Categorized | RPGs

Dark Heresy (Warhammer) RPG Review

Posted on March 8, 2008 by Flames

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We’ve been waiting a really, really, really long time for a Warhammer 40,000 RPG. I remember buying Rogue Trader – and still have it somewhere in a folder, it having fallen apart with use – and the promise in that was of a full-on Warhammer 40,000 RPG arriving at some point in the near future. That was 1987, it is now 2008 and, finally we get our Warhammer 40,000 RPG. It has a lot to live up Dark Heresy, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay was pretty much a masterpiece and gave D&D a run for its money in UK popularity, the wargames have ensnared generations of kids in their clutches and the 2nd Edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, despite being a supplement treadmill and despite getting zero support from Games Workshop, was a success as well. Then, just as Dark Heresy does come out, and sells out pretty much immediately, we learn that GW/Black Industries are dropping ALL their roleplay etc lines, triumph and tragedy in one fell swoop.

Fortunately we now find out that Fantasy Flight Games have taken on the licenses, so there’s respite, but – frankly – GW have been kicking roleplayers in the tits like this since around the time of White Dwarf issue 100. I think a lot of us had hoped that the runaway success of WFRP and Dark Heresy would turn them around, get the games back in their stores and lead to a renaissance of British roleplaying, but it seems not. Still, you can’t score a game on crappy company policies, more’s the pity. Still, finally we have the game and like an excited little gamer all over again, I bought it.

Dark Heresy is a lovely book, it evokes the feel of the Imperium all over again and it’s a heavy book, topping out at nearly 400 pages while WFRP tops at at nearly 250 pages. It’s also remarkable in that, for all that extra page count, it somehow manages to accomplish far less than WFRP does. WFRP is a complete RPG, it contains everything you need to get going and playing in a broad variety of scenarios and set ups. Dark Heresy isn’t, and doesn’t. It is extremely tightly focussed on one mode of play – one that should be familiar to players of the half-arsed pseudo-rpg Inquisitor. This is basically Inquisitor with brass-knobs on and a fresh coat of paint, moved away from the miniature figures set up. In Dark Heresy you ARE servants of the Imperium, you ARE human (no abhumans) and you ARE the retinue of a Mary Sue Inquisitor, running around as his dogsbodies. You’re also restricted to a very tight career path, limited in equipment and hemmed in and railroaded on all sides.

The layout and artwork is stunning, I can’t fault it on any level but it does lack some of the grand flair we’ve seen other companies being capable of in their presentation. When you compare Dark Heresy to something like Qin or Cadwallon it no longer looks quite so accomplished or polished and, I would say, even lacks some of the brilliance of the old Rogue Trader, alas. That said the actual artwork is all up to modern standard with the Clint Langely pieces being particularly stand-out. There’s still something ‘missing’ a bit though, it’s just not quite as ‘crazy’ or quite as gothically baroque as many of the old Warhammer art pieces were, not that it isn’t good, but there just isn’t quite as much coherence of vision.

The writing is clear and workmanlike, so no complaints here. It does what it needs to do capably and well and, other than a few hard to read typefaces, the actual physical writing is clear and the book doesn’t succumb to ‘Ostentatious Border Syndrome’ (OBS, which is an affliction I just made up that affects many RPG companies).

The rules… well, what can you say about the rules really? If you know Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay then you pretty much know what you’re going to get in Dark Heresy so far as combat, skills, abilities and so on are concerned. It works well, the combat is fast enough, deadly and gory and the Psi Powers stand in – pretty much – for magic. All well and good, proven system, perfectly capable and great for a more gritty sort of game. Huzzahs all around and back home for tea and medals then.


Rather than the wide open nature of WFRP the character creation and career options Dark Heresy has a ‘class’ based system where you’re locked into a career type from the moment you’re out of the gate, all you can do is specialise and select sub-classes, you can’t swap around and you don’t get the same wonderful background progression that you got in WFRP. Look, the comparisons are inevitable and, frankly, Dark Heresy falls down on this one. It actually manages to accomplish LESS in 400 pages than WFRP does in 250. Less options, less understanding of the universe, less character creation options, instead largely replaced by 40 pages of an adventure, 40 pages of background on the Calixis sector – which we don’t need and more specifics on the Inquisition, which are part of the problem of the constriction of the game.

