A Rogue Trader is a combination of freelance explorer, conquistador and merchant. They are Imperial servants, given a ship, a crew, a contingent of marines or Guardsmen and carte blanche to roam the worlds beyond Imperial control. In their task of exploring and exploiting uncharted regions of the galaxy, Rogue Traders might come across worlds harbouring long forgotten human civilisations which will be incorporated into the Imperium. Other times they find empty or alien-dominated planets ripe for colonisation or exploitation.
All Rogue Traders are highly exceptional individuals who are driven to success even though these exceptional people often have extreme character quirks themselves; some destroy entire worlds for the slightest reason, or include alien warriors and mutants among their entourage. Some are highly pious while others are no more than legitimised pirates. One infamous Rogue Trader was Jan van Yastobaal, who became little more than a desperado plundering whatever world he came upon.
Rogue Traders are often flamboyant individuals, commonly dressed in the most extravagant finery they can acquire. However, each Rogue Trader is a unique individual from a particular background, some newly created Rogue Traders come from backgrounds such as the Imperial Guard, the Imperial Navy, the Merchant Fleets, the Administratum or even the Inquisition where they will have developed unique outlooks and approaches to situations.
Some Rogue Traders are relatively poor, possessing a single ancient and dilapidated ship. Others are incredibly wealthy and powerful and have whole fleets and entire private armies at their disposal. Certain favoured individuals may even call upon detachments of Space Marines having entered pacts with individual Chapters. Some Rogue Traders operate as mercenaries, renting the service of their ship(s).
The most valuable possession of a Rogue Trader family is a Warrant of Trade; an ancient legal document which describes the accepted limits of its operations. These charters are hereditary thus creating a Rogue Trader dynasty. These dynasties are granted a personal coat of arms identifying them amongst the Imperial elite.
Rogue Traders are empowered with the authority to travel freely within the Imperium and beyond, this allows them to interact with cultures for which contact with is normally forbidden, be they non-Imperial human worlds or Xenos-controlled planets. Not only that, but Rogue Traders are granted the permission and freedom to deal with these cultures as they see fit, so long as it is in the interests of the Imperium. Upon stepping on a non-Imperial world, the Rogue Trader may claim it for the Imperium by uttering:
“I claim this world for the Emperor of Humanity and his Imperium. I bring justice and truth for the loyal. Punishment and death for the guilty.”
Despite their free-ranging powers, one can assume that a renegade Rogue Trader guilty of heresy or treason will be severely prosecuted by the Inquisition. It is very likely that he is considered to have forsaken the Emperor’s trust upon his family and that his punishment will be much more severe.
The Warrant of Trade
It should be noted that although Rogue Traders are shipmasters who travel the vastness of space, their authority to do so comes not from a Merchant Charter, but rather a letter of appointment that elevates them to the authority equalling Space Marine Chapter Masters, Inquisitors and Planetary Governors.
Some of the more ancient ones are dated from the very beginnings of the Imperium, and some were even signed by the Emperor himself. Others were signed by Primarchs or other leaders of the Great Crusade. These charters are very valuable and give its owner great leeway. They are tailor-made and unique. They cannot be re-appealed as according to Imperial law and Imperial religious dogma no one is empowered to overrule these persons.
Certain powerful lords of the Adeptus Terra offer warrants of trade as a bribe to their rivals, especially if those rivals have ambitions for higher station. Being too powerful to come into direct conflict it can be arranged for the individual to recieve a warrant of trade, the honour of which cannot be refused. The rival then must simply walk away into a life of adventure and wealth and no longer causes trouble for their former opponents.
Letters of Marque are similar documents issued more recently. The Letters of Marque are rather restricted in some aspects and controlled more effectively by Imperial authorities. This may be of geographical nature (e.g.: restrict the Rogue Trader into a single sector) or something similar. The more recent letters of marque are not hereditary at all; hopeful heirs must return and reapply for a new charter.
Though a Warrant of Trade or a Letter of Marque grants extraordinary freedoms within the Imperium, they also invariably contain particular conditions; sometimes Rogue Traders will be required to make regular visits to certain troublesome Imperial worlds, or sent to enact military action on world which do not require the force of the segmentum battlefleets. Often however, Rogue Traders will be required to travel outside the established territories of the Imperium in the name of settlement or exploration.