The Warhammer 40,000 universe is probably the best example of a “grimdark” setting. It is set into the far future of the 41st millenium, the Imperium of Man is besieged from all sides and from within. Vast fleets and huge armies wage constant wars. Millions of psychics are sacrificed every year in order to keep the Emperor of Mankind “alive”. If you haven’t been living under a rock in the last 30 years, you have probably heard of the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop miniatures games and its setting. Over the years the setting has also been explored in books, board games, computer and video games, and even tabletop roleplaying games. Until recently Fantasy Flight Games had owned the 40k license and released a series of roleplaying games using similar, but not identical mechanics. They followed a similar concept as they do with their Star Wars roleplaying games. There is a new core rulebook and supporting sourcebooks for each campaign type. This always bothered me a bit, because it meant that you got a lot of redundant material in each book, and it also made it quite hard to have a campaign with characters from various campaign types.
Luckily Ulisses North America, a subsidiary of the German publisher Ulisses Spiele, took a different approach. When they acquired the 40k license for roleplaying games they decided to release one core rulebook which supports all kinds of campaigns. The game has now finally been released and Ulisses provided me with a complimentary PDF copy which is basis for this review.
Because of the size of the core book I’ve decided to split the review into several parts. This first part covers the first three chapters of the book and provides some insight on the overall look of the game.
At over 450 pages Warhammer 40,000 Wrath & Glory is a veritable tome. At this size you might fear that W&G is a game with complex and numerous mechanics, but that’s luckily not the case. But more about this later. If you’re leafing through the book you quickly realize that W&G follows the same model as the 1st Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game from the 1980s: this one book is everything you need to play in the 40k universe for a very long time. It covers various tiers of play from simple Human gangers to Primaris Space Marines. Alien races like Eldar or Orks are also supported. Unfortunately there’s no support for Tau yet, but hopefully they’ll release appropriate material at a later date. There are rules for space ships, and extensive bestiary and quite a bit of setting information.Unfortunately this book has a couple of issues as well, but compared to its strengths they are pretty minor. While the artwork included in the book is just awesome, there are quite a few pieces of art we’ve already seen in other 40k products. I’m also no fan of the layout. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not really bad, but I find it rather “pedestrian”. But that’s nothing they can’t fix in a second edition eventually – overall it’s a good looking book. The rules mechanics and the sheer amount of stuff you get to play around with easily makes up for these minor quibbles.
Chapter 1 covers the setting. Aside from an overview of the vast 40k universe, W&G provides us with more indepth information on the Gilead System which is meant as a launching point for your adventures. The Gilead System has various habitable and inhabitable systems, a strong Imperial presence, areas where Eldar Corsairs practice piracy, there’s a huge Space Hulk, a conglomerate of many ships drifting through space and even a few rogue planets which recently emerged from warp storms. Getting ideas for countless adventures should be quite easy. But you can of course set your game in every other region of the Milky Way.
The 2nd Chapter is all about rules. Instead of the percentile dice-based system used by FFG’s 40k roleplaying games, Wrath & Glory utilizes a d6 pool-system. In order to determine success or failure of actions, you roll a pool of dice (usually a number determined by a skill, a relevant attribute, and any modifiers applicable). Any dice showing a 4 or 5 count as successes, while a 6 counts as two successes. If the number of successes beats a Difficulty Number (DN) set by the GM, the action was successful. W&G also borrows the Wild Die mechanic from systems like Open D6 or Savage Worlds. One die from your pool should have a different color and is called the Wrath Dice. A 1 on this die adds a complication to the scene, even if the attempt was successful. A 6 on your Wrath die grants you 1 point of Glory and in the case of attack rolls, its considered a critical hit! The game also uses Wrath points (every character starts with two of those) which can be spent to reroll failures, restore health, add bonus dice to certain checks and make narrative declarations. Wrath is gained by accomplishing objectives, good roleplaying and playing campaign cards (more about those later).
The aforementioned Glory can be spent to add bonus dice to attempts, increase damage, increase the severity of a critical hit, and last but not least to seize the initiative. Glory is not only gained by rolling 6 on the Wrath Die, but also by using Shifts. Shifts occur when you get more successes than needed. If you rolled 6s which are not needed to reach the set DN, these can be “shifted”. In case of attack rolls they can increase damage. In general, shifted dice can grant an additional piece of information to the player character, improve the quality of the task, or improve its speed.
Then there’s Ruin, the GM’s equivalent of Wrath or Glory, which is gained if the players fails corruption or fear tests. The GM also gains Ruin if they roll a 6 on their Wrath die. Ruin can be spent to activate special Ruin abilities, to interrupt the PCs, seize the initiative, reroll failures, restore the health of NPCs and to soak damage.
