Monday, July 11, 2022

Stories told by Monsters - Part 3.1 An Introduction to Warhammer 40,000

The following is the fourth entry in a 13-part article series. Click here for an overview and a table of contents with links to the various parts.

Only War

Warhammer 40.000, also known as Warhammer 40k or simply 40k, is a tabletop game set in the dystopian future of the 41st millennium, published by Games Workshop.

It is played with plastic or metal miniatures, the average miniature being 28mm’s in size, which have to get hand-painted by the player and with which players can square off against each other according to an intricate set off rules by the throw of the dice, with every type of miniature having a different set of statistics regarding their strength, durability, mobility and so on. Battles can be fought with just a handful of models or whole armies with dozens of different soldiers, vehicles and creatures of various sizes, the biggest models being titanic war-machines for which models reach sizes of half a meter. Players can choose miniatures from a wide range of human and alien factions, the rules and the lore for each faction being detailed in distinct rulebooks called Codices (Sg. Codex).

The first edition of the game was released in 1987 as Warhammer 40.000: Rogue Trader. Games Workshop had previously released the Warhammer (later titled Warhammer Fantasy Battle) tabletop game, which was set in a fantasy world with influences ranging from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1954) to the works of Michael Moorcock.

Following the success of the game, Games Workshop tasked Warhammer-designer Rick Priestley with designing a science-fiction variant of the game, who mixed elements of his privately devised Role Playing Game Rogue Trader with fantasy elements from Warhammer to create the 1st Edition of Warhammer 40.000 (Warhammer 40.000 Rogue Trader, 1987; with cover art by John Sibbick). This combination of science-fiction and fantasy led to Warhammer 40.000 becoming an example of the genre of science fantasy (Malmgren, 1988), combining tropes of science fiction (advanced technology, inter-stellar travel, alien races, the projection of social trends into the future) with those typical for fantasy (focus on melee battles despite the availability of futuristic weapons, magic and wizards, origin stories oriented after classical myths like the Arthurian legend, alien races designed after classical fantasy races like Elves and Orcs).

Even more so than Warhammer, Warhammer 40.000 has been a melting pot of pop-cultural influences from the point of its conception, being influenced in its core concepts by Frank Herberts Dune, H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic-horror-stories, the Judge Dredd-comics from publisher 2000AD, Ridley Scott’s Alien-movie and countless others.

Following the second Edition in 1993 (Warhammer 40.000 2nd Edition Rulebook), Warhammer 40.000 was periodically overhauled in new Editions, each version altering the rules, expanding the lore and adding new factions while modifying existing ones. The game is in 2018 in its eighth iteration, with the Warhammer 40.000 8th Edition Rulebook being released in July 2017.

A note from 2022: 40k's 9th Edition was released in July 2020.

Warhammer 40.000 has since been adapted in books, comics, movies, videogames, role playing games, various game systems besides the classic tabletop and has itself been influential to other fiction, coining the term “grimdark” (TV Tropes, 2018b) as a denominator for excessively dark, brutal and hopeless works of fiction.

A big factor in the continuing popularity and instant recognisability of Warhammer 40.000 have been the countless artworks gracing the pages of Codices and the covers of novels which capture the fascinatingly horrifying nature of 40k’s universe; notable contributing artists include Mark Gibbons, John Blanche, Adrian Smith, Alex Boyd, Paul Dainton, Wayne England, David Gallagher and Neil Roberts, to name just a few.

The first published novel set in the Warhammer 40.000 universe was Inquisitor (later re-titled to Draco) by Ian Watson, published in 1990 under the Heretical Tomes label. In 1997, Rick Priestley, together with Andy Jones and Marc Gascoigne, created Black Library, an imprint of BL Publishing and successor to Heretical Tomes, to publish Inferno!, a magazine dedicated to publishing short-stories set in the worlds of Warhammer and Warhammer 40.000. Building upon ideas and characters invented for the short story Ghostmaker, 1999 saw the release of the first original Black Library novel: First and Only by *Ghostmaker-*author Dan Abnett, a novel which would go on to spawn one of the most long-running and popular series of 40k-novels to date, Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts, which saw its 14th entry (Warmaster) released in December 2017. Since First and Only, Black Library has published hundreds of novels, short-stories, novellas and comic books.

The publisher found international success with the Horus Heresy, a series of novels detailing the ancient civil war at the source of much of the dire state the 40k-universe finds itself in. Starting with Horus Rising (again by Dan Abnett) in 2006, the Horus Heresy has so far had eight entries to the New York Times Bestseller List (The New York Times, 2018) and approaches its 50th numbered release (*Born of Flame *by Nick Kyme) in June 2018.

A note from 2022: After the release of its 54th entry The Buried Dagger Black Library ended the Horus Heresy series with the release of eight Siege of Terra novels from 2019 onward, the final novel presumably being due for release in 2023.

