I'm coming in a touch late for a hard-hitting review of Dark Heresy, mostly because I couldn't really justify the purchase of a $50 corebook for a group of players - well, for a group of players that I didn't have at the time; my current crop likes Werewolf: The Forsaken and infighting for the sheer joy of infighting. (I could get 'em onto Paranoia, but why spoil the fun?) I also have to apologize for its brevity, because for the life of me, I couldn't seem to wrap my mind around some of the things that I wanted to say about the game.
A quick overview, then: The characters play acolytes of an Inquisitor, plucked from their lives by fate or design to fight against the enemies of the Imperium - mutants, alien, daemons and heretics, as well as the Inquisition's own internal squabbles. Of course, since this is the 40k universe, they're likely to slide into becoming what they're fighting. Think of Call of Cthulhu with a hefty dose of bolter fire, 2000AD and Heavy Metal. The amusing thing is that it's actually a spinoff of a novel series - Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn - which in turn were licensed fiction for an unsuccessful skirmish/role-playing game called Inquisitor. Dark Heresy is like the son of the son that you never knew that you had, to GW.
The first draft of this review echoed a common complaint about Dark Heresy: The characters start off on the very bottom rung of the ladder, working for an Inquisitor, and make their way up over time until they - assumedly - become Inquisitors in their own right, although the rules for playing as Inquisitors proper haven't been released yet. To some degree, that complaint is accurate. You aren't going to replicate Abnett's excellent Eisenhorn novels when you first start playing, and as those novels are a gigantic influence on Dark Heresy, it's going to be a disappointment for those who were thinking of stepping into Eisenhorn's shoes - or Ravenor's hoverthrone.
I was intially going to ding the game for this; in fact, an early draft of this review did just that. But I was browsing through some comics collections at Half Price Books - in particular, Mam Tor's Event Horizon - and realized that most of the comic stories that I was reading, some of which were just excuses for the pretty art, could easily take place in the 40K universe. If you were to limit Dark Heresy to just playing Inquisitors, you would lose out on the underclass of the 40K universe - the smaller stories, where underarmed or underskilled characters face challenges that are more appropriate to their skill level than the enormous threats that Inquisitors deal with. By starting from the bottom, they're making it unnecessary to go back and fill in the lower levels of the 40K universe.
(In my original draft, I also suggested that Dark Heresy might have been served better by going with a slightly more indie approach - something along the lines of thrashing out the major decisions that Inquisitors have to make - but I think that going with a more familiar model was the right choice. Maybe another day.)
The system is - to the best of my knowledge - essentially a variant of the Warhammer Fantasy 2nd edition rules. Character generation begins with where you're born, ranging from the feral worlds that the Imperium cherry-picks for the best to those born in the voids of space. I'm especially pleased with the inclusion of characters from feral worlds. Usually, playing a primitive character means that you have to do some tedious role-playing in the Unfrozen Cave-Man Lawyer mode - "I don't understand how your magic sky-bird takes me from the ground to the stars" - but in the 40K universe, that's perfectly okay. Everybody else, with the possible exception of the Adeptus Mechanicus priest, doesn't understand either. Everybody's essentially a savage in the 40K universe. They just have fancier clothing and more toys to show for it.
The career system is present here as well, but it's much more limited than in Warhammer Fantasy. The Warhammer Fantasy system focuses primarily on giving you a cross-section of medieval society, ranging from dung-collector to Elven envoy. There's just no way to do the same thing for the 40K universe, as it comprises literally trillions of people and most likely billions of jobs. Instead, it pares it down to the occupations most likely to work with an Inquisitor - roughly splittable into knowledge workers (Tech-Priest, Cleric, Adepts, Imperial Psyker), muscle (Arbitrators, Scum, Guardsman, Assassin, and Imperial Psyker again.) It may seem limiting at first glance, but again, the size of the 40K universe - and some useful tables for generating unique characteristics for your character - make sure that each character is different from one another, if the sheer scope of the 40K universe doesn't give you enough of a hand. (I mean, imagine the differences between, say, an assassin born on a Feral World and one born as a noble on a Hive World. Same job, but much different backgrounds.) Particularly amusing are the tables of side effects of Sanctioning for Imperial Psykers - well, amusing horrifying, ranging from whispering the Imperial Litany underneath your breath to having no teeth left. There's even an amusing reference to Dune's gom jabbar, leaving psykers with hand scars and a fear of bald women.
