With the upcoming release of Warhammer 40,000: Gladius – Relics of War, there must be about six of you in our audience wondering: what exactly is Warhammer 40K? Piecing together the constant references to heresy, the God Emperor, bolters, Astartes, and Orks swirling around the interwebs can be daunting, so we put together two articles meant to be your primer to this lore-addled world. In part one we’ll discuss exactly where 40K comes from as well as the Imperium of Man, and in part two, we’ll discuss the Imperium’s many challenges – both internal and external – and where exactly Gladius fits into all of this.
So what is Warhammer 40,000?
The Warhammer 40K universe is a highly-developed science fantasy world set primarily around the year 40,000 AD – hence the name. Most of the lore centers on the interstellar Imperium of Man as it clings to life in a struggle so violent, corrupted, and hopeless that the very word “grimdark” was coined directly from the game’s tagline: In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.
Originally, the “40,000” part of this whole thing was a futuristic spin-off of Warhammer Fantasy Battle tabletop wargaming system, which meant that the only way to partake in the gaming aspect of this universe involved paying out a couple hundred bucks to Games Workshop – the game’s developers – and then hand-painting your bespoke space warriors.
The tabletop experience is still available, but there is a myriad of 40K games available on Steam in various strategy and shooter genres, along with several board games and pen and paper role-playing games. The much-acclaimed Total War: Warhammer and its sequel are set in the original, fantasy setting. And for those of you who really want to immerse yourself in the 40K world – without gathering your friends together for six hours slinging D10s – Games Workshop has an entire publishing arm with numerous novels, graphic novels, and comics. I’ve also discovered that there are a bunch of 40K games on mobile, but I’ll let you, dear reader, explore that world on your own. So, now that you know how you can play in the 40K space, let’s break down its component parts – and a bunch of those memes you keep seeing.
What is the Imperium of Man?
Sometime around the 15th Millennium or so, humanity entered a Golden Age of technology. Having already used sublight and rudimentary faster-than-light technology to slowly spread out from Earth – or Terra as everyone around here insists on calling it – humanity flung itself out into the galaxy, colonizing millions of planets. Eventually, in the 25th Millennium humanity was nearly undone during the “Age of Strife” by two tragedies: robotic soldiers and servants who turned on their masters, and the daemonic forces of Chaos unleashed into the universe. More on that latter group in a later question, but suffice it to say the next five thousand years were unpleasant for all involved. What was left of humanity scattered to the galactic winds, while anarchy, war, genocide and slavery became the norm.
In the 30th Millennium, the Emperor of Man united Terra under his rule and set about uniting the lost colonies into an Imperium in a process called the Great Crusade. The Emperor brought a message of secularism and an end to superstition, as well as membership in a thriving, secure political union. But a splinter group of trusted lieutenants and Space Marines, corrupted by Chaos and resentful of the Emperor’s governing ethos, sparked a bloody civil war that abruptly ended the Crusade, gravely wounded and incapacitated the Emperor, and plunged the Imperium into a protracted era of theocracy, totalitarianism, suspicion of technology, stagnation on virtually every level, and more-or-less constant warfare.
“Now,” in the 41st Millennium, though the Imperium is ruled in the iron-handed name of the Emperor, that Imperium is a mockery of everything the Emperor wanted for Mankind. The Emperor himself is a slowly-decaying husk of a man kept barely alive by a cybernetic golden throne and the psychic energies of a constant stream of telepaths (psykers), a thousand of whom are sacrificed every day to their “god.”
The day-to-day business of the Imperium is handled by a byzantine network of bureaus, divisions, and offices, all supported by a feudal system of planetary and interplanetary governance. Although vast in volume – the Imperium encompasses nearly two-thirds of the Milky Way galaxy – this shaky pattern of administration leaves the Imperium uniquely vulnerable to numerous enemies within and without. Everyday life for the many trillions of its citizens and subjects is, for the most part, near-constant toil for some rich master or planetary governor on civilized worlds, and a struggle for survival or dominance on feral worlds or so-called death worlds. Billions of people find their way, sometimes willingly, into the ranks of the Imperial Guard, which, when it gains victory, does so not by superiority of arms, nor by military prowess, but by sheer overwhelming numbers.