That 100 odd pages would have been of far more use giving a more complete career system, one with a lot more options, some details on playing Abuhumans or expanding the bestiary to include some of the better known Xeno races.

The character paths etc are a massive leap BACKWARDS for RPG design without even a saving grace of ‘multiclassing’ which even D&D has made just about standard. From the inspiring possibilities of WFRP we’re pared down to a handful of ‘character classes’ all of whom have to play second fiddle to an off-screen Inquisitor and it will take a hell of a lot of work for anyone to salvage the game to be a truly open RPG again. Of course… that’s the hook to sell you their upcoming ‘games’ in the same line, including a Rogue Trader one – but each of these seems to fall victim to the same problem. Each game book details a particular specific instance for a character group, but it doesn’t look like any of them will be open enough to be a truly open RPG.

I’ve nothing against specifics in certain games, SLA Industries has you – in a standard campaign – as being operatives to SLA. But it doesn’t take much tinkering at all in that game to run different campaigns. Dark Heresy is hardwired all the way through to constrict, confine and channel and that’s like being railroaded even before you start playing.

Listen up FFG, this approach STINKS!

* Great production values.
* Long awaited, so even with its flaws its good.
* Should drag some wargamers kicking and screaming into RPGs.

* It’s Inquisitor with the serial numbers filed off.
* It’s not being sold in GW stores, wankers.
* It’s not even close to a full RPG.

Style: 4 (Polished, but lacking that ‘flare’ of brilliance)
Substance: 3 (There is a lot of substance, but the game’s tight focus reduces its usefulness)
Overall: 3.5

Review by James ‘Grim’ Desborough

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4 Responses to “Dark Heresy (Warhammer) RPG Review”

  1. kate flack says:

    Hi James,

    thanks for the review- its good to see clear, consistent style being used.

    I have a little challenge for you regarding the careers system.

    Many reviews have slammed Dark Heresy for resembling the D&D class system. I can see how at first glance folks might make this assumption.

    It LOOKS similar, but it PLAYS very differently. I would love to see you review this system once more having played four or five sessions of the game.

    Do you think you have time for this?


  2. TOMB says:

    An honest sounding review. It looks like DH will be a tolerable game. I think I might pick it up now, if I can find it, given the balanced appraisal you have given it. I expect that it will take an experience GM to iron out any kinks. And with a space-based RPG the GM can dispose of difficult characters in hideously explosive ways!

  3. harry says:

    im am a old hand at sc-fi ive played lasserburn for years.
    dark herasy is a good seet of rules,you dont have to stick to the carrer paths you make your ownup all you want is all the stats,you need in a game ie how to shoot how to doe any actions and thats rpg you work out your game plans and can you do it ,if none of you have tryed lasserburn try them good isant the word,
    dark herasy 8 out of 10
    harry killer of shadows

  4. Mike says:

    I’m going to evaluate the new Rogue Trader for my own blog very soon, planning on including player comments on how the game works, how character creation works, and how understandable the world is.

    To be honest, I do see your point about the careers of Dark Heresy, though I think you may misunderstand their nature. I see Dark Heresy as more along the lines of Call of Cthulhu than Dungeons and Dragons, where your characters are investigators sent to root out the heretic, the mutant, and the alien. I suppose it’s possible for an Arbitrator to become an Imperial Guardsman, and vice-versa, but for some games I think multi-classing distracts players from the very essence of the game.

    Plus, since magic isn’t a part of the 40k universe, being specialized to a “career” is actually a good thing. You are cross-trained in your career to handle as wide a variety of things that you may face and do that well. It is the technology and the authority you have as an Acolyte of an Inquisitor that makes you head and shoulders more capable than your typical Warhammer Fantasy (or any fantasy) character. And you’ll need it; because what you face in the 41st Millennium is probably worse than what you may face in a fantasy setting.

    Because it’s not just the monsters you have to face off with in 40k, it’s the corruption and the apathy of Man, with their own loyalties and desires that can really make Dark Heresy fun to play.

    I’ll let you know how Rogue Trader goes.

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