Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Going Rogue

I’ve recently been running Lure of the Expanse for Rogue Trader, and I have to say, it’s been a really fun time. I’ve been wanting to run a science-fiction campaign for some time, after playing in Doug’s Dark Heresy game for Fright Night Splinter of Corruption, and Rogue Trader is the first game that really appealed to me as a premise. Rogue Trader seems to do a lot of things well, I’ve already written about how it formalises the individual vs group paradigm in a way that works with the current published material, so I thought I might expand my thoughts on why Rogue Trader is currently hitting the spot.

First, the core system has a fair bit of crunch. Rogue Trader is a slightly tweaked version of the Dark Heresy system, which, in turn is a slightly tweaked version of the core WFRP 2nd ed. System. What this means is that there are a lot of pages in the book devoted to character paths, and a lot devoted to equipment. Trying to read this cold is a bit of a hard task unless you just love this kind of detailed abstraction. Personally, I don’t, and I struggle to prioritise this reading over my scenario prep and broader reading for the setting, which leave me feeling a little behind the curve on the characters. Not a big problem, games like D&D 4th ed. showed that you can compartmentalise characters from the GM tools, if you do this in a consistent and balanced way.

Unfortunately Rogue Trader lacks the finesse and completeness of 4th ed. D&D in this regard, leaving the players sometimes confused and working to integrate several sections of rules. This is no worse than many old-school games of this ilk, but much like the games on which Rogue Trader has been based, a casual player will spend a fair chunk of the game flicking through the rules – so you’d better have multiple rulebooks if you don’t want to slow the game right down.

Next, combat. Again, this is a fairly traditional fare, which is fairly reminiscent of D&D 3.5. However, unlike 3.5 which, more or less, required you to use a map or tactical layout, you can get by in small scale Rogue Trader encounters without such tools. This is mostly due to the ‘exploding’ dice mechanic (like in WFRP) which can unexpectedly truncate combat, and the presence of a combat specialist in most Rogue Trader’s retinues. Unfortunately, if you want to run a larger combats you really do need some kind of tactical materials, plus, as with WFRP in the GM chair there are inevitably a large number of special abilities and traits to look up (and, not being familiar with the character section works against you here) which adds to the prep time for a given game.

I should have said the above section refers to personal combat, because in Rogue Trader starship combat is also something you can do. So far it seems fairly cool, although we have only lightly touched on it to date.

That brings me to the neat stuff about Rogue Trader. First the themes: exploration and profit. Powerful ideas which go to the heart of many games, especially games like D&D. By making the quest for plunder explicit, then abstracting the actual mechanic to a generic profit factor, there is a lot of scope for excellent roleplay and creative approaches, without being bogged down in endless tables with prices etc. The exploration theme is strong as well. As a Rogue Trader you are a privateer, usually operating in the Expanse, a lawless and wild part of space with a full range of science fiction possibilities – from hostile aliens, to haunted ships, to planets which seem like paradise but with a deadly secret, and pretty much everything in-between. Balance this against the traditional 40K setting (mankind besieged by the forces of chaos, cult of the god-emperor, scientific dark-age, xenophobia etc.) and you get a nifty setting, with some reasonable boundaries on the characters, but also a good amount of scope for whatever you care to do.

The neat mechanical abstraction mechanic carries through to starship management. Crew morale and population have rating out of 100, and most of the management challenges simply draw on this system. Have a nasty virus outbreak? No problem, lose 1D5% of your crew population. Too long in the warp?  Minus 1D5% crew morale.  Quell a mutiny with violence? Sure thing, the crew morale might not drop by much, but you’ll lose more of your crew, abstracting pitched battles, barricades and hundreds or even thousands of combatants. It’s simple, and allows for some great roleplaying, without getting bogged down in detail.
Then there are the achievement points and endeavours.  A neat, abstract, way to construct a scenario, with the group collectively earning achievement points, which they 'spend' to complete the current endeavour.  Get enough points, you've completed the task.  This system runs parallel to traditional experience points for characters.  I like this compartmentalisation, but really the achievement points, as they are, have little relevence to the players.  It might have been better to allow them to cash these in to gain additional fate points, perhaps change a narrative detail, automatically suceed in a test that effects the whole ship, or prevent a villain from spending their fate points.

So far, every session in the campaign has delivered a different kind of experience, based largely on shifting the spotlight to different characters at key moments, while also forcing group decision making – which makes for a fairly cohesive experience. The challenges and environments have been diverse, while also barely scraping the surface of the sci-fi genre. The adventure material does suffer a little from ambitious scope of the setting.  The Lure of the Expanse details no less than half a dozen planets and other more exotic locales, like Footfall (think a sci-fi version of Tortuga), a space station and trading port built into an asteroid - yet, understandably there are only 5-6 pages detailing each of these locales, meaning that much improvisation is required if the players decide to explore a little more broadly.  The game would be enhanced by more releases which detail planets, systems and sectors and contain side adventures, like was done for WFRP 2e, but then I'm not sure how well these sold. 

I'd also like to see more adventures.  Lure is great, and I like it enough I want to return and run The Warpstorm Trilogy after Beyond the Mountains of Madness later this year, but more adventures rather than more rules and options books would be nice.  The game also suffers from fairly standard Fantasy Flight 40K RPG issues - rubbish index in every book, poorly thought out GM screen (although nicely made) and a range of proofing errors.  On the plus side there are several free adventures, complete with mini-system summary you can download, and I imagine the material in Rogue Trader ports fairly easily into other 40K RPG game systems.  Overall, a really strong game, and one I'm glad I decided to purchase.

Oh, and make sure you check out Andy's excellent novelisation of a scene from last weeks game 'The Bull and the Wasp'.


  1. The 40K RPGs are doing pretty well at the moment, consistently placed after D&D and Pathfinder as a group. They are also really the only new big RPG on the block in the last few years.

    I think I would enjoy running and playing them myself, given my similar starting point to yours. I did find myself actually struggling with the setting at times and, mechanically, I don't think they did much to improve on the WFRP2e base, which seems a lot lighter in comparison.

  2. I'm also really enjoying playing Rogue Trader, and would add a couple of other points about why it's working so well.

    Firstly, although the game is on the grimdark 40K, it's not as oppressive as the other games in the series, and is open to more humour (or that's at least how we play it). It reminds me of the original Warhammer 40K rules, which I thought had wonderful depth.

    Secondly, it supports ensemble play well, with the command structure of the game allocating spotlight time for each character. That way it never really feels like you're not engaged.

    Finally, the awesome group of players you have surely must also deserve some credit ;-)

  3. As a Warhammer newbie playing the Rogue Trader, it was hard to grasp from a role-playing perspective initially, since the grim universe and humor seemed to be oddly intertwined and the character generation and progress system seemed so unnecessarily complex.

    Since the setting and characters are so exotic, it was hard to relate to them for 'serious' role-play.

    Now that we have a better idea of how the mechanics work, and we stress the humor rather than the darkness, we spend more time playing (or blundering one skill test after another) and I'm enjoying it far more.

    Its fun game in a rich sci-fi universe and I'm really looking forward to encountering new worlds and cultures, and pillaging them.