Tuesday, 10 January 2017
Thoughts on Warhammer 40,000: End Times
And so it has come to pass at last. Cadia will fall, Chaos will spread and the galaxy will be torn asunder. Chaos will emerge totally victorious, and the Imperium will crumble. With its planned release next weekend, Gathering Storm: Fall of Cadia is the latest in the long line of War Zone books set to try and advance the story. We have seen quite a few of late experimenting with ongoing plotlines and resolving ongoing issues, even reintegrating a few concepts from the old Thirteenth Black Crusade campaign. They also almost all ranged from mediocre to downright bad, and this just seems like another mistake. In fact, it could be the big mistake if Games Workshop does not utterly nail this one. Unfortunately, things do not look promising.
Now, let's be clear here: These are just personal thoughts which have been based upon past experience and extremely general bits of information. We have had surprisingly good books appear in otherwise terrible series, and I will be the first to praise the lore if it's great on here (and probably the only person to do so, given the state of most reviews these days). I will also freely admit I am biased against this idea, having argued that it would be better to explore the vast gaps in Warhammer 40,000's timeline than rushing into the future.. That said, there are a lot of warning lights coming up here, starting with its writer.
A few days ago, Aaron Dembski-Bowden confirmed on Twitter that he would be the man to helm this endeavor and press forwards the first stages into M42. This is exceptionally good and bad for a few very different reasons. On the one hand, Dembski-Bowden produced the fluff for the Supplement Codex: Black Legion, which was easily one of the best produced in that entire series. He also single-handledly revitalized interest in the Night Lords, and can produce dramatic, engrossing stories from a character driven angle few can match. On the other hand, emphasis upon the characters and no one else has been a long standing problem with these sorts of books, robbing the focus away from the armies as a whole. In addition - and this bears repeating - this is also an author who has always viewed this event as the end of everything. M42 rolls around, midnight hits, everyone dies, Chaos wins. Given the poor response to the same approach shown in The End Times, this seems to make him a good choice only for one side here. He might have even been a good choice for a novel about the event, but a campaign book? Given the lack of Ultramarines present on the battlefield, all this seems like it will devolve into is a total win for Chaos on the whole.
It wouldn't be the first time we have seen this sort of thing either, as many fans will recall how previous War Zone books have this unfortunate habit of turning into a curb-stomping in favour of one side. Damnos was so pro-Ultramarines that it actively ignored half the Necrons' abilities, Mont'ka narratively bent over backwards to hand the Tau Empire a victory, and Fenris relied upon mass stupidity from both sides to gain a victory. There have been exceptions to this, even one or two good book like the Red Waaagh! and Shield of Baal, but the truly big name stuff has often weighed in heavily in favour of one group. Unless said defeat is extremely well deserved, such moments are rarely fun to read. It also degrades both armies, making one suddenly incompetent to ensure they lose, while handing the other victory after victory, removing that suspension of disbelief which is so important to this setting. It doesn't allow for a developing narrative which feels natural to the book so much as shunting the story off in one direction, and bulldozing through anything which might contradict it.
Such a flippant attitude towards the canon on the whole has been a long standing problem (after all, it was Codex: Farsight Enclaves which invented the whole "Ethereals evil lol1984lol" crap that army has been saddled with), but combined with the rushed nature of the books it makes the writers look as if they are simply trying to resolve ideas as fast as possible. Often, they simply don't have the space - or do not use it - to pull off half the tales they want to explore, or even to make certain events all the more dynamic or well thought out. We discussed this back when Curse of the Wulfen was released, and that has not changed. Whereas the Imperial Armour books might use the first ten pages alone to set up the event, or even bring the book's themes into focus, the more recent GW books tend to go for snap decisions or sudden revelations to streamline things to the point where it actively hurts the book.
Such rulebooks often focused upon bigger events but only used a fraction of their page count, and often secondary factions will be abandoned entirely in favour of focusing upon just two or three big units. Both Mont'Ka and Wrath of Magnus supposedly featured vast detachments of marines from major chapters and thousands of Imperial Guardsmen, but you could easily miss their involvement entirely and think the book was just about one or two astartes chapters. The actual importance of a world, the nature of the war, even the minor details which could help to flesh out the backgrounds of either side were often eschewed in favour of 'splosions. With that in mind, does this really sound like Cadia can be dealt with in just one release?
Even ignoring the multitude of forces which have been listed to come running whenever Abaddon decided to roll up to the Imperium's front gates, this is a fortress world. There are almost a dozen chapters devoted to backing it up and securing the Eye of Terror against invasions, billions of Guardsmen, thousands of Inquisitors and a vast warfleet which eclipses most other forces. The last several wars dragged on for months at a time, and the death toll could barely be calculated, and that's before you get to the stuff Chaos throws at it. With that in mind, judging this book's potential from the quality of past War Zone releases, does this really sound like the sort of book which can do this story justice? Just one? It took the far better Imperial Armour series a whole trilogy just to bring the sheer scale and immensity of the Vraks campaign to life, and that was a comparatively minor conflict to this one. Going from that, it seems almost impossible to think that the upcoming book could do Cadia justice, or even finish it at all without resorting to a few big deus ex machinas.
