Last week I ran a game of Dark Heresy by Fantasy Flight Games (formerly by Black Industries) for the first time. We got through about half of the Edge of Darkness introductory adventure (web published) during the session, including some investigation and combat, to get a good feel for how the game works. The book itself is a weighty volume of 400 or so pages; technically full color throughout (there is a red border), it is mostly effectively black and white in text and art. Overall good production value, but not the best that I’ve seen.
Dark Heresy puts the players into the roles of acolytes of an Inquisitor in the universe of Warhammer 40K. I’ve never been a player of Warhammer miniatures games, so I was pleased to find that the book contained enough information to convey the basic information necessary to play the game without having to know the long history of the Warhammer 40K universe. Primarily the game functions as a investigation horror game, similar to games like Call of Cthulhu or Supernatural; PCs investigate what mystery is afoot than then try to defeat or at least survive the big-bad at the end of the adventure. This is a rough approximation, but it gives you a good idea of how the game is intended to be played.
Character creation was relatively easy, players have the option to “trust in the Emperor” and use random tables to determine character creation, or make those choices on their own. We ended up using a combination of the two approaches, which seemed to work well. In place of races, PCs can choose from four home-world types, each with its own feel but not too restrictive—there is no perfect combination for a given character type to force players down a single path. The game uses a character class system, where each class has lightly branching trees of options available to them. On the downside, there is no way to multiclass like in other systems, but you could theoretically create any character using any class because most of the skills and talents are available to all classes.
The game system uses two d10s as percentile die for almost all rolls in the game, and functionally is a roll-below your attribute system. Combat is relatively easy, but incorporates enough crunch to appease combat focused players as you can utilize a manageable number of tactics to improve your odds of success on a given attack. Skill checks function the same way, where you want to roll low but can try to use some techniques or GM difficulty determinations to improve odds of success (this is very similar to the Hackmaster Basic skill system). However like Hackmaster the odds of success for using an untrained skill are very low (averaging 15-16% chance of success without modifiers). An additional component of the percentile roll is degrees of success/failure, where for every 10 you succeed or fail represents a greater result (or more potential damage if in combat).
Where I think the game shines the most is in developing atmosphere, especially for those unfamiliar with Warhammer 40K. The book drips in atmosphere, including great art, a multitude of quotes to set the mood, and a section about the setting itself. Even small things like skill names imply setting, as a skill which in other settings is called heal, first aid, or medicine is instead called medicae in this game. This comes into character creation a number of times, but is most highlighted by the Emperor’s Divination, where players are given a prophesy about their future with a minor game mechanic bonus.
During this session, we didn’t get into any of the deep horror mechanics like fear or sanity, but a read-through suggests that they are solid and the mechanics are typical of the genre. We also didn’t have a psyker (the only form of “magic” in the game). I’m a little nervous about the playability of a psyker, especially the probability of instant bad-things happening to a player, but it fits within the atmosphere and isn’t terribly different than other games in the genre like Call of Cthulhu where magic is bad—even when used for good. Given the limited number of classes tested during the session I cannot vouch for player balance entirely, however each character in our game seemed to be well balanced to one another with no character being made of Win while other characters were ineffective.
While the game session was a lot of fun, there are a few downsides to the book which should be pointed out. First, the game is structured in a very limiting manner. Characters are supposed be acolytes of the Inquisition only, within a small sector of the overall Imperium of Man. Everything about the book includes this narrow focus; while this makes the book more cohesive overall, it might turn away some players. That doesn’t mean you have to play within the limitations, but that also means support for other play styles is not supported as is.
The low success odds for untrained skills is also an issue for me considering that starting characters get very few skills, especially since games in the investigation horror genre tend to focus heavily on social skills and research (i.e. investigation). This can be remedied by bumping players up to a higher experience level, but as is it implies a force over finesse approach to investigation—not bad necessarily but something to watch out for.
Additionally the weapons are mostly a single template with many different descriptions. Since the system holds tight to the d10 as the die of choice, virtually everything does—you guessed it—1d10 damage. Sure, there are real differences between the weapons in the secondary mechanics, but there is functionally very little difference between the entry level equipment and the late game equipment except that you can’t train in that later equipment until higher experience levels. This can be explained that a bullet, laser, or sword will all kill ya just the same if used right, but I’d like a little more variety. Maybe something like the Brutal weapon trait in D&D 4E could be used to show varying damage given the d10 die limitation.
The last issue that I have with the book is not enough setting material to get started. While the book does contain an extensive introductory adventure, I would have been more satisfied with 30 pages of plot hooks than a single 30 page adventure. Additionally I could have used a few more adversaries out of the box.
From what I’ve read, most of my complaints have been remedied in books which came after this one, including greater variety in equipment, game styles, setting information, etc. Even without these other books, most of the issues can be resolved with a little savvy-ness by the GM and players but you’re riding off the reservation to do so, and I’d like the book to have supported them out of the box.
Overall, I think the game is great. It was fun and easy to play, especially considering none of the gamers at the table had any experience with the setting. It fits with the dark and gritty gaming that I’m looking for right now, and includes enough atmosphere and crunch to satisfy most gamers. I will definitely be playing this game again and will be looking into the other books in the Warhammer 40K RPG series as well.