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WH40K: A Primer in Under Ten Pages

In WH40K Roleplay on July 30, 2010 at 4:59 pm

Dark Heresy: A Primer

One of the biggest internal conflicts in Dark Heresy is between the universe as it is “commonly” known and its true, horrifying nature.  The vast majority of the Imperium has no idea how the universe actually works, and to explain why I’ll use a quick metaphor: it is said that ignorance is a flame that pushes the darkness back; knowledge extinguishes that flame and invites the darkness in.  Knowledge is power in Dark Heresy, and the Imperium uses its knowledge not just to control its subjects, but to protect them from what might come calling if they know too much.

Yes, this is a setting where an oppressive, brutal, theocratic regime that quashes progress and heavily regulates knowledge is, in fact, in humanity’s best interests.  After all, you can’t be tempted if you don’t know what’s out there.

In the following sections, I will try to separate “common” knowledge from the “truth.”  Closing this guide is a brief overview of the system itself as well.


Everyone in the Imperium is part of the “cult of the Imperial creed,” which in its simplest venerates the immortal God-Emperor, the Master of Mankind, who guides mankind’s destiny across the stars from the Golden Throne on holy Terra (earth).  Interpretations of this belief are many, hence “cult” of the Imperial creed.  Tribal humans on a low-tech “feral” planet might view him as a warrior-god that extols the virtues of survival and the hunt and whose emissaries soar on metal birds from the heavens to bestow blessings, while others may view Him as your standard omnipotent god that “has a reason for everything.”  Whether a given cult has deviated too far and become heresy is the purview of the Ecclesiarchy.

The Imperium is theocratic and heavily dogmatic, and for this it is important to realize that there is no such thing as an atheist in the Imperium.  Everyone believes in the God-Emperor as proof of his divinity are everywhere, from the Space Marines — super soldiers worth more than a thousand normal guardsmen — to the Imperium existing at all, as he handed mankind its destiny to rule the stars uncontested.

The Emperor posited a few things that form the foundation of much of Imperial life: that the human form is a sacred, and that mankind is destined to rule the stars.  Generally, this is used to persecute mutants, who have deviated from normal human form, and to promote xenophobia as imperial citizens consider their soul tainted by mere proximity to a “xeno,” which can only be salvaged by swift and brutal retribution.  This is given as mankind battles the enemy within, the enemy without, and the enemy beyond.  More succinctly: beware the alien, the mutant, and the heretic.


Also referred to as “xenos,” aliens in this setting are meant to be portrayed as inhuman and, to the common citizen, terrifying.  Consorting with xenos, including using their technology, is seen as heresy as it taints your very soul.  Generally, this only applies to sentient alien races, as lesser species may be conquered, tamed or processed to be of use to mankind.

Common citizens would consider it a blessing to never encounter an alien.  Those that have likely encountered one of the following:

  • The eldar, swift and enigmatic, these aliens are just as likely to raid humanity’s holdings are they are to aid them and attack their foes.
  • The savage and bloodthirsty orks, who care only for fighting and battle and are an insidious threat that never seems to be fully exterminated
  • The tau, with their advanced technology and seeming willingness to share space and ally with the imperium, who most consider best dealt with by firing first before they get the chance.

There are a few races that are rarely encountered by the common folk as they’ll die soon afterwards, either by the aliens themselves or by the Imperium itself as their planet is marked for Exterminatus and destroyed to contain the threat.

  • The tyranids, a ravenous bug-like race that can consume entire planets
  • The necrons, metal constructs with advanced technology that seem to be devoted to exterminating all life.

In truth, there is good reason for mankind to maintain its xenophobic attitude: most aliens are either willing to sacrifice humanity if it serves their own goals, if they aren’t intent on destroying us outright.  Alien technology is proscribed as there’s a good chance it will kill or corrupt you in some way, though there are pieces that are “safe” to use, though it’s still considered heretical.