However, the big one which needs to be discussed more than anything else is what sort of trend this might set if this book proves to be a success. Specifically, what it would mean for the creative freedom of players, authors and the future of the game. While some have argued that this might help "categorize" the setting by focusing upon a few certain battlefield or plotlines, if anything it seems as if it would limit its potential more than anything else.
The outcomes and finales of many past War Zone books or other tomes have repeatedly cut off armies from one another, until they are concentrated upon a single location. The Tau Empire is now trapped behind a burning nebula (nope, that still has not been explained), the Orks are almost entirely focused upon Armageddon and the Octarius Empire, with a few factions held at Baal, while the Dark Eldar are limiting their presence to their home city and the Craftworlds have been robbed of all power. This effectively cuts off huge swathes of the galaxy from one another, limiting them to certain storylines.
So, for example, let's say a writer wanted to justify a one-shot tale about a group of Craftworld Eldar encountering the Tau Empire for the first time. Well, he would need to first demolish the two massive roadblocks between those two issues before even starting to tackle the story, and then resolve them again afterwards. In the case of the Eldar, they would need to briefly regain their power just long enough to be a threat before it disappeared again. Or, to cite the Tau Empire, they would need to suddenly find a way around the gigantic wall of fire in space, go through it to meet them, and never use that ability again. It leaves people jumping through hoops trying to explain and sidestep something which previously would have been easy.
Even without this issue however, you then get to the problems at the writers' end of things. Black Library has always existed to promote Warhammer 40,000, and few will deny that. However, the freedom given to authors has produced some spectacular tales in the past and massively fleshed out the universe; with the likes of the Eisenhorn trilogy, the aforementioned Night Lords series, and several Space Marine Battles books helping at every turn. The same was true of Warhammer Fantasy as well, even if it had the unfortunate habit of selling less copies. However, you might have noticed a slight issue with the Fantasy end of things over the past few years: The stories have been very singular. Both the novels and the tales spawned off of them either directly correlated to the big plotlines involved, or they were short stories which only slightly branched off from them. There were no new characters to follow their own tales, no new heroes or new stories, merely extensions of the big ones.
Some will probably argue that sticking to a few single focused narratives might lead to a stronger setting. However, before you argue that then please consider this: If that happened we would never have known of the Sabbat Worlds. We would never have read about the Iron Snakes. The Salamanders would have never had their trilogy, and we would never have seen the likes of Storm of Iron. Each of these branched off on their own path, expanded the setting like previously mentioned examples but were given enough freedom for the authors to experiment as they willed. Those which were regarded the best among their kind were then incorporated into the greater setting, with events showing up with codices. With a massive focus upon a few narrative arcs, we would lose the overall setting which helped to serve as such a fantastic basis for smaller tales. We would, ultimately, lose the very thing which helped Games Workshop stand out the most.
Now, with all this said, Dembski-Bowden himself has stated the following:
"...everything we've seen so far is "retelling the Thirteenth Black Crusade", not "End Times"."
This was made in response to a despondent comment citing past attempts in other games to dramatically shake things up or completely rework a game overnight. As such, while it doesn't go into great detail, it does make me personally hope that this might take things in a slightly different direction. What we might end up seeing would be less The End Times and more akin to The Shape of the Nightmare to Come, an epic saga of a fanfiction which explored the world from M42 to M52. Rather than following a few narratives however, it started with a few points before rapidly branching out, turning into a vast platform for countless mini-arcs.
A more canonical example of something similar would, oddly enough, be the Horus Heresy series itself, given how it similarly branched out from an opening trilogy into a vast saga. One broad enough even for the rulebooks to still flesh out and expand upon existing lore, going back to further expand upon the histories of the legions or the galaxy itself. With some luck this might turn into something similar, balancing the freedom to continue the timeline with the freedom to tell new stories.
All of this is just personal opinion at the end of the day however, and once again this is based upon a few individual thoughts over factual information. While there are other subjects which could be discussed involving the limitations of pressing forwards (notably the inability to go backwards and better expand upon M33-40) or possible concerns over Cadia's fate itself (ending in an anticlimactic big explosion over actually doing something with the planet, or the fact the new Imperial characters hurled into this meat grinder are mostly women) those will be reserved for the main review itself. For the moment though, it would be best just to maintain the same old mantra when it comes to this setting: Hope for the best but expect the worst.
If you have your own thoughts on the future, or even the upcoming book itself, please feel free to list them below. There are likely points or ideas I have missed here after all, and anyone is welcome to start a discussion over the subject, no matter if they are for or against Cadia's fall.