Only War is the latest RPG out for the Warhammer 40k rpgs released by Fantasy Flight Games. After tackling the Inquisition, Rogue Traders, Space Marines and Chaos, the series finally pays attention to the true backbone of the Imperium’s endless war: the men and women of the Imperial Guard.
In many ways I was looking forward to this book the most. While there’s some kind of glamour associated with the Space Marines, the true heart of many stories set in war come from the front lines. The Imperial Guard are the ones who see the fight first, and suffer incredible losses in their days at war. They are the ones who stand to lose the most, and are most vulnerable to the enemy but they don’t back down despite the horrors of war, because that is what they do.
Most of all, this is the game that allows you to really tell more well-rounded, human stories rather than the laser focus of just plain hating on the Xenos, the Mutant, the Daemon and the Heretic. (I know I’m oversimplifying things here, but bear with me.)
In any case, those familiar with the rules for Dark Heresy will find that Only War uses the same system, with some intresting new mechanics. One of my favorites is the Regiment creation system, where a group (or the GM) can plan out what kind of Regiment they want to play if they don’t want to use any of the ones provided. That said, there’s a lot of interesting Regiments to choose from, starting with the Cadian Shock Troops to other iconic Regiments like the Catachan, the Mordians and the Tallarn.
Players can take on the roles of more than just Guardsmen as they get to choose specialties such as Heavy Gunner, Medic, Operator, Sergeant and Weapons Specialist. Furthermore they have Support Specialists as further options including the infamous Commissar, Ministorum Priest, Ogryn, Ratling, Sanctioned Psykers, Storm Troopers and Tech-Priest Engineers. The sheer variance provided is a very nice touch as it helps dispel the impression that everyone essentially plays a grunt with a helmet and a lasgun.
Another interesting mechanic is the generation of Comrades. These are special NPCs that fight alongside the player characters. Mechanically they’re sort of like familiars, as each player has direct control over their Comrades by the use of Orders. This doesn’t mean that Comrades are expendable by any stretch as certain abilities rely on having a Comrade, and it is to a player’s best interest to keep their Comrades alive as long as possible.
Vehicles also a large part in an Imperial Guard game, and vehicle rules account for movement and combat, including some interesting systems critical hit charts that go a long way to simulate the harrowing nature of taking a critical hit while inside a vehicle. Repair rules are also present, giving more opportunities to simulate the “less than ideal” world of living with vehicles that have been patched together by field repairs.
As with all the books in the Warhammer 40k line, the artwork is solid and the layout is readable. I’m glad that the fonts they chose for this are readable while retaining the whole Warhammer 40k vibe. Also of note is the fact that the PDF has been cross-linked, making rules look ups as painless as possible.
Overall, I feel that Only War is a product that shows just how used to the system the writing team is already at this point. Furthermore, they have a very strong vision as to what the game should be about and aren’t afraid to push that agenda via the rules. There’s a lot of fluff discussing the nature of the war and how it grinds humanity down, but it never comes off as too depressing as to be utterly unplayable. There are real opportunities to live (and die) as heroes in the war. It’s admittedly not the easiest thing to do in the context of RPGs, but in this case Only War deserves a Medal.