Trek, UFO, Philip Jose Farmer, Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, Space 1999, Frank Herbert, Michael Moorcock, Arthur C Clarke & Philip K Dick.  The irreverent attitude from the stories and characters of 2000AD also had a large influence especially considering that Games Workshop had its own Judge Dredd game during RT’s development.  A lot of the artists from 2000AD contributed to the artwork in the book and the GW team worked closely with some of their writers.  Both groups would even meet up at the local watering hole the Salutation Inn.

Looking inside the book there are many examples of a tongue in cheek sense of humour running through the visions of the far flung future.  Space Marines with humorously offensive messages etched on their armour, cigar smoking pot bellied anti-grav surfing squats, Orks in general, giant space wasps and killer squirrels!  

Some of this irrelevance has even survived to this day lest we forget the Black Planet of Birmingham which gets no light from its sun meaning it receives few visitors and as a result has become linguistically and culturally isolated.  Currently Birmingham is uninhabited the population having been taken by Dark Eldar raiders and since becoming the site of a daemonic incursion.

One of the greatest heroes of the 41st millennium owes his origins to such light hearted humour.  Pedro Kanto the current chapter master of the Crimson fists was a named character used in the very first RT battle scenario ‘Battle at the Farm’.  His oversight of the greatest tragedy to hit his chapter was not as it is now born from a million to one chance misfortune but can be blamed wholly on his incompetence.  His inspiration came from Pete ‘Pedro’ Cantor a friend of Rick’s whose less than successful gaming exploits earned him immortalisation within RT.

Despite this the brutal and bloody violence of this future is evident in the artwork.  Space Marines are blown apart, shot and burned in many different and grisly ways.  Severed heads sit alongside hideous mutants and beneath it all the oppressive and overbearing authority of the Imperium is ever present.

Background and Rules Development

The background section for Rogue Trader includes a great many concepts which are staples of today’s lore.  The Emperor and the Imperium are present as well as warp space and psykers.  Space Marines are there though the idea of primarchs and the Horus Heresy would come later and be woven into the proto-epic game Adeptus Titanicus.

Orks and Eldar were at that time alien pirates and raiders.  Orks and Gretchin were represented though without a lot of the flavour and additional troop types that are common today.  Eldar did live on craftworlds but were more akin to corsairs.  The Tyranids even appeared though the only unit that was included or even had a model was the Hunter-killer which today would be recognisable as the lowly Termagaunt.

Races which are no longer to be easily found within the Warhammer 40,000 universe include the Slaan, Squats and Zoats.  Slaan have found a home within Warhammer fantasy as servants to the star spanning old ones who are now a connecting thread between GW’s main franchises.  The Squats continue to be popular and controversial amongst the fandom.  Space Dwarves are cool but because GW could not find a way to make Squats anything other than futuristic versions of their fantasy counterparts they were quietly dropped from the lore during second edition.  Zoats were a slave race of the Tyranids back when the idea of the Hive Mind was not fully formed.  They exist today as an enigma that appears every now and then.  Look for them in the current sixth edition rulebook in the xeno section.

Nothing to see here, move along.  No sir I do not know who or what a Demiurg is.

Then there are some parts of RT that made it in because there was an existing miniature that could easily represent something else.  Jokaro exist because GW produced an orangutan model, Dave the mayor of Mega City 1!

The original intention was that players would convert their own miniatures from fantasy figures available at the time.  This was one of the reasons that fantasy archetypes find prominence in the Warhammer 40,000 universe with Orks (Orcs) and Eldar (Elves) as major races.  Despite this there was a need to populate the universe with models that represented the units that could not easily be represented or to act as a guide to the aesthetic that was relevant to each of those races. 

As the game increased in popularity the studio began to develop and release more models.  With the release of Slaves to Darkness and The Lost and the Damned came Daemons and Space Marine Renegades.  Craftworld Eldar, Squats and Genestealer cults appeared as White Dwarf army lists Tweaks to rules for Space Marines and vehicles would also appear leading to the vehicle data fax that introduced armour values.  Imperial Guard infantry appeared during this time while Orks received both a background book in ‘Waaargh the Orks!’ and what was effectively the first codex with ‘Freebooterz’.

Rogue Trader started as a games master led skirmish RPG.  As the popularity of RPGs waned the role of games master was phased out with games being played between two players alone who would manage their own game.  Not until Inquisitor appeared would Games Workshop reintroduce the role of the games master.

Eventually rules development would lead to the release of the ‘Warhammer 40,000 Battle Manual’ which was the prototype for Warhammer 40,000 second edition and would lead to the massed battle game that it has become now. 



Today Warhammer 40,000 is a recognisable piece of science fiction and wargaming culture.  The universe germinated in Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader has exploded in scope and there are hundreds of books, numerous comic, video games and even one short film that expands upon the stories that are being told on the tabletop. 

Background wise we see a lot of ideas that have not seen much exposure since the RT era coming back into fashion.  Look in the sixth edition rulebook and you will find once more mention of Squats.  There is a picture of a Zoat and an Ambull in the xeno section.  Jokero accompany Inquisitors and graviton guns are being wielded by Techmarines on battlefields across the country.  At Forge World RT designs are reborn in the shape of miniatures for the Horus Heresy while Eldar Cosairs strike from the pages of The Doom of Mymeara.

Though the WH40K of today is a vastly different beast from the narrative led RPG skirmish game it began as its basic rules mechanics are still present.  Psi points, the fantasy hand to hand combat system and flyers are not new ideas but throw backs to RT.  In White Dwarf 400 Jervis writes part one of a two part look at adding a games master to your games reminiscent of the narrative led play of RT.  Is this time to revisit those early years?  I certainly think so if only to learn what else we can import to our modern games to enhance our hobby experience.


Sources:  Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader (obviously) WD #94 & #95 'Tales From The Maelstrom blog interview with Rick Priestly'.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, that was a great article. Brings back so many great memories. Thank you.