(This is the 2nd of 17 posts leading up to my 200th blog post for my “200 for 200” goal. It’s a long post instead of several short ones to conserve the number and buy myself some time for the goal!)
This review is going to be different from my previous reviews in several key ways: First, I happened to order the “All-In” Pre-Order package for the Wrath & Glory RPG from Ulysses Spiel, so I’ll be reviewing physical products alongside my review of substance. Second, I’ll be sharing some general, probably stream-of-consciousness thoughts about gaming in the 40K universe–some of which will be purely opinion and editorial with little to do with the review proper. Let’s dig in:
Roleplaying in 40k (Come for the War, Stay for the Stuff)
I grew up playing the Warhammer 40k miniatures game. Though I don’t currently play any minis games (having over the past few years played Warhmachine, Infinity and Malifaux) and I don’t really have the patience for 40k’s massive set-up time, I do constantly think about collecting the miniatures again for the joy of kitbashing and painting and finding some minis-rules sets that I liked better to run some narrative skirmish-level games with friends. Of course, there’s now new Necromunda (which I also played and loved in its first incarnation), Kill Team and Warhammer Quest: Blackstone (I spent many hours with the original, fantasy version of Warhammer Quest).
But, over the past ten-to-twelve years, my experience with 40k has been in reading some of the novels and running RPGs. I was so excited for a 40k RPG when Dark Heresy was announced, I immediately pre-ordered the deluxe, leather-bound version of the first edition rules.
This is all predicate to a discussion of my love/hate relationship with 40k. Perhaps there’s some deep-seated resentment of the cost of 40k gaming, but that is not where my angst really lies.
The long-used motto of the 40k universe is (say it with me, kids): “In the dark future of the 41st millenium, there is only war.” Let’s sidestep the fact that the source material has now carried the universe into the 42nd millenium.
My response to that motto has long been, “Come for the war, stay for the stuff.” A dark future of only war makes sense for a wargame, but not so much for a deep roleplaying setting. Without further, this constant, unquestioning conflict doesn’t have the depth I prefer for a roleplaying setting. Fortunately, even before the Dark Heresy RPG, there were some sources of that depth I sought.
I have read only a fraction of the available Warhammer 40k novels. I’ve mostly restricted myself to Sandy Mitchell (Caiphas Cain) and Dan Abnett (having read the Eisenhorn Trilogy, much of Gaunt’s Ghosts and the more recent Magos–which I’ll likely be finishing up today). Both Mitchell and Abnett do an excellent job of writing stories that stand strong on their own accord, even if they’d been written in a different setting, that also bring down some of the over-the-top “grimdark” of the 40k universe into a more relatable and–frankly–far less silly version of itself. They add the “stuff” to the 40k universe necessary to the setting to develop interesting stories for roleplaying.
I’ve started but not finished a number of other 40k books. Most of them, in my humble opinion, belong on the same shelf as Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight; that is, the “do not read, ever!” shelf. They’re not well-written, have ridiculous plots, and mostly just string together action sequences with little in between to make me care. Abnett (whose non-40k fiction is also worth a read) and Mitchell seem to be the exceptions to the rule.
Since the release of Dark Heresy and its related 40k RPGs (though I never had much use for Only War, Black Crusade or Deathwatch), much additional setting information conducive to running a satisfying RPG campaign has been produced, thankfully.
Even so, it strikes me that the 40k setting, as typically advertised and as displayed in the majority of the fiction written about it, can’t sustain a roleplaying setting as is. The setting is too over-the-top, too nihilistic for nihilism’s sake, too grimdark. Now, if you’ve read my blog posts or my fiction, you know that I have a preference for the gritty. Too far, though, and the gritty becomes like chewing sand–painful and to no purpose.
To run a successful roleplaying game, the tone of a 40k RPG needs to come down a few pegs. We need to see that the Imperium of Man is not simple a fascist totalitarian regime if you’re going to play characters who feel duty and loyalty to it (in my opinion, at least). You need to see that there is some happiness and good in the universe worth fighting for, or what’s the point? Roleplaying games, like the best fiction, are about creating meaning. If your game universe runs circles around you, skipping about and proclaiming that, “nothing matters, everything is the worst, and you’re all going to go insane and/or die in the next five minutes!” there’s going to be an issue.
