In our previous installment of Five Questions About Warhammer 40K You Were Afraid to Ask, we took a look at humanity and the Imperium of Man in the 41st Millennium. In today’s conclusion, we’ll take a look at the forces facing the Imperium – from within and without – as well as where the upcoming 4X game Warhammer 40,000: Gladius – Relics of War fits in the universe. We’ll also take a look at what it is about 40K overall that keeps people hooked.
What is Chaos?
Every strong emotion experienced by every sentient species in the galaxy feeds into a psychic fourth dimension known variably as the Immaterium or the Warp. These psychic energies have coalesced over the ages into a consciousnesses of their own. Those consciousnesses seek power and dominion over the corporeal world both for themselves and for the overarching force of Chaos Undivided.
The four consciousnesses – known as the Chaos Gods – are: Khorne, the god of warfare, bloodshed and violence; Nurgle, the bringer of disease and decay; Slaanesh, the prince of pleasure and pain; and Tzeentch, the master of change and dark knowledge. Any mortal who seeks too much after any of these qualities in their life is at risk of being swept up by one of the Gods of Chaos and enticed into serving their new Lord. A devotee of carnal desires can easily succumb to the promises of ever more lavish and depraved pleasures that Slaanesh and His servants offer him, while a great warrior seeking further glories may fall under the sway of Khorne who offers the warrior greater power and bloodier battlefields.
Devoting oneself to one of the Ruinous Powers – as the Chaos Gods are also called – often brings with it many boons, including power, pleasure, knowledge, healing from sickness, or simply a form of freedom from the oppressive rule of the Imperium. But these “gifts” almost always come at a cost. The very lucky few will gain whatever specialty their patron God bestows in return for an unnaturally-prolonged life of service to their master. Many, however, slowly degenerate into twisted, insane Chaos Spawn no longer capable of thought or will. The divide between these two fates is often no more than the sheer capriciousness of their master.
A key factor to be gleaned from all of these dealings with the supernatural in the 40K world is that there is a direct interplay between material beings’ strongest desires, fears, and ambitions and forces in the Immaterium. The Ruinous Powers seek to dominate the material realm, but they were, themselves, formed from the strongest emotions in human and Eldar history. The Eldar believe their gods created them, but there is ample evidence that the psychically-powerful Eldar brought their own gods into being through their ultra-potent emo elf feels. Ork war machines run seemingly through the magic of Gork and Mork – it certainly isn’t by Orks’ mastery of mechanics – but these two beings are only manifestations of the Orkish drive for war. Even the Emperor is evidently responsible for miracles in the material world, but His power comes almost exclusively from the many thousands of telepaths burned out to power His Golden Throne.
The Materium and the Immaterium are reflections of one another – a reality brought into even greater focus when considering that the Imperium’s only means of Faster-Than-Light travel is to telepathically dive starships into the Immaterium, holding the vast Warp energies at bay through a device called the Gellar Field. So yes, the only way humans know how to hold an interstellar Imperium together is through quick (or often not-so quick) jaunts through Hell. It’s no wonder the Emperor was trying desperately to find an alternative FTL method at the time of His incapacitation, with His Golden Throne intended as the hub. In the end, all of that advanced technology goes into simply keeping Him alive ten thousand years later.
A quick final note on this subject: often, if you see references to Chaos in 40K game systems, what you’ll get are the forces of the Chaos Space Marines who broke away from the Imperium during the Horus Heresy, as well as a few daemons and Chaos spawn to make things interesting.
What is Heresy? And why does EVERYTHING seem to be heretical?
As seems to be the case with everything in the 40K universe, heresy is both terribly simple and immensely nuanced. The simple definition of heresy is literally anything in opposition to the Imperium of Man and its state religion: the worship of the Emperor of Mankind as the one, true deity. As such, anything from rebellion against the ruling class to directly aiding and abetting the Ruinous Powers count as heresy, along with variants of the Imperial Cult that have drifted excessively from central orthodoxy, as well as outright refusal to worship the decaying man on the golden throne as a god.
With such a wide range of heretical beliefs and actions, it’s no wonder that just about anything the central Imperial government – secular or ecclesial – deems unclean is pronounced as heretical. It is a simple thing for one ambitious cleric or official to decree a rival’s words or actions or thoughts heresy – and potentially ruin said rival. Such machinations are hazardous, however, since failure to maneuver one’s rival into actual peril usually results in judgement against the original accuser.
