Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader review

by on December 21, 2023
Release Date

December 7, 2023


It’s probably safe to say that the majority of modern gamers are at least somewhat familiar with the Warhammer 40,000 universe, the grimdark hellscape where there is, of course, only war, unless you can get a job as a tattoo artist specialising in skull faces, in which case you’re quids-in. But I bet not many people know that Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader was the very first rulebook written and developed for what is now the most popular sci-fi fantasy tabletop game in existence.

Written by Rick Priestley way back in 1987, Rogue Trader introduced the titular privateers as licensed explorers, adventurers and freelancers who set off into the unknown dangers of Known Space and beyond to extend the God-Emperor’s influence on the universe. Equipped with a Warrant of Trade, they were given leeway to use their own discretion as long as it ultimately benefited the Imperium of Man in some way. As the Warhammer 40K license has been extended to almost every conceivable genre by now (still waiting on that Tyranid-dating visual novel), it was only a matter of time before it went full-CRPG, and what better branch of the universe to do it with than Rogue Trader?

Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader

This is a roleplaying game that pushes Baldur’s Gate 3 in terms of required time investment, easily clearing the 100 hour mark for a conservative playthrough. As the heir to the von Valencius dynasty of Rogue Traders, your rugged space adventure protagonist must amass a party of warriors, a crew to run their enormous ship, and a pile of wealth and magical artefacts to make all the deep space alien murder worthwhile.

After a lengthy introduction that sees you gather an initial party and come to own your own ship and Warrant of Trade, you’re more or less free to explore an ever-expanding galaxy your own way. Obviously you’d do well to follow the quest markers initially to bolster your crew and capabilities, but Owlcat games are eager to let you explore, too.

Having cut their teeth on the Pathfinder games, Kingmaker and Wrath of the Righteous, Owlcat are no strangers to the genre, although Rogue Trader has a tendency to struggle under the weight of its own ambition. Maybe it’s all the skulls carved out of stone or bronze it’s lugging around weighing it down. There are bugs and glitches everywhere, but that isn’t really where the struggle manifests. It’s more in the slightly ponderous pace and the somewhat bewildering depth.

Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader

Because Rogue Trader more or less follows its own rules, not leaning heavily on established W40K guidelines, it can be a tricky one to get your head around even if you’re a fan of the universe or the genre. As the titular Rogue Trader, your job is to chart a course through uncharted space and brave the terrors of the Warp. But also, like, deal with your crew squabbling and random settlements begging for help. There are dozens upon dozens of moral choices at play, sometimes when you’re in the settlements themselves, sometimes brought to you by Abelard, your loyal Seneschal, or other members of your party and crew.

In context, your primary concern is remapping a section of space known as the Koronos Expanse, which has been devastated by a series of warpstorms. In layman’s terms, it means all the routes used to travel this vast chunk of galaxy have gone the way of an unattended garden hose, and you need to work which entrance leads to which exit again. This, unfortunately, leads to you spending some considerable time in the Warp, which in the Warhammer 40K universe is a hellish dimension made out of pure weirdness and held together with horror, so Owlcat can let their imaginations run wild.

That said, while you’ll spend a hell of a lot of time fending off slathering demons and mildly upset demigods, a great deal of Rogue Trader is dedicated to the simple act of existing in the universe. Your role as the titular envoy will lead you through, in no particular order, rebellions, civil wars, disputes over the ownership of entire worlds, owning and managing mining operations, hunting down abominations, and settling arguments between your own senior crew over the dangers versus benefits of using the Warp at all. You’ll recruit an Adeptus Sororitas, a Psyker, an Inquisitor, and an actual bonafide Space Wolf, and you’ll do it all in between bumming around the galaxy looking for stuff to stick your nose into.

Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader

A trio of meters track your overall behaviour on three moral branches: Heretical, Dogmatic, and Iconoclast. It’s a simple enough system on the surface, though it can sometimes be tricky to determine which decisions will affect which meters. Broadly speaking, Heretical decisions include siding with demonic influences, or using the powers of Chaos willy-nilly; Dogmatic points are earned by adhering strictly to the Imperium’s ruthless code of conduct; and Iconoclast decisions will usually see you taking a more softly-softly approach, sticking up for the people and occasionally defying the Emporer’s will for the greater good. Some of the dialogue is pretty cheesy, and I get the feeling that it’s not always intended to be.

You’d think things would get simpler in combat, but unfortunately this is where I struggled most with some of the rules. Owlcat use a hybrid of Warhammer 40K rules and their own tabletop rules, which absolutely works but sometimes left me wondering why some enemies were able to attack out of sequence, for example. It’s also possible to misclick, and shoot your own party members or swing a melee weapon at empty air. I should also point out that Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader relies heavily on the Dreaded Chance-to-Hit Mechanic (to give it its full name), and your seasoned space adventurers can and will fail to hit a 12-foot-tall monstrosity standing a metre away with a clear line of sight.

Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader

One cool element is the ability to have your party members enact either a desperate or heroic act during combat, depending on the effect the fight is having on their mental health at the time. For example, a desperate action might well save your life in the moment, but could have the negative effect of causing reduced movement range or action points, while a heroic act migt allow you to wipe out a number of weaker enemies quickly or buff the party. You’re often heavily outnumbered, which makes it super satisfying to murder your way through huge crowds of xeno scum with chainsword and bolter.

There’s also space combat, which is similarly turn-based and tactical, but on a much larger scale. You’re often outnumbered here, too, with enemy ships scrambling fighters and other obstacles at regular intervals. I don’t know what stopped me clicking with this element of Rogue Trader, though I suspect the level of micromanagement worked against it.

Being able to assign crewmembers to specific roles is cool though, as it opens up special abilities, attacks, and manouvres to use on the fly. If I’m engaging in space combat I’d rather it was faster paced, or at least made me feel like Captain Picard, barking orders and pointing emphatically, whereas the generally ponderous feel of the Rogue Trader space battles had me longing to get stuck in up-close and personal again, chance-to-hit bullshit be damned.

Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader

If anything, you could maybe criticise Owlcat Games for being a little too ambitious. There’s an almost indie-like tendency to heap mechanic on mechanic here that almost works against them, but comes together in the end largely thanks to their reverence for the universe and all its silly, over-the-top satirical posturing. It may be a little slow-burn at times and the area map is simply no one’s friend, but that slow pace at least allows you to appreciate the galaxy in all its brutal glory.

Ultimately, though, Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader is simply not a game for rushing through. Balancing deep space exploration, multiple multi-branching narratives, character progression, interactions and potential romance, and the all-important Profit Factor makes for an experience that you simply can’t go gallivanting through. Every decision needs careful weighing, because you don’t know how it’ll bite you in the arse later. Every character interaction could have far-reaching consequences, and even deciding what to take on board your ridilculously massive ship can result in the deaths of hundreds of crewmembers.

Life is cheap in the Imperium of Man, but choosing to play in the most nihilstic fashion possible and setting fire to everything for the sake of efficiency has the unavoidable drawback of burning everyone’s stuff. Like it or not, if you choose to play Rogue Trader at all, you’re in it for the long haul.


Massive, deep, and immersive
Takes the universe seriously, but remains fun
Great sense of belonging


Chance-to-hit mechanic is awful
Incredibly dense at times
Can be very janky

Editor Rating
Our Score


In Short

Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader is a huge, deep, vast, sprawling CRPG that's sometimes a little too ambitious for its own good.