The following passage shall give a short overview of the fictional universe created for Warhammer 40.000, as well as a short history of the origin of the Imperium of Man before, during and after the Horus Heresy (3.1 The Grim Darkness of the Far Future). Afterwards, it will be explained how Warhammer 40.000’s game design as well as the concept of loose canon, applied throughout the fictional lore and on a meta-level, makes it a game that actively encourages players to embrace the act of story-telling in a post-modern way (3.2 A Universe for Story-Tellers).

The Grim Darkness of the Far Future

“To be a man in those times is to be one of untold billions. It is to live in the cruellest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.” – From Black Library’s intro to Warhammer 40.000-publications

The universe of Warhammer 40.000 is set around the turn of the 41st millennium, though some stories can date back up to 10.000 years before that. Humanity is largely united in the Imperium of Man, a galaxy-spanning empire ruling thousands of systems and millions of planets. The Imperium is a theo-fascist, extremely authoritarian, xenophobic and deliberately ignorant empire with little to no value for individual human life, “the cruellest and most bloody regime imaginable”. Resistance to Imperial rule, critical thinking and open discussion are punishable by death, and the various branches of the Imperial justice system usually combine functions of judge, jury and executioner.

The Imperium is nominally ruled by the High Lords of Terra (Earth in the 41st millennium), though due to its size has a de-centralized ruling system, with planets or whole systems sometimes spending decades without contact to the Home World. A humongous bureaucracy serves as the rusted welding seam of the Imperium, and Imperial systems have been known to become lost for centuries due to an error in Imperial bookkeeping.

Technology and science are controlled by the Tech-priests of Mars, who have turned the maintenance of machines to a religious practice and chant prayers to their Machine God every time they start an engine. Using a machine without appealing to its machine spirit is considered outrageous and foolish, disassembling working machines for research a sacrilege, and scientific progress has grounded to a slow halt.

The Imperium has elevated hatred towards its enemies to a cardinal virtue and allows for no tolerance for deviations from “the holy human form”, with “death to the mutant” and “don’t suffer the Xenos to live” calling for merciless execution of mutants and Xenos (the Imperial term for aliens) alike.

Uniting the Imperium is the state religion of the God-Emperor, propagated and overseen by the Imperial Ecclesiarchy. The Emperor, probably the most powerful human psychic to ever live, once walked the stars and conquered large portions of what would become the Imperium of Man, but was mortally wounded in battle and has been sitting immobile on the Golden Throne, a life-supporting machine and amplifier for his psychic screams, for ten thousand years. Not alive, yet never dead, the Emperor is “the Master of Mankind [...] a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology [...] the Carrion Lord of the Imperium for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day, so that he may never truly die” (from Black Library’s Warhammer 40.000-intro).

The Imperium defends itself from resistance on the inside and threats from the outside with a multitude of military institutions. Those range from the billions of soldiers of the armies of the Imperial Guard, the fleets of spaceships with planet-destroying firepower of the Imperial Navy and the secretive agents of the Inquisition with the authority to sentence worlds to death to the sisterhood of the Adepta Sororitas, the military arm of the Ecclesiarchy.

The mightiest weapons in the arsenal of the Imperium are the Space Marines, eight-foot-tall, gene-enhanced warriors organized in Chapters of a thousand battle-brothers, armed with ancient power-armour as well as the best that Imperial weapons-technology has to offer.

As inhuman as a system the Imperium is, it nevertheless defends humankind from the multitude of horrors the universe has to offer. Various alien races roam the stars, each being at war with the Imperium and each other.

The formerly galaxy-ruling, now dying race of the Aeldari seeks to protect what is left of its race and former glory, using psychic powers and foresight to guard its space-faring Craftworlds made of living crystal. Their dark cousins, the Drukhari, feed on the pain of others to prevent their souls from being devoured by the Dark God whose birth they inadvertently brought about and whose birth scream brought their race close to extinction. Hordes of Orks roam the width and breadth of the galaxy, fighting as gladly with each other as they do with anyone else, seeking war and battle just for the sake of it. Swarms of Tyranids consume the biomass of whole planets, millions of organisms controlled by the Hive Mind leaving only bare rocks behind, being feared by the rest of the universe as the Great Devourer. The Necrons, an ancient race who was tricked by their star gods into giving up their mortal bodies for near indestructible forms of living metal at the cost of their souls, are awakening after millions of years of slumber on their Tomb Worlds, seeking to exterminate the lesser races that now infest their former realm. Last but not least are the T’au, a young race yearning to spread its philosophy of the Greater Good to every planet and race it encounters, with the open hand of diplomacy always being backed by the iron fist of the T’au’s futuristic tools of war.

