Sunday, December 4, 2011

Gaming in the Imperium of Man

I don't know why, but recently I've been looking through the books I own for the three Warhammer 40,000 RPGs I own - Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and Deathwatch. They're very different games, all taking place in the same universe, and they interact - when they interact at all - on very different wavelengths.

In Dark Heresy - my least favorite of the three - you start out playing as the lowest rung on the totem pole, gofers, errand boys, and expendable help working, indirectly, for one of the powers of the Imperium of Man - an Inquisitor. An Inquisitor is a power unto himself - he ( or she) is empowered to do everything he deems necessary to hunt down heretics, aliens, or Chaos-tainted individuals. There are few people in the Imperium - which spans thousands of worlds - with the power to stand up to an Inquisitor. But they are all very busy, and so they trust their minions to deal with minor issues. This is where a Dark Heresy character comes in - you are the newest recruits, and you get the worst jobs, as you claw your way up the ranks towards the Inquisitor. You deal with the smallest, least dangerous threats - but when you are a minion of an Inquisitor, the smallest threats are still enough to endanger a city - or an entire world. You may end up being why an Inquisitor ends up declaring Exterminatus on a world - being the reason why the Imperium kills all life on an entire planet, billions of people, because some aliens - or ideas - are too dangerous to be allowed to spread to other planets. Working your way up from the lowest of the low to be an Inquisitor's right hand - or even an Inquisitor yourself - sounds like a long, hard slog, but could be fun to try.

Rogue Trader is vastly different in power level and scope. As a Rogue trader and retinue, you are empowered to go beyond the bounds of the Imperium, finding new life and new worlds - and make profit from them. You have your own ship, a vast crew - numbering int he tens of thousands - and you can go where you like and do what you please, as long as you pay lip service to the goals of the Imperium of Man. You are a peer even to an Inquisitor - though your power lays beyond the bounds of the Imperium, while an Inquisitor's is within, and you are both nearly untouchable in your realms of influence. You travel through space, going from planet to planet, finding new routes of trade, new worlds to colonize, and sometimes new threats to fight against. You are not entirely unlike a privateer, but your oceans are exponentially bigger, the riches you seek massively greater, and the things which lurk in the dark far more dangerous. Your freedom is unrivaled in the Imperium, and there are almost no bounds you cannot cross. So, given that - what do you do? The freedom that Rogue Traders have is great - it's a little like Star Trek, but with no humanitarian mandate, no Prime Directive, just picking a star, grabbing the horizon, and making what profit you can.

Deathwatch is probably the RPG with the most familiarity to anyone who has played the Warhammer 40,000 miniatures wargame. In Deathwatch, you play a Space Marine - the most elite fighting force of the Imperium of Man. While the vast legions of the Imperial Guard and the starfleets of the Imperial Navy may guard and serve as the bulk of the Imperium's military, it is the Space Marines that are called when a threat is too great, or too dangerous, for mere men. Space Marines are genetically enhanced, superhuman warrior-monks, trained and altered since puberty to be the greatest fighting force of men. Amongst the billions - perhaps trillions - of humans, there are 1 million Space Marines to serve as protectors. Where a regiment of normal troops, or perhaps even an entire army, might not succeed, 5 Space Marines might. Encased in power armor, armed with great and terrible weaponry, and with the knowledge that you are man's best hope against the aliens and evil gods of Chaos, you devote your life to killing the enemies of man. Space Marines are righteous in their fury, and certain of their cause, and that's something I find fascinating, even when they are tasked with exterminating an alien race that may very well be harmless.

All three games use the same system, but with different power levels - Dark Heresy being the lowest, Deathwatch the highest. And yet, with the same system, these games do vastly different things, all in the same universe - which, granted, is vast; if each game is run in the area the books lay out, the three games will never cross paths - and they seem to do it well. I say seems, becuase I've never played any of them, though I would love to. If you're reading this, and you're interested, let me know - I'll loan you the books.

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