Monday, 6 November 2017

Rogue Trader - The Opening Statement


That is the first full statement you read in the 1987 Warhammer 40,000 : Rogue Trader rule book.

It was important.



30 years after it's release it's still really important to me and to a whole load of gamers of a similar vintage.

The book that it introduces started the massive, world encompassing game that exists today.

The thing is (and there is always a thing), the people who play the game today have a very different point of view than people like me. Think about it. If you were introduced to 40K at any time in the last 20 years, then your experience is of an incredibly polished product with gorgeously executed art work and professionally completed layout within perfectly bound hard or soft back books. There is a accessible product with a life cycle (there will be a new edition within a handful of years) and a fixed set of additional purchases (codex, army, scenery, paints, dice, templates etc). You will know that you need troops, elites, heavy support and characters. You will know what kind of game you are going to play and you will know the background fluff of your army. It's all there for you to access. The last 6 -7 editions of the game will all fit that description.

If that is your experience of 40K, coming across Rogue Trader must be a perplexing experience.

Overtime I've come across youtube videos and forum or FB threads that try to tackle the glory that is Rogue Trader. In general the approach is to discuss how weird the book is, how odd the art work is and how wrong the fluff is. Rogue Trader is, to modern gamers, an oddity. A strange reflection of the game they recognise but as if viewed through a cracked mirror. Like the game they know but from an alternative dimension. They must look at the book and wonder if it's real or if it has been produced as an elaborate joke. And when you put yourself in their place, you can kind of understand where their coming from. Even if you came into the game at second edition, this was the introduction to the book.



There you go. Everything you need to know. Modern players will recognise that immediately .




And 4th edition (i think). Job done.

From second ed on you get the "This is a war-game set in the 40K universe. You can fight stuff with Space Marines. Get your dice on". You have a game within a framework. Brilliant.

If that is your experience of 40K then opening up a copy of Rogue Trader where they say things like 'Invent', 'Create', 'Adventure' and 'Exciting' may well be intimidating. Looking at the pictures and not being able to tell exactly which faction is represented could be mildly disturbing. Knowing all the fluff that came after but being unable to match it's roots can be off putting.
Rogue Trader tends to be treated as a charming oddity, a wrong step before GW got the game right. The strange, alien place where the ideas that coalesced into the modern version of 40K came from.

I can see their point of view.

But it's not what I see when I read Rogue Trader.

Rogue Trader introduces itself as a Sci-fi Adventure game. It mentions Storm Troopers and Death Stars (Star Wars) and Ornithopters (Dune) as well as wild eyed heroes but also explicitly Cinema and TV.
It links Rogue Trader not just to it's own internal story, but to all the other exciting sci-fi possibilities that had been assaulting the teenage minds throughout the late 70's and 80's. You have to consider what it was that Star Wars actually started. That film, and it's sequels where not only defining experiences for kids across the world (hands up if you ever tried to use the force?) but were genuine financial successes.
Film studios sat up and paid attention. From generally being cynical about the idea that audiences would pay to see Sci-fi films (see how long it took for a Star Trek film to actually get the green light), the success of Star Wars (and Close Encounters of the Third Kind for that matter) showed that there was a massive audience for Sci-fi out there and they rushed to cash in on the Sci-fi craze. Star Crash, Message from Space, The Black Hole, Flash Gordon, Star Trek: the Motion Picture, Alien, E.T., Blade Runner, Dune, Terminator and Explorers were just a few films that you could probably find at your local video rental store (remember them?) and in 87 you could see Running Man, Predator, Hellraiser and Robocop at the cinema. Then there was TV, not only re-runs of Star Trek and the continuing adventures of Dr.Who but american Star Wars cash in's like Battle Star Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (both of which had cash in movies as well). Other TV series you may have been allowed to watch (there was only one TV in the house) such as Blakes 7, V, Automan, TerraHawks, Chocky, Tripods, Alf, Star Trek TNG (started in 87),  was well as less sci-fi oriented (but still exciting !) adventure fodder like the A-Team and Airwolf. I'm not even going start on TV cartoon shows and I've mention 2000ad many times in previous posts.