The greatest threat to humanity and all sentient life, though, comes from the place that made interstellar travel and the foundation of humanity’s galaxy-spanning empire possible in the first place: the Warp. A parallel dimension to the Materium, our physical universe, the Warp or Immaterium is formed by the emotions of sentient life. Physicals laws, time and space don’t exist in the Warp as they do in the Materium, which allows for interstellar travel by protecting ships from the Warp’s energies with Gellar fields, entering the warp with a Warp Drive, navigating its currents with psychically sensitive beings known as Navigators and exiting it at the desired location. This makes it possible to reduce journeys to distant stars which would take centuries while travelling with light-speed to a matter of mere weeks or months. But at great risk: the matter of the Warp is anathema to that of the Materium and a flicker of the Gellar field can be enough to dissolve a city-sized ship and its passengers to its atoms, while looking into the ethereal tides formed of dreams and nightmares for too long means madness for even the most sane of individuals.

But the greatest danger of the Warp comes from its denizens: the accumulated energy of emotions has led to the formation of sentient beings in the Warp, the greatest of them being known as the Four Dark Gods of Chaos. Lovecraftian nightmares that exist beyond time and human understanding, the Blood God, the Changer of Ways, the Father of Plagues and the Prince of Excess all play an eternal game of dominion over each other, feeding off of the emotions of the sentient beings of the Materium and seeking to subject it to their wishes. Splinters of those Gods roam the tides of the Warp as Daemons, occasionally tearing the fabric of the material universe to bring slaughter, madness, death and desecration to it.

The mortal followers of the Dark Gods are known as Slaves to Darkness or the Lost and the Damned (Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness, 1988; Realm of Chaos: The Lost and the Damned, 1990) and date back to the conflict that chained the Emperor to the Golden Throne and led to the Imperium turning from an idealistic dream to a dystopian nightmare: the Horus Heresy.

The Horus Heresy - Root of the Nightmare

Thousands of years before the current timeline of the setting, humanity had, after the invention of Warp Drives, spread across the stars. After a period of never to be matched scientific progress and technological advancement, storms began to disturb the Warp which made interstellar travel impossible. Splintered and cut off from each other, the isolated pockets of humanity fell into the anarchy of Old Night, whole worlds falling prey to alien species and desperate struggles for survival between each other.

Around the year 30.000, the storms cleared away with the birth of the fourth God of Chaos, the Prince of Excess, in the middle of the alien Aeldari empire, ripping a galaxy-sized hole into the fabric of reality and leading to the formation of what would become known as the Eye of Terror, an area of space where Warp and Materium flow together.

With the Warp cleared of storms and able to be traversed again, the being only known as the Emperor rose amongst the warlords of post-apocalyptic Earth (Visions of Heresy, 2013). Using gene-enhanced armies and his incredible psychic powers, the Emperor conquered Earth, by then known as Terra, and started the Great Crusade to unite scattered humanity under his rule. To lead his armies, the Emperor used gene-forging, psychic powers and Warp-technology to create what would be known as the twenty sons of the Emperor, the Primarchs: demi-gods armed with awesome powers and superhuman intellect, each one capable of slaughtering armies with his bare hands and conquering worlds with his charisma.

From the gene-stock of the Primarchs, the Emperor devised the genetic enhancements that could turn chosen male children into superhuman killing machines: the Adeptus Astartes, more widely known as Space Marines.

“They shall be my finest warriors, these men who give of themselves to me. Like clay I shall mould them, and in the furnace of war forge them. They will be of iron will and steely muscle. In great armour shall I clad them and with the mightiest guns will they be armed. They will be untouched by plague or disease, no sickness will blight them. They will have tactics, strategies and machines so that no foe can best them in battle. They are my bulwark against the Terror. They are the Defenders of Humanity. They are my Space Marines and they shall know no fear.” – attributed to the Emperor (The Horus Heresy Book One – Betrayal, 2012)

With these tools of war, the Emperor planned to conquer the known universe and unite humanity under his doctrine of the Imperial Truth, a radical form of atheism decrying every form of religion as superstition that needs to be extinguished. While humanity at large was unaware of the sentient beings lurking behind the veil of reality, the Emperor was acutely aware of the threat that the Dark Gods of the Warp posed to human existence and sought to prevent them from exerting their influence and gaining power through worship; banning religion was one of the means with which he wanted to starve and weaken the Gods. The Gods in turn were aware of the Emperors plans and reacted with their own, starting by abducting the Primarchs when they were still infants and scattering them to different planets, so that they might better exert their influence on them.

The Emperor began the Great Crusade with the twenty raised Legions of Space Marines, each dating their genetic enhancements back to one Primarch and consisting of hundreds of thousands of warriors. A bloody galactic campaign ensued, with discovered human civilizations welcomed back into the rule of the growing Imperium of Man while every kind of resistance was either eroded by diplomacy or crushed under the bloody boots of the Legions. The Emperor, distrusting any and all Xenos, demanded merciless extermination of any sufficiently advanced alien race the Crusade came across, and many human civilizations that had survived Old Night by allying and cooperating with aliens were slaughtered when they refused to turn on their former allies.

