Rogue Trader 1

First edition of Warhammer 40,000

gaming settings rpg scifi wargame

Games Workshop re-released the first edition (titled Rogue Trader) of Warhammer 40,000 to celebrate the game's 30th anniversary. (I'm not sure about their maths. The book was released in 1987, and the re-release was announced in 2023 and shipped to customers in 2024.) What little nostalgia I have for the game doesn't date back to the 1980s (I think I probably first learned of it in the early 2000s) but the real world history of an imaginary world is of interest to me, so I bought a copy. It's a big book of 272 pages, but it's an enormously fascinating read if you're interested in either Warhammer 40,000 or the intersection of roleplaying games and wargames. Because it's got so much of interest in it, I'm going to review it chapter by chapter. This post covers Book 1: Combat.

Rogue Trader labels its sections as "books". I'm not sure whether the original Rogue Trader was distributed as several small books in a boxed set, or whether they're just using "book" instead of "chapter" for thematic purposes. For clarity, I refer to Rogue Trader as the "book" and each section as a "chapter".

The game rules

The first chapter in Rogue Trader is labeled Book 1: Combat and it's essentially the game. If you were to read no other chapter but this one, you'd be mostly prepared for a game of 1st edition 40k. As a wargame, it makes sense that the bulk of its rules appear in the combat chapter. However, as with modern 40k, most rules actually have a host of dependencies, so while you learn the main loop of the game (and lots of associated rules) in the first chapter, there's more you need to reference later in the book.

Early in the chapter, it says that if you already know the rules of the Warhammer Fantasy, then you can skip this chapter entirely. I basically know nothing about Warhammer Fantasy (now called Old World), but it's obvious that Games Workshop considered 40k mostly a thematic variant of their existing game system.

That explains a lot, because it strikes me that there are a lot more rules in this chapter than I personally would have attempted to support in the initial iteration of a game system. In addition to the rules you'd expect for infantry soldiers fighting over a battlefield, there are rules for destroying buildings, calculating a vehicle's turn radius, how to deal with dreadnought armour, robots, aerial movement and combat, and so on. As I read through the chapter, it just seemed like a lot of detail for a 1st edition game, and there was no differentiation between minimum viable rules and advanced play. I'd be nervous trying to cover that much so soon in a game's lifecycle, but probably Games Workshop didn't consider these rules to be new. They'd been proven already on the game tables of Warhammer Fantasy players, and moving into space must have seemed like a quick costume change.

Warhammer 40,000 with a Games Master

Rogue Trader assumes that there's a Games Master (GM). That's not something it implies, it says it in the book. The GM is meant to facilitate the game by managing the story, adding in surprise events, and adjudicating any dispute over rules or fairness. The GM is also the arbiter of how powerful armies are. In fact, there's a sort of appendix near the end of the chapter that provides a points system so you can still build an army in the absence of a GM.

As of this chapter, it's not entirely clear to me what a GM would actually do during the game. There don't seem to be that many opportunities for a GM to step in, there are no mandated monsters or third parties for the GM to run, there's no social encounters defined, no mention of loot boxes or similar. The next chapter contains a playable scenario, so maybe that will help me understand the intended role of a GM. After the initial read (and the benefit of hindsight), it feels like a GM would just get in the way. The rules do seem to be very procedural and well-defined, so I don't see the need for external arbitration.

I can imagine a really good GM adding a lot to a game, though. Unlike modern 40k, which lasts for 5 rounds, there's no time limit on Rogue Trader. You could wander around the battlefield, looking under every rock, asking the GM what you find. Even today, in context of a campaign, there's often a GM (usually the organizer of the campaign) who helps craft a narrative around the results of each game. It's a strange kind of storytelling, if you're not used to it, and maybe the inverse of storytelling in an roleplaying game. In an RPG, a story prompt is usually invented by the GM, and the players react to it. In Rogue Trader, a scenario is introduced, the player's armies fight it out, and then the story reacts to the results. It's not a completely different process, but the "initiative" is different.

1st edition Warhammer rules actually make sense

I've read 1st edition D&D, and it makes no sense. You can figure it out if you try hard enough, and obviously people did play it (apparently). But OSRIC exists for a good reason. It makes 1st edition rules easy, usable, and a true pleasure to read and play. Even if you want to argue that the rules makes sense, the way OSRIC objectively improves the organisation and delivery of the rules indirectly proves that 1st edition D&D was, at the very least, poorly organised and needed another iteration for it to clearly express a game system.

