Roleplaying in the grim darkness of the 41st millennium
It's the 41st millenium and the Imperium of Man has spread to the stars, guided by the eternal light of the Immortal Emperor. But Man is beset on all sides by enemies, from the slavering Tyranids to the cold and distant Eldar. But humanity's most dangerous foes come not from without but within. The forces of the Warp, an alternate dimension that has allowed humanity to achieve faster-than-light travel, insidiously corrupt humans. Its entities, the Chaos Gods, demand worship and its influence spawns psychic powers in humanity, creating living gateways through which demons can force themselves into our world. Even the mighty Space Marines, the genetically engineered holy warriors of the Imperium, aren't immune to its fell taint. It is the job of the Inquisition to root out heresy, in all its forms, wherever it may lie. Its inquisitors scour the universe for the smallest trace of heresy to wipe it out.
You are an acolyte, part of an inquisitor's retinue. You are on the front-line of the fight against heresy, seeking it out, investigating it and ultimately exterminating it. You will probably die a grisly death, but your life is nothing compared to the joys of service. For the Emperor!
If you've heard of roleplaying games you're probably the kind of geek who is also aware of Warhammer and Warhammer 40k, the wildly successful miniatures games produced by Games Workshop. Due to the immense popularity of the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying game, it was only a matter of time before Black Industries, the RPG arm of Games Workshop, created a game set in the 40k universe. They decided to create not one, but three games, each focusing on different 'power levels' of adventuring types in the Imperium of Man. Dark Heresy was the first, low powered iteration. The other two games, Rogue Trader (playing characters in charge of a sort of merchant vessel) and Deathwatch (playing Space Marines fighting against alien hordes) were published by Fantasy Flight Games after Black Industries was dismantled.
The 40k roleplaying games, much like their fantasy counterpart, use a percentile system. Roll below a certain number on a d100 and you've succeeded. Penalties decrease the number you have to roll, while bonuses increase it. Also like its fantasy counterpart, the numbers generally start off quite low (50 or less), so expect to fail quite often, with grisly results. The two other mechanical features of note are that it includes Fate Points, which allow you to re-roll tests and ignore conditions and that it's the only system I've ever seen that makes use of a d5 (a d10 with the result halved, rounded up).
Something I do need to mention is that this is a stunning book. The art, while skull motif heavy, is fantastic. The map of the Calixis Sector (a provided game setting) is absolutely stunning. The book even smells nice, having that same, pleasant, new book odour that's almost as fresh as the day I purchased it three years ago (stop looking at me like that).
There's a kind of cathartic fun in playing the brown shirt arm of everyone's favourite empire of space fascists and from first-hand experience this game is great if you turn the cheese factor way high, turn your bolter gun on puppies if you suspect them of heretical thought and end every sentence with 'for the Emperor'. Basically, Paranoia with more skull imagery. Alternately, if you're a serious fan of the 40kverse (and I hear it's easier to do this if you've read the reportedly solid novels), it certainly won't disappoint, doing quite a good job at fleshing out the role of the Inquisition and the Calixis Sector is a pretty great setting (I say this as a person who is a hard sell on sci-fi). Sadly, this game has lost favour after the release of Rogue Trader and Deathwatch, probably because they had the opportunity to fine-tune mechanics and because, let's face it, the majority of 40k players wanted to be Space Marines anyway. On the other hand, unlike the latter game, Dark Heresy lets you play as women without bringing hardcore 40k canon scholars down on you like a tonne of bricks.
Step 1) Home World
The Imperium of Man is a massive place, encompassing hundreds and thousands of planets of a staggering variety. In this step, we determine what kind of planet our character comes from, which alters our traits. Feral Worlds are harsh wilderness planets where nature is too badass to create a proper settlement and humans tend to be savages, the most famous canonical example being Catachan, a jungle world where every living thing will try to kill you. Hive Worlds are planets where every bit of inhabitable land is choked with human settlement. Think Coruscant in Star Wars and multiply it by Hong Kong. Imperial Worlds are your general human-inhabited planets somewhere between these two, from primitive medieval fiefs to super-advanced worlds. If Earth now were a planet, it would be an Imperial World. Finally, you have the Void Born, which isn't a planet, but rather a descriptor of those born on space vessels (surprisingly common since non-warp space travel takes a long time, potentially years between planets).
I think once again I'm going to go with random generation since it's in the spirit of Warhammer games to do so. Rolling on the Random Home World table, it appears my character comes from an Imperial World. Because of this, I get a -5 penalty to Forbidden Lore skill tests (imperial worlders are sticklers for tradition and curiosity gets you killed), but I also get to treat Common Lore (Imperial Creed, Imperium, War), Literacy and Language (Imperial Gothic) as Basic Skills (which means I can roll on them even if I don't have them trained) due to better education and pervasive religious upbringing and also a +3 to my Willpower score, because let's face it, we're just plain better than other members of the Imperium.