This was the experience of being a kid in Britain in the late 80's (and i'm sure it was similar to many kids throughout the world). And it was this experience that Rogue Trader was tapping into in 1987 with that opening statement.
If you were lucky enough to stumble onto the game and a bunch of mates who wanted to play then you were presented with a sandbox of rules that allowed you to build adventures of endless variety only limited by your imagination, the scenery you could construct and the miniatures you could find.
It's for this reason that Rogue Trader is still a holy book to so many gamers (of a certain age) out there. What we see in modern 40k is a trimmed down, sleek, humourless and professional war-game product that takes some of the ideas from Rogue Trader, expands on them and produces a very restrictive but colourful gaming experience. Because we cut our teeth on a game that allowed (and still allows) us to create an adventure with rules to cover nearly anything we could imagine, we still want to see this in our games. We hark back to that limitless feel and the idea that their were no boundaries in the Universe that couldn't be crossed with a bit of imagination and some plastic tubs and we mourn what has been lost, not only within the game but within the players.

So when modern players look at a copy of Rogue Trader and see a charming oddity and congratulate themselves on having been born in era of virtual sculpting, desk top publishing and digital artwork we shrug and occasionally join in.
But then gamers like me look at the young guys games, the table crowded with massive toys of doom, lined up neatly, facing their enemies neat line, playing for a max of 6 rounds and we weep a little. For what the game has lost and for the experience that the younger guys can never really have.

Thats why I love Rogue Trader. The fact that you're reading this is a sure indication that you probably do to.



31 comments:

  1. The title of 2nd ed summed it all pretty accurately : In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.
    That's little space left for fringe world water sellers, Abdul Goldbergs or colonies gone feral at the border of the galaxy...
    I guess it was a matter of what sold and what they felt able to develop.
    The intro to RT does make all the difference to me too.

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    1. Fringe world water sellers are where its at!

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  2. How am I supposed to meaningfully comment when you've said it all?
    Except, there was room in the hobby for the gamemaster/referee. Someone to set the stage and stakes. Maybe the Narrative Events are a small touchstone to the old ways, but they are such a minuscule reference.

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    1. We need some way to make our worlds interact Major.

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  3. Indeed yes. And thank you. 'Twas the same on both shores. I shall enjoy misty memories of battered little robots and sad cellists playing strange and beautiful Russian folk songs in lonesome mountain air. And hawk men and crazy heroes. Thank you.

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  4. I think the variety of artwork styles in RT (as well as the other Citadel books from that era) was a big draw for me. I didn't, and still don't, like books with "same same" art styles. And because each piece was not like the last or depicting the same soldier, but in a different pose, it kept the interest high.

    It also had a lot of ideas that weren't fleshed out. Which sparked your imagination to want to fill in the blanks. Reminiscent of those iconic fantasy/Sci-fi posters i.e. Frank Frazetta, depicting a figure in danger, but almost triumphant at the same time. You just can't help but look at them and imagine/daydream about what's going to occur in the next frame.

    Anyway, ramble over. It's killa stuff!

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  5. Bravo sir! Bravo!!!! Even though I missed out on Rogue Trader initially, I have my copy held very tight now. It filled a void that was empty, and has spun my gaming into a narrative all its own. ;) Love these types of posts btw. ;)

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  6. WP well done as always. I got hooked by Roger Trader via WD ads and still love it to this day. It was an exciting time to get an issue of WD because you never knew if you were going to get a great adventure or a new unit type of army list. Current players only get great photos of current or upcoming mins and that's about it. Not that those times were better, just different. I'm looking forward to getting my Eldar pirates with Zoat support painted up for a future game.

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    1. Zoats are all of the Awesome. Getting one on the table is even more fun than you'd think.

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  7. Rogue Trader wasn't what pulled me into 40k, I think the first models I ever saw from the 41st millennium were the original Eldar Phoenix Lords, and the first book was 'Ere We Go!, both viewed at a hobby store while there with my dad purchasing RC car parts... and I didn't venture into the gaming and minis realm for some years after that. After some WHFB (4th ed), and going headlong into Necromunda- still my favorite setting and game... the old models were always out there and the 'longbeards' at my local store always had such great tales and wacky models that I was enthralled in the idea of Rogue Trader that remains. I love the ideas of the weird and wonderful variety in things, even if I never had the pleasure of playing it, I go out of my way to collect the literature.

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    1. You need to create a situation where you get to play a game.

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    2. I rarely play games these days- primarily I'm a hobbyist/collector. My friends have all moved on to more casual things like board games, or they went the opposite route and do competitive Magic.

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  8. Hear hear!

