This massive tome launches the Warhammer 40K Roleplaying line, something long-awaited by those who'd watched the richness of the setting unfold around the original minitatures skirmish game. Unsurprisingly, it begins by explaining the underlying concepts of that setting, clearly enough that even those of us uninterested in miniatures can understand. Set in the 41st Century, it paints a bleak picture of galaxy-spanning warfare across decaying worlds where much of technology has been lost, presided over by an undead - or at least, not properly alive - emperor, who is as much deity as ruler.
Interestingly, characters are not the iconic 'Space Marines' of the skirmish game, but acolytes of the Inquisition, whose role is to search out threats to the Imperium of Man from within and without. The first part of the book explains how to create your character and shows how the game is played, with later chapters detailing the role of the Game Master, providing a lot more information on the setting, and even an introductory scenario to get things going.
The character creation process is laid out clearly in Chapter 1: Character Creation. It is a six-stage process beginning by determining your home world. You next work out your 'characteristics' or capabilities both physical and mental and then choose a career path to follow. Next you have points to spend on skills (or improving characteristics if preferred) as well as money for weapons, armour and other equipment. That's the main number-crunching part of the process. Then you need to flesh out the character a bit, deciding everything from what he looks like to how he behaves and thinks, maybe even his hobbies or favourite food! Each choice made has a bearing on what comes after, and in the main you have the option of making a choice or rolling random results, although you do have to roll characteristics. Plenty of detail on all the options is provided to help you make up your mind, and it's written in such a way that you are absorbing background on the setting as well - neat!
Chapter 2: Career Paths comes next, giving a wealth of detail about what the path you have chosen to follow has to offer, both now and in the future as your character gains experience. Each is unique, indeed each character on that path can choose a different route, and it is worth studying your chosen one thoroughly from the outset. The entire process of advancement is described here too, it's complex but elegant and quite easy to follow once you get the hang of it. Again, the background is woven in seamlessly so as you read you discover more about your niche within the setting.
The next few chapters continue in similar vein, with detailed examinations of skills, talents, equipment and psychic powers, if you are lucky (or unfortunate?) enough to have any. Throughout, it is explained how each one will work both mechanically and in character, enabling you to use them to good effect in play. The final part of the opening section is Chapter 7: Playing the Game which draws everything else together and gives you the lowdown on how to make everything work. Examples and advice abound, and although there's no substitute for trying it all out, preferably in the company of someone who already understands it, this chapter provides a good start.
Then comes Chapter 8: The Game Master, which seeks to provide aspiring Game Masters with what they need to know to run the game effectively. It is comprehensive, starting from the basics and hence being suitable for someone who has never GMed before, as well as providing system and setting specific information to empower you to run Dark Heresy well. There is a wealth of material here and it will repay careful study (along with the rest of the book, as the GM, of course, needs to have a thorough grounding in rules and setting alike).
The next three chapters provide more detail on the background and setting, looking at life in the Imperium, the Inquisition itself and one part of known space, the Calixis Sector. Unlike many combined rulebooks (i.e. those intended for both GM and player) which divide into a 'Player' section and a 'Game Master' section, these are of equal use to both players and GMs despite being located after the chapter dedicated to the art of game mastering, certainly the chapter on life in the Imperium. The GM may choose to reveal the inner workings of the Inquisition through role-play, if the characters begin as new recruits to its ranks, and likewise may wish to restrict knowledge of the Calixis Sector until the party actually goes there.
Chapter 12: Aliens, Heretics and Antagonists provides a bestiary and details of those whom the characters may encounter in their travels, with particular note - of course - to those who they might be investigating for heresy or who would provide opposition.
Finally, there is a full-blown adventure, Illumination, to get your campaign off to a good beginning. It's a tale of treachery and dark secrets to be uncovered, with action and danger aplenty, showcasing many of the perils that the average Inquisitor faces on a day-to-day basis. A bunch of newly-recruited Acolytes (guess who?) are sent to escort a senior Inquisitor as he heads up an investigation of a barbaric world... but they have to get there first.
As well as providing all the game mechanics necessary to play the game, this richly-presented tome provides an excellent introduction to a darkly fascinating setting. Whether you are a long-time player of the skirmish game wanting to know what else those characters do but brawl or a role-player looking for a vivid and rich setting with depth, this is worth checking out.
[5 of 5 Stars!]