Roleplaying Games

Dark Heresy RPG Review

Let’s welcome Benjamin Mok – now the youngest member of our team. He’s also an analogue gamer like Wai, but he’s knee deep into RPGs, but that’s not to say he’s not into anything else geeky! For example, with his help and Melvin’s, expect that DC tag in the tag cloud to slowly expand … heh.

A few things to note before I begin my review:

One – I have an immense love for all things Warhammer 40K.

Two – I share a long history with the Dark Heresy RPG. I’m one of the few who didn’t start my role-playing journey with DnD. Instead, I donned guard flak armour (which is arguably worse), and spelunked my way through abandoned space hulks, teeming hive worlds, and alien planets. It was also the first RPG I ever DMed, although the usage of the term at that point may be an insult to all my fellow dungeon masters.

You arrive at the erm… Cave of … Evil Bad Things!

Long story short: The game itself is incredible. The immense richness of the setting and the absolute intensity of the gameplay, combined with the myriad options for character development has cemented its position as one of the best Role-Playing systems that exist today. I promise, I’ll mention the downsides to the system and the setting, but if you don’t want to read on – let’s just say that this gets the thumbs up.

For those who have had experience with other big-name RPGs, Dark Heresy can be described simply as a cross between the frenetic combat and madness of Call of Cthulhu (indeed it takes much inspiration from the CoC game-system), and the structured classes/skills/talents etc of Dungeons and Dragons.

Character Creation and Progression

Character creation is quite a complicated process, with many characters one could opt to be, such as the zealous Cleric , useful foremost as a charismatic leader of the party and also handy when extra fire support/choppa is required. However, he’s definitely lacking in utility, as he possesses little to no knowledge and skills. There’s also the grim Judge (based loosely on Judge Dredd), focused on the physical aspects of police work that at most times, he is slightly less useful in investigation. Furthermore, the class suffers from the “jack-of-all trades, master of none” syndrome.

Next is the stealthy Assassin, who can snipe a foe from distances away or slit throats up-close. However, the specialization of this class demands that others take up the slack where it falls short, such as in terms of investigation and utility. There’s also the cannon-fodder Guardsman, who takes on a general role in combat, and thus lacks the specialization of the Assassin. There’s also the Techpriest (who’s bound to betray you eventually in order to augment his body with more HERESY) makes an essential part of the party if the group veers towards exploration and investigation. Although his offensive combat capabilities are next to zero, his toughness and augmented body make him a surprisingly effective tank.

There’s more! Such as the crazy Psyker (OHGODOHGODOHGOD), arguably the most powerful class, but then again, it’s also the most dangerous class to use, as each time he uses his powers, there exists a miniscule chance that he could tear a hole in reality. Add to that the Adept, who specializes in in-game knowledge, and as you always need someone who knows that the symbol above the cave you’re walking into demarcates that of a Necron Tomb-complex. And finally, the Scum, but nobody really cares about him. He’s good at generally being sneaky and charismatic, and being a scum though frees the player from many obligations, allowing him/her to do the dirty work that the party doesn’t care for.

Yes, there is a class literally called the scum.

Each class is brought to life through expansive back-stories and fluff provided for in the book, allowing for interesting role-playing as according to the guidelines given in the descriptions of the classes, but also allowing space for player interpretation as to the intricacies of the class itself.

Character progression is dealt with simple two or three tiered trees, with various options for each rank (level) allowed to be taken in different sub-classes relevant to the character class (essentially multi-classing in a single level of another, more specific class). It might be confusing, but throughout the past four years I have been playing this game, I have not yet met two characters with the same career choices once they were past the fifth rank.

Creating characters is a blast, but unfortunately, the downside to this is that getting a group of characters to work together is not an easy task. There is a chance for character roles blur to a much higher degree within this game, leaving characters as essentially true jack-of-all-trades or specialized to the point of uselessness For example, my group of players currently has a psyker who has ONE trick, turning his hands into huge hammers and growing four arms in order to squash people like bugs, ala Magmo from War of the Monsters.

Sanctioned Imperial Psyker. Totally non-heretical. At all.

Still, if you can stomach the math involved, and handle reading through the vast supplements and resources you would need to in order to optimize the character you have created (and trust me, taking into account the difficulty of the game you probably would need to), then character creation is ultimately an intricate and exciting process that would leave you itching to play the game.

Gameplay and Mechanics

The gameplay of Dark Heresy is arguably one of the most intense role-playing systems that I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing. It is polished to an incredible degree, yet it does not follow a structured format, nor does it end up in a routine set of movements for each character (unless you build your character to be a one-trick pony). However, the most important factor about Dark Heresy is the opportunities it sets up for the impossible to become possible.

The lethality of the system both is a boon and a bane to players. On one hand, I’ve had players succumb to inglorious deaths, through no greater power other than the dice gods, due to simple mistakes such as running around a corner and into the barrels of five Hellguns. On the other hand, I’ve had a player who managed (at rank 3) to single-handedly take down a chaos space marine with an incredibly lucky shot from his long-las. In Dark Heresy, you have to be ingenious with the way you do things, while still staying in character – which can be quite difficult.

Yes, open the heretical codex and read it. Nothing can go wrong there.

Yes, the system is confusing for beginners, and it is not recommended for people who have just stepped into the world of role-playing games. However, the complexity of the system ensures that players always have something to do, always have a way out, and always have an alternative path they can take.

Breaking into a mansion can be something as simple as going in guns-blazing, to a stealth game with silenced weapons and garrotes, to even taking the forms of certain individuals within the mansion and replacing them (depending on how crazy your psykers’ powers are). Thus, it fits exactly into the mold of what a RPG is – a sandbox whereby players are able to utilize any means they deem to be necessary or interesting, in order to achieve their goals.

Well, technically we infiltrated the house! I mean, they were all too busy screaming “Fire! Fire!” to notice us stealing that artifact.

The downsides to the gameplay system are few, but at times the pace of the game may be bogged down by constant flipping of the rulebook. Also, the DMs running this game should be experienced, as it is no easy task. However, as with character creation, if you are an experienced group looking for a good time, this is most definitely the go-to RPG for you, especially if the setting (or even Science Fiction) interests you.

+ Diverse character creation/development possibilities.
+ Incredibly polished combat system.
+ Free-form gameplay does not simply focus on either combat or role-playing.

– Complex, may not be suitable for beginners.
– Science Fiction setting may not fit everyone’s tastes.

If you have any love for the Warhammer 40k universe, if you have a hankering for good role-playing and/or if you simply wish to find something new to do with your friends, and are willing to stand the process of learning rules, then I have no greater recommendation for you than the Dark Heresy Role-playing Game. Enjoy.

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  1. I’m running a game of Rogue Trader (DH’s companion game) at the moment, and I certainly agree that the system is rather complex, but I think a large part of that is the rather byzantine layout of the books themselves.

    Still, the system works with the setting wonderfully and is at its core easy enough to learn that it’s low brain power so you can focus on playing the game after a short while.

    And I question the statement that being able to “turn his hands into huge hammers and growing four arms in order to squash people like bugs”, while yes – one trick – is not totally awesome and cannot be applied to any situation.

    1. Rogue Trader is awesome fun in it’s own way – it’s got a lot more player freedom definitely, what with their own spaceship and a sector to play around in. On the other hand, it demands more teamwork, especially during the space battles (which are incredible if done right). Haha and as for my party’s psyker, it’s fine. He screwed up, eventually, and rolled a biiit too high for his perils of the warp. Let this be a lesson.

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