Make no mistake about it: the 41st Millenium, as described in the second edition of Dark Heresy, the flagship roleplaying game of the Warhammer 40k franchise, is one of the darkest, grimmest, most brutal settings ever in a role-playing game. A slowly-dying Imperium fights a losing war against countless, limitless enemies across different planes of existence, thousands of planets, and billions of lives. This is a galaxy where entire planets are burned to cinders to stamp out daemonic possessions, horrifying viral bombs are dropped on populations to eliminate cult bands, and Inquistors are given total and complete autonomy to root out heresy using whatever methods they’d like. And that’s the good guys.
In Dark Heresy, you play Acolytes, agents of the Imperium’s Inquistors. Typical missions will have you investigating planets, looking for signs of demonic invasions, stomping out cult cells, and otherwise purging the Emperor’s galaxy of existential threats, both foreign and domestic. A science-fiction Call of Cthulhu on crack is a not an entirely inaccurate description. Similar to Shadowrun, Dark Heresy is a “procedural” RPG; each adventure is a mission that will typically involve investigating crime scenes, interrogating/interviewing witnesses and suspects, and blasting people’s (or demon’s) faces off with bolter rifles and lasguns. Warbands of acolytes are given more-or-less full carte blanche to investigate potential heresy, so your group can go in guns blazing or take a more subtle approach. Both strategies carry their obvious strengths and weaknesses, and the core rulebook identifies and quantifies them exceedingly well.
The game system powering Dark Heresy, as well as its sibling games Only War, Deathwatch, and Rogue Trader, is straight-forward and functional, with a slight but surmountable learning curve. The core mechanic is a “roll-under” percentile system a la Call of Cthulhu. Combat is brutal and highly-tactical, with rules covering hit locations, vehicular combat, and glorious, graphically-detailed critical hit charts. Interestingly, little pieces of the system have a familiar lineage with Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars games, indicating how one must have informed the other in development. For example, both games have a fatigue system; both games track damage and critical hits in similar ways, and both games divide actions in a similar fashion. They are different enough that knowing one will not make you comfortable automatically with the other, but they are similar enough to at least help climb that learning curve.
But the true selling point in Dark Heresy is in the setting and production. Fantasy Flight Games has a well-earned reputation for some of the slickest, prettiest games in the business, and Dark Heresy is absolutely a case in point. Every page of Dark Heresy drips with flavor and detail. This is not one of those games where you’ll flip through the fluff to get to the rules; in Dark Heresy, you will want to read all that fluff, and immerse yourself deep in the dark and perilous world of the 41st Millenium. The writing is so good, I even found myself stopping to read the most fundamental “what is a role-playing game?” stuff. I read every one of Dark Heresy’s 448 pages, and never once considered it “studying” or a slog. This is one of those role-playing games you’re going to want to have on your shelf just to read, even if you never get it to the table.
Dark Heresy 2nd Edition is a premium, top-shelf, triple-A roleplaying game, the kind of game you’d pull out to impress your non-RPG friends. For that reason alone, it’s worth a pickup. But even once you get past the bar-raising production values, underneath you’ll find a deep, detailed universe of adventure that could last for years to come.
My copy of Fantasy Flight Game’s Dark Heresy was provided for review.