Perhaps the upside, though, is that the 40k universe, in needing to be tweaked to work in the roleplaying milieu, invites us to do what we should be doing with all published settings we’re using to run a game: make it our own. Like Mitchell and Abnett, we need to inject some logic, some flickers of goodness and hope, and some depth of character into the setting. That invitation, perhaps buried under piles of lore (being a worldbuilder and writer, I hate the term “fluff”), has the potential to grant us great freedom in using the setting. The flipside of this, of course, is canon-mongers who will exclaim at the gaming table, “that’s not the way it is; on page 47 of Fulgrim it says…” Those players are heretics; I hereby denounce them to the Inquisition.
I’m not likely to run a Call of Cthulhu campaign, as the types of stories that setting tells are generally very limited in scope. But, at least once warp-twisted to our own designs, 40k has the potential to tell stories with the same themes as CoC when desired, while making way for many other types of stories as well.
Scaled back a few pegs from full-bore nihilism, the setting allows us to play games that are tough on characters (without being unfair to them) in line with the setting and theme. I’m a big fan of John Wick’s Play Dirty books; the Warhammer universes (both fantasy and 40k) have provided me with my best experiences in implementing those ideas (in my own way, of course). The rate of character deaths in my Warhammer games is exponentially higher than in other RPGs I run, and a proponderance of those deaths are inflicted on one player character by another. Fortunately–and this is partially because of the themes of the setting–those character deaths have always seemed to be aspects of good writing: meaningful and somehow simultaneously surprising and seemingly inevitable in retrospect. Because of that, the players have not had hard feelings about these events, instead having a sense of profound collective storytelling. For a GM, there’s not much better than players getting that feeling, however achieved.
In short–though it’s certainly too late for that, isn’t it?–the 40k universe provides a very problematic roleplaying setting if used as labeled on the box, but if that difficulty is instead viewed as an invitation to make the setting your own (and the RPG material and the Mitchell/Abnett fiction are the best guides for that), there’s a lot of fun that can be had in 40k.
[Aside: While originally intending to put the linked material in this post, I thought it would be kinder to those not interested to separate out a digression on Christianity and 40k into a separate post. I invite you to read if that’s something that piques your curiousity.]
Updates to Setting (Immediate and Meta)
Wrath & Glory debuts after Games Workshop has implemented some radical changes to the 40k universe. With the (re-)appearance of Roboute Guilliman, the partially successful summoning of the Aeldari god Ynnead (and the changing, undoubtedly for copyright purposes of “Eldar” to “Aeldari,” just as “Imperial Guard” was changed to “Astra Militarum), the breakout of the great Cicatrix Maleficarum dividing the Imperial of Man into the Imperium Sanctus (still within the sight of the Astronomicon) and the Imperium Nihilus (on the other side of the massive warpstorms composing the Cicatrix Maleficarum and thus outside the light of the Astronomicon), the 40k universe is now a drastically different place, with many systems partially or wholly cut off from the rest of the Imperium.
Wrath & Glory does a good job of using this new situation for fullest effect, referring to it as a reason a disparate group of heroes with vastly different backgrounds might be working together. This gives easy permission to roleplaying bands that include an Aeldari corsair and a Primaris Space Marine next to the human characters who may be commissars, Rogue Traders, Inquisitors and the like. In short, it allows a justification for a smorgasbord of characters that would have been difficult to rationalize in earlier incarnations of 40k roleplaying (especially segmented into different game lines: Rogue Trader, Dark Heresy, Only War, etc., etc.).
The “default” setting for Wrath & Glory is the Gilead System, a collection of planets technically within the Imperium Sanctus but cut-off by surrounding warpstorms navigable only along a near-mythical path called the “Straits of Andraste” (now where have I heard that name before?). The Gilead System is designed to have a collection of the Imperial Planet types (Forgeworlds, Agri-Worlds, Shrine Worlds, Hive Words, Forbidden Worlds, etc.) so that each planet type is available without the characters needing access to a Warp-capable starship. Other than this, the Gilead System only has the barebones information given–a few names and factions that might serve as patrons or antagonists to the characters and some high-level story hooks.
This is both a boon and a bane, as it gives a GM great leeway in filling in details–but requires the GM to fill in details. If that’s not something you want to spend your time on, there’s nothing stopping you from setting your campaign before the Cicatrix Maleficarum and using the voluminous materials for the Scintilla area of the galaxy (or other published locations) from previous editions. For that matter, you could simply take that material and update it to the present in-universe time.
