Thursday, February 12, 2015

Star Wars and Warhammer 40K Rogue Trader

The most important invention of Games Workshop's golden age was the world of Warhammer 40K: a science fiction setting combining sword-and-sorcery fantasy with a bitter dystopian future. It was the ultimate sweet-and-sour combination. This fantasy-future has seized the imagination of gamers since Rick Priestly wrote Warhammer 40K Rogue Trader in 1987. But one element that hasn't be fully explored is the huge debt that Rogue Trader owes to Star Wars.

The influence hides in plain sight. The first words in the preface (page 6) of Rogue Trader read,
If you've ever left the cinema or turned from the TV screen wishing that you could invent your own death-stars, storm-troopers, whirring ornithopters and wild-eyed heroes then this is for you! ... Warhammer 40,000 is fantasy game set in the far future,

The most obvious link between Star Wars and Rogue Trader is the similarity between Storm Troopers and Space Marines: an elite force of heavily armoured shock troopers. These faceless warriors became the single most recognizable image for both systems. And for good reason. Both are a triumph of design: the stylized frown and teary eyes of the storm trooper, versus the avian menace of the "beaky" space marine helmet.

But the connections are more than skin deep. George Lucas' genius was to take the elements of fantasy and apply them to a science fiction setting: magic swords, desperate princesses, black knights and wizardly mentors. Rick Priestly pulled the same trick, but he used a different emphasis. Whereas Lucas drew from the chivalric myths of Arthurian romance, Priestly invoked fantasy in Tolkien's epic mold... and thus we have lots of magic (psychic powers), fantasy races (eldar, squats, space orcs, slann and zoats) and a well developed sense of history's sweep (The Age of Strife, the Dark Age of Technology, etc.)

But what interests me most isn't merely the fact that Rogue Trader borrowed from Star Wars... it's that Rogue Trader perverted George Lucas' vision. In both systems, there is a galaxy-wide Imperium. In both systems, a frail emperor sits enthroned in the centre of the galaxy, wielding mighty armies and formidable magic powers. In both systems, his greatest tool is the aforesaid legion of armoured shock troopers. In both systems, humans strive to dominate a universe crawling with alien life. In both systems, rebels cavil about freedom. In both systems, these rebels are led by psychics with strange abilities. But in Star Wars the Emperor is an authoritarian menace, and in Rogue Trader, authoritarianism is the only thing that preserves humanity from total destruction.

Star Wars is a Manichean world with a sharp line between good and evil. Rogue Trader has the same dynamic range (noble self-sacrifice versus soul-destroying evil) but the dividing line between these extremes is smeared with grease. The Imperial Inquisition tortures witches and exterminates whole planets... but is it evil or simply a necessary evil? The Emperor of Mankind consumes thousands of souls every day to keep himself alive... but without his life, wouldn't the Empire would collapse into apocalyptic anarchy?

I'm reading my way through Peter Ackroyd's superb book on the English Civil War, The History of England Volume III (2014). I can't help but view Rick Priestly's take on Star Wars as a product of English history. George Lucas' universe has the moral simplicity of the American Revolution (plucky rebels fight off British tyranny!). But Rogue Trader has all the ambiguity of the English Civil War... who was the "good guy" in that awful struggle?

The round-heads of Parliament fought for responsible government, but they also exhibited a Taliban-like prudery (what kind of an asshole do you have to be to outlaw Christmas?). On the other hand, King Charles believed in the divine right of kings and thought he stood above all laws... but he was also a religious moderate who tried to unite Catholics, Anglicans and puritans, not to mention English, Irish and Scots. Well, it didn't end well for him (see the woodcut above). But after years of war and an experiment with Republicanism, the English were desperate to get a King back... they realized that they needed a authority figure to help stave off anarchy.

And so, in a funny way, Warhammer 40K is like Star Wars minus the fairy tale. As the Rogue Trader books says "There is no time for peace. No respite. No forgiveness." In other words, the Force won't be with you. You're on your own.

Star Wars miniatures in this post are from Fantasy Flight's Imperial Assault. Next week: more pics of my recently painted Star Wars minis... 


  1. Nice write up. I hadn't considered the historical lens on the two visions, but it is a compelling argument.

  2. In Star Wars Lucas borrowed much from Frank Herberts Dune, which I think Priestly has name-checked as an influence on 40k. Star Wars as well, but the massive sweep of history, the psionic navigators. Imperial Space Marines do look a bit like storm troopers, but they are also the fanatical Sardaukar. You'll also see rebels led by psychics with strange powers, and many other points of similarity between all three.

    I agree the English Revolution has much that feeds 40k - the Inquisitors (Matthew Hopkins), and all of that. What 40k also throws into the mix is sense of the British Empire, Rogue Traders and 18th C. Trading Companies, and loosing touch with the colonies. In moving from medieval-fantasy to space-fantasy Warhammer still retains much of it's origins in pseudo-history.

    Nice article, and cheers for the "Perverted" link :-)

  3. Good read. I second Zhu's comment regarding Dune. 40k seems as much influenced by Dune as Star Wars. "whirring ornithopters"

  4. Nice read. That first picture is indeed telling ;-)

    I third Zhu's comments. Both Star Wars and 40K borrowed heavily from Dune. The "benevolent Emperor" who must do necessary evil for humans to survive is clearly borrowed from Emperor Leto the God Emperor of Dune (who's appearance also clearly inspired Star Wars' Jabba), the mix of the medieval caste system and sci-fi, the close combat so prevalent in both 40K and Dune, etc.

    Probably explains why I like the three universes so much! Although to me Dune is the masterpiece of Science-Fiction.

  5. An excellent read Sully, oh and love your paint jobs you make me want to paint west end games!

  6. Quite right about Dune! It's a pity that the orinthopters mentioned in the preface to Rogue Trader never made it into the the modelling world... but at least we got creepy Navigators.
    Are there any Dune miniatures?

  7. Nice post and great looking figures!

  8. Thanks everyone - I'm glad you enjoyed reading the post - It's been fermenting in my head for a while now, and it was nice to get it written down.

  9. An excellent and most interesting post.