Games Workshop has been offering players detailed tactical combat games using miniatures since the Warhammer series was first invented back in 1983. Many tabletop miniatures battles have been fought between Space Marines, Orcs, Xenos, Chaos Marines and the other races and factions that inhabit the dark world of the Imperium. Most of the video game adaptations follow similar paths, being mostly turn-based or real-time strategy titles, with some first-person shooter or action-oriented games thrown into the mix for good measure. But while most of the titles offered so far have detailed histories due to being set in that universe, there has never really been a deep role-playing game for Warhammer before now.
Enter developer Owlcat Games, which gained a lot fame and success following the launch of Pathfinder: Kingmaker and later Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous. Those were traditional RPGs, and both were really highly scored in reviews by GiN and most other publications. Each also picked up several RPG of the year awards when they released.
But we have not heard a lot from Owlcat Games in recent years, other than putting out several DLCs for the Wrath of the Righteous game. It seems like the reason for that was because they were working on Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader. For someone who enjoys the “grimdark” world of Warhammer and also plays a lot of RPGs, Rogue Trader seems perfect, and other than a few drawbacks and flaws, it lives up to those expectations.
Apparently, there is a tabletop version of the Rogue Trader system, but I have never seen it and did not know anything about it. As such, when I saw the name Rogue Trader, I envisioned playing someone like a Han Solo type of character. Instead, a Rogue Trader is more like a John D. Rockefeller type, who has probably never been the subject of a game outside of maybe a Tycoon type title. It turns out that Rogue Traders are fantastically wealthy, as in they often own several star systems plus all the resources, businesses and even the people living on dozens of worlds. They might have trillions of subjects and servants, and get to travel around space inside massive spaceship fortresses where entire generations of servants live and die serving their Rogue Trader dynasty. And for just one more crazy example of the wealth involved, at one point you can gift an entire planet to a potential love interest. I hope they like it in blue.
Rogue Traders are so wealthy and powerful because the Emperor of Mankind has provided their families with special Warrants of Trade that allow them to explore outside the Imperium into unknown space, bringing the word and wisdom of mankind to new star systems – and then claiming everything they find and subjugate there for themselves. Other than the emperor and maybe high-ranking inquisition officials, Rogue Traders are pretty much the most powerful people in the universe. Rogue Trader dynasties are also hereditary, with Warrants and ships passed down from generation to generation. Even the massive void ships that they command are designed to only respond to captains with the DNA of the dynasty’s family, ensuring only true lines of succession by blood.
You begin Rogue Trader as a distant relative of Theodora Von Valancius, the current head of the Von Valancius Rogue Trader dynasty which has been serving the Imperium of Man for millennia. Despite whatever character history you generate, (I was a successful naval officer in my first playthrough) you are brought onboard the dynastic flagship seemingly on a whim by Theodora to act as a lackey or servant to her because I guess she wanted another family member to boss around. Perhaps she has more in mind for you, but you only get a little bit of time with her before events happen that lead to her death, and the death of another family member on the same ship. And just like that, you are made both the captain and the head of the Von Valancius Rogue Trader dynasty, simply because your blood is the only thing that will convince the ship to go anywhere. Talk about a nice promotion and a really busy first day on a new job.
Despite all your wealth and newfound power, most Rogue Traders apparently take a pretty hands-on approach to their trade, meaning you will need to build up a core crew of companions which you will take on various away-team missions. Here, Rogue Trader plays like other Owlcat Games titles where you will be going on quests, solving problems, deepening your bonds with your companions and fighting a lot of turn-based, tactical battles.
As one might expect from a title based on Warhammer, combat is a huge part of the experience in Rogue Trader. Almost every fight at first seems like it has the odds stacked against you, but your main character and the rest of your party have access to incredibly powerful special abilities that when used correctly can easily turn the tide in most battles using a combination of technology, sorcery and surprisingly low-tech problem solvers like axes and swords. It’s pretty darn cool to find yourself charging into battle with a laser pistol or a miniature flame thrower in one hand and an electrified club or life-stealing sword in another.
For the most part, the tactical combat seems balanced, although the difficulty can ramp up amazingly fast with no warning. The maps you will be exploring also tend to have a lot of optional encounters and hidden areas which I would highly recommend finding since that will help your team level up more quickly (you will need that to survive in the later chapters of Rogue Trader). Totally exploring every map will also often uncover a lot of loot, sometimes including artifact-level gear that is pretty amazing.
There is also space combat for when your ship needs to battle other vessels. The space combat does not seem quite as well-defined as the land-based fighting and seems to rely on making sure that you have the right crew members from your retinue assigned to key positions on your vessel like the navigator or the master of cannons so that they can use their special abilities to give you an edge in combat. I enjoyed the ship versus ship combat, but also found it to be pretty challenging at times.
The storytelling and roleplaying aspects of Rogue Trader are well done. There are a lot of overlapping quests and missions to go on. You will often visit a planet or other location because you are tracking down something as part of one mission, and then get tied up in a bunch of other things once you set your boots on the ground. Choices also seem to have meaningful consequences, which is nice, although some of them won’t be fully realized until much later in the title. Also note that this is a very dark setting, so the best choice you can make might just be the one that is least bad.
Being a title that is ostensibly about a trader, it’s not surprising that trade also makes up a big part of it. There is a really interesting interface for that too where there is no actual money in Rogue Trader. Given that you quickly become one of the wealthiest people in the known universe right in the prologue, asking players to scrap together a few dollars to buy a new suit of armor or a laser pistol would be kind of silly. So instead, when you visit a merchant, you are shown two key factors that determine what you can take from them. Yes, take.
The first element is your profit factor, which is a measurement of how successful you are as a Rogue Trader, and which generally increases as you complete missions. If you do a planetary governor a favor, he might gift you several thousand servants to work on your ship, which increases your profit factor. The other key measurement is your reputation with the faction you are trading with. You can increase that by giving them blocks of items that they really want. So, for example, you will probably collect a thousand weapons from fallen enemies. They get shipped to your cargo hold and sorted into blocks of goods which you can give to a faction to improve your standing. Then, if both your profit factor and your reputation are high enough, you can just take whatever items the trader is offering. Higher level items like powerful combat enhancers or things that permanently buff your character might be sitting at high profit or reputational tiers, but if you meet those criteria, the merchant will happily gift wrap them for you without a dime ever changing hands.
On the negative side, the character powers, the leveling up process and the systems that govern combat are really overly complicated. Many times, I had to look up what something did and how it benefited me in combat, plus which attributes, abilities and feats were connected to it. That said, with great complexity comes great responsibility to exploit the situation. Once I figured everything out, I was able to put together a really powerful party with some characters taking five or six actions every turn, using area of effect attacks, triggering heroic actions, smashing enemy frontlines and generally mowing down all opposition, often times before the majority of the enemies could even take a turn. I just had to restart the adventure and rebuild everything once I finally figured out what was going on and how to game the system.
Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader is easily one of the best sci-fi RPGs to come out in a long time. If you are looking for a really nice role-playing experience without an elf or a dragon in sight, then give Rogue Trader a try to bring glory to your dynasty, yourself and the glorious Imperium. And may the Emperor protect you on that journey.