Death is a constant companion for a resident of the Imperium. Overwork claims most who toil in the factories, mines, or prison camps. Exposure and privation stalk the feral worlds – those barely under the administration of the Imperium. Violence is omnipresent on the front lines or on the homefront of the Imperium’s many wars. Sickness, corruption, or the Inquisition secret police are likely to find pretty much everyone else. You’ll only die in bed if you happen to be asleep when your world is subjected to the Exterminatus because some tech priest forgot to get their microwave exorcised or whatever. For the everyday subject of the Imperium, perhaps the only things more frightening than the ever-present repression by the Imperial Inquisition are the very horrors the Inquisition guards against – alien infiltration and invasion, the corrosive forces of heresy, or literal daemons who seek to literally eat your literal face. As such, while the Imperium of Man would be deemed dystopian by any real-world 21st century measure, the alternatives amount to a panoply of grotesquery and misery.
Who is this God Emperor dude?
During Earth’s Neolithic era, numerous shamans discovered that their numbers and power were dwindling due to increasingly Chaotic forces in the Immaterium – the immaterial plane of reality that mirrors the material plane. The world’s shamans got together and decided to drink some poisoned Kool-Aid and be reincarnated into a single, immortal, super-powerful man – er, baby – who would guide humanity and protect it from being overwhelmed by Chaos. For thousands of years, he wandered amongst humanity, revealing himself as behind-the-scenes actors such as ministers and advisers, and occasionally as a great ruler or conqueror.
Around the end of the Age of Strife (ca. 30th Millennium), this man united Terra, finished developing his Space Marine super soldiers, partnered with the Adeptus Mechanicus, and commenced the Great Crusade to reunite mankind. For a number of decades, the Emperor personally prosecuted the Crusade, bringing the Imperial Truth – a collection of ideologies holding up reason, secularism, and the manifest superiority of mankind – to all who would listen. And to many who didn’t. By charisma, argument, and the sword, planet after planet joined the Imperium.
Eventually, the Emperor handed off management of the Crusade to his most trusted advisor, the Primarch Horus, while the Emperor retired to Terra to pursue a secret project. Later, Horus rebelled and attempted to seize the mastery of Mankind from the Emperor in that insurrection I mentioned earlier. Though unsuccessful, the revolt left the Imperium weakened and the Emperor himself barely alive.
Though the Emperor’s primary message insisted that their were no gods, one of his Primarchs – near-children to the Emperor and his closest cohorts – began to surreptitiously spread the “gospel” of his goodhood, and many in the Imperium came to believe the Emperor himself was divine even before his grievous injury. Subsequently, after the Horus Heresy, with the Emperor gravely injured and fully outside of public view, no one was left to promulgate a philosophy of strict secularism. The common religious belief of the people was eventually adopted as the official faith of the Imperium of Man. By the 41st Millennium “present,” what’s left of the Emperor serves as a tenuous anchor for his psychic presence in the Immaterium, allowing for long-distance starship travel while also helping keep the forces of Chaos at bay. The most powerful and incorruptible psykers in the Imperium are transported to Terra to lend their power to that of the Emperor, burning them out and killing a thousand or more of these “volunteers” every day.
The Emperor’s Imperium goes on, relying unflinchingly on a crumbling half-corpse, confident in His power to save, and punishing any who question His divinity or the Imperium’s future without Him.
What are Space Marines? How do Primarchs relate to them?
In order to unite Eart- er, Terra, the Emperor of Man genetically engineered super-soldiers capable of immense feats of strength, skill, and defense – even against psychic attack. He named these armored human behemoths Thunder Warriors, and they were the means by which the Emperor of a very tall but very limited mountain range became the Emperor of Man. Then, like any respectable middle-aged executive, he had his first love unceremoniously murdered by his younger, better-equipped fling – the Legiones Astartes or Space Marines.
