This post will be mostly unintelligible to anyone not familiar with the Warhammer 40,000 universe and associated games. I don’t particularly want to double its length by trying to explain all the references, but I do apologise. You may want to move on.
As one of our friends sometimes remarks, Dan and Arthur and I talk about Warhammer all the time. Okay, the original wording was a little different. In fairness, we had returned to the subject for the fourth or fifth time that day in the brief span of time she’d left the room for. It’s not entirely accurate, but we do spend quite a lot of time discussing the setting, the books and the games. Especially since our recent Deathwatch game, a lot of this energy has gone into discussing the Warhammer 40K RPG line, which is slowly building up. There’s games for playing Imperial Inquisitors rooting out agents of corruption, for playing Space Marines battling xenos horrors, for playing Chaos Space Marines scheming against everyone and plotting the downfall of the Imperium, for playing Rogue Traders making murky deals and looking to the main chance on the fringes of Imperial space, and (most recently) for playing Imperial Guard on the grim battlefields of the 41st Millennium.
So far, there’s been very little sign of the non-human races. That seems a shame. There are some rules for including the odd eldar or even ork in Rogue Trader, but on the whole the humanity of the whole line is staggering. That’s a particular shame because one of the strengths of the 40K setting is the variety of races, all of whom have their own bizarre quirks and lives, and attract different people. For example, I feel a particular affection for eldar (as an old eldar player in the tabletop game) and for orks (who doesn’t?). At the moment, there’s not much scope for people who’d like to follow the adventures of their own chosen species in a more intimate RP game. As it happens, one of the things that left me drifting away from 40K was that the pure tactical basis of the game lost my interest, and I was always wanting to create interesting stories and adventures out of things, which gets a bit difficult when 80% of the army dies each battle and the game fundamentally boils down to reckoning the odds.
We spent a while talking about the chances of them bringing out some xenos (that is, non-human) game lines, and we’re not that optimistic. Broadly speaking, the main difficulty seems to be that the Imperium of Man (and its opposite, the human-based end of Chaos) has received a colossally disproportionate share of attention in terms of worldbuilding.
Now to be fair, there are some good reasons. For one, the Imperium is the main premise of the whole setting, and so needs to be well-established. For another, it’s a sprawling hypocritical mess of squabbling and dubiously-aligned forces with their own agendas, which gives a lot of starting points for fiction and fluff, whereas at least some of the alien races are considerably more unified. For a third, the way it’s built on recognisable elements of human behaviour and cultures (however twisted) has made it relatively straightforward to build on over time, since both the behaviour patterns and the cultural trappings could be extrapolated from reality, whereas trying to create an entire alien society out of whole cloth is a massive undertaking. And for a fourth, it’s really an awful lot easier to write things from the viewpoint of humans that to try and consider this fictional universe as an alien might.
Nevertheless, this has left xenocentric RPGs rather difficult to create. You really need a solid set of character concepts, cultures and general objectives for RPGs to work around, which don’t necessarily fit well into the tabletop model. For example, Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader both have the players taking the roles of Imperial agents who don’t generally appear on the battlefield, but operate at a political and social level. These roles are well-established in the background but have only occasionally had a look-in on the tabletop game. What do you do with races that only really exist in tabletop or as cannon fodder in a human-based novel? What you don’t want is “Orks, the RPG”. It’s simply too generic, without core concepts to shape the sort of person you are or the sort of thing you do. There is prominently no RPG where you are some kind of member of the Imperium and do some stuff. They have niches.
We spent a while discussing the sorts of RPGs you could theoretically create for other races, and we did manage to come up with a few ideas.
This is a sort of parallel to the Rogue Trader game. You play as ork mercenaries and pirates, sailing the Warp in search of plunder, but not entirely averse to the odd bit of trade. Basically your objectives are to increase the infamy and status of yourselves and your fleet, and in the process to have a good time fighting things that move and smashing or stealing things that don’t. It might borrow from the Imperial Guard’s Only War game, which has buddy mechanics to represent the squad-based nature of IG combat, by having the PCs as squad leaders. Orks even come with built-in classes in the shape of roles like the Mekboy, Mad Dok, Weirdboy, Kommando and Nob.
