"His loyalty couldn't be bought at any price, but it could be rented remarkably cheaply."
- – Inquisitor Andelline at the Trial of Parnis Vermode
"Then the hard, dry Spaniards came exploring through, greedy and realistic, and their greed was for gold or God. They collected souls as they collected jewels. They gathered mountains and valleys, rivers and whole horizons, the way a man might now gain title to building lots."
- – John Steinbeck, East of Eden
"Most economic fallacies derive from the tendency to assume that there is a fixed pie, that one party can gain only at the expense of another."
- – Milton Friedman
This term is a little ambiguous. If you weren't looking for the profession, check the bottom of the page for other uses.
In the Warhammer 40,000 universe, Rogue Traders are like the conquistadors, privateers and explorers of the Age of Sail -- they go into the unknown to find new worlds for the Imperium, and hopefully get rich doing so. The existence of the traders is a Faustian bargain the Imperium has been making since the days of the Emperor himself. The High Lords of Terra recognize that there are still many parts of the galaxy (and many situations therein) that are beyond their control. By allowing the Rogue Traders to ply their trade with planets and even species outside of the Imperial peace they can maintain some tenuous influence over events there. The traders have almost complete discretion in their dealings, and are allowed to do almost anything so long as it can be seen as advancing Imperial goals. In this sense traders have incredible power second only to that of an Inquisitor (And outside of the Imperium, legally speaking their authority exceeds that of Inquisitors).
Of course it's a bold and foolish captain who pushes this freedom too far.
The Imperium has no great love for the traders, and those who pursue their own agendas (if heretical) or flaunt their deviancy too openly tend to come to a bad end. That said, the fact that no one save the highest ranks of the Imperial hierarchy exerts any official influence over Traders (and we mean it: a Rogue Trader's warrant is either given to his family by the Emperor Himself or by High Lords of Terra) means that bringing them to heel often requires fairly covert means, up to and including recruiting other Rogue Traders to do the dirty deed. In a somewhat amusing development, the cliché of an Imperial Inquisitor disguising himself as a rogue trader as a cover for their work is so ubiquitous in-universe that several Rogue Traders have capitalized on it to perform even greater deeds of skullduggery, at least until a real Inquisitor finds out and either kills them or pressgangs them into service. Likewise Inquisitor Amberley Vail has used the cliché to her advantage, hiring a real Rogue Trader to draw attention away from herself so she can investigate in peace.
Essentially, smooth criminals in space.
THEY LOOK FUCKING AWESOME.
The Warrant Of Trade
This being the grimdark far-future and all, not EVERYBODY can have "rights" or be given "freedoms". As such, the only thing separating a Rogue Trader from a plain ole' rogue is the Warrant Of Trade, a document written by the Emperor himself that gives the holder of the document the very rare liberty of travelling outside of Imperial space, trade with xenos, and even set up their own pocket-empire, as long as they officially remain a part of the Imperium and pay their taxes. Warrants Of Trade are also hereditary, meaning the scion of a Rogue Trader will inherit that power and so forth, creating a Rogue Trader dynasty - some of them dating back to the Great Crusade. In modern 40k, such Warrants of Trade are frequently seen as holy relics by the Ecclesiarchy (seeing as they are signed or even blood marked by the Emperor himself). This tends to cause problems when a greedy Ecclesiarch tries to stake a claim on possession of the Warrant as an artifact (something they are normally allowed to do), even if it would technically be going against the Emperor's wishes for the trader to continue their work in perpetuity. Then again, rational consistency is not a strong commodity in the Imperium. The question also remains, with a Warrant of Trade could you fuck a xeno? Could you, somehow by the grace of the God-Emperor, get into the bed of an Eldar and not have your insides turned into your outsides? (depending on the Eldar in question, maybe if you keep quiet) And could you somehow PROFIT from the experience, you daring capitalist?
The granting of a Warrant usually includes one or two conditions, such as visiting some backwater rock in the vast emptiness of space or lending aid to one of the countless wars the Imperium got itself caught up in. If a Warrant is granted without any conditions, that means the High Lords of Terra hope the Rogue Trader will travel far from Segmentum Solar and get himself killed ignominiously on some planet that nobody's ever heard of.