That isn't the case with the rules in Rogue Trader, and that is not what I'd expected. If I hadn't already known the book had been released in 1987, I might have mistaken it for a game released 5 years ago (visual style notwithstanding). There are some rules that seem over complex, and some rules that just don't seem like they'd come up all that often, but reading them doesn't inspire me to immediately look for a re-implementation.

1st edition Warhammer rules are familiar

You can see how Rogue Trader rules could be simplified and clarified, and in fact they have been, 9 times and counting. At the time of writing, the 40k game is on its 10th edition and it's easier to play than Rogue Trader. What surprises me is how the latest edition (and, from what I've seen, most of the editions in between) are truly iterations on the same game mechanics. Some of that is the reality of how wargames work. You move figures around the table, you roll dice, you pretend like the miniatures are fighting. Beyond that, though, there's a familiarity to this game if you've played 40k at any point during its 30 year lifespan.

Each round progresses in stages. Here are the stages, with modern terminology in brackets:

  1. Movement [Movement]
  2. Shoot [Shoot]
  3. Hand-to-hand combat [Fight]
  4. Reserves [Reserves and Deep Strike]
  5. Psionics [Psyker]
  6. Rally [Battle Shock]

Compare that to a 10th edition round:

  1. Command
  2. Movement
  3. Shoot
  4. Charge
  5. Fight

There wasn't a Command phase (or any concept of Command Points), and Psionics and Reserves and Rally have been incorporated into other stages, but the structure is basically the same. You move, you shoot, and maybe you charge into melee.

The attack sequence is also basically the same. Roll against your Ballistics Skill (BS) or Weapons Skill (WS) to hit, roll Strength against Toughness to wound, and allow your target to roll to save. The methods of calculation has changed (the chart in Rogue Trader reminds me of the chart in Middle-earth Strategy Battle Game more than of anything in modern 40k) but it's the same sequence of play that modern 40k players know.

The Combat chapter is 60 pages long. The 10th edition Warhammer 40,000 rules are also 60 pages long (unless you count errata since publication, in which case you could argue 80 pages), but with a lot more whitespace. The calculations have been refined, and there are convenient mnemonics so you don't have to reference tables for hits and wounds, and some details have become abstract to ensure that your game doesn't get stuck in a debate over whether a statue topples over due to cannon fire or not. In other words, there are still 60 pages of rules, but there are fewer rules to remember.

In both cases though, that's ignoring special rules for faction, but there weren't yet codexes for 1st edition so there are definitely fewer additional rules specific to your army. What I guess I'm trying to say is that I feel like 1st edition 40k is actually simpler than modern 40k. You might be referring back to the book more often for weird edge cases, but you're not flipping through data cards and your codex to find how many detachment rules and warlord or leader abilities you've forgotten. That definitely was not my expectation. I'd assumed the early version, from a time when it wasn't unusual for a game to be poorly and obtusely documented, would be more complex than its modern iteration. There's an argument that it's more complex, or as complex but in different ways, now as then.

Lore changes

There are a few things in even a rules chapter that hint at how the Warhammer 40,000 setting has changed since 1st edition. Here are the few things I noticed.


In Rogue Trader, a dreadnought is described as a suit of armour. The human that operates it is placed within the dreadnought suit, and is basically suspended in a kind of amniotic liquid, and just merges with the dreadnought's machinery, to the point of sometimes losing touch with the reality of being human.

In modern lore, that sounds more like a Titan than a dreadnought. In modern lore, a dreadnought contains the remains of an otherwise fallen space marine, and is operated by that space marine, who has full knowledge that he is essentially dead but continues to serve.


In Rogue Trader, you can add robots to your army.

In modern 40k lore, the term "robot" needs a lot of qualification, because AI is anathema. Here are the potential kinds of robots in 40k:

  • A Kastelan Robot is an ancient robot, programmed for specific military tasks.
  • A servitor is a lobotomized human that drives some robotic component.
  • Men of Iron are artificially intelligent humanoid thinking machines created during the Age of Technology.

I'm not sure what kind of robot the 1st edition is talking about, but the drawings look vaguely Kastelan to me, or at least that's what I'd say if I were asked to retcon it.

Good start

I was surprised at how not old Rogue Trader felt. It's not at all what I'd expected. It seems manageable, in terms of complexity, and it wouldn't intimidate me to try a game. Building an army still seems

There's no mention of why the book is called Rogue Trader. There's been no mention of rogues or traders so far.

Header photo of book, glasses, and dice is licensed Creative Commons cc0.

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