When making an RPG adaptation of a miniatures wargame, nuance and crunch in combat is expected. You have to do the source material justice, and since “In the 41st Millennium there is Only War”, a 40K RPG is always going to put the violence centre stage. But there’s a difference between presenting tactical options and needlessly complicating things, and crunchy should not mean clunky. The sheer number of difficulty modifiers in Rogue Trader is impossible to remember, necessitating reference material at every gaming session. Combine that with incredibly long lists of skills, talents and wargear, and the “strategy” of Rogue Trader’s combat is more about knowing all the rules and remembering which apply than it is about skillful manipulation of your environment.
Still, it’s 40K, and as a fan of the wargame since I was 12, nostalgia mandates I give it a pass. It’s clear the creators love the universe too, because that grimdark flavour leaks from every page, with in-universe quotes accompanying every new heading. Fantasy Flight books are expensive, but their production values partially justify that – the book is beautiful, and classic artwork is accompanied by plenty of new material. It’s a shame not as much care was paid to editing. Many rules, copy-pasted straight out of Dark Heresy first edition, refer players to completely the wrong page.
Rogue Trader has unusually in-depth character creation, and an incredibly restrictive class-based advancement system that I’m totally on board with. Though it leads to some weirdness (it takes a whole campaign before your Rogue Trader is high enough level to learn to swim), the inflexibility of advancement feels an appropriate fit for the socially-immobile dystopian setting. Rogue Trader also gets bonus points for being the only 40K RPG to acknowledge the “space” in “space opera”, and remember to include rules for starships. Though the actual mechanics are hit and miss (running multiple NPC vessels is an absolute pain to GM), having your own spaceship successfully reinforces the book’s motif of self-sufficiency. Other 40K PCs are beholden to Inquisitors, military commanders or daemonic patrons; Rogue Traders are beholden only to themselves.
For all the game’s mechanical awkwardness, there are enough sockets plugged in to the setting to make it feel cohesive. I’d never use 40K’s system to run any other game… But if I was running a game set in the 40K universe, I wouldn’t use any other system.
(I never review a game I haven’t played or run. Check out https://michaelduxbury.com/category/reviews/ for more RPG reviews.)