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Owlcat Games on exploring the Koronus Expanse and going full heretic in Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader

I almost left the interview after they said no Squats, honestly

First released in 1987 - back when Games Workshop were, arguably, much more fun than they are today - Rogue Trader was the first edition of what would eventually become tabletop miniature megachonker Warhammer 40,000. Rogue Traders, the stars of the setting, are themselves a touch more colourful than your average corpse-emperor enjoyer; freelance explorers given a ship, a packed lunch, and a cohort of space-toughs, and sent off to explore the far-flung reaches of the galaxy. And it’s this unique place in the 40k universe that makes them such an exciting prospect for the setting's first fully-fledged classic CRPG.

“Rogue Trader stands out as it gives you giant freedom compared to the other imperial organisations and subsettings of 40k,” says Creative Director Alexander Gusev, “because you can do things that other factions in Warhammer aren’t allowed to do. You can talk to xenos, you can even forge some agreements with them. And these agreements might even not include them dying!”

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Rogue Trader is a “classic RPG” in the vein of Owlcat’s previous Pathfinder offerings, says Gusev, which means companions and character development - both in a literary sense, and through RPG systems. While Paizo’s Pathfinder tabletop roleplaying game served as the major inspiration for the studio’s previous games, this time around it’s Fantasy Flight’s tabletop adaption of the Rogue Trader setting providing the backbone. “We’re huge fans of Rogue Trader in its Fantasy Flight variation," says Gusev. "By the time we pitched this idea to Games Workshop, we were already playing 3 campaigns, two of them in Rogue Trader, and one a Dark Heresy/Rogue Trader Hybrid.”

"It allows us to show a more peaceful - well, I shouldn’t say peaceful, but the civilian life - it’s something truly unique.”

The team started on these tabletop campaigns during development on Kingmaker, says Gusev, and noticed a lot of similarities to Pathfinder’s ‘Stolen Lands’ setting. “It allows us to give a spotlight to a part of the 40k universe that isn’t covered as often as others. What happened there before the state of only war, before the grimdark future? What civilisations inhabited this space and died there? And you can find their remnants. It allows us to show a more peaceful - well, I shouldn’t say peaceful, but the civilian life - it’s something truly unique.”

To this end, you’ll be exploring the part of the universe known as the Koronus Expanse on your own ship, navigating between planets. Rogue Trader, says Gusev, isn’t Rogue Trader without a star map. The Koronus Expanse itself is just a small square of the overall galaxy, but since the galaxy itself is massive, great swathes of star systems and planets are still explorable. Gusev gives the example of Janus, a lush, jungle-covered ‘Agri-World’ that was founded by one of your ancestors. “You’ll be visiting and solving some problems," he says. "You might have seen some of these problems in the trailer.” There’s also a forge world, a machine planet used for constructing imperial war machines, run by the cyborg-like Mechanicus, who you’ll encounter and aid in helpful CRPG protagonist fashion, and Gusev adds that "they’ll be quite a lot of problems during your campaign, because, well, a lot of things happened that might have made Koronus expanse more dangerous than it was before.”

But what of combat? Perhaps fittingly for a setting filled with galaxy-spanning conflicts, Owlcat have decided to embroil themselves in the most fraught brouhaha of our age: RTWP vs TBT. Rogue Trader will be focusing entirely on the turn-based side of things. “A goal with TBT is to showcase characters more,” says Gusev. “In the chaos of real time you often don’t notice what they’re doing, and it’s harder to showcase their differences.” Gusev explains this also allows them to showcase enemy factions with more depth. “Factions are a big part of 40k. Also, it allows us to show more, well, more bloody deaths, and lets us do more with enemy behaviour, to make abilities you need to react to.”

