Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay: Imperium Maledictum – A Review

Review in Summary

In 2008, Games Workshop’s Black Library book publishing arm spun off a small group called Black Industries. This small group created a line of d100-based RPGs starting with Dark Heresy before being almost immediately shut down by Games Workshop. Fantasy Flight Games then continued the product line with the standlone Only War, Deathwatch, and Black Crusade games using the same ruleset, as well as several supplements for each. Dark Heresy briefly saw a second edition before Fantasy Flight and Games Workshop ended their relationship in early 2017. Eventually the Warhammer RPG license went to Cubicle 7, creators of the popular Doctor Who RPG.

Several years later, Cubicle 7 has published Imperium Maledictum, a mechanical successor to the Black Industries d100 RPGs. Like Dark Heresy before it, it focuses on a small group of humans living in the Imperium of Man who are plucked from obscurity by a powerful patron to work toward their patron’s objectives in a brutal, dangerous galaxy.

Imperium Maledictum’s mechanics are solid, well-explained, and extremely approachable. They convey an excellent sense of the danger and struggle of the Warhammer: 40,000 setting, while also empowering the characters to succeed as individual people in a massive and detailed setting. Overall, I’m very impressed, and I’m excited to play this.

Cubicle 7 provided review materials for this review.

All You Can Eat Grimdark Storytelling

Imperium Maledictum leans hard into the themes of Warhammer 40,000. Characters are single humans among untold trillions. With rare exception, the galaxy is a horrible, unpleasant place to live. 40k is grimdark science fantasy turned up to 11.

Within the overarching themes of the setting, Imperium Maledicturm’s storytelling can be surprisingly diverse. In many ways, your group’s choice of patron will determine the type of story that you’re playing. Groups working for an inquisitor might hunt chaos cults hiding among the populace of a hive world. Groups working for the administratum (humanity’s galaxy-wide bureaucracy) might play a legal procedural, or you might play out a grimdark version of The Office. Groups working for the adeptus justiciar might play out a Law and Order style crime procedural, or they might be Judge Dredd-style supercops.

The Warhammer 40,000 setting is big, and most humans have very little information about the state of the galaxy at large. This makes it very easy to compartmentalize what the characters know, and consequently, what the players need to know to enjoy the game. If you don’t care about chaos cults or gene stealing space bugs or Egyptian-themed space robots, you don’t need to touch any of those things, and your story can still fit perfectly into the game and the setting.

Dice Grots not Necessary, Still Welcome

Imperium Maledictum uses a d100 roll low system with degrees of success for each 10 by which you roll under your character’s target number. Degrees of success can do things like add bonus damage in combat or trigger critical hits on the game’s amazing critical injury tables. In combat, damage is usually d10 or d5 plus modifiers, allowing the entire game to be played with two d10s.

One Among Untold Trillions

Characters in Imperium Maledictum are created using an origin (typically a type of planet), a faction, and a role (a class), as well as a set of numerical attributes and skill proficiencies which work similarly to characters in Call of Cthulhu or the Basic Roleplaying System. Advancement is point-based using experience points similar to Shadowrun or FFG Star Wars.

Character creation can be done pick-and-choose, but players are also rewarded with bonus starting XP for randomizing some or all of these choices, potentially starting a player with xp equivalent to months of real-world play time in exchange for a character that is entirely random.

Equipment also features heavily in character advancement, especially in combat. The difference between a guardsman in flak armor and a veteran character in power armor is the difference between a person with a flashlight and a fully-armed main battle tank. Powerful equipment like this is rare and expensive, and likely won’t be available except in very long-running campaigns, but the possibility of upgrading makes progression feel very real in a game where your character can’t get significantly better at surviving being shot because hp doesn’t improve very much.

Some characters can also develop psychic powers (essentially magic), allowing them to perform incredible feats like flight or healing or throwing bolts of lightning. As with any Warhammer property, magic is fueled by dangerous extradimensional power, and comes with the risk of the caster suffering horrible fates like insanity or demonic possession.