  • The eldar consist of two factions, both of which are incredibly gifted psychically: the eldar, who are lead by the prescient “farseers,” and as such act in a seemingly random way to the benefit of a predicted future.  This may include sacrificing billions of humans if they deem it necessary.  Then there’s the dark eldar, depraved aliens who delight in torture and enslaving the weak, raiding human settlements for fun and profit.
  • The orks are the most numerous race in the galaxy, and were they ever to unite under a single banner, humanity would be doomed.  Fortunately, they rarely do so and seem content with fighting each other until a sufficiently powerful “warboss” comes around.  Generally, once the warboss is slain they lose their organization and devolve into infighting once more.  They reproduce rapidly asexually, making them difficult to fully defeat as a single ork may foster an entire warband in a short span of time.
  • The tau are your scary communist aliens that subscribe to the “greater good,” a belief system that allowed the creation of their caste system and absolute rule at the top.  Humans under tau rule tend not to fare well, likely due to some evaluation deeming them not in line with the greater good.  “Friendly” relations with the tau are the most common of all xenos species, as while contact with aliens is generally proscribed, tactical considerations may prevent mankind from moving against them without proper support.
  • The tyranids are a hive-mind insectoid species intent on gathering “biomass.”  As such, they consume all life on the planets they invade.  They move in massive “hive fleets,” which are massive subsets of a larger invasion fleet from a neighboring galaxy.  While their numbers are numerous, they have not yet arrived in full force; it’s said that the full size of their invasion force is such that some tyranids are still leaving their home galaxy, with a massive trail that covers the darkness between their galaxy and ours.
  • The necrons are the robotic slaves of the star gods called the C’tan, and are powered by the souls of a race that foolishly accepted their offer of power.  Necrons are mostly dormant now, deep beneath the surface of their “tomb worlds.”  These tomb worlds may in fact be any given planet in the imperium and beyond, and those that accidentally awaken the necrons are liable to have a very bad day.  What’s worse is it’s very hard to actually destroy a necron, as if they are sufficiently damaged they are simply recalled back to their tomb for repairs.

Alien affairs are under the purview of the Ordo Xenos, which is part of the Inquisition.


Mutation is the external manifestation of wickedness, heresy and corruption.  At best, most mutants can look forward to life as fifth-class citizens, forced into slavery to work off the sins of their body; others are simply put to the fire with no questions asked.

In truth, there are two different causes of mutation: environmental factories such as pollution, and actual soul-damning corruption.

The former makes mutation sadly common in the Imperium, particularly in hives (massive, multi-level cities).  What mutations make you a mutant, and the degree to which it affects your social standing vary greatly from city to city and planet to planet.  Moreover, the Imperium makes frequent use of “official” mutants, such as psykers (i.e. “psychics,” the settings’ magic users) and navigators (who use their mutation, a third eye, to guide ships through the warp).  All the same, most people hide their mutations if they can.

Exposure to the corrupting influence of the warp, also known as Chaos, may bring with it physical mutation; this includes reading proscribed texts that detail the Chaos gods and their daemonic underlings.  The lack of understanding between these two kinds of mutations makes it easy for Chaos cults to recruit disaffected mutants, as well it makes it hard for the Imperium to detect whether a given mutant is “natural” or part of a larger heresy (if they even care to make that distinction).


As you might assume with a theocratic state, heresy covers a lot.  It’s obviously heretical to deny the emperor; it’s also heretical to disobey orders in the military.  It might be heretical to where red on a given holy day, but only on that planet or sector.  As described above, it’s obviously heretical to harbor the alien or mutant.  It’s heretical to seek certain kinds of knowledge or progress as well.

At most, the common citizens may be aware that certain heretics are labeled as such as they form cults that oppose the Emperor, and thus, the Imperium, possibly worshipping some nebulous concept they call “Chaos.”

In truth, most heresy can be seen as “crimes against the imperium.”  The truly dangerous heresies deny the emperor and worship other entities, most typically the Warp, Chaos or one or more Chaos Gods.  The reason why these are the most dangerous is because Chaos takes notice of such activities, empowering its worshippers with vile sorcery and paving the way to a daemonic incursion.

Mutants and heretics fall under the purview of the Ordo Hereticus of the Inquisition.

Chaos, Daemons and the Warp

The most any citizen knows is that the warp is how ships travel faster than light, and “chaos” is something that heretics that deny the emperor might worship, somehow.

Any and all knowledge in this subject is incredibly proscribed, as knowing any of it opens one up to possession, daemonic incursion or worse.

The Warp, also known as the immaterium, is the realm of Chaos, and within it are vile entities that seek to enter the materium.  It is a realm that is inherently hostile, and to even look at its barest fraction unprotected destroys your soul and drives you mad.  Knowledge of the true nature of Chaos, the Warp and especially its gods is in itself corrupting, opening the path to madness, heresy, damnation and daemonic incursion.