Step 2) Generate Characteristics
Characteristics are this game's versions of ability scores or attributes. They're ranked from 0-100, with 26-35 being average and anything above 50 being amazing. The skills actually have a few analogues with the miniatures game, so anyone familiar with that will be able to recognise them. Weapon Skill (WS) and Ballistic Skill (BS) are your character's ability with melee and ranged weapons respectively. Strength (S) is a measure of your physical power, Toughness (T) is your health and fortitude, while Agility (Ag) is your speed and reflexes. Intelligence (Int) is your book smarts, Perception (Per) your worldly awareness and Willpower (WP) your ability to deal with the horrors of war and space without your mind snapping in two. Finally, Fellowship (Fel) is your ability to influence others.
The generation method for these is to roll 2d10 and add a number. Since I'm an Imperial Worlder, I'm boring and just add 20 to everything (not forgetting the +3 to my Will). Rolling on the table, I get 29 WS, 27 BS, 27 S, 32 T, 26 Ag, 29 Int, 27 Per, 36 WP and finally 27 Fel. Not amazing. Pretty much everything is dead average. Such is life in 40k.
I should note that the first digit of your characteristic is your Bonus, which is used to determine a bunch of derived statistics later.
Step 3) Determine Career Path
People with a variety of different talents serve the inquisitors. Some are Adepts, scholars of law. Others are Assassins, Guardsmen or Arbitrators, experienced in violence. Yet more possess the stranger talents of the Techpriests or the dangerous mental abilities of the Psyker. The Career Path is a sort of tree that gives you a selection of abilities to purchase with your starting experience as well as equipment.
Rolling on the Career Paths table, I'm going to be making an Imperial Psyker. Psykers are those whose minds have become attuned to the warp, giving them powerful, yet dangerous mental abilities. Many go insane and have to be brutally murdered, others are picked up and go on to serve the worst jobs in the universe that will one day just cause their heads to explode. Psykers that are part of an inquisitor's retinue are the lucky ones, having relative freedom of movement. I start off at the rank of Sanctionite, which means my character has been aboard the Black Ships that train psykers to control their powers and use them in service to the Emperor. As I gain Experience, I will go up in ranks which will allow me access to new goodies to buy.
I get a bunch of starting Skills. Each skill is tied to a characteristic, which is what I need to roll under in order for the skill to succeed. As a psyker I start off automatically with Speak Language (Low Gothic)(Int) and Literacy (Int), allowing me to be conversant in the language of the Imperium. I also get to choose between the skills Trade (Merchant) and Trade (Soothsayer). I'm going to pick the former, because I like the idea of my character being an ordinary person minding a shop until suddenly the forces of the Warp show up and ruin their life forever. Finally, I get two skills which might take a bit of explaining. Psyniscience (Per) lets me sense warp presences in the area, like psykers or daemons and Invocation (WP) allows me to add a bonus to my psychic power rolls, which I'll get to in a second.
Next up are my Talents, bonuses that reflect my training with weapons and a few other things. I start off with Melee Weapons Training (Primitive) which lets me use swords, axes and such .
My starting gear is relatively sparse, but awesome. I'm going to pick an axe out of the available weapons, because I like axes. I'm going to pick a stub revolver and 3 bullets out of the ranged weapons because there's something cool about wielding gunpowder weapons in a space game. I also get some poor quality robes, a book of saints names to meditate on and a nice, prominent sanctioning brand somewhere, let's say right between my shoulder blades.
I start with a Trait, called Sanctioned Psyker, reflecting the physical and spiritual rigours my character undertook aboard the black ships to strengthen me against the Warp. This gives me some kind of feature. Rolling on the relevant table, I get Screaming Devotions, meaning my ruined vocal chords have been replaced with a mechanical voicebox. Apart from making me sound weird, this has no in-game effect.
Being a psyker also gives me psychic powers. My character has a Psy Rating of 1. To understand what this means, I'll explain how psychic powers work. Each power has a Threshold. When using a power, you roll a number of dice equal to your psy rating, add your willpower bonus and if you beat the threshold, the power works. In my case, my character will be rolling 1d10+3. I start off with a number of Minor Psychic Powers equal to half my Willpower Bonus rounded up, in this case 2. These are small tricks my character can use. With my sanctioning trait, I think I might pick voiced themed ones. I'm going to grab Warp Howl, which drowns out all sound within 50m for 1 round. I'm also going to pick Forget Me which can potentially cause a target to forget I ever existed. You can eventually get far more powerful psychic powers, but that's far above my rank at the moment.
Step 4) Spend Experience Points, Buy Equipment
This step is actually three steps combined into one. The first bit is to work out some derived statistics. Wounds are your hit points, how much damage your character can take before dying a horrible, messy death. How many you start off with is determined by your home world+d5, in my case 8+d5 for a total of 11. Next up is Fate Points, as I explained earlier these allow you to mitigate harmful effects or reroll a test. Again, these are determined by a random roll depending on your home world. In my case, I start off with 2. Then we have Move, which determines how many metres I can move around, as dictated by my agility bonus. Turns out I can move 2 metres as Half an Action, 4 metres as a Full Action, Charge 6 metres and Run 12 metres.