I very much appreciate the new rules. If you’ve read some of my other writing about RPGs, you’ll know that I’m not so found of percentile systems and quite fond of dice pool systems. Wrath & Glory has moved 40k roleplying from the former to the latter, so from my initial approach I expected a positive reaction to the system. Not so much so that it was guaranteed, but I’ve found that the system is well-written. I’ll hit some of the high points.
The dice pool system uses attribute + skill, familiar to most roleplayers and six-sided dice, available everywhere. Certain things, like items, may add bonus dice, but most negative circumstances will adjust the difficulty level rather than the dice pool, allowing for faster logistics in making tests, as GM and player can calculate their respective parts simultaneously. A test must generate a number of icons equal to the difficulty level for the action to succeed. A result on a die of 4 or 5 generates a single icon, while a roll of 6 on a die generates 2 icons. In certain situations, icons in excess of the difficulty level can be “shifted” to achieve additional effects.
As a side note, the rules use the word “dice” for both the singular and the plural. This annoys me greatly. Other than this infelicity of language, the rules are clearly written and easy to understand.
Giving dice the potential to generate 2 icons allows for a much greater range and granularity of difficulty levels than might ordinarily be expected with a dice pool system. While I lack both the coding and mathematical skills to easily run statistics on this arrangement (my favored roll percentage calculator does not have the bandwith to make calculations this complex, apparently), the benefit should be relatively obvious.
Wrath & Glory (& Ruin & Campaign Cards)
Each test uses a single Wrath die (in the case of psyker powers, described below, multiple Wrath dice may be employed). A six on the Wrath die generates a point of Glory for the rolling character (which can be spent on bonus dice, damage and critical hit severity in combat, and seizing the initiative in combat). A roll of “1” on the Wrath die generates a complication to the scene at hand. These effects are independent of the success or failure of the test itself.
Characters also have Wrath points (hence, one supposes, “Wrath & Glory“). Wrath points are gained through good roleplaying, accomplishing objectives and through campaign cards. Wrath is used to re-roll failed dice, restore shock (non-fatal damage), improve Defiance tests (not dying when severely injured) and to make narrative declarations (I very much like this choice, both from a roleplaying design perspective and because it appropriately softens some of the grimdark of the 40k universe).
The GM also has a points pool called “Ruin,” allowing for similar boosts to NPCs.
As an additional side, the Wrath & Glory rules contain a full-page sidebar on failing forward. This, I think, reveals the modern gaming influences on the system design, but also indicates a conscious move away from the pure grimdark of the setting (and perhaps the earlier rulesets) just as the player ability to make “narrative declarations” does.
You may have noticed that I mentioned “campaign cards” a little ways back. A deck of the cards is available for purchase seperately from the rulebook. Each player is supposed to receive one campaign card at the beginnign of each session, which is lost if not used, but use is not required. When played, its effects are immediately resolved. Admittedly, I have not yet spent a lot of time with the campaign cards, but my sense is they are designed to give players a little more agency. Could you play without them? Absolutely, but I’m honestly not sure how much that would change the feel and play of the game. It may not be an extreme change.
Tracking Wrath, Glory, Ruin and Campaign cards (and other available cards) may seem to be a lot of fiddly-bits during play. On the other hand, if you’re comfortable with games like Fate, Cortex Plus/Prime or FFG’s Star Wars/WFRP3 games, you won’t have issues.
You’ll find many of the combat rules to be familiar territory if you’re a veteran roleplayer. I’m going to just pick out a few highlights.
First, the book explicitly states that there is no set time unit for a combat round, instead specifying that the narrative should inform the length of each round. This is relatively minor, but I think it provides some good insight into the design approach, and I like that.
Second, Initiative is handled quickly and efficiently. Under most circumstances, at the top of the combat round, the players decide which one of their characters will act first. After that character’s turn, a GM character acts, followed by another player character and back and forth until all actions are resolved. Ruin and Glory can be spent by a character to break the normal procedure and act next in a combat. Some circumstances (ambush) may also change this routine. Randomized initiative is offered as an option.
The rules include provisions for “mobs” to handle groups of less-talented foes. In my mind, this is an essential aspect of modern and effective game design.
There are rules to accommodate miniatures but they are not necessary. While I like minis games, I don’t like the drag on play efficiency that minis create in most RPGs.
