Saturday, February 9, 2008 - 9:40 AM

I was filing through the new Warhammer 40K RPG, Dark Heresy. While doing this, I had a sudden realization.

Let me get the obligatory review part out of the way before I move on. Overall, I liked it. It's a tight, well-presented game that doesn't assume you know everything about the rather extensively detailed Warhammer universe. Further, it does a fair job of concisely explaining the moods and themes of that universe without getting too wordy. Sure, there's the usual spin to produce 'cool factor', but despite the usual tremendous-shoulder-pad-and-pervading-skull motif, it comes off well.

I have some wariness about character creation, in that the system appears to allow heavy customization at first glance... but it doesn't, not really. Creation is easy, which is nice, but there was a lot of similarity in the twelve sample characters I drew up. I suspect that if I run this game, I will probably tweak things to allow for more options.

Here's where the thoughts got provoked.

Dark Heresy sold out on preorders alone. Now, anybody involved in gaming at all knows that Warhammer has a huge and loyal following, and I'm sure that has something to do with it. That Black Industries has produced fantastic work with the Warhammer Fantasy RPG is another strong reason (plus, they're fun people; I met them at GAMA this last year). There's no doubt there's an audience for it. What I wonder is how many dedicated RPGers will avoid it just because it has Warhammer attached to the title, perhaps assuming that it will be little more than a glorified miniatures game.

Dungeons and Dragons has this problem, also. Many people assume that DnD is always some kind of door-kicking tactics party, with lots of math and a great deal of rules arguments. Sure, sometimes it is, and it is certainly true that 90% of the game mechanics are to do with combat... which means you can expect a fair amount of it.

DnD doesn't have to be that way. The group I'm running right now is on session #70 of a campaign, and sure, in combat the rogue yelps at the tank for flanking. Sure, the conjuror is always looking for the best place to land her spells. But I have rarely seen such a tightly-knit web of character interaction. They have spent whole sessions meandering through character development, unravelling plotlines and figuring out their future. The progression of their story, from struggling against conspiracies to becoming local heroes and now to understanding what it takes (and means!) to change the world has been wonderful. These characters have grown, in all ways.

There is no reason Dark Heresy can't be the same kind of game. In fact, combat being as nasty as it is, there's a strong implication that you Should try and talk your way through things. Now, I do make fun of what I call the 'Warhammer aesthetic' as much as the next guy, but sans shoulder-pads, the setting is really very evocative. Beyond the dark, science-fantasy grimness of it all, the setting has a lot of depth that is worth taking a closer look at, and I firmly believe that dedicated RPers can find a lot of stories to tell with that in mind.

The next time you have a knee-jerk reaction to a game, be it DnD or Vampire or Dark Heresy, consider that a game can be run however you want it to be. A system is always just a framework. Mechanics will inevitably flavor the feel of the game, but you, be it player or GM, you are the one crafting the stories. Dark Heresy doesn't have to be about huge guns, outrageous armor and ridiculously toothy vehicles. It can be about the survival of the soul against oppression, the seeds of hope in faith, and the power to escape from ignorance.

Of course, making sure your GM/fellow players share a similar vision is important, but that's a story for another time.

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