Monday, 20 February 2012

He'd make a plan and he'd follow through, cos that's what Brian Boitano'd do.

I don't normally mention the other side to the gaming hobby, as I want this blog to stay focussed on the wargaming side of things.  But this is too cool to not mention.

Alongside wagaming, I've also played in and run a lot of roleplaying games, which for many years were my only gaming outlet.  One of the things that's always frustrated me is the way most RPGs focus on rag tag outcast sort of characters.  Even with games that support (and some say were designed for) player-characters rising in rank and becoming leaders and significant powers in the campaign world, the games-masters and referees I've played with have always shied away from that, often abandoning the game before the player characters get "too powerful".

In science-fiction RPGs, I call this the "Bantha Dung" effect.  So many games put the characters in a tramp freighter scratching out a living haulting unexciting trade goods (like Bantha dung) from one planet to another and taking odd jobs of dubious legality to make a little extra money.  It's the classic Traveller campaign setup and formed the basis of the fantastic but too short lived TV show Firefly. But after a while it gets a bit tiresome.

The game I've always wanted to play or run would see the characters as significant movers and shakers, commanding armies and fleets and conducting shadowy diplomacy that determines the fate of worlds.  I call it the "Princes of the Universe" campaign.  But the last time I tried pitching that game idea to prospective players, some of them vetoed it arguing that they couldn't see how anything could be a challenge to characters with a small army at their beck and call. (sigh)

Anyway, back in 2010 I was invited to play in a game which had the promise of that sort of action.  Rogue Trader is a sci-fi RPG set in the universe of Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000 wargame.  Players take on the roles of a Rogue Trader and their retinue.  In the setting, Rogue Traders are the holders of Imperial Warrants to explore and trade on the edges of known space.  They often build up considerable empires of their own, with relations between trader dynasties ranging from scheming and intriguing to full-blown war.  Like everything in the 40K setting, Rogue Trader things BIG, with kilometer long ships with crews in the tens of thousands.  Raising and equipping a unit of 100 men can be a cheaper purchase than, say, a really fine high-quality laser pistol.

Now the truth is I don't really care that much for the Warhammer 40,000 setting, or the rules system used in its RPGs.  But I'd read accounts from people who held similar views but had really enjoyed the game and knew the GM had just finished an epic Dark Heresy (another 40K RPG) campaign which his players had loved, and I'd played in one of his previous games, Tour Of Darkness (Vietnam war, but with supernatural horror) which I'd greatly enjoyed.

So I signed up for the game.  My character was called Kilgim Hartek, a Squat Arch-Militant (for the uninitiated, Squats were a race of "space dwarves" that were officially written out of the 40K universe some years ago, and an Arch-Militant is basically a combat specialist) and to try to steer the game towards the sort of action I was after, he was made the "warmaster" of House Dureen's military forces.

A few months into the game, the player running the Rogue Trader character dropped out, as did his girlfriend playing the ship's navigator (more or less - she managed about one game in ten for the rest of the campaign and never really got involved).  So we were left with myself and the player of the ship's enginseer (40K's setting treats technology as a religion/magic, so think technician/priest) We tried bluffing through it for a while, with the Rogue Trader staying "in his cabin", but at the end of the day you can't play a game of Rogue Trader without an actual Rogue Trader character.  The game had become untenable and all the GM's preparation and planning looked like it was going to waste.

Until the Enginseer's player reveals his plan.  He had "discovered" documentary evidence in the archives that, deep in the past, a member of the noble House Dureen had contributed genetic material to the creation of the Squat race.  And that by scrying certain arcane "genetic markers" he could prove that Kilgrim Hartek was in fact a legitimate heir to the house of Dureen and thus its Imperial Warrant.  It was, of course, a blatant fiction, completely unbelievable and liable to collapse if investigated with any rigour.  But it was enough to get the game back on track and continue the campaign.  House Dureen had a new leader, with a beard and a bad attitude.

Thus the legend began.

You see Kilgrim had been designed as a pretty gruff, brought up on the wrong side of the tracks, ruthless sociopath.  I mean he was by nature a thug, albeit one who had learned to command an armoured division.  When he uncovered a lead on a potentially profitable trading opportunity while carousing in a bar, he didn't think twice about quietly shanking his informant in a back alley to prevent him from passing it on to anyone else.  He was prone to high profanity, favoured the direct approach in all things and drank like, well like every fantasy dwarf stereotype you can imagine.  All of a sudden he was expected to rub shoulders with the 41st millennium equivalent of the Borgias and compete with them in trade.  While the GM allowed me to re-build Hartek as a Rogue Trader so that he could pick up some of the skills vital to the role, what was more fun was playing the way his attitude changed from that of a ruthless thug to become the leader of a noble house. (though to be honest, he never quite lost his thug core)  Think equal parts Bob Hoskins' Harold Shand from The Long Good Friday, Sergeant Williams from Zulu Dawn, Mark Addy's King Robert Baratheon from Game of Thrones and Brian Blessed's Voltan from Flash Gordon and..,. well pretty much anything else Brian Blessed has done.