    Does make me wonder if anyone seriously tried to publish a game with the same ethos, from scratch, in 2017, what would it look like, and would anyone buy it? Maybe Rogue Traders breadth and open-ness of influence is entirely an artefact of the past, but it does seem that pop-culture in general is far, far more commercially orientated and its fictions more highly codified and cannibalised. Of course there are creative things going on in the fringes of modern 40k, it's not totally barren, but it's not up front on page 1, in the heart of the thing where it belongs.

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    1. I don't think a game like Rogue Trader would sell these days cos there are so many things out there but then 40K is the reason that there are so many sic-fi games out there. Bit of snake eating it's tail kind of a situation.

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    2. Yeah, but don't they all fall into the overly setting-tied (Antares, and modern 40k) or generic-and-bland (Rogue Stars) and miss out the space Rogue Trader carved out of generic-rules with a background cobbled together out of the sources to fit, but (and here's the tricky bit) innovative enough to catch the imagination.

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    3. Very true. Saying that, I enjoyed the background to Tomorrows War which emphasised that you could build what ever world you wanted rather than use their ideas. Their fluff was a jumping off point rather than a straightjacket but the rules just didn't sit well (too much work and detail) and I it put me off. The idea that you can give players a sandbox and let them do their own thing is attractive and probably what Rogue Stars were aiming for but we all know what happened there. An interesting exercise might be to compile a list of Sci-fi (and non sci-fi for that matter) influences that could be compiled to make an alternative 'setting starter'.

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  9. Well said - there was something a bit special about growing up in the 80s. I remember, at the age of 12, watching a borrowed copy of Robocop. The bit with the exploding hand appalled, and fascinated, me at the same time. My mum even let me rent Predator from 'Trend' the local video store - I just handed her the video, and she handed it straight to the guy behind the counter (who also didn't really care a minor was watching an 18). Of course, it was Aliens that I really wanted to recreate...

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    1. Them were the days. I can't believe those films all came out in the same year.

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  10. Rogue Trader was a little before my time - I got into Fantasy first, so my nostalgia hit is 3rd edition Fantasy - but I still find it interesting and love some of the old figures.

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  11. For me it was the humour that elevated this book above the rest. The creators didn't seem to take themselves too serious or didn't care if the game would become a hit or not.
    I like to mention Inquisitor, which (while mostly humourless) is Rogue Traders successor. In White Dwarf they encouraged players to convert their retinue and they also reintroduced the GM and storytelling aspect, instead of just slugging it out.
    I've recently bought a lot of the older Citadel sculpts (and backed the Astropolis KS) to start playing the game with my kids.

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  12. I got into wargaming with 2nd edition 40k and I must admit that you are correct; the free-form style of gaming of Rogue Trader is totally foreign to me and my gaming buddies. I suspect a lot of it is time issues, but we don't often (or at all, really) come up with overarching narratives for our toy soldiers. And though I quite like the more odd figures and civilians and so on, it is hard to justify painting them knowing they won't get used in any of our games.

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    1. I should also add, we have stuck with 2nd edition 40k all the way up to now - when we have given 8th edition 40k a shot. It is ok, and fixes some of the things about 2nd ed that are a bit annoying,. But what has annoyed me most about every edition of 40k since 3rd ed is that the armies are too big, there is too much stuff on the table, and you have no room to manoeuvre. And I also think the separate codexes for each army were and are a big mistake. It should all fit in one book (or 2 or 3 smaller books).

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  13. I`ve said this before but i never thought that game backgrounds/world settings were as "legitimate" as worlds from written fiction/film/tv - eg Cybermen or Daleks or Terminators or Cylons always seem more "real" than Necrons, it`s fine to have a default background for "tournament" style play but i would rather have Stormtroopers/Fed` Troopers than imperial Guard as a rule.
    If i had been GW i would have kept the in house background but tried for licenced supplements for things like Star Wars and Starship troopers, failing that they could have had guidance for replicating such settings in online articles as long as they did not claim copyright or charge for it.

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  14. RT was my gateway into the hobby. Brilliant then and brilliant now. Even with its flaws (and it has a few!).

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  15. I do need to play more RT, I've only ever played a handful of games in all my years as Fantasy is my real bag.

    That said, I'm certainly not adverse to a bit of bolter or lasgun action, maybe my next project should be to get my hands on some RT era mini's and see where it goes.

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