Yeah, it's time for one of these again, but it's not about the subject you probably think it's going to focus upon. If you have been reading this blog for the last couple of years you'll know that I personally disagree with a lot of lore decisions (usually by one specific writer) and the general approach to the setting by Games Workshop. While there have been some definite improvements of late, there's one major problem which continues to plague their nightmare future universe. One major failing which no edition has really gotten right, and a major issue which authors desperately need to explore and focus upon: The universe's history. The ten thousand years of lore which writers seem to have skimmed over with barely a word commenting upon them.
Now, many of you have likely already jumped to pointing out examples such as the Badab War, Horus Heresy and early Tyrannic Wars. While it is true that Games Workshop has explored those events, to great effect in the latter two examples, they are brief periods of time. Short wars which, no matter how galaxy shaking, focused almost purely upon warfare and armies in question, and only took place over a small fraction of the Imperium's history. Even the timelines we do get or the (often bastardised and extremely crude) attempts at storytelling we get in supplement codices, each covering hundreds of years, are only invested in certain armies. Any changes, often only focus upon the army in question and never examine the bigger picture when it comes to the Imperium.
No work ever tries to examine the socio-political shifts within the factions, to show their development over hundreds of years thanks to trends, losses of technology or even changes of leadership. Despite these elements being crucial to any fleshed out setting, no background work or book ever really examines it in any great detail. While we do have a skeleton of a history to map out certain events, entire eras of the setting's history go almost completely unremarked.
Just sticking with the Imperium for the time being, let's consider just a few major events which have gone almost completely ignored:
- The Imperium splits into two separate empires for nine hundred years in an era known as the Nova Terra Interregnum before joining again in late M35.
- The Adeptus Mechanicus undergoes the Moirae Schism thanks to a doctrine that believed the future could be read in the astronomican. This results in the prediction that it and the Ecclesiarchy would merge into a single church.
- The Scouring, the massive campaign following the Horus Heresy with the decree that the traitors be driven into the Eye of Terror, is undertaken. Countless worlds are purged, retaken, and annihilated entirely even as warring Imperial factions try to form a cohesive force against xenos incursions and traitors alike.
We have perhaps a few basic paragraphs covering each one, all of them almost excursively focused upon either the founding of an army or finding some way to veer off into exploring the military side of things. Just to list some of the biggest details explored in each:
- What little was added to the Nova Terra conflict was the Cypher was involved with the Dark Angels launching a strike to try and capture him. Also a mysterious event known as the Pale wasting which has since gone unexplained beyond it requiring a massive military campaign, and the founding of the Death Spectres.
- The Moirae Schism goes almost entirely unmentioned and ignored save for the founding of the Sons of Medusa chapter.
- The Scouring only glorifies the role of the Ultramarines and is commented upon as a time when the Codex Astartes was enforced.
You can see the problem can't you? The ramifications and major upheavals behind these massive events are barely examined, barely event commented upon, and are sidelined in favour of focusing upon space marines and the military. While those would certainly play a part, there are much bigger ideas at play here which could be looked into, each examined in detail and worked into the war stories. It would dramatically help to show the shifts and changes in a setting which is so often seen as stagnant and bereft of information. It's rich to be sure, but there is so much here which could be done to suggest an ongoing narrative, with changes in major figures and attitudes of various eras.
To give a comparison with another successful series, the Battletech franchise has seen multiple eras in which various factions, empires and major powers have risen and fallen. If you were to compare what the universe is like during the Word of Blake Jihad to its earliest days, certain trait elements still remain but the political landscape has completely transformed over time. Major characters have been born and died, classes of vehicles have been repeatedly upgraded or made obsolete with newly re-discovered technology and historical knowledge has shifted with misinformation and incorrectly recorded facts. Battletech isn't the only example of this either, as we have the likes of the Legend of the Five Rings, which covers multiple dynasties, story arcs and major developments.
Even Warhammer 40,000 itself has dipped into this on a few occasions, when the right writer has been given the right faction.
When given the duty of writing Codex: Sisters of Battle during the second edition, Gav Thorpe wrote out more or less the entire Age of Apostasy. The lore involved explained how major shifts within the Imperium had led to Vandire's control, from its beginnings millennia ago to the actual event, the impact upon populations and the empire's internal decay. While the majority of it centered around war and establishing an army, the greater scope allowed for an examination of the Imperium and to form a major cornerstone in its history.
The same goes for the latest edition of Codex: Tau Empire by Jeremy Vetock, which took the outlined development of the tau and vastly fleshed it out. Showing how they had rapidly advanced on their homeworld, the contacts made with other races and how the Empire was changing over time.
Both examples did not shy away from war, conflict or skimp on the campaigns to help really flesh out the army's military, but they offered far more substance to the setting's history. They showed far more development beyond the importance of a few wars and a couple of significant models which could be taken in armies.
This is the sort of scale and type of examination Warhammer really needs to utitlise more often. Writers need to stop placing so much extreme emphasis upon the twilight days of M41 or the events of the Horus Heresy and instead examine everything in between. Show just how the Imperium developed, show how the Craftworld Eldar have survived for so long in the face of such a hostile galaxy, show how the orks have adapted to foreign tactics and even emulated their greatest war machines; but above all show how each one developed and changed as a people, through belief or social upheaval. It's this approach Games Workshop needs to take with its future works to make the most use of the tools they have on their hands and truly branch out into new ideas.