One of the very first things in Rogue Trader is a piece of text that adorns the intro pages of 40K Black Library books to this very day . A statement of intent with an unmistakable tone that has become synonymous with the 41st millennium. In the background is the Iconic double headed Aquila along with some symbols that will be familiar to most Space Marine players.
The next page lists (quite literally) the major players involved in RT40K including many names that todays hobbyists will recognise such as Jes Goodwin, John Blanche, and Dave Andrews whereas a glance downwards at the playtesters will reveal the origin of the name of the commander of the Crimson Fists. Rogue Trader is broken up into different sections called books (something taken more literally in 2nd Edition) each focussing on a different area of the game.
This greets you as you open the book...... quite a statement.
The first ‘Book’ Combat presents all the major rules for the game, accompanied by some deliciously 80’s artwork recalling H.R.Giger and 2000AD amongst others. Even in this primitive version of the ruleset the basic structure is readily identifiable. The stat line is broadly similar, although it does have a few additional mental characteristics; Intelligence Cool and Willpower an early indication of RT40k’s RPG roots. Dotted around here and there are some colour pages showcasing some early Citadel miniatures that may seem crude to some by todays standards but have an undeniable charm.
The Turn Sequence is practically the same as that in 2nd Edition (to be discussed in a future article) One thing that does stand out though, is the large amount of movement modifiers in the game, including modifiers for armour, turning about as well as the usual terrain modifiers present in todays game. Also carried through to 2nd Edition were BS modifiers (also used extensively in Necromunda) for range and cover, although weapon categories are somewhat different Further driving home the fact that this is a RPG/skirmish game are a multitude of Random Generation charts and Percentiles present with the rules for random characters and NPCs
Monsters also take up a sizeable portion of the book overall all with different attacks and behaviours. The emphaisis on the need for a GM is also prominent, something Jervis Johnson revisited in his recent Standard Bearer article in White Dwarf. Rules for vehicles and flyers are also present although it is obvious that they were never meant to be a large part of the game, something borne out by the fact that dreadnoughts actually operate more like infantry than vehicles. Even vehicles themselves have armour saves and toughness rather than an armour value. Other weirdness includes dedicated separate rules for the way robots and automotons work and hexagonal bases (hexagonal? What heresy!)
Robots have a high techincal level. Which makes sense really...
Incidentally the Horus Heresy is one thing nowhere to be seen in this book as Horuses rebellion would be conceived sometime later. Indeed Chaos as a whole are entirely absent from RT40K to be featured later in supplement books Lost and the Damned and Slaves to Darkness. Psionics and the Warp are featured in the book but the primary denizens of the Warp are called Enslavers which honestly look like a cross between that Pleasure GELF from Red Dwarf and a Triffid. There are Warp Entities which look vaguely familiar but certainly the word Daemon is never mentioned .
Not particularly Daemonic is it?
Indeed a lot of the now established races either didn’t exist or were very much in their infancy at this time. Slann, Zoats and Squats taking the place of such factions as Chaos, Dark Eldar and Tau. Next up is a scenario ‘The Battle at the Farm’ (more on this soon) not a particularly grandiose or imaginative title granted, but RT40k is in many ways a profoundly humble game. A small scale engagement and more of a GMs guide than anything else it is a concise scenario with narrative, victory conditions and at the back of the book the templates, army rosters and even counters to use in lieu of models should you wish.
This would never happen these days....
Book 2 is Equipment and with a few exceptions the armoury is broadly similar to the ‘Wargear’ book from 40k 2nd Ed. Many of the weapon designs are actually unchanged even to this day although there are certainly a few oddities such as the neuro disruptor and antique pistols for example. Again random weapon charts and special rules pervade this section such as rules for using unfamiliar weapons (requiring an Intelligence test) betraying RT40Ks RPG core, but most of this section will be familiar. A smorgasbord of varied and imaginative grenade types and rules for Mines and Missiles rounds out the weapons section.
The Vehicles and Robots/Armoured suits section takes up a surprisingly small amount of space. There are no named vehicles except the mighty Land Raider which garners itself a colour entry. Instead a vehicle is broadly defined as crawler, tracked, walker, hoverer or flying before it is further defined by weapons loadout. There is however no shortage of actual equipment options (evidently before the coining of the term ‘wargear’) Many of the entries will be familiar to those who have played Necromunda, in line with the rest of the book GM involvement is heavily encouraged.
Even in this early inception that is still recognisably a Bolt Pistol
The background section is Book 3 entitled ‘Age of the Imperium. Unlike in in subsequent editions even this background section is interspersed with profiles, charts and even more special rules acting as fluff-cum-bestiary.