The Psychic Phenomena table generates suitably crazy effects when magic goes awry, and the Perils of the Warp table brings in the serious threats when things go very, very wrong. I have fond memories of my Dark Heresy players accidentally reversing gravity on several occasions, and seeing those options preserved in Imperium Maledictum made me very happy.

The Emperor’s Fury

Combat in Imperium Maledictum is extremely lethal. The characters are mostly normal humans, and, while many enemies will also be humans, you might also face horrible things like terrifying alien creatures or disgruntled automatons.

Combat heavily features a system called Superiority to represent both tactical advantages and morale. Players each gain a numerical bonus to a check once per round equal to the party’s current Superiority, and a sufficiently high Superiority score might cause enemies to flee or surrender. However, scoring Superiority requires some combination of planning ahead or overwhelming success in battle. Suffering critical wounds or being ambushed reduces Superiority, which might mean desperately fighting to the last person standing.

Turns in combat are fairly simple: each creature gets an Action, a Movement, and a Reaction. Your Action is most of the impactful stuff: attacking, using items, etc. Movement is almost exclusively used to change position, but can also be used to Take Cover. Reactions are used to Dodge, Parry, and perform a few other specific options.

Movement and positioning uses loosely-defined zones rather than a grid, similar to RPGs like ALIEN or FFG Star Wars. Despite being rooted in a wargame, Imperium Maledictum doesn’t require a tape measure. Unlike many RPGs which use zones, moving out of melee with another creature allows them to make a free melee attack using their Reaction similar to DnD or Pathfinder. In a game where people use swords and spears against enemies wielding plasma guns, that keeps melee important because enemies can’t take a half-step back and vaporize you.

Despite using zones instead of precise spaces, Imperium Maledictum also accounts for variations in movement speed, which I haven’t seen in a TTRPG before. (It may exist elsewhere, I just haven’t seen it before) This places mechanical value on an aspect that RPGs which use movement zones typically ignore in favor of simplicity and fluid movement.

Initiative is a static score rather than being randomly determined. This means that characters who are agile and/or perceptive will consistently act early in combat, placing a lot of value on those statistics even though you might not actually roll them during combat. Characters can spend Fate (more on that below) to choose their place in initiative for one turn, but Fate is expensive. Since initiative is largely predetermined, starting combat is much faster than in games where it’s randomized before every encounter, often taking several minutes just to sort creatures into turn order.

Injuries in Imperium Maledictum are exciting and brutal. While characters have a limited pool of Wounds (hit points), any excess damage inflicts a Critical Injury, and once you’re at 0 Wounds, any further damage will immediately inflict another Critical Injury. These injuries are rolled on a table with high damage leading to worse injuries, and the specific tables varying by hit location. Low rolls often inflict status conditions like being prone or stunned, while high rolls might inflict permanent injuries (missing limbs, etc.) or immediate death.

Accumulating multiple Critical Injuries can quickly kill you. A typical starting character will die after suffering just 2 or 3, and extremely tough characters might die at 4.

Some enemies (“elites”) use the same critical injury system, though minor enemies (“troops”) are mercifully declared dead if they drop to 0 wounds or suffer a single critical hit. This allows for dramatic fights against powerful enemies, but doesn’t require a mountain of tracking for every random gang member and cultist you encounter.

The original Dark Heresy rules included differing tables for each hit location and damage type. While this added a great degree of variety, it also meant that critical injuries also took much more time to adjudicate. I think Imperium Maledictum has struck a fine balance by providing four whole pages of critical injuries, but without the additional step of differentiating damage types. Still, there’s room for a return in future supplements if you want flamers and bolt guns to have different effects.

Adeptus Mechanics

While the world of Warhammer 40,000 is filled with dangerous and violent combat, just as much of the game involves interacting with various personalities and factions. The game encourages tracking an Influence score representing the party’s standing with various factions, and any given activity might cause the party’s Influence to rise or fall with one or more factions.

Imperium Maledictum uses a metacurrency called Fate which is somehow both very generous and absolutely punishing. Characters have an initial Fate pool of 3, and start each game session with that many points. Spending Fate allows you to do typical TTRPG things like rerolling checks or overcoming a status condition.