Now we have Wealth and Equipment to sort out. Apart from the stuff I get for being a psyker, I get some Throne Geld, the imperial currency, which I can spend on goods and/or services. Being a psyker, I get to roll 50+1d5 starting geld, which results in a total of 52. I'm not going to spend any of it, I'll keep it on hand for stuff as required.
Now I get to spend my starting experience. Each character starts with 400xp they can use to buy new skills or talents. Each thing you buy is going to cost at least 100xp, so generally characters will have no more than 4 picks. I'm going to start off with Pistol Training (SP) which lets me use my stub pistol without accidentally shooting myself or something. Next I'll take the Unremarkable talent, which gives people a -20 penalty on rolls to remember me, which is good synergy with my Forget Me psychic power. Finally, I'm spending the remaining 200xp on Simple Advances for my Intelligence and Willpower stats, increasing them by 5 each. You can do this for every attribute, but the cost is different depending on your career path. I couldn't afford a Fellowship increase at a whopping 500 points, for example.
Step 5) Bringing Your Character to Life
Hey cool, they have a whole bunch of tables that help me flesh out my character's appearance! I guess I'll start with gender, since I haven't gotten done that yet. Flipping a coin, my character is a man. Rolling under the relevant category of the Build Table, my dude is Svelte, weighing 70kg and standing at about 180cm (that's roughly my size, in fact). On the Age table, my character starts off at 45 years old, but the Sanctionite trait increases my age by 23 years to a total of 68, quite old! Rolling on the Skin table, my character has dyed skin, I'm going to say blue and white much like the warriors in Braveheart. Next up is Black Hair and Grey Lenses over his eyes. Finally, on the Physical Quirk table, I get Make-Up. Guess cosmetics and dyes are a big part of his home world.
Speaking of which, they have an awesome table for Imperial Worlders which randomly determines what kind of Birth Planet they came from. Rolling on that, it appears my guy came from some kind of Agri-World, a farming planet that provides food for the Imperium. I think I can build a bit of a history here. My guy used to be a landowner on his agri-planet, a member of the wealthy merchant class with a few dozen acres to call his own. On his planet, cosmetics and dyes are used to denote status. Unfortunately when he developed psychic powers his fortune didn't save him and he was dragged away in the Black Ships to be sanctioned like every other psyker. He still paints his face and wears his grey lenses as a reminder of what he once was.
Each character also gets to roll on the Imperial Divination Table. Many characters undergo a strange, dark rite when they become an acolyte that divines their fortune. This comes saddled with a small mechanical effect. My prophecy is Thought begets Heresy, Heresy begets Retribution, which increases my strength characteristic by +3. Not exactly thematic, but ah well.
My final step, oddly, shall be a name. There are several tables to choose from here, including Primitive, High and Informal. I'm going to go with the Archaic table, to reflect the almost fuedalistic nature of his homeworld. I finally have a name for my character and it is Alaric. I'm going to give him the honorific The Calm. Back before his powers developed, he was known as a cruel man with an explosive temper. But his time on the Black Ships humbled him considerably and he now fears getting angry out of reflex.
The Finished Product
Alaric the Calm
WS 29 BS 27 S 30 T 32 Ag 26 Int 34 Per 27 WP 41 Fel 27
Movement: 2/4/6/12 Wounds: 11 Fate Points: 2
Skills: Invocation (WP), Literacy (Int), Speak Language (Low Gothic) (Int), Psyniscience (Per), Trade (Merchant)
Talents: Melee Weapons Training (Primitive), Minor Psychic Power (x2), Pistol Training (SP), Psy Rating 1, Unremarkable
Psychic Powers (Psy rating 1): Forget Me (Thresh. 6/ Half Action/Me); Warp Howl (8/Full Action/50m)
Armour: Quilted Vest (Body 2)
Weapons: Axe, stub revolver (3 shots)
Gear: 53 Geld, Book of Saints, Robes, Vox Caster
How I'd Run It
I have two vague, short campaign arc ideas for this game. The first is a couple of jotted notes for 'A Very Heresy Christmas', which consists of an ice planet with elf-like mutants and a fat, red and white demon of Nurgle named Sarant-Nurk whose gifts turn out to be diseases. There'd be a lot of terrible Christmas puns and it would all finish with a small child going 'Emperor bless us, everyone'.
The second, somewhat more seriously thought out idea I have given the working title 'Father Strangelove or How I learnt to stop worrying and love Chaos', where the PCs, instead of playing as acolytes are the hangers on of a nascent chaos cult. It hasn't yet reached the point of 'blood for the blood god' yet and is all about free love, open mindedness and accepting everyone, even if they are filthy mutants. Basically, play them up as sympathetic, though give them a chance or two to turn to the dark side for power. Of course it would inevitably end with the community being wiped out by forces of the Emperor and depending on the player's actions it could be a riff of Thelma & Louise (passionate rebels getting killed defying the law) or The Devil's Rejects (psychopaths rushing the law while Freebird plays in the background).