Friday, 20 June 2014

The Future Of Warhammer 40,000 Lies Beyond War

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. 


  1. This is a really good point, there's so much time between the 41st millennium, and the Horus Heresy, any number of events could have happened.

    I really want to know why they were at war this entire time, 10,000 years of conflict is ridiculous, factoring in the extra events we know about and I'm pretty sure you still have about 3,000+ years between a major conflict (and about double that is no galactic conflict at all), especially when the Tyranids, Necrons, and Tau have only recently joined the war (relatively recently anyway) It makes you wonder what the Imperium's been doing all that time, it can't be just fighting the traitors, there's only a small fraction of the space marines actively doing that (and galaxy wide fighting for 10,000 years is not mentioned the Space/Chaos space marine codex), it can't be dealing with the Dark Eldar or regular Eldar, Otherwise they'd be completely extinct (or beyond hope of saving), it can't even be constant Ork conflict, because they're relatively constrained to their territories (unless a hulk floats by).

    Maybe something really awesome happened like the Enslavers suddenly showing back up and taking over planets, or some other alien race (like the Rak'gol, which are essentially Firefly's reavers crossed with Borg) started wrecking all Imperial ships they came across, Maybe the Dark Mechanicus made a major breakthrough in their work, there's so many things you can write about them, because there's far more than just the factions that GW has printed Codex's on.

    The biggest problem is that the only faction GW cares about is the human one, they'll push out new space marines as fast as they can because that's their mascot, they'll push out new Imperial Guard because they're the second most popular, everything else is just filler for the setting regardless of how well some of their fans like them, show somebody a Tyranid and they call it a Zerg rip-off (a bit ironic there), show somebody Necrons and they'll call them terminator rip-offs (even the ones who look nothing like the terminator like the Lychguard), show them the Eldar/Dark Eldar and they say "what the hell is that?"

    Maybe something that would help the Imperium a lot is a few Mechanicus novels if not an outright codex (as they're slowly but surely getting one thanks to Forgeworld), it could give a relatively objective take on the majority of the Imperium's state (while giving a biased take on themselves), and why they're in technological regression at the moment, since they're a major part of the Imperium (originally half as symbolized by the aquila) they've got their own completely different take on how everything changed, and their views on the alien races would be completely different, it would also allow them to show how something so completely changes in 10,000 years (both in technology and in their culture), and how a completely different culture that occupies the same area records everything that changes in that time-frame too, how do they view the return of the Necrons for example?

    Though that's only the Imperium, I'm sure you can expand the Necrons by looking at more than the one dynasty the entire Necron codex focuses on, let's look at the ones that send out diplomats because they don't want a war, make them the ones that get thrown off their planet if they really want to keep with the setting. To expand the Eldar/Dark Eldar you just need to look at the Eldar/Dark Eldar pirates that are always around, they've had plenty of exposure to different cultures to see how much things change, from between planets to between Millennia. I'm not really sure how to expand upon the Tyranids, everything I think of undermines the horror that's supposed to be associated to them being a galactic wide devouring machine.

  2. Actually, here's another thought, they've already ruined the warp, so why not start setting games there? If it can really be bent to a powerful will, surely a few Cardinals together would be able to change a small portion of it to fit their tastes (as some Daemon Princes do). I remember you saying a while back that it makes no sense why the warp wasn't outright conquered in the Great Crusade since apparently you can just walk around in it perfectly fine (6th edition Daemon codex also confirms this), so why not take that to its logical conclusion? The warp is the biggest thing in 40K, everyone except the Tau and Tyranids has to deal with it in some way or another, yet it's the least explored or touched upon, it certainly has a good reason for why somebody would want control over it, and it provides a good way to make the new technology/military/culture to meet with the old versions.

    I can also see several reasons why you'd want to enter the warp, maybe the Imperium wants to finally kill all the traitors for good, so they hunt them down in areas where they normally wouldn't go, maybe the Tyranids win, so they have to retreat to a place they cannot enter, maybe they just want safer interstellar travel, so they enter to calm sections of the warp to make safer areas to enter and leave from.

    This would also give a good reason finally as to why next to nothing changes, because in the Warp time is (sort of, in the current Daemons codex) meaningless, or just as meaningless as whatever power is in control of that sector wants it to be.

    Now the main problem with this is that it actually causes the plot to move slightly, and GW won't ever do that, so I don't think we're ever going to see anything aside from the 31st Millennium and the 41st Millennium, though I still hope that at some point they make more of an effort to explore the intervening years, it's not like they can't fit them into their current incredibly bloated codex's, delete the gallery, delete the page-by-page unit breakdown, and you can easily fit the major history into all of the different codex's and supplements that exist.

  3. Is that map on top of the page your creation? If so, you should visit this thread and correct mistakes found on this map.

    1. No, unfortunately, it's one of quite a few Games Workshop has produced over the years. Unfortunately, they have this habit of shunting planets halfway across the galaxy every other edition. It's quite the odd quirk.