When I first heard about W&G’s d6 pool mechanic, I was actually a bit worried, since all Warhammer roleplaying games have used percentile systems before, but after reading the rules, I think it was actually a good decision. With percentile systems judging difficulty and applying modifiers can sometimes be quite problematic. As both the FFG 40k games and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay have shown, low percentile values which are common with regular characters lead to a lot of frustration. I remember sessions where hardly anyone managed to hit their enemies in combat. With W&G’s dice mechanic it’s much easier to have competent characters which are not at the same time superhuman. The Wrath and Glory points are a nice touch and should – at least in theory – give players a bit more influence on the outcome of tests and the world. Unfortunately I haven’t had the time to actually play the game.
Before moving on to the next chapter let me talk a bit about how the book is organized. Unfortunately there are several instances where the order in which game mechanics are explained is not optimal. Often you have to search through half the book to find something. And there’s the thing with the Campaign Cards which are mentioned several times, but its unclear if these cards are actually needed or something optional. The cards are also not included in the PDF.
The 3rd chapter of the book focuses on character creation in W&G. Before creating characters the group must decide what kind of campaign they want to play. Player character species and archetypes are sorted into Tiers. Each Tier determines the amount of Build Points available to create your character with, and also gives limits to maximum attribute values, skill values, talents, psychic powers, max dice pool bonuses and penalties. In a Tier 2 game for example, you get 200 Build Points, characters can have attributes up to 6 and up to 3 talents et cetera. Species and archetypes also have Base Tier requirements. For example you can’t play a Sanctioned Psyker in a Tier 1 game, or an Inquisitor in a Tier 4 game. But it is possible to play characters meant for low-tier play in high-tier games. That’s done via Ascension Packages, which “ascend” characters to higher tiers. So if you want your Ganger to rub elbows with Space Marines and Inquisitors, it is possible.
Character creation can also be as elaborate or simple as you wish. You can either rely on pregenerated skill packages and attribute arrays or buy each skill and attribute separately. What really made me fall in love with this game is the large amount of player species and archetypes available out of the box. Aside from humans, you can play Eldar, Orks, Space Marines, and Primaris Space Marines. Each species comes with a base speed, attribute modifications and a couple of special abilities like the Orks’ “Orky” ability which grants an Ork character a +1 to all Intimidation quests.
Archetypes are a bit like careers or classes in other games. They provide the character with starting equipment, keywords, and special abilities. Each archetype also has a build point cost and prerequisites. To play an Warlock for example, the character must be Eldar with a Willpower of 4 or more and the skill Psychic Mastery at rank 2. The list of archetypes is quite impressive and includes over 30 archetypes ranging from Ork Boyz and Hive Gangers to Hereteks, Chaos Space Marines and Inquisitors. Yes, you’ve read that correctly, the game fully supports playing followers of Chaos. Personally I prefer campaigns focused on Imperial characters, but with W&G you can easily run a Chaos, Ork, or Eldar focused game. This feature alone makes W&G a must-have for the 40k fan.
While the dice mechanic deviates from former Warhammer roleplaying games, the attributes should be pretty familiar to every fan. The attributes are Strength, Agility, Toughness, Intellect, Willpower, Fellowship, Initiative and Speed. In addition to these attributes, W&G uses a number of additional traits like Defence (Initiative–1) or Shock (Willpower+Tier), which is W&G’s hitpoint equivalent.
The skill list is of a reasonable size with about 18 skills. Unlike in other Warhammer games Weapon Skill and Ballistic Skill are actually skills and not attributes.
Last but not least characters can buy a number of talents which grant bonuses or special abilities. Prerequisites for each talent are keywords, attributes and/or skills. The Dual Wielder talent, which allows wielding two melee weapons or two pistols has an attack skill of 4+ as a prerequisite. Hardy needs a Toughness of 3+ and so on.
After picking a species and an archetype, purchasing attributes, skills and talents, each character also gets a background. This background can be based on the character’s origin, on keywords, accomplishment or a character’s goals. An example for an Ork goal is Warboss (“You believe that you are fated to command a massive Waagh! that can roll across the galaxy. Every action you take is focused around gathering more Boyz and Nobz to follow you, as you slowly garner more support.”). Backgrounds have no direct mechanical effect, but they help to flesh out your character. Last but not least players can purchase gear for their characters. Each archetype comes with starting equipment, additional items can be bought with Build Points.
The first part of my review ends here. Character creation and its flexibility is definitely a main strength of Wrath & Glory. Never before has a Warhammer 40,000 roleplaying game provided us with so many options in a single book. I especially applaud the inclusion of non-human species and the Tier system. In the near future I’ll have a look at the remaining chapters of the book. Please stay tuned!
Update: Check out the second and final part of my review here!