Additionally, the very pious view the largely sanctioned beliefs of even integral members of the Imperium as heretical – the worship of the Omnissiah by the Adeptus Mechanicus, and the peerage and brotherhood felt by Space Marines for their near-equal Emperor of Mankind, for example. Anything of non-human origin is also heretical, as are artificial intelligence and most other technology from before the Age of Strife. As such, the Imperium rarely incorporates Xeno technology or “archaeotech” into widespread use, and even then nearly always as mediated by the cautious and reactionary Adeptus Mechanicus or the Inquisition. The only licit alternative belongs to a faction called the Rogue Traders, and they are considered profoundly suspect by many in positions of power within the Imperium. And for good reason – Rogue Traders frequently utilize borderline or downright heretical technology and methods in their dealings on the frontier.
With all of these restrictions, the net of Heresy is understandably wide and, perhaps even more understandably, a fate worth tempting. Actions such as trading with Xenos, incorporating alien weaponry into your trading vessels, and delving for treasures in abandoned, pre-Strife human settlements are all fabulously profitable, and each is likely to draw the ire of those whose job it is to root out heresy – primarily the Inquisition. Numberless peasants sick of toiling under a violent regime that is frequently incapable of defending them from incursions by aliens – or worse – will naturally turn to any force promising them freedom from the lash. If that force happens to come with the occasional mutation and a lifetime of service to a shadowy daemon, a peasant is likely to wonder if it could be that much worse than the unending servitude they already know. Heresy is everywhere in the Warhammer 40K world not just because nearly anything could be construed as heresy, but because the rewards for heresy very often outweigh the risks.
What other factions lurk in Warhammer 40K?
No grimdark space fantasy universe would be complete without a colorful – and ghoulish – cast of foils busy making humanity’s life interesting. Besides the Ruinous Powers of Chaos, there are a number of alien species with their own extensive backstories. The following is a brief synopsis of each.
- The Eldar and Dark Eldar: Shaped vaguely like tall, slender humans with pointy ears, these are the elvish stand-ins of the universe. However, instead of being benevolent and wise like many fantasy elves, these guys frequently end up doing what most humans would do given the gifts of super strength, overwhelmingly powerful emotions, and effective immortality: exploit the beings around them for their own decadent pleasures. The Eldar were once the dominant force in the galaxy until their lusts brought about the formation of the fourth Chaos God, Slaanesh, in a cataclysm that brought about the Age of Strife. In the process, the Eldar’s own gods were nearly all killed. Currently, the Eldar await the birth of their last god, born of the amalgamation of souls of all Eldar after they die. This god will defeat their old nemesis, though this will require the combined might of all Eldar souls, and thus the death of all Eldar. Until then, scattered remnants of this race cling to survival in a hostile galaxy. Due to their physical strength and advanced technology, Eldar are, pound-for-pound, among the most powerful creatures in the galaxy, but as a dying race, their aggregate power is diminished. Oh, and the Dark Eldar? They’re pretty much Eldar who know they’re evil. Because some fantasy tropes are too good to get really creative about.
- Orks: Green-skinned and warlike, 40K Ork Boyz are the most numerous “intelligent” creatures in the galaxy. Their technology is crude – so crude, in fact, that their weapons and machines are held together more through belief than through any technical expertise. Some great orkish ancestor must have befriended Dick Van Dyke in ages past, since they all seem to speak like 20th century caricatures of 19th century cockneys – “dem shootas are for killin’ far away, and dese choppas are for killin’ up close” – and so on. Ork bands are just as likely to war against one another as another species, and it is on mercifully infrequent occasions that a large horde of Orks will unite under a particularly large leader and be unleashed en masse upon the galaxy – a phenomenon called a WAAAGH!. And yes, Orks are all boyz: Orks release spores, especially upon death, which spawn entire Ork-optimized ecosystems culminating in, well, more Orks. This process can take place in deep corners of “uninhabitable” wastelands or worse, meaning Orks are never really extirpated, even after an invasion has been quelled. It is this adaptability and fecundity that make Orks perhaps the most successful species in the 40K universe. The brutish Orks also have two gods, Gork and Mork. These dudes differ in one crucial way: Gork is brutal but cunning, while Mork is cunning but brutal. Trust me, that’s really deep for Ork philosophy.
- Necrons: The Mummy meets The Terminator in the form of Necrons, whose 60-million-year slumber is coming to an end in the 41st Millennium. The Necrons used to be flesh-and-blood humanoids, but they were tricked into something like immortality in the form of a hyper-advanced robotic existence during an ancient conflagration known as the War in Heaven. As a consequence of this war, they were forced to retreat to stasis pods hidden deep in their worlds – many of which did not survive the intervening 60 million years. Whatever their tragic backstory, Necrons are intent on regaining their rightful place as the rulers of the galaxy. Remember how I said all the best technology is either crazy old or super dangerous or both? This maxim comes to its logical conclusion in the form of Necron tomb worlds. Necron temples sit undisturbed on many worlds the Necrons once walked in their flesh, almost all of which are barren backwaters in the 41st Millennium. Within these tombs lie technological riches that could bring unimaginable fortune and power to any able to harness them. Of course, entering a Necron temple is more likely to awaken the nearly-impervious, skeletal horrors bent on eradicating anything that doesn’t smell like them. The only thing keeping the galaxy from being rid of all organic life is that Necron alarm clocks aren’t their most advanced tech, and the waking protocols on the various worlds have been initiated over the course of several thousand years instead of all at once. For this reason, awakened Necron worlds, while horrifyingly destructive, are limited due to the lack of consistent reinforcements. For now.