The Primarchs each grew up on the worlds they were transported to and, due to their accelerated maturing, superhuman capabilities and natural tendency to integrate into and dominate the human cultures they encountered, nearly all of them had become the rulers of their respective worlds when the Great Crusade reached them. The stories of the first meeting of every Primarch with the Emperor are the stuff of legends, and after each rediscovery a Primarch was given command over the Legion of Space Marines whose genes dated back to him, to lead them to further conquest along the Great Crusade. Each Primarch shaped his Legion according to his personality and the customs of his home world, with every Legion developing a distinct culture and fighting style.

After all of the Primarchs had been rediscovered and nearly all of humanity had been conquered, the Emperor announced his resignation as leader of the Great Crusade to return to Terra and work on a secret project. He announced Horus, the Primarch that was first rediscovered and reunited with his Legion and had fought the longest at the Emperor’s side, as Warmaster for the rest of the Crusade.

That was the moment the Dark Gods had been waiting for: they manipulated and corrupted Horus to turn against the Emperor. Horus and the Gods managed to sway another eight of his brothers and their respective Legions to his cause, the fall of every Legion an individual tale of tragedy, and started to wage war on the Imperium of his father. After the Drop Site Massacre on Istvaan V, where three loyal Legions fell to the betrayal of those they thought brothers, Horus started a bloody civil war with words that would echo through eternity:

“Let the galaxy burn” (Galaxy in Flames, 2006)

The apocalyptic war that embroiled every world of the Imperium and would become known as the Horus Heresy ended with the Siege of Terra, where Horus’ and his treacherous brothers’ Legions, by then changed and corrupted beyond recognition by their pacts with the Gods of Chaos, laid waste to the continent-spanning Imperial Palace, the seat of the Emperor himself, which was defended by three Primarchs and their Legions.

When Horus recognized that his attack would fail due to incoming reinforcements for the defenders, he tried to end the battle swiftly by baiting the Emperor, who was unaware of the incoming help, into a personal attack on his flagship. Sanguinius, the angelic Primarch of the Blood Angels, died at Horus’ hands, but managed to weaken Horus, who was crowned by blessings from all Four Gods and drenched in Warp-energy, for the Emperor to be able to destroy him. After Horus’ death, the Legions of the traitors abandoned the Siege and fled into the Eye of Terror.

The Emperor had been mortally wounded during the battle with Horus, and with his dying breath instructed for himself to be entombed upon the Golden Throne.

In the millennia following the Heresy, the Imperium slowly stagnated and turned into the theo-fascist nightmare of Warhammer 40.000: the teachings of the Imperial Truth became replaced by the Imperial Creed that declared the Emperor as the God-Emperor of Man, the lessons of the past became forgotten and entrenched in myth and superstition, while progress and understanding became branded as heretical. The Space Marine Legions were split up into Chapters with a maximum of one thousand Space Marines, so that no individual would ever wield as much power as the Warmaster once did. The surviving loyal Primarchs died or vanished one by one, unable to halt the decay of what they had built. The Primarchs and the Legions that had followed Horus continued to hide in the Eye of Terror, waging war upon each other, their very existence forgotten for some time until they started to come forth from the Eye to lay waste to the Imperium again.

Ten thousand years later, the Imperium is in a state of constant war with itself, the various alien races and the followers of the Gods of Chaos. As the tag-line of Warhammer 40.000 says: “There is only war”.

The Horus Heresy used to be an event only briefly mentioned in Codices and Rulebooks to serve as background for the setting and a by-gone time of legend that players could relate stories for their armies to, but since the release of Dan Abnett’s Horus Rising in 2006, the times of the Heresy have been explored in extreme detail in their own still-running series.

The Horus Heresy-series was so successful that Games Workshop pushed the Heresy as its own gaming system and has current novel releases set in the 41st millennium regularly have connections to events and characters from the Heresy. Due to the differences in tone and themes some fans go as far as considering 30k (named after the year 30.000 around which the Heresy is set) as a distinct setting besides the classic 40k.

Building upon the popularity of characters from the Heresy, especially the Primarchs, the lead-up to the release of 40k’s 8th Edition saw the return of the Primarch Roboute Guilliman, one the Emperors loyal sons, who had used to be sleeping in a coma since the games inception, to 40k’s current time-line (Gathering Storm: Return of the Primarch, 2017). Magnus and Mortarion, two of the Primarchs that fell to the Dark Gods, have also been returned to the current time-line and released as models for the tabletop, with speculation among fans running rampart about whether, how many and which of the other Primarchs might return in future releases.

Continue with 3.2 A Universe for Story-Tellers

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