Originally posted here on Oldhammer, but reposted wholesale just in case anyone likes the read.
Rogue Trader Custodes. Good stats, since one should only expect the best to guard the Emperor. Also resulted in this parody years later, since only their helmets bore any resemblance to the suits GW would later endow them with.
As for depictions of Space Marines, it’s quite a bit interesting how the fiction evolved here, seen from something of an author’s perspective. Rogue Trader Space Marines were indeed not ideal heroes of epic proportions. They were fallible men, some competent, some brave, some craven, many bastards, and all psychotic killers. Especially upon the release of the Rogue Trader rule book, before the fluff had thickened through White Dwarf articles, Space Marines were bastard knights in space, in a setting that was Warhammer Fantasy in space complete with space Dwarfs and space skeletons and Minotaurs with machine-gun horns; plus a whole slew of sci-fi elements looted from Dune (and much more), then cobbled together to a great smörgåsbord science fantasy setting of wild creativity that deserved a long life, and claimed it by popularity. It was indeed a joke, and 40k has always remained a tongue-in-cheek joke through the years, but it has at times been such a carefully well-crafted joke in areas, that many readers wanted it to be more than just a joke, at least having the numbers add up in a sensible way.
As has already been pointed out, these beaky Marines were gritty, hard men, and they died in droves when push came to shove. The original vision of Space Marines was more down-to-earth. Still elite humans with advanced wargear and enhancement mumbo-jumbo, but nowhere near where the background sailed away with them starting already in 1st edition. Although the grimy side of recruitment hasn’t ever left the Space Marines, the depiction has changed. Originally, lots of Space Marines were press-ganged through recruitment hunts in hellish hive city crime warrens, and their training and hypno-therapy treatment explicitly served to make them into psychotic killers. Recruiting from criminals and warlike tribes is still in the background, though nowadays it more often seems like child soldiers than adults, and the induction into a chapter makes their past null and void and instead turn them into righteous warrior monks, unless you’re a Space Wolf and happens to be allowed some fun.
The spiritual descendants of the Rogue Trader Space Marines are the Terran Marines of Starcraft, minus beaks. If you read up on it, you’ll soon discover that the popular RTS game from 1998 originally started out as a 40k-intended project, but the very early break between Games Workshop and Blizzard happened primarily over the code monkeys wanting their Marines as brain-panned criminals. All gritty, smoking cigarettes, boozing and sporting graffiti on their armour plates, while Games Workshop instead wanted a laconic warrior monk image. Starcraft development started in the mid 90s, and the imagery of the brash beakies must still have been vivid in the minds of some Blizzard artists, here by Chris Metzen:
Games Workshop, on the other hand, quickly formed a clearer vision of what they wanted Space Marines to be, as so often happens as a new setting takes shape. They went full throttle on cybernetically enhanced geno-modified warrior monk demigod hyperbole by 2nd edition, and has stayed true to this course ever since. In hindsight, it was probably the right choice given the heroic imagery’s popularity. GW has turned out a lot of good stuff through the decades and though quite uninterested in power armour I’ll willingly admit that they’ve done some things very well with their Space Marines. I personally prefer the gritty Beakies, who appeal more to me, just like the scummy and expendable Terran Marines do. But the time was right for statuesque demigod heroes, as GW’s astounding Marine sales testify to.
The elaborately over-blown Space Marine background started to chafe all the more with the models’ size and rules as time went by. Artwork also started to chafe in due time, informed by the background and depicting giants in power armour. This all led to a spree of hobbyist truescale Marine conversions about 10 years ago, which has at last been answered by Games Workshop with actual truescale Marine miniatures. The recent Primaris Marine models and rules are the logical conclusion to the path trodden by Games Workshop ever since 2nd edition. They wrote their Marines into larger than life demigods, and now the miniature line and statline has caught up to the superduper fluff:
So there you have it! The legacy of Rogue Trader’s grittier and arguably more believable Marine corps has lived on for 30 years in rules and model sizes which got all the more out of sync with artwork and background, until Games Workshop pulled over and made the full transformation just recently.
If one wants to, one could view the depictions of heroic Astartes from 2nd edition on as the Imperial propaganda version of how life among the Space Marines is like, while the Rogue Trader version is how life in the Space Marine forces really is like: Arresting punks for scrawling graffiti, and dying in the thousands on the frontline.