Space Marines are the poster children of Warhammer 40K. They stand about seven feet tall and weigh upwards of 700 pounds unladen. They typically wear advanced power armor and wield both ranged and melee weapons. And while their size is imposing, their skill and agility are dazzling – imagine a tank that does ballet.
The Astartes were originally organized into twenty legions of up to a quarter million human death machines apiece, but two legions “mysteriously disappeared,” and the Horus Heresy demonstrated the folly of having so much firepower in such concentrated hands. By the 41st Millennium, there are roughly a thousand chapters of roughly a thousand Marines each, each chapter with its own character, history, fighting style, heraldry, and home base. Astartes themselves don’t reproduce – they recruit from the scrappiest, most loyal servants of the Emperor and add perfected “gene seeds” to the bodies of recruits in order to cause the men to grow in strength and size (yes, while there are chapters of women warriors in the Imperium, the Astartes are a boys’ club), and also immunity to most poisons and pathogens. It’s no use having your perfected super-soldiers getting the runs on the battlefield because someone didn’t properly cook the shrimp scampi.
The Primarchs, on the other hand, were the eighteen genetically-enhanced “Sons” of the Emperor, created to assist the Emperor in effecting the restoration of Humanity to a dominant place in the Galaxy. These supermen were developed in the Emperor’s inner sanctum before being scattered by Chaos to the far reaches of the Galaxy, whereupon each grew up and developed into distinct individuals with their own eccentric personalities.
Eventually, the Emperor managed to track these men down, and each was given his place at the head of his own army of Space Marines. It was from the Primarchs that the original gene seed for the Space Marines was isolated, and it was the most trusted of them – Horus – who betrayed the Emperor and brought the Great Crusade to a screeching halt. Oh, and if you hear that there are actually twenty primarchs, and that two were expunged, and that the power to create the Primarchs came partly from a pact with Chaos at Molech, those are dirty lies.
Who are Tech-Priests?
During the Age of Strife before the unification of Terra, a group of humans arose on Mars. Distrusting of flesh, and embracing mechanical implants to their bodies, these humans devoted themselves to the Machine God. Since this faction was already quite powerful in its own right, and since these mechanical devotees were exceptionally skilled in matters of technology and engineering, the Emperor of Man signed a treaty bringing the Adeptus Mechanicus under the aegis of the Imperium, albeit with considerable autonomy.
Faith in a Machine God – or, as He is also known, the Omnissiah – has never quite been fully orthodox in the Imperium – neither when the Imperial Truth was that there was no god, nor when the Imperial Cult taught that the Emperor Himself was the one true God. And given that the Machine God himself may actually be an ancient god-like force trapped in an inert form waiting for his chance at release, this apprehension may have been prudent.
Nevertheless, given that all of the best, most useful technology to be found within the Imperium is at least ten thousand years old and is most likely illegal and/or daemon-infested, there is a deep antipathy towards complex mechanisms among Imperium’s subjects. Only the Adeptus Mechanicus is qualified to tend the Machine Spirits within the Imperium, and only within strict rubrics of sacred ritual. Technology is a mystery to be worshipped and tended to, not a field of study to be explored and added to with abandon – for to learn new things is to open oneself to the wiles of Chaos.
The most skilled Adepts are the Tech-Priests. These learned sages spend their lives delving into ancient texts and exploring the galaxy for undiscovered scraps of technology from ages past – as much to keep such potentially tainted finds from wreaking havoc upon the Imperium as to actually learn useful information.
The Adeptus Mechanicus maintain their own fighting forces for defending their worlds and securing valuable technological prizes where they are found. Tech-Priests are also the Imperium’s most skillful physicians, though they have a tendency to replace any flesh they might find in a patient’s body with more durable titanium or steel. There are even Space Marine Tech-Priests – novice marines who spend thirty years immersed in the liturgy of the machine on Mars before being sent back to their chapter to maintain the tools of war.
Now that we’ve explored how humanity has fared in the world of 40K, stay tuned for another installment, in which we’ll face the forces arrayed against the Imperium, a few more-or-less neutral powers, as well as the role of Gladius in the 40K universe, and a last look at what makes 40K so compelling.