Beginning the list off is the trilogy of roleplaying games that take place in the 41st millennium: Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and Deathwatch by Games Workshop and Fantasy Flight Games.
To say that Dark Heresy was one of the most anticipated roleplaying games is putting it lightly. The collector's edition sold out within minutes, and I'm happy to say that one sits atop my gaming shelf like a terrible, black, monolith, lording over the other roleplaying games as if to dare them to match the deadliness and grit that this book eats for breakfast. Utilizing the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st/2nd edition system, this game allows you to take on the role of an Inquisitor's acolyte, a member of the bridge crew on a Rogue Trader's vessel, or even one of the superhuman space-knights known as Space Marines as you explore a brutal, and horrifying future 38,000 years from now.
The system uses a d100 mechanic where you roll under a given statistic in order to succeed at various tasks. When it comes time to dish out damage, a damage is rolled (1 or more d10s with additional valued depending on the strength of the user or the viciousness of the weapon), and from it is subtracted a toughness value and an armor value, the sum of which determines the wounds inflicted. When your wound limit is reduced to below 0 you begin to take critical damage as determined by how below 0 you are as well as the type of weapon just used upon you. No critical hit is good, but many are better than others. These are truly vicious, however, resulting in loss of limb, organ failure, or death. The game is also location-based, allowing you to target arms, legs, bodies, or heads. Far from slowing down the game, this system allows for a detail often absent from many RPGs.
The universe, itself, is possibly one of the most characterful elements of the game. It's the 41st millennium, and 10,000 years ago a living God referred to only as The Emperor fell victim to the betrayal of his "son" Horus. While Horus succumbed to his injuries in the final battle, The Emperor was left in a death-like state. To preserve him, humanity stuck him in The Golden Throne: a city-sized life support system, that sustains his deathlike state. The Emperor is revered as a god by most of humanity, yet he does not interact physically with anyone. His will creates a psychic barrier that exists between reality and an alternate dimension known as The Warp. The Warp is filled with echos of every living thing, thought and emotion. It's also filled with hellish creatures known as Daemons and their foul gods (Slaanesh, Nurgle, Khorne, and Tzeentch) who try to destroy humanity.
Humanity, itself, is a medieval hierarchy of bureaucrats, governors, and aristocracy. At times it mimics the middle ages, while at others it appears to be an enlightenment-type society, though with none of the enlightenment's optimism or mistrust of religion. To add to the mix, a plethora of aliens exist to torment humanity. The majority of humanity mistrusts aliens and the government of the Imperium treats them with a genocidal rage and xenophobia that rivals any such feelings in our present era history. The most common aliens are the barbaric Space Orks, the enigmatic Eldar, their psychopathic cousins the Dark Eldar, the imperialistic Tau, and the infinite hordes of the Tyranids.
In Dark Heresy, you take on the role of a servant of an Inquisitor (the Imperiums' equivalent of both the FBI and the CIA), investigating rumors of dissent, heresy, or contact with aliens. You are little more than a citizen, who has shown some prowess in one aspect of law enforcement, or bureaucratic life, which presents a challenge as you are not powerful, but you show some heroic aptitude, and you have the backing of a powerful patron whose credentials strike fear into the hearts of your average citizen or even royalty. Combat in this game is not favorable, and is highly dangerous. Unlike in many sci-fi/fantasy RPGs, you can't always shrug off a gunshot, and if you don't possess the Dodge skill, you'd better wear armor, or stay out of trouble.
I like this game because you are an average citizen of the Imperium (or a cop, or grunt soldier) who has been drafted to serve the Emperor, and it can be dangerous, and creepy, often leading to the madness of your character as you assail the lairs of cultists, heretics, or (Emperor help you) go up against daemons.
Rogue Trader takes the power level of the 40K roleplaying games up a notch, putting you in command of your own starship (and also letting you take on the roles of more powerful characters), as you explore the unknown parts of our galaxy. Unlike Dark Heresy, you don't have much authority, except that you're a Rogue Trader, who is a type of nobility. Granted you command your own starship and you have a warrant of trade (a license allowing you to trade with worlds within the Imperium), but you operate between the laws, often trading with aliens and heretics, just so that you can make a buck. This is probably my favorite of the three games, as it gives you more powerful equipment and characters as in Dark Heresy (though not as powerful as in Deathwatch), and still pits you up against some of the most terrible things that come from outside the boundaries of Imperial rule. I'm also an explorer at heart, and the ability to explore the fringes of the galaxy (albeit in a fictional world) is too much to resist.
Deathwatch is the latest in the 40K roleplay series and allows you to take on the role of a Space Marine, a knight and favored warrior of the Emperor. In fact, each Space Marine carries a bit of the Emperor's blood and genes within their DNA. Millennia ago, the Emperor created these warriors and crafted his "sons" known as the primarchs. To each primarch he gave a legion of marines encoded with their (and by extension, the Emperor's) DNA. Each space marine reflects the emotions of their primarch (most primarchs are now long dead), and is a genetically-enhanced human warrior. This is the ultimate power level in the 41st millennium. In Deathwatch you are a space marine who has been taken from his chapter (the designation for a space marine legion), and recruited into the Deathwatch, an alien-hunting organization who operates (as in Dark Heresy) under the command of an Inquisitor.
In this game you and your fellow players go on military missions that require surgical strikes as opposed to full on attacks. You're not running in guns blazing, but figuring out tactical ways to complete your missions. While this game doesn't lend itself to the roleplaying situations that many RPGs do (I can't see a space marine bartering for a gun at a market, or trying to impress a planetary governor), you have to work with your squad (who are taken from different chapters that are sometimes at odds with each other), and interact with other characters in the game (space marines can't shoot their way through every problem). It uses the same system as the previous two versions of the game, but takes you from the alleyways and shadows of Imperial society and into the battlefield and war rooms of the Imperial war machine.
That's all for today. Tomorrow you'll get another one. If you want me to elaborate on any aspect of any of the games I describe, just say so in the comments section and I'll do my best to edit, and/or respond to your query. These posts are often unplanned and emulate myself chatting, ad lib, with you about my favorite games.
P.S. My spellcheck is wonky right now, and my ferry ride is almost over. While I pride myself on my writing skills and grammatical accuracy, I do tend to think and type quickly. I'll try again later, but please excuse any problems your eyes encounter.