The seeds of the background are certainly here and humanity in general is given rather a lot of attention. In fact Rogue Trader is heavily skewed towards Man and there is very much an ‘us vs them’ philosophy on display. Fluff wise, the Age of Strife is over, Mankind is exploring the galaxy, (not a Great Crusade) mostly through the means of Rogue Traders, officially sanctioned merchants often given command of entire fleets to aid them in their endeavours. The different types of world in the Imperium are given a fair bit of attention and the Imperium as a whole is well established and described. Indeed much of the lore is still valid and potentially serves still as the greatest example of its kind.
There are significant changes however, The Emperor (NOT God Emperor) although still a living corpse is burnt out more as a result of saving humanity from psychic predation (still not Chaos) than as a result of an epic duel. The Golden Throne is absent but the Adeptus Custodes are present with crested helmets and plumes intact albeit presented in a startlingly homoerotic fashion.
Everything in this section is decribed from a GMs perspective rather than narrative flow, with a view to giving the GM enough information to create NPCs and embellish and solidify the environment in the game. Inquisitors are present with the named example given being Obiwan – Sherlock –Closseau (I kid you not) again, charts percentiles and minuate like clothing descriptions and the like abound.
The Emperors Finest V.1
One huge part of 40k is the Adeptus Astartes, The Space Marines. Yet even the Emperors finest, whilst lavished with a little more attention than most are still treated in a fairly bare bones way. A little of the initiation process is described although it is pared down. No named tanks (except the Land Raider) and no different squads, veterans or Terminator armour (although it could be argued that Dreadnoughts at least partially fill that role – possibly where Tactical Dreadnought armour came from. ) There is a wonderful cutaway illustration of a Space Wolf fortress monestary with fascinating annotations, but there is no real character to any of the chapters, rendering them little more than than colour variants. Abhumans get a section with Halflings, Squats (totally different entities) Ogryns and Beastmen in a capacity that at least partially has been recalled in the latest edition.
We remember you Squats, even if GW doesn't
The Eldar are featured, albeit in a very limited fashion. Craftworlds are in, The Fall and Slaanesh are out, as are Avatars, Wraithbone and The webway. They are mostly portrayed roving pirates or mercenaries and there are no aspect warriors. It does mention that they use hover vehicles exclusively but offers no more than that.
Orks are up next but again bear little resemblance to the greenskins of today. These are quite literally Space Orcs with none of the character or background that they would later come to enjoy. Gretchin are featured briefly and it is established that Orks hate Squats (as do GW it would seem)
Slann and their Inheritence are next, another since abandoned element. One look at the Aztec styled illustration on the facing page instantly reveals the origin of Lizardmen from Fantasy (there is even a recognisable Slaan Mage Priest on one of the Glyphs)Little more than sci fi Lizards, they didn’t really have a place in the 40k universe even back then occupying a similar background to that that the Eldar would come to adopt.
Next are an element that HAS survived till modern times, or at the very least been resurrected. The Jokaero, as Lee alluded to in his Origins of Rogue Trader article, were based upon Dave the simian Mayor of Megacity 1 from 2000AD. Orangutan like uncommunicative technical geniuses they deploy in small family groups or tribes and have access to all the weapons and vehicles, able to build the most sophisticated machinery from the most nondescript junk.
Tyranids are barely recognisable in RT40k, bizzarely designed and slight on background, although their roving all consuming hivefleets are intact. The example picture is obviously what would evolve become a Termagant and no other bioforms are mentioned. They are described as wearing harnesses and the ubiquitous weapons chart even includes bolt pistols, powergloves and chainswords with nary a mention of symbiotic bioweapons (although the weapon the picture is readily identifiable as a fleshborer)
The Age of the Imperium is completed by a veritable horde of flora and fauna from across the galaxy all presented as GM controlled hazards and monsters. There are some real forgotten gems in here and whilst far too exhaustive a list to repeat here in full, some favourites include the Tyranid Slave organisms Zoats, Ambull Carnivorous Sand Clams (seriously) the infamous Catachan Devil, Genestealers (not associated with Tyranids at this stage and looking nothing like the genestealer we know) Spinethorns, Grox and Razorwings. Many of these exist in the 40k lexicon still, some, like the Ptera Squirrell were unfortunately fated to fade into obscurity.
From top to bottom: Sand Clam, The Pterasquirell and a Genestealer (really)
Book 4 is ‘The Advanced Gamer’ where some advanced optional rules and painting guides are imparted. Unlike these days there is a strong emphasis on improvisation and proxy. There are also rules for campaigns and an extensive plot generator effortlessly adding an incredible narrative and cinematic sense to the game. Its not all unending war adinifinatum, there is a real wealth of different settings and scenarios creating potential for some very interesting skirmishes that I would love to explore in greater detail at a later date.
Which leaves just the summary and quick reference pages. Worthy of mention here are the Authors Notes, hidden nuggets offering even more information and detailing tech such as Electoos (which I had always assumed was a Dan Abnett creation and STCs.
Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader can be comfortably labelled as a skirmish RPG, GM involvement is practically mandatory and the sheer amount of random generation charts and percentiles could be perceived as somewhat daunting, although the core rule mechanics are recognisable as what would become 2nd Edition 40k. It is obvious that grand mass battles are not the aim here and the standard would be no more than 30 models a side. At the Conclave we will soon be embarking on a series of games using the 40k ruleset so we can hopefully formulate a more informed opinion then. Suffice to say however that RT40k is loaded with enough off the wall character and special rules to ensure that with a decent GM battles will be an engaging and enjoyable affair effortlessly capturing the narrative and cinematic feel that GW strives so hard to artificially create these days. There is also a wealth of detail, making for an incredibly vital and visceral game setting. Even though there is much missing what is there is gritty and inmmersive if not ‘grimdark’ something which ruleswise has long been lost.
There are a LOT of these in the book
The artwork in Rogue Trader is something of a mixed bag. The iconic front cover by John Sibbick (perhaps best known for his series of definitive dinosaur paintings) is an incredibly evocative piece depicting the Crimson Fists last stand against overwhelming Ork forces on Rynns world and was used by Grindcore Band Bolt Thrower for the cover of their album Realm of Chaos. The internal artwork varies greatly, from Will Rees superbly de0tailed crosshatched illustrations (heavily reminiscent of H.R.Gigers biomechanical stylings) to pictures that look like unfinished sketches by comparison and actually startlingly crude. One artist, Martin Mckenna is remarkably adept at faces and did the fantastic rogues gallery which appears at the end of the book. Some of the artwork looks like it could have been ripped straight from the pages from 2000AD from its black and white comic panel look and there is an early full colour John Blanche piece that has been reused many times hence. There are a few errors here and there that remind you this is an early effort from a fledgling gaming company, and incorrect header here, a repeated piece of artwork there, (even on the same page) However the art is functional and characterful even if it varies in technical competency as much as it does in style.
A couple of Reeses Pieces (Yeah i went there)
The rules are present throughout the book rather than being assigned one section and it does appear that the book is designed as a reference guide or sourcebook for GMs rather that something to be read cover to cover Difficult to judge by todays standards the presentation (diagrams and maps can be rather crude) it seems to be perfectly serviceable for its time, with some nice colour pages to show off the miniatures.
There is a strong sense of 2000AD about much of the art.
More than anything else the thing that keeps me and I imagine a lotof others playing 40k, the background here is undeniably basic. Elements are here of greater things to come and it is obvious that this is the genesis of everything, but it’s more gritty than Grimdark and rather irreverent. Focussed firmly on the Imperium of Man, other races are paid a little attention and featured only in their most nascent stages. It almost seems the other factions are included only as antagonists for the human elements to fight as wandering monsters or the like, devoid of any real variation or real identity. Still, the Imperium is very well presented with all its various divisions featured in some way at least. The absence of Chaos is jarring, it really does feel as if something else is missing, the lack of a tangible nemesis for the Imperium making it feel like a much more sparsely populated galaxy. Obviously these and other races would be featured in time but for now their absence is keenly felt.
I love this piece, theres a real zaniness and irreverence that has long since been lost.
The weird and the wonderful permeate this book and although it would not go as far as to call it student like it does display a refreshing originality and informality that unfortunately was doomed to diminish with each successive iteration of the game. Space marines in particular are a very different concept to the version of the Astartes that we have today. But as I mentioned everything feels fery fresh and original. Not to say that there aren’t influences. It is obvious that a vast array of sources have inspired Priestly and co in the creation of this book, the universe itself being a heady mix of elements from Dune, Bladerunner, Alien, 2000AD and Mad Max, with even Star Trek and Star Wars hidden in the universes DNA in places.
Rogue Trader is a fascinating look at the embryonic state of the game and universe we all know and love today. In many ways I wish I had been involved in the hobby back in this time (I started in 2nd Ed around 1995) and would have loved to have been part of it and felt the excitement inherent in the inception of this new type of game. ]Packed with insights into the very genesis of 40k Rogue Trader is well worth a look for any hobbyist. Much of what lies within has been retconned out of existence but there is plenty which endures to this very day. Indeed when it comes to many of the aspects of the Imperium RT40k holds up as probably the most comprehensive source of information even now. More than anything else however, RT40k stands out as a labour of love. Soemthing put together out of a real desire to do something different (something Rick has been trying to recreate with his Gates of Antares project) as opposed to the mass miniature selling behemoth franchise that it is today. If you ever have the opportunity grab yourself a copy and indulge in the earliest days of 40k. And should you be fortunate enough to do so, keep an eye on Conclave of Har as we will be playing many more visits to this earliest of tomes in the near future.