There are four Chaos gods.  Even knowing that there are gods of the warp is damning, much less knowing their names or portfolios.

  • Khorn, who is bloodthirsty and lusts for battle.  Heretics of Khorn shout the rallying cry, “Blood for the Blood god! Skulls for the skull throne!” Khorn cares little for whose blood is spilled, so long as it gets spilled. He opposes Slaanesh.
  • Slaanesh is the god of excess, of every sensation taken up to 11 with the knob broken off.  Slaaneshi cults are insidious as they may describe themselves as artistic enlightenment, or a play that all the nobles love to see…with the exception that these objects of beauty are created with profane knowledge and energy and will damn those that view it and drive them insane.  Slaanesh opposes Khorn.
  • Nurgle is the god of entropy, disease and decay.  His cults spread disease and decay, but not necessarily always death, for his subjects know his pestilent, blistery embrace for eternity.  Nurgle opposes Tzeentch.
  • Tzeentch is the god of change, secrets and unbridled hope untempered by reason or reality.  He is always planning and plotting, foiling himself and others to simply keep the game going.  He opposes Nurgle.

Matters and events relating to Chaos, especially daemons, fall under the Ordo Malleus.

The Imperium

The Imperium is a bureaucratic nightmare, with a number of institutions with overlapping or contradictory responsibilities or jurisdiction, attempting to maintain and govern the untold millions of planets in its fold.  With so many under its power, even entire planets may be forgotten for centuries due to rounding errors in census data.

Largely, it’s run like a feudal state.  Individual planets are run by planetary governors, who are usually hereditary rulers but may be elected or appointed in other ways.  The Imperium doesn’t care who rules, how they rule or how they came into power, so long as they obey the laws of the Imperium regarding aliens, mutants and heretics, and surrender their tithes when demanded.  Tithes are planetary resources, citizens for the Imperial Guard (the army) and Psykers, who are taken due to the threat they represent if untrained and unsanctioned.

There is no gun control in the Imperium; indeed, a governor that does not sufficiently arm his populous is quickly replaced by one who can.

The hierarchy of power is as thus:

Pictured above, the “Adeptus Ministorum” refers to the Ecclesiarchy, and not shown is the Ordo Hereticus, which also holds the Adepta Sororitas under its banner.

The Adeptus Arbites enforce Imperial law; much of their duties are shared with the Inquisition.  Players may be part of this organization as Arbiters, street-level enforcers of the law.  Basically, consider them something like Judge Dredd, able to accuse, convict, sentence and execute as they see fit.
-Adeptus Custodes watch over the Emperor on the Golden Throne.
-Astra Telepathica deals with astropaths, psykers that serve as the only FTL means of communication.
-Astronomica maintains the Astronomicon, the beacon the Emperor created to guide ships in Warp travel.  This beacon requires thousands of psykers be sacrificed daily to keep it shining.
-Adeptus Mechanicus, otherwise known as the Mechanicum, is the empire within the Imperium and, through divine mandate, holds monopoly on all technology.  They maintain the Titan Legions, city-sized engines of destruction and warfare.
-Adeptus Astartes are the Space Marines, super soldiers crafted from the emperor’s own genetic material.


Technology is held in superstition and fear, with the common citizens knowing little on how anything actually works beyond perhaps its simple activation.  All technology is regulated by the Mechanicum, who view and treat technology like a religion.  To them, knowledge is power, and machinery is a physical manifestation of that power.  Through them, and even internally, any and all technological progress is heavily regulated, if not suppressed entirely.  They partake of an accepted variation of Emperor worship, viewing him as the Omnissiah, the ultimate merging of knowledge, machine and man.  As they merge technology and worship, you might see them pray to fix an engine and appease its “machine spirit” (which doesn’t work), or they might perform rituals which may actually involve fixing it.

In truth, so much has been forgotten, never to be relearned.  Much of the technology in use is thousands of years old, some of it irreplaceable as the art of making it has been lost.  More complex pieces, such as ships, take centuries to build.

Their regulation isn’t without purpose; in ages past, foolish tech priests made machines that could manipulate the warp or enhanced psykers’ powers, leading to daemonically possessed machines and psykers that were quickly destroyed by their own power.  Some pieces of archaeotech from this period are still around and are just as dangerous.

The Inquisition

The players will probably be working for the Inquisition.

