31 January 2024
The weird, wild world of Warhammer 40,000 has always been a tantalizing target for tabletop roleplaying. Previous attempts have struggled to capture the sheer scale of the setting, which is probably why Cubicle 7's latest effort, Imperium Maledictum, isn’t trying to do that. Instead, it focuses on delivering a tight experience propelling players into the grim, dark and impossibly dangerous role of regular humans, caught up in a galaxy desperate to kill them.
Words by Richard Jansen-Parkes
The game distinguishes itself from the company's other active 40,000 RPG line, Wrath & Glory. After all, one of Wrath & Glory's main claims to fame was that it allowed you to jump into any adventure you could imagine, whether that meant embracing madcap violence as a squad of Ork Boyz or playing out matters of galactic-scale peril as the Imperium's greatest heroes. While it arguably succeeded at this, the scale came at the cost of rather fiddly rules. Imperium Maledictum meanwhile is tailored toward one specific type of adventure: relatively low-powered imperial agents, looking to scrape their way through one of the deadliest settings in roleplaying.
What is Imperium Maledictum?
The core game is set in the Macharian Sector - a span of space covering hundreds of stars under the nominal control of the xenophobic, theocratic and downright fascist Imperium of Man. While there aren't any major wars on at the moment (at least, not locally - this is Warhammer 40,000 after all) there are plenty of messes to be sorted out, with issues ranging from underground daemon worship to alien raids on distant outposts. They aren't grand or glamourous issues that summon the Space Marines, but rather dirty little jobs that offer both danger and opportunity to the dozens of Imperial factions jockeying for influence in the sector.
This is where the player characters come in. The game positions them (at first) as cogs in a grand game beyond their reckoning, recruited by a powerful patron and sent out to deal with merely deadly messes, rather than world-shattering. They're teams of investigators and trouble-shooters, not soldiers, dealing with threats on a level most trained humans can handle. Mostly.
Perhaps the best example of this comes from the bestiary section of the rulebook. There are as many stat blocks for run-of-the-mill human criminals as there are for every one of the alien species combined, with neither the iconic Space Marines nor their chaotic counterparts appearing at all.
While you might not be able to rock up to your first session of as Warhammer Fantasy RPG's staple rat catcher, you can absolutely start your campaign as an ordinary clerk armed with nothing more dangerous than a data-slate. Even the more martially-oriented characters (such as Imperial Guardsmen and sanctioned psykers) aren't exactly mighty heroes, which is reflected in gameplay that emphasises investigation and cunning over raw power.
What are the Imperium Maledictum Adventures?
An average Imperium Maledictum adventure is more likely to involve journeys into underhive politics than missions into a warzone, whilst the pervasive 'Influence' system enjoys just as much attention from the rulebook as the “shooting at people” rules. Sure, this might change with future supplements, but for now the focus is on lower powered characters still facing ever more deadly threats.
This is reflected in a ruleset that shares much of its DNA with the latest edition of the Warhammer Fantasy RPG (also published by Cubicle 7) to the extent that you can trade NPCs between the systems with only a few minutes of effort. Most obviously, the core d100-based mechanic, where players try to roll under their skills or attributes to succeed at checks, is the same, as are most of the combat rules.
One of the consequences of this is that fighting well-armed enemies is a dangerous prospect. A single powerful foe can chop apart a poorly prepared party in a handful of turns and entering battle without some kind of plan is generally a bad idea.
Fortunately, the importance of careful planning and cunning schemes actually bleeds through into the combat rules, most notably in the concept of gaining superiority over your enemies.
A close cousin to WFRPG's momentum system, this neat little ruleset offers tangible bonuses for scouting battlefields, investigating potential enemies and making clever plans. For example, bribing some locals to learn that a gang leader always wears a yellow jacket and only has a single round left for their flashy rocket launcher will yield an extra point of superiority.
At the maximum level of superiority, your team effectively gets a free 30% on one roll of their choice per turn - enough to make a common Imperial Guardsman momentarily match the close-combat skill of a ludicrously lethal Genestealer. The advantage can quickly evaporate if the heroes make mistakes or take damage, but it's potent enough to ensure that your party will always be looking for ways to gain an edge on their opponents. While this might strike some as too rules focused for their tastes, it does a solid job of encouraging the players to hunt for every possible edge they can find, exactly what you should expect from any mere humans looking to survive in the 41st millennium.
Is Imperium Maledictum Hard to Play?
While it's hard to quantify how complicated a game is, Imperium Maledictum is undoubtedly somewhere on the more complex side of things, such as the specific rules covering the impact of severed toes (a -1 penalty to Weapon Skill and Agility per digit, if you were wondering.) While this will appeal to some players, it can be rather intimidating for tables that groan at the sight of any rulebook more than an inch thick.
Speaking of the rulebook, Imperium Maledictum's ease of use isn't helped by a couple of rather baffling layout decisions. The core rulebook structures things in a way that, more or less, guides you through the process of creating a new campaign. While this is certainly logical, it means that the first chapter covers GM focused content like generating patrons, whilst core rules like how to roll a skill test don't even get a look-in until page 185.
While a confusing layout is often only a problem for your early sessions, that first experience with the system is incredibly important. Having to flick through pages and pages of psychic powers to find out exactly what the rulebook means by… well, everything, is exactly the kind of thing that can sour a group on a game before their first dice roll.
Whilst the core system is solid, in truth Imperium Maledictum is not really a 40,000 RPG, or at least, not yet. Rather, it's an RPG about playing as scrappy Imperial agents in a fairly narrow part of the overall setting. If you want to play as Aeldari Rangers on extended patrol, or as a squad of Space Marines wading their way through a warzone, you're going to either have to pick up Wrath & Glory or wait for a few sourcebooks to come out.
However, if you're excited at the prospect of playing as underdogs in a world filled with forces that endlessly outmatch you, or as desperate servants of good in a world gone mad, Imperium Maledictum is shaping up to be your ideal grim dark experience.
Should you play Imperium Maledictum?
Yes. A desperate, dangerous take on life as a mostly normal human in a deadly world, with a solid enough core to entertain for a whole campaign or two.
If you liked Dark Heresey, try Imperium Maledictum
If you loved playing as Inquisition agents but bounced off Wrath & Glory, you’ll want to check out Imperium Maledictum.
Publisher: Cubicle 7
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