Elves in spaaaaace! Exodites barely exist in the current canon, but older editions included them as tabletop units, and though I never took any I liked the idea. Lower-tech eldar with a subsistence lifestyle, warrior culture and pet dragons. What’s not to like? This kind of setting is actually considerably easier to imagine than the ultratech of the Craftworlds, with their prophecy-based politics and completely unknown lifestyles. What I’d basically end up doing with this would be something very like D&D in space. Exodite heroes defend their settlements from native and alien threats, explore ruins, and generally achieve awesome with blade and (possibly) spell. It’s a little bit Princess of Mars, a little bit Moorcock, and generally cool.
The weird and creepy assassin-mimes of eldarity, mixing with both eldar and dark eldar with song and story, guarding secret lore and doing all kinds of really really bizarre and terrifying things. They’re also skilled and powerful individuals with unique technology, perfect for a special agent-type game. Harlequins are a law unto themselves, not allied to any of their race’s powers, and worshipping their own trickster god. It might have a little in common with Dark Heresy - nobody can entirely trust you and nobody is precisely your ally, so paranoia and conspiracy will run rampant. They’re also perhaps the most likely to infiltrate other races with their illusory technology.
A game of eldar Outcasts. Eldar who can’t take the restrictions of Craftworld life, but aren’t Exodites or inclined that way, wander the galaxy in search of purpose. There’s a lot of individual story potential here, because the deal with Outcasts is their search for personal meaning and their struggle between the poles of conformity, freedom, control, whim, survival and destruction. Failure to control themselves will lead them down the path of decadence, selfishness and hedonism, which ends ultimately in the jaws of Slaanesh. At the same time, Outcasts have a lot of opportunity to do strange things and take on missions from all kinds of people, from joining human rogue trader expeditions to harvesting soulstones in the Eye of Terror for their estranged Craftworlds.
Tau Fire caste warriors are another straightforward example. Their purpose in life is pre-ordained, and so they have a strong common bond much like Space Marines (which works pretty well in Deathwatch). There’s scope for them to have fairly different personalities, while still working well together in pursuit of the Greater Good. This game might work quite a lot like Deathwatch, with the tau taking on mission-appropriate gear and then taking on special missions. They have a range of cool options ranging from standard troopers to infiltrators to full-blown mecha, giving a lot of options for varying playstyle. While tau are perhaps a little too weak for individual fighting, particularly in melee, they could benefit from a buddy-system through either teammates or the ubiquitous battle drones. There’s also the option of complicating matters by introducing the kroot.
Come on, they’re pretty much perfect. They live lives of constant dread, conspiracy and decadence. To be a dark eldar is to plot and scheme, always seeking new ways to consolidate your position and new horrors to perpetuate in the hope of fending off Slaanesh. This could perhaps be a game of intrigue and politics, backed up with treachery and violence. It could also be a spies-and-assassins game with less influence-gathering and more action. The latter would be okay suited for small groups – I feel like the first one could end up best suited to a Vampire-style group LARP.
Dark Eldar Raiders
Forget the constant treacheries of Commoragh for a minute. Killing and enslaving is a genuine way of life for the dark eldar, and a game built around that could be pretty fun. You lead daring raids on outposts and ships, and forge the occasional deal with those aliens foolish enough to believe they can bargain with you. The more powerful the slaves you take, the greater their value, so the game would push for heroic action (well, ‘heroic’ is a fickle word).
While there’s already a lot of Imperial games, I’d also love to see systems for playing Arbites (the Judge Dredds of the 40K universe). It’d be a mix of investigative gameplay and combat. Arbites handle everything from ordinary crime to treachery to the first waves of alien invasion, and they’re human enough to be a bit more sympathetic than Marines while being a bit tougher than guards. They also have less of the sociopathic amorality of the Inquisition. You could absolutely play them as Dreddalikes with very little compassion for the average citizen, but certainly in the setting there’s plenty of backing for a more nuanced portrayal.
Priests of Mars
The Tech-Priests of Mars are also crying out for further investigation. They’re human, yet very far from the rest of the Imperium ideologically and culturally, and to be honest they only retain their position within the Imperium because a schism between the two would destroy both.
There’s got to be more. Those are just the ones I can remember us discussing. If the alien races had more fleshed-out backgrounds, there’d be more hooks to develop games around. It’s a nice thought.