The Inquisition is the bogeyman of the Imperium.  Some may be aware that it exists, while others know nothing of it, but knowledge that an Inquisitor is on your planet is enough to fear for your life, and an Inquisitor walking openly down the street may see citizens prostrating themselves before him, confession any and all matter of sins, begging for mercy and forgiveness.

The Inquisition is the entity that protects the Imperium from its most dangerous foe: itself.  It has unlimited resources and exists outside of any normal channels of power; all answer to it and it is beholden to no one.

The Inquisition operates as an organization of individuals, each Inquisitor being largely left to their own devices to fulfill their duties as they see fit.  Each Inquisitor commands untold resources and servants; those closest are its “cadre,” the elite group that aid him personally, while “acolytes” are newer recruits into the Inquisition that have not yet proven themselves beyond being an expendable, if competent, resource.

Acolytes are recruited from all aspects of Imperial life, including the Mechanicum, despite not having any specific jurisdiction over them.  While the idea of working for the Inquisition may be somewhat horrifying, and life threatening, it immediately promotes its acolytes well above the common rabble, granting them privilege and freedom unheard of to the rest of the citizenry.  Where most citizens will never leave the planet they were born on, acolytes and inquisitors galavant about the sector to save the Imperium from itself.

Each branch of the Inquisition has a “chamber militant,” basically an army that may be called when things really go south:

-Deathwatch draws from the best of the best Space Marines to combat Xeno threats.
-Grey Knights are specially trained and sanctioned Space Marine psykers that are called in to deal with major demonic threats.
-The Adeptus Sororitas, or the Sisters of Battle, exist by exploiting a loophole that the Ecclesiarchy can’t have men at arms, and are utterly devoted to the emperor and enjoy burning heretics in His name.

Rogue Traders

With a writ of trade and resources that rival inquisitors, Rogue Traders are given freedom to expand the boundaries of the imperium while enhancing their own wealth at the same time.  They are given their own discretion on interacting with Xenos and using their technology, and face unique challenges as they traverse the cold darkness between the stars.

The System

Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader use percentile dice; to succeed in a test, you must typically roll under your given attribute.

For DH, your starting stats will be 2d10 + a base 15, 20 or 25 (depending on homeworld).  As such, your stats may be anything from 25-35 on average.

You might think this offers very little chance for success, but realize that DH players live and die based on bonuses and penalties.

For example, shooting someone is a challenging (+0) test.  If you are within “short” range, which is half of your weapon’s range, you get +10.  Point blank gets +30 for being within three meters.  Aiming before firing adds +10, and certain weapon mods, such as laser sights, add an additional +10.  Auto and semi-automatic fire adds additional bonuses (+10 or +20, respectively, but are mutually exclusive with aiming).  Firing a laser-sighted rifle semi-automatically from point blank range nets you +50 to hit, making success a foregone conclusion even with mediocre stats.

For combat, you get either two half actions and a reaction, or a full action.  Reactions are used to dodge or parry, while half actions can be used to fire, move, aim and perform other actions.  You can’t use the same action twice, so no firing during both half actions.  Full actions include semi or automatic fire.

Classes are as follows:

-Adepts, which are the skill and knowledge class
-Arbiters, who are part of the Arbites, who combine intelligence gathering/interrogation with combat prowess
-Assassins, stealthy combat-focused characters that may go on to join the Officio Assasinotorium.
-Clerics, part of the ecclesiarchy, who has several social advantages.
-Guardsmen, combat-focused members of the military, either the Planetary Defense Force or the Imperial Guard proper.
-Psykers who proved strong enough to control their powers through their sanctioning who wield the power of the warp through their psychic powers.
-Scum, who combine stealth, social advantages and dirty fighting
-Tech Priests, with general tech knowledge and some special abilities derived from their mechanical implants
-Sister Sororitas, a female-only combination of guardsman and cleric.

And just because it’s confusing, a quick breakdown of knowledge skills:

-Common Lore is standard, word-of-mouth knowledge you might get from living in a particular place.  It’s a supplementary skill that aids in certain processes, like navigating bureaucratic red-tape
-Scholastic Lore is an academic studying of the subject.
-Forbidden Lore is proscribed knowledge on the “true” nature of the universe; revealing what you know to the wrong people is fatal.

There you have it, a “brief” overview at just under ten pages.  Let me know if you have any specific questions!