- Tyranids: The Tyranids are the intelligent, spacefaring locusts of the 40K universe, and you and everything you care about are the grass. Tyranid invasions start benignly enough. Imperium forces – or other races – investigate space hulks infested with Tyranid Genestealers. In the fighting, many human(oid)s die, but some return as heroes in the engagement. These heroes continue in their lives, mate, and die, but they have been infected with a subtle virus that turns them and their descendents into Tyranid-worshipping Genestealers that quietly undermine their home planet over the course of generations. When the combined psychic energy of a Genestealer Cult is great enough, it lures in a Hive Fleet filled to the brim with Tyranid combat troops – a vast and numerous force of biologically diverse killers. Just before the invasion, the Cult revolts, disrupting the planet’s defense systems, and making the place ripe for the oncoming slaughter. With the defenders dead, the Tyranids absorb all useful biomass, reproduce, and move on to the next planetary victims. Tyranids pose perhaps the most terrifying threat to humankind, and it is the presence of revolts such as these that make even the most minor uprising a terrifying prospect for the government and Inquisition of the Imperium.
- Tau: The Tau Empire is a young polity formed initially by a race of humanoids that developed their technologically advanced civilization only in the last few thousand years. They represent a pluralistic society that devotes itself to the Greater Good, growing and gaining power as more and more races are drawn to the ranks of membership in their sphere. Theirs is the optimistic, up-and-coming answer to the staid, withering Imperium and, really, to all the other dark and brutal factions that offer little beyond survival to their members. The Tau are truly the Good Guys in the 40K universe. Nah, I’m just kidding. The Tau Ethereals – the ruling caste of the primary species – are suspected of harboring powers of suggestion that keep members of their species – and perhaps other species – in line in truly Orwellian fashion. The Greater Good frequently requires the sacrifice of individual lives, despite any possible wishes of the individual. While biological and cultural distinctiveness is honored in the Empire, individual life is not. The Tau will always attempt to sway a newfound planetary society to join their ranks as a sound, logical choice, but if that choice is refused, the Tau Fire Caste (warriors) will make the choice for them. The Tau core race is not psychic, so they aren’t susceptible to the workings of the Ruinous Powers, but the Tau are beginning to see how devastating Chaos can be. The Tau represent a quickly-advancing force that can go toe-to-toe with Chaos and Tyranids, lure Imperium planets to their cause through appeals to egalitarianism, and eclipse the fading light of the Eldar, but what cost does membership in the Empire inflict on its members?
Where does Gladius – Relics of War fit into the 40K universe?
The developers of Warhammer 40,000: Gladius – Relics of War place the Gladius system in the Ixaniad Sector, within the Segmentum Obscurus. OK, so let’s break down that nerd word salad.
The Segmentum Obscurus is home to quite a few of the more interesting sectors featured in 40K games – the Gothic Sector houses the struggles found in Battlefleet Gothic, the Callixis Sector is where the Dark Heresy TTRPG goes down, and the Koronus Expanse is an uncharted wild-west plied by Rogue Traders in the TTRPG of the same name. Oh, and the Eye of Terror. The Eye of Terror is a roiling maw of unquenchable warp fury seeking to overrun the Galaxy in unholy, all-consuming ruinous power. That’s there there, too. The Ixaniad Sector specifically is a bit of a black box, of which we mostly only know that a few dynasties have consolidated power and struggled amongst one another for dominance, causing many of their lowborn victims to seek refuge in piracy. Exactly what role, if any, this dynamic will play in the 4X game is unknown as of this writing. Temporally, the game takes place late in the Forty-First Millennium, so the, er, “present” as far as the universe is concerned.
The main players – so far – are the aforementioned Necrons and Orks, as well as two different Human factions. The Astra Militarum or Imperial Guard – the conscript army of everyday humans sent to overwhelm the Imperium’s enemies with bodies and bolter fire – and the Astartes or Space Marines – the superhuman, semi-immortal men originally crafted by the Emperor. These factions haven’t always been super close friends, even if they are technically on the same side. In Gladius, they will be in conflict, so you can presumably write your own fanfic for what slight caused them to be fighting over the same