The Imperium of Man is the closest thing that Warhammer 40,000 has to protagonists, although they are certainly not the good guys. Humanity rules the stars, and the galaxy in this far future isn’t exactly better for it. Life sucks, but at least humanity hasn’t been devoured by bugs or subsumed by the eldritch forces of Chaos. In Imperium Maledictum, a tabletop RPG from Cubicle 7 games, it’s your job to keep things that way. Polygon sat down with the game’s senior producer to talk about the setting, factions, and hitting the right level of grimdark.
In the world of Imperium Maledictum, quadrillions of people are held together under the fascist state of the Imperium, their lives grist for an endless war machine. The vast scale of human capability has led to the creation of dense hive cities, which are full of cartels, criminal organizations, highborn courts, cultist lairs, and crime scenes. Maledictum in particular is set in the Macharian Sector, on worlds less imperiled by the Great Rift that has torn the galaxy in two.
“Imperium Maledictum was a certain type of story we wanted to tell, which was very much from the Imperium-side point of view. It’s very heavily war inspired — lots of intrigue and investigations and betrayals. It’s a grim and treacherous adventure,” says Pádraig Murphy, senior producer on the Warhammer role-playing games at Cubicle 7, in a call with Polygon. The game is similar in vibe to Dan Abnett’s Inquisitor novels, the Warhammer Crime novel line, and the environments depicted in co-op shooter Warhammer 40,000: Darktide.
When you bring up Warhammer 40K as a setting, most people think of Space Marines, boltguns, and massive voidships traversing the nightmare extradimensional realm known as the Warp. Imperium Maledictum goes in the opposite direction, focusing on the factions of the Imperium and the constant tension between them. Another Cubicle 7 game, Warhammer: Wrath & Glory, scales up to allow for more of a power fantasy.
Imperium Maledictum players might be working for an Inquisitor, or perhaps playing the role of a humble servant of the Adeptus Mechanicus machine cult, sanctioned by the Astra Telepathica, or they could be in duty to the religious Ecclesiarchy. All of these characters are downright squishy compared to your average Space Marine or Sister of Battle — a laspistol shot or a sharp shiv is enough to take a player out.
It’s a side of the galaxy that we don’t often get to see, especially around big events like the upcoming 10th edition and fourth Tyrannic war, the return of a primarch, or the lore relaunch of the cybernetic Necrons. “We go into real detail about the factions that make up the Imperium,” says Murphy.
The various Adeptus factions that make up the Imperial society each have their own strengths, goals, and priorities. Inquisitors are the best-known patrons, but they’re not the only people pulling the strings and investigating issues in the Imperium. The Astra Militarum was a straightforward addition, thanks to the codexes and novels that go over life in the Imperial Guard. Other factions were trickier to flesh out, according to Murphy.
“If you want to give a similar treatment to the Administratum, it’s — despite them being baked-in as part of the setting — difficult and challenging to come at that from a role-play point of view,” says Murphy. “Like, what are the interesting administrative stories? But what surprised us is, the more we dug, the more we came up with reasons for any patron from any faction to get wrapped up in adventure and intrigue and drama.”
Murphy gives the example of an administrative clerk who was able to talk her way into backrooms and intimidate other clerks into surrendering information. In the brutal dystopia of the Imperium, the right document and seal can be as intimidating as an outright threat, and high-powered, transhumanist bureaucracy is the glue that holds every system together. The Imperium is a dense setting, where corruption and crime can fester in even the most mundane places.
“When the odds are that stacked against you, overcoming them is a thrill. The fact that it’s so overwhelming means whatever little bits of victory you earn should be valued, and are worth celebrating,” says Murphy. The meta-narrative for Warhammer 40K explicitly calls the Imperium the cruelest and most brutal regime ever conceived, and Imperium Maledictum uses this as grist for storytelling. “The Imperium would be a terrible place to live. But it’s a fun place to pretend to live.”
Imperium Maledictum was released on March 23 and is available as a PDF on DriveThruRPG for $29.99. Players can pre-order physical copies of the core rulebook from the Cubicle 7 website, and those are scheduled to be shipped in late 2023.