Your career indicates which upgrades you can buy with experience, and once you've bought enough upgrades, you gain a rank - and new upgrades to buy. After about six ranks, you can select one of two paths to finish out your character's advancement - for instance, sages can either specialize in arcane learning, or become psykers, while assassins finish out working within the nobility or leading their own assassin's guilds. I may have missed details as to whether or not you can switch from career to career - for instance, a Scum getting trained as a Guardsman - but I can imagine that it's a simple lateral move. Characters also can buy a variety of talents, filling roughly the same role as feats in the d20 system. Rather than staying relatively dry and practical, they convey some of the crazy feel of the Warhammer universe. Characters don't have a resistance to Chaos; they have the Armor of Contempt. The guy who's good with a flamer doesn't have Flamer Mastery, but Cleanse And Burn. Adeptus Mechanicus characters can pick Binary Chatter if they want to talk to servitors in their own language, or take Rite of Pure Thought if they want to get rid of those pesky emotions. The only talents that really threw me were the Maglev powers, which allows Adeptus Mechanicus characters to hover purely through the grace of the Machine God; somehow, floating just doesn't seem something that the ironbound Adeptus Mechanicus would do.
The fundamental engine for the game is a percentile roll, adjusted for difficulty; for every ten points that you beat the target number by, you get a degree of success, which translates accordingly. Cleverly, the tens digit of the attribute governing a particular skill roll is added to your rolls as a bonus. Your skills are determined entirely by your attribute - in fact, the maximum you can add to a skill is +20, so attributes are going to be the governing factor for most skills.
About combat and its intricacies: I would love to tell you about them. I really would. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to to do so, and so cannot tell you about its intricacies, its whiff factor - which I have heard is a problem - or its lethality. I will note that, thanks to a conversation on rpg.net, you cannot fire a pistol or firearm at point-blank rnage; if you can close to within melee distance, and your opponent only has a firearm, you can carve him up like a Christmas goose until he can limber a weapon. This makes a lot of 40K's signature weapons - chainswords, choppas, power swords, and what-not - actually useful, rather than decorative. Regrettably, you may have to seek another review for further details on how the combat system works.
The sheer scale of the Warhammer 40,000 universe forces Dark Heresy to focus on a particular sector of Imperial space - the Calixian sector - and they do a really excellent job of giving you an idea of some of the sheer, 70's-metal/prog-rock album-cover craziness that populates the Warhammer universe. If you're looking for surrealism, there's Ambulon, a city built around an ancient machine that strides through the wasteland mining and drilling for oil, slowing down only when it needs to offload its spoils. If you want dark, medieval brutality, you've got Sepheris Secundus, where a brutalized serf class slaves under the local barons. The Misericord is another medieval society in space, portraying a Gormenghast-esque society - full of ancient ritual and paegantry, its original meaning forgotten - floating through the Warp.
The metaplot deals with Komus, the mysterious Tyrant Star, an enormous black sun that appears and disappears through Imperial Space, althought it's more a tease than anything substantial; as I'm to understand it, it'll be fleshed out further in Dark Heresy's campaigns. (I had a friend of mine with the last name of Komus, making me imagine a red-haired nerd in the sky every time I read the thing's name.) Even better are some of the smaller planets, reminders that you can take just about any story published in Heavy Metal or any heavy metal album cover and translate it into the 40K universe. I particularly like the world where everybody over the age of forty mysteriously dies; it's just Star Trek enough a concept to want to drag it through the demolition derby of the 40K universe.
The book closes out with an adventure for new acolytes, and let me pause here for a digression: If you're writing your own game, putting an adventure in your core book is amazingly useful. It's essentially an extended example for how the game should be played, a way to translate the cold grammar of the system and the setting into the language of actual game play. When I was talking with Jason Sartin recently, he paraphrased something that somebody else wrote: a game's sample adventure may or may not accurately reflect the game that you just read, but it almost always reflects the game the designer wanted to make. In this particular case, I don't know if the game's primary designers were responsible for the adventure, but it at least gives you an idea of what can be done.
The adventure itself is decent, but not fantastic. One problem is that the author has no real ear for how people talk. It's hard to write character dialogue without getting a lot of practice, but that's why you have to practice it - and practice it hard - so that you don't wind up writing stuff that sounds like it was hacked out during the 3rd edition goldrush. For instance - and I should warn about spoilers:
“A dark spirit has returned. The Ashleen name it the Dancer at the Threshold. Others call it the Crow Father… and we have seen why. It has many names and to say some of them is perilous. It is ancient and wicked, and delights in slaughter and leading men to their deaths with lies of their heart’s desire. My people record their past through spoken tales, but some things are too dangerous to say aloud. Take this book for it may help you.”
Stiff as all hell. Or try this:
“Enough!” Raine cries. “There has been enough bloodshed this day. We will go and shall not return. I see now that I was wrong. I see now that you are damned and the crow sits whispering on your shoulder. You have led these people to ruin. My people will have no part of it!”
