Casting ‘magic’ in the Warhammer 40,000 universe is incredibly risky business. A psyker (see: space wizard) must draw their power from the Warp, a volatile dimension that’s home to daemons and chaotic gods. As such, every spell, no matter how trivial or powerful, comes with the chance of injury, insanity, demonic possession, or death. In Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, the upcoming RPG from Owlcat Games, you’ll have to weigh up that risk every time you consider eviscerating a foe with your mind.
Perils of the Warp, the system that governs whether your head explodes or you live to cast another day, is one of Alexander Gusev’s favorite mechanics from 2009’s Rogue Trader, a tabletop RPG set in the grimdark future of the 41st millennium. He and other members of the Owlcat dev team played the game for years, and so the chance to turn this pen-and-paper hobby into a video game was something of a dream. But one golden pitch to Games Workshop later and that dream is a reality; Gusev is now creative director on the very first Warhammer 40k video game RPG.
“We were making more sandbox-style RPGs than most [other developers],” Gusev says, referring to the studio’s incredibly open Pathfinder games. “You had your kingdom. You were traveling, exploring the map, learning stuff about this unknown place, The Stolen Lands. And this constantly reminded me about what parties in Rogue Trader do.”
Most Warhammer 40k video games have you take part in mankind’s millenia-long quest to wipe out every other race in the galaxy (there are no good guys here, sorry). But the Rogue Traders, with their opulent spaceships and impeccable fashion tastes, are not your battle-hungry Space Marines. “Rogue Traders shine in a way that differs from many other factions in Warhammer’s Imperium in that you can also interact with xenos [aliens] in ways other than just killing them,” explains Gusev.
A Rogue Trader’s mission to explore, trade, and broker deals in regions beyond the limits of Imperial space means they are free to see the stranger side of the universe. “It’s probably the best [subject] within the Warhammer 40k setting to approach from a CRPG perspective,” says Gusev. “It allows us the opportunity to give you powerful enemies and do really epic stuff, without going completely away from the RPG part and completely into the combat. It also allows us to show the world and show how normal people live there, and to show how peaceful parts of Imperium look.”
A Rogue Trader’s freedom to negotiate with, and even recruit aliens means that tensions will inevitably run high among your crew. Your protagonist will be surrounded by characters that can only be described as religious zealots, and each has their own interpretation of how one should serve the God Emperor of Mankind. For many, uttering a simple “hello” to someone outside of your species is considered heresy of the highest order. And so it seems that part of Rogue Trader’s challenge will be managing the clashing viewpoints of your party.
“There are certainly high points of conflict in our game,” teases Gusev. “There are certain points where you can just allow one character to kill another. An Adepta Sororitas character wouldn’t be comfortable around unsanctioned psykers, for example.”
Should you wish to see those sparks fly, you can… just recruit both an Adepta Sororitas (warrior nun) and an unsanctioned psyker into your retinue. Other hireable companions include a Seneschal (your right-hand pulled from the Imperial Navy), an Adeptus Mechanicus Magos (cyborg engineer), an Interrogator from the Inquisition, a Navigator, and – of course – a Space Marine from the tribal Space Wolves chapter .
“We were looking for characters that will show the universe from different points of view,” says Gusev of Owlcat’s companion choices. While the aforementioned characters all hail from the Imperium, they each have very different cultures and conflicting beliefs. Of course, the real oddity will be the Aeldari Ranger, a space elf from an empire much older than mankind’s, who no will be looked upon with doubt by their human bunk mates.
Settling debates among your quarreling crew will be just one of the many, many choices in Rogue Trader. Gusev promises a fully branching narrative, “There will be significant differences, depending on which choices you make in different parts of the game,” he assures me. “Some decisions that you make in the first half of the game can change later parts of the game very dramatically.”
“We are still making a companion-focused classic RPG,” Gusev says, so Owlcat fans can be assured the values of Pathfinder will find their way into the 41st millennium. “You will be able to change these characters. They will have personal quests, they will have their own epilogues. Some of them will not be very comfortable with some choices that you’re going to make. And you will be able to – by the way that you interact with them, by the way you have dialogues with them, how you react to their interruptions in some dialogues, and so on – you will be able to change their fate.”
While Rogue Trader may bring a huge focus on your crew, their personal tales are just part of the grander picture. As the announcement trailer revealed, the story will involve several of Warhammer 40k’s most notable factions, including Chaos, Aeldari, Dhrukari, and Necrons. Where Warhammer stories typically take two or three factions and throw them into battle, Rogue Trader is set on exploring multiple fronts.
“We have an advantage here, because our games are quite long, so the stories aren’t short,” explains Gusev. “Those enemies aren’t introduced as a deus ex machina. We have time to introduce them properly, and to tie them to the story.”
At the bare minimum you can expect excellent enemy variety, then, with a collection of foes lovingly translated from their plastic miniature form to digital models. You can then blow them to bits in turn-based combat, which is a new venture for Owlcat (real-time-with-pause was used for Pathfinder). “We chose to go with turn-based because we wanted to focus more on combat encounters, and to focus more on each individual character and what they do,” says Gusev.
That brings us back to Perils of the Warp. While Gusev holds back on explaining exactly how Owlcat has adapted the tabletop rules for Rogue Trader’s combat system, it’s obvious that your unsanctioned psyker could potentially burn out their own brain if you’re not careful. But Gusev promises an array of artifacts from the 40k armory will be present, correct, and blessed by the Machine God. “We’ll have both melee and ranged weapons. It is not quite common for many turn-based games, but it is very common in Warhammer to have a bolt pistol and a sword at the same time.” Hopefully this leads to an interesting blurring of the lines between ranged and close-combat battles.
Right now there’s no word on when we can expect Rogue Trader to see release, but Owlcat already has a series of beta stages planned that can be accessed by purchasing a Founder’s Pack. Getting hands-on as soon as I can is something I’m personally greatly interested in, as there’s simply nothing like Rogue Trader in the extensive library of Warhammer video games currently available.
This kind of character-led storytelling is really only accessible via the Black Library; Games Workshop’s colossal collection of novels. And even then, most are war stories that see legions of Space Marines unloading freighters-worth of ammunition into alien forces. To see the kind of party-based adventure that an RPG tells is a rarity in the 41st millenium, and I’m fascinated to see what Owlcat does with the freedom Rogue Trader provides.
Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader – Trailer Screenshots
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Features Editor.