Like many dice pool combat systems, the active character rolls against a static Defense number to determine whether an attack is successful.
Reloads are abstracted so that bullet-counting is unnecessary. That said, bonuses for “spending” reloads are available, giving players a reason to risk the dramatic position where they are out of ammo. Best of both worlds, in my mind.
Combat has enough variance in choices of actions for tactical complexity, has gritty critical hits, and all your favorite 40k weapons and armor.
Overall, combat appears to be a good compromise between narrative efficiency, gamist tactics, and “realistic” detail.
I’m not going to spend much time on Psykers, but I want to point out one or two things. If you’ve played past 40k RPGs, you’ll be familiar with the psychic “disciplines”–biomancy, telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokineses, divination, etc. “Minor” psychic powers available to any Psyker are also available, though some (like “Psyniscience”) seem like they should be innate abilities rather than require a player to choose them as specific powers–the number of which a character may have are relatively limited.
A character using a psyker power must choose the mode of its use, from most conservative to most reckless: Bound, Unbound, Transcendant. The more reckless forms of employment grant extra Wrath dice but also increase the chance of Perils of the Warp–this is exactly what psyker powers should do in my opinion. Further, once you move up the scale, you can’t move back down in the same scene. The genie doesn’t go back in the bottle. Again, this matches the fiction and the feel of the setting.
“Magic” of any type in a roleplaying game is difficult from a design perspective. For a game to feel “balanced” you ideally want your “magical” characters to be somewhat limited in the types of effects that they can use and to have a very real cost to achieving those effects. Fortunately, the setting in 40k matches with this approach; in many fantastic settings the lore is difficult to fairly “balance” mechanically. The implementation here is about the best I’ve seen.
From the GM perspective, the core rulebook offers “Campaign Frameworks.” These are basically campaign hooks with recommendations for tier level, character types, theme and expected content.
Character creation itself is done by point-buy, though “standard arrays” are given for each Tier level to speed the process for those new to the setting or wanting to create a character quickly.
The Tier represents the campaign’s overall power level, both by determining the number of build points players have for their characters and which archetypes are available to them (Psykers require Tier 2, Inquisitors Tier 4, etc.).
Build points are used to purchase an Archetype, attributes, skills, special abilities, wargear, etc. The system is not so complex as Shadowrun, per se, but it does have enough depth to it that I would say you should expect an hour or two for character generation, perhaps more fore those unfamiliar with this or other RPGs.
On the other hand, the point-buy system allows for great flexibility in character creation, which I appreciate. Additionally, unlike previous 40k RPG incarnations, rules for playing Aeldari, Orks and Space Marines (regular and Primaris) are right there from the beginning.
Basic rules for vehicles and voidships are included in the Core Rulebook.
I’ll have to update this once I’ve been able to run a few sessions (be on the lookout for posts about the Dark Inheritence campaign I’m currently writing and hoping to run soon), but my readthrough leaves me impressed. Modern game design and a more narrative approach that lightens the grimdark just enough meets with a setting I’ve loved for a long time.
I pre-ordered the “All-In” package when Ulysses Spiel US announced the opening of pre-orders. The above is the scope of what I received: the core rulebook, battle maps, pre-genned character booklets, the Dark Tides adventure book, the Blessings Unheralded adventure book, the soundtrack CD, acrylic tokens for characters and enemies, dice, a GM screen, themed poker chips for tracking points and six sets of cards (Campaign, Wargear, Psyker Powers, Perils of the Warp, Combat Complications Deck and Wrath Deck). The cards are of the quality I associate with CCGs, like Magic or Doomtown.
The books are bound as is typical for RPG books, with beautiful art and color. One difference enthusiasts will notice right away is that the art is distinctly lacking in “Blanchitsu.” I’m not sure that that’s necessarily a bad thing, especially given that the game design dials back the grimdark a few clicks. But, the art does border on the cartoony.
Everything came in a large box of heavy cardstock:
Overall, I’m very pleased with the construction quality of the materials. I’m actually tempted, despite my usual preference for digital books, to spend a good deal of time with the printed materials. That’s a pretty high praise for me.
If you like the 40k universe and want to game in it, I highly recommend the Wrath & Glory game. Again, I’ll update when I’ve had a chance to run and/or play it, but by all accounts I expect a satisfying experience.