Conversely, as mentioned above, issuing a new Warrant of Trade is a good way for the High Lords to make a short cut around their own bureaucracy. If some planet somewhere really needs conquering ASAP, it may be easier to make a newly-invested Trader do it than to go through the process of mobilizing the Imperial Guard. Similarly, more than one High Lord has gotten rid of a rival by having him awarded a Warrant of Trade that sends him to the ass end of the galaxy. This can be faster (and safer) than organising and rigging a trial to justify his execution.
Rogue Traders and Xenos
As the Imperium's primary means of making first contact with unexplored or forgotten parts of the Galaxy, Rogue Traders are often put in the strange position of being Imperial emissaries to species they are, doctrinally speaking, supposed to exterminate. Ironically, this means xenos that are not a threat or potential threat to the Imperium end up being spared thanks to making deals with Rogue Traders who were sent into space by people hoping they would get themselves killed by said xenos. I’m sure the hilarity is lost on the High Lords of Assholery. The semi-independence afforded by the Warrant of Trade often means, however, that Traders are much more willing to cooperate or at the very least grudgingly tolerate xenos, whether for the sake of profit or because having a crew of, say, Ork mercenaries at your side at all times makes killing you all the more difficult. This also makes them the center of what is known as the Cold Trade in smuggled xenos artefacts and technology.
While trading in xenotech is, of course, incredibly illegal in the Imperium, the industry persists firstly because xenotechnology tends to be an insanely valuable commodity amongst those with the money to afford it, and second because the Adeptus Mechanicus is always looking for new xenotech and archeotech to study. The Cold Trade thus supplies rich hive spirers with fun alien guns to use on poor people, as well as allowing the Mechanicus to discover new ways to horribly murder dangerous xenos species. Everybody wins!
Expanding Imperial Borders for Fun and Profit
Though the classic image of the Rogue Trader has them out amongst the unknown stars, swashing buckles and buckling swashes, many make their fortune well within the boundaries of Imperial space, looking to exploit resources already settled by Man. This can be as simple as surveying planets for resources, or even creating full-fledged Imperial colonies (for a cut of the profits, of course). Some more pious Traders act in support of missionaries, providing transport and an iron fist to back up the spiky black velvet glove of the Imperial Creed. Traders also frequently make their presence known in Imperial war zones; while most would hesitate to put their incredibly valuable lives on the line, war profiteering is a well-established tradition in the Imperium and traders have been known to sell arms or offer transport services to the Munitorum in times of crisis. Allegations that they have have been known to start wars just to sell stuff to both sides are surely vile slander that will result in your accidental death by a surprise Ork sniper next time you visit a frontier world. As the possessors of large fleets, Rogue Traders are sometimes called upon by the Imperial Navy to assist in pirate-hunting or in repelling major threats to Imperial spacelanes. In other cases, the Rogue Traders are the pirates themselves (as the Warrant of Trade could be compared to the contract from a King that separate a pirate from a privateer in the real-life Age of Sail)
On the Tabletop
Despite being such a prominent part of the background lore of the settings, Rogue Traders have been woefully under-represented on the tabletop (ignoring of course the RPG of the same name) until fairly recently, when the new edition of Kill Team introduced the Elucidian Starstriders, who represent the retinue of one Elucia Vane. Two more Rogue Traders, Janus Draik and Neyam Shai Murad, were introduced for the Blackstone Fortress game as usable characters; they also have 8E rules.
In past editions, some fans got shit done and made army lists for Rogue Traders: The Fly Lords of Terra (sadly now defunct) put together a Macharian Crusade campaign book, which includes (among many other things) a 6E army list for Rogue Traders and two named characters; Ichabod Thrift, a trader who plays pirate with Chaos as his target, and Matteas Wolf, who makes frequent use of Dark Eldar and Ork mercenaries. The full book is here. There's also a WIP (and inactive) Codex for 8E, fielding your weird and crazy assemblages of assorted Imperial (and occasional non-Imperial) forces.
- Freebooterz, which are like Rogue Traders, but with more WAAAGH!
- Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, the first edition of Warhammer 40,000.
- Rogue Trader (RPG), a role-playing game from Fantasy Flight Games where the player characters are a Rogue Trader and his or her retinue.
- A popular shanty among Rogue Trader crews
- How a typical Rogue Trader approaches their job
- Now this is what I call space exploration!
- For rogue traders burning xenos is a bit different