Permanently “burning” Fate allows you to survive a lethal experience, stave off corruption, or choose the exact dice rolls and outcomes of a check. This gives players a powerful option to survive desperate circumstances, but at a permanent cost which will hang over your character for the rest of their life.

The presence of the Warp, Warhammer’s horrifying, demonic alternate dimension, is very present in the game’s mechanics. While it’s possible to run a game that doesn’t involve the Warp, demons, or psykers (basically Warhammer 40,000’s spellcasters), any game that involves those things will touch on the Corruption mechanics.

Gaining sufficient corruption can cause permanent changes to your character, including personality changes and physical mutations which range from mildly helpful to outright debilitating. Visual changes to your character mark them as a mutant, making them a pariah within the Imperium of Man.

Between adventures, Imperium Maledictum provides options for characters to undertake various endeavors either as a party or as individuals. Options include things like crafting items, earning an income, or seeking medical attention for critical injuries. While this system is small in terms of page count, it provides enough options that characters’ downtime activities are mechanically meaningful and satisfying.

The Codex

The Imperium Maledictum Core Rulebook contains the fulls rules of the game, roughly 70 pages of setting information detailing both the Imperium of Man as a whole and the Macharian Sector (the setting of Imperium Maledictum) in specific, and a roughly 35 page bestiary containing stat blocks for common NPCs and antagonists. The core rulebook contains all of the rules you need to play, but doesn’t include an adventure.

The Core Rulebook is available both digitally and physically, and the PDF is fully half the price of the physical book. That’s an unusual choice, but for players looking for an inexpensive way into the game, the PDF copy is very reasonably priced.

Cubicle 7 has also published a Game Master’s Screen and a single standalone adventure. The GM screen is your typical 3-panel rules reference, but also comes with a booklet containing tools for worldbuilding and for generating both NPCs and missions, as well as three one-shot adventures. The standalone Chemical Burn adventure (only available digitally) is advertised as a great introductory adventure, including additional advice for novice GMs.

As of this writing, there isn’t a larger bestiary or a longer adventure available, but Imperium Maledictum is also in its first year. Cubicle 7 has done a wonderful job supporting their other Warhammer properties: Wrath and Glory, Age of Sigmar: Soulbound, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. I’m optimistic that we’ll see more content in the near future.

Pain Points

I can nearly always identify some rough edges in a game on an initial read, but I’ve struggled to find any obvious issues with Imperium Maledictum’s mechanics. On what is effectively the third edition of the d100 Warhammer 40,000 RPGs, things appear to be finely tuned, well-written, and generally great.

However, the accessibility of the game itself does have room for improvement. Inexpensive Quickstart rules have become a standard for today’s TTRPGs, and, while the Chemical Burn adventure is very reasonably priced, it lacks both a rules primer and pregen characters, meaning that players must also purchase the Core Rulebook to make use of the adventure.

For players curious about the game, but not ready to buy the full rules, that’s a frustrating barrier to entry. Of course, that limitation may be due to licensing restrictions. Fortunately, the combined price of the digital core rulebook and the Chemical Burn adventure are lower than the cost of the core rulebook(s) for many full-size RPGs including DnD, Pathfinder, Star Wars, and Cypher.

Conclusion and summary of personal opinions

I played 1st edition Dark Heresy from early in its lifetime, and, for a few years, it was my go-to sci-fi/science fantasy RPG. The rules had a lot of rough edges, but the game was incredibly fun, and I have a lot of fun memories from those games. I was excited to see Dark Heresy get a second edition, but I lost track of the game for a few years. Cubicle 7 published Wrath and Glory, which I haven’t explored.

Imperium Maledictum is all of the things I loved about Dark Heresy refined and improved into a fantastic, elegant package. The storytelling options are more diverse, the rules are better explained and better balanced, character options feel unique and exciting without Dark Heresy’s glaringly obvious balance issues, and the overall game conveys the exciting tone of the Warhammer 40,000 universe perfectly.

The Warhammer 40,000 Roleplaying: Imperium Maledictum core rulebook is available both physically and digitally, as is the GM Screen. The Chemical Burn adventure is available digitally.

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