Not really so much a human being talking, but a series of clues enswaddled in dialogue. Or take this description of Ghostflowers:
Drusus later remarked in his memoirs that the only memorable aspect of the planet was the vast felds of wild fowers
which resembled “Shimmering felds of rippling explosions, caught at that fleeting moment between beauty and destruction”
The problem is that the author is making is to not create a unique voice for each of his characters. Would an Imperial general describes rippling explosions as being "caught at that fleeting moment between beauty and destruction"? Would a female shaman list a daemon's attributes in such a straightforward, listlike manner? Nobody is the RPG equivalent of David Mamet, but the World of Darkness books did pretty well at creating relatively unique characters, distinguishable from each other by voice alone. Abnett's characters are fairly similar, but he knows enough to give them a particular quirk or character trait that he can come back to when he wants to distinguish one from another. (Voke's cold authoritarianism versus, say, Aemos' "most peturbatory" and perpetual attention to detail.) It seems like a small thing, but investigative games require memorable characters - and good role-playing - to set them apart from each other. It would have been useful to see that in the opening adventure.
The adventure itself is pretty straightforward, almost like a Western. The characters are sent off to a backwater town in order to investigate psychic phenomena, have a few fights, then confront the Big Bad at the end. There's a lot of neat bits that work well. For instance, there's a massive fight at one point during the adventure. Rather than simulating the battle proper, the adventure cleverly lets PCs interact with events that occur during the battle, with success bringing victory that much sooner. It's similar to Legend of the Five Ring's battle system, except on a smaller scale and without the chart. I think that one of its primary problems is that it's mostly about moving the characters from setpiece to setpiece - here's a big battle, here's the climactic showdown with the villain - rather than giving them a framework to investigate in. Maybe you want something railroady to begin with, especially if you're a brand-new GM, so take that criticism with a grain of salt.
There are a few things that the game could handle better. While there's some space devoted to the investigative model of a Dark Heresy campaign, it would be nice to see some of the advice given in Call of Cthulhu repeated here - a flowchart, or a system to create a clue matrix, would be immensely useful. To be sure, Dark Heresy can do a lot - not just detective work - but I only know how to create investigative adventures because I've read just about every Call of Cthulhu adventure there is. (Even Death in Norway and Alone on Halloween. I rule!) There is, however, a handy fix to this: Call of Cthulhu adventures translate very well into Dark Heresy terms, with some legwork and extra combat.
My other complaint is something that I ultimately decided that the book answered neatly: To wit, the vast amount of power that an Inquisitor - and the Inquisition - wields over Imperial society. In order to avoid allowing the characters getting a tongue bath from every official in the Imperium, as well as avoiding turning the game into a rump Paranoia, Inquisitorial agents have a set of rules to follow. One of them is that you shouldn't use your master's name as your own, which is essentially an injunction against using the Inquisition's power for your own. In other words, if you wander around using the Inquisition's name for every little thing, the Inquisition will be justified in getting you acquainted with the business end of an excruciator. The acolytes do, unfortunately for them, occupy the same niche as the Imperial Guardsman; he'll survive and struggle on behalf of a larger force which may or may not care if he's killed outright. As they get more powerful, though, they may be able to get to pull some of the Is-Vader-Going-To-Have-To-Choke-a-Bitch exercises of power that Inquisitors wield. (I had to work that line in there somewhere.)
(And again, I have to correct myself. I believe that the various rules that Inquisitorial Acolytes are to follow is actually contained in the Inquisitor's Handbook, not the core book. So the whole issue of how much power Acolytes wield is up in the air if you go by the corebook and the corebook alone.)
On the other hand, there's a segment in the adventure contained within the book where the characters are detained by Imperial authority - and the characters are going to be eager to drop the mention that they work for the Inquisition when they're staring at the inside of a prison cell. It happens again when the characters are sent to retrieve somebody, and that person refuses a direct request from an Inquisitorial acolyte. An actual system to measure Inquisitorial status would be nice, so the characters know, or can guess at, where the limits are. Perhaps the Inquisitor's Handbook goes into more detail? I hope so.
Artwise - well, Games Workshop pretty much built itself on the success of its artists and sculptors, so the art in here is fantastic. Again, I have to say that a lot of the illustrations feel weirdly too...clean. If you look at John Blanche's artwork, he's got stray brushlines everywhere, almost to the point where you're not sure if you're looking at an Imperial Guardsman or a Rorscach blot wearing a flak helmet, but the essential energy of his design comes through. Here, most of the new art depicts stuff that's already been drawn before, so it's difficult to be truly creative without stepping on the toes of GW's design staff.
Is it worth buying? I've been eyeing it for months, but $60 was a pretty steep price, so I eschewed it in favor of slightly more affordable games. But having read it through, I want to actually run a Dark Heresy game, which is something that doesn't often happen with the games I read. So while it does have a lot of unpolished areas, while it has to bite off much more than it can chew, it's definitely the game that a lot of people have been waiting for a long time to play.