A strange underground room in Warhammer 40k: Rogue Traders, lit only by some blue power pylons on the floor

You’ll be causing and suffering these bloody deaths, as with Owlcat’s Pathfinder games, as a party of six. Characters fulfil somewhat familiar RPG roles, but with a 40k twist. Among the available party members are psykers, effectively casters, or pure melee characters, like the Space Wolf already shown off in the game’s key art - although Gusev says that’s not the only path you can go with him, and you might prefer to go ranged or ranged with melee. There will also be tanks and support, with what sounds like many options to create hybrid roles. And, because it’s 40k, ranged weapons will play a big role. Gusev lists them off: “AOE weapons. Snipers. Auto weapons for crowd control and great damage on single targets.”

Indeed, we’ve already seen an Eldar Sniper in the party in the game’s announcement trailer. So will there be any other playable aliens - known as xenos - in the game? Yes, says Gusev, although they can’t reveal exactly what types just yet. I am, however, devastated to inform you that there are currently no plans to feature Squats, the lovably gruff space dwarves that have just recently made an official return to the settings, years after being "squatted" became community slang for a faction being forgotten by the lore. (“We started developing Rogue Trader before they were revealed,” says Gusev.)

A makeshift base build inside what looks like a church in Warhammer 40k: Rogue Traders, showing a hologram planet map

As far as the player character goes, you’ll be taking the titular role. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll have already met Teodora, your ancestor and predecessor. “She’s the Rogue Trader at the beginning of the game,” says Gusev. “But at some point, you’ll become Rogue Trader instead of her. But I don’t want to spoil anything!” At the start of the game Teodora will face some problems with things she’s done in the past, and you’ll have to follow her footsteps and learn her fate as you play.

“You’re not a very close relative of Teodora, so you’ll have different options on where you came from, how you look, and what you did before you came to serve together with her on the ship,” says Gusev. “We think that RPGs really require you to create a character, so character creation will be extensive and feature a multitude of different options.” This character sheet is influenced by Fantasy Flight’s version, but more as inspiration rather than a hard interpretation. “We’re not directly transferring all the mechanics from Fantasy Flight,” says Gusev, but those who played that companies’ series of 40k tabletop RPGs will find some familiarity.

A Warhammer 40k: Rogue Traders screenshot showing a sniper positioned on a cliff next to the face and foot of a giant but now-collapsed statue

While drawing inspiration from various incarnations of the setting over the years, Owlcat’s Rogue Trader is very much based in modern 40k - a multifaceted setting, says Gustav. “Some subsettings are more colourful, some are more grimdark. There are horror novels in Black Library, and there are ones with more humour and life to them. Our game will feature some elements of all of them. There will be locations that are more horror-like, and locations that are more ‘slice of life’.”

It’s not just the studio's roots as classic RPG developers and fans that are making their way into Rogue Trader, but their roots as a traditionally Kickstarter-funded developer. “We started our studio with a Kickstarter, and the second game was a Kickstarter, too,” says Gusev. “This one was fully funded, but we still want players to participate in feedback.” To this end, the game will first be available in beta through ‘Founders Packs’ - various tiers that allow fans to support and take part in development. Owlcat’s approach here reminds me of another CRPG studio, Larian. So what is it about CRPGs that make them more suited to this kind of ongoing development and dialogue with the fanbase?

A military base in a church, half built around the pews and altar, in Warhammer 40k: Rogue Traders

“The size, in both the length and width. You can make so many choices, and some combinations are hard to predict! Without players thinking outside the box, it’s hard to make choices. Even without bugs, some of those choices will lead to frustrating or unexpected outcomes. Some of the players might introduce us to ideas we hadn’t thought of before, just because of experiencing things in a different context.”

Owlcat is keen to reveal more about the game in the coming months, but before I go, I have to ask if the unique approach to choice and consequence in a 40k setting will allow our Rogue Trader to make some nefarious deals with the ruinous powers. Can you go full heretic? “Can you commit full heresy?” ponders Gusev, “Yes, considering that definitions of heresy vary. I can tell you that in the trailer it mentions heresy - and that’s not just to mention it.” So, more info soon, and an official ‘Fuck the emperor’ run confirmed! You heard it here first.

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