Anyway, all though this, the Enginseer's player was keeping a written record of the game which was posted to the Fantasy Flight Games forums,where it became something of a minor hit. The game continued on.  We fought epic battles featuring thousands of troops, joined a crusade to purge a world of a Chaos infection and led a coalition of forces defending another world against an Orkish Waaaaagh! We picked up a couple of new players, extended our fleet and built up a federation of a half dozen worlds  Kilgrim held it all together with his... distinctive leadership style... which occasionally involved summary executions of underlings who disappointed him (though inevitably the reputation soon outgrew the facts)

Finally, the GM was due to move house to the other end of the country and so brought the campaign to a close with an epic struggle defending a populated system against a Tyranid hive fleet.  The system was, eventually, saved, though it required the sacrifice of the House's two most powerful ships, one commanded by the House's senior captain, the other by the Rogue Trader himself.  That was the tail end of last year, after nearly 50 game sessions spread just over a year.

So anyway, after the final chapters were posted to the Fantasy Flight forums, one of the other forum members commented something along the lines of "Every time I play Rogue Trader now, I find myself thinking "What would Hartek do in this situation?"

Someone else replied "Every Rogue Trader game should have a 'What Would Hartek Do' card?"

One of our players, Kat, got that mad gleam in her eye.  Instead of a card, she got some T-shirts made.


How. Cool. Is. That?

Coming next, back to terrain work for the Victorian Cityscape.


  1. A very cool story, sir. I like it!

    -- Jeff

  2. That is too cool! I'll have to do a search for Hartek to read the full story.

  3. Googling "Kilgrim Hartek" brings up the thread on the Fantasy Flight forums, but I've also linked to it in the post, and here

  4. I take my hat off to GMs who can run such campaigns. Sounds like a lot of fun .

    Quite a while back I thought about trying ot launch a LOTR (decipher) campaign for family /friends. Trouble I had was when I thought through the whole compaign, it would have to end at some point where some evil dastardly minion was fought off, back to his 'castle/stronghold'. And then you have either the have 'silly' situation of a handful of characters going up against an army in a castle, or they raise an army to do it... but how you roleplay an army??? I couldnt get my head round it and scrapped the idea... (I was never really a GM, always a player)

    I have played in one sci-fi RPG once. We'd been a bunch of fantasy RPG players for a while but had started playing a lot of 40K at the time and wanted to try 40k RPG. So our GM, created a campaign (using his homebaked runequest system) but the twist was we were all 'fantasy characters' who started the campaing waking up on a crashed space ship... we had to learn the setting as such and roleplay the fact that we didnt initially know what technology was... all manner of 'guns' we found we called 'boom-sticks'... it was quite fun while it lasted... that was 20 years ago... I havent role played really since...

  5. "And then you have either the have 'silly' situation of a handful of characters going up against an army in a castle"

    Actually Scott, I had exactly this situation come up in my most recent RPG Campaign. The setting is essentially "ancient Greeks in space" based on Fortunately the game system we used (FATE) allowed you to step back from the tactical nitty-gritty and follow the course of events at a narrative level. The players had fun wading knee-deep in blood through the palace guards, finding secret passages to evade them and pulling all sorts of stunts to progress through the opposition to make it to the King, then gleefully stood back as the Honest General NPC took revenge for the King first seducing his wife, then trying to have her killed. Proper Greek Tragedy stuff!

    I've always been interested in the intersection where role-playing games meet wargames. It's part of the reason why I encourage silly hats and sillier accents in wargames. I wrote Adventures and Expeditions by GASLIGHT to play in this zone too, so people could play the exploits of their tabletop Main Characters between battles. Shortly afterwards I discovered the Savage Worlds RPGs, which encourages PCs to lead groups of minions. In the Vietnam game I mentioned in the post, I played a company First Sergeant whose main duty was nursemaiding the wet-behind-the-ears platoon LT (effectively running the show, deciding tactical deployments etc). Other players led squads and fireteams within that platoon, in addition to fighting as individuals. During pitched battles, we were effectively fighting a Vietnam wargame, with large elements of free-Kriegspiel (our GM was a serving soldier, running the game during visits home on leave, between deployments to Iraq and The 'ghan, so his portrayal of firefights against an insurgent foe had a certain ring of authenticity about it)

    Since then FATE has become my ruleset of choice, and with its "fractal" design concept, you can describe military units from squads right up to the army level (or beyond, you can even describe a whole kingdom, world or even space empire) using the same basic game mechanics as for individual PCs.

    You're not the first person I've heard shy away from the idea of "roleplaying an army", but it certainly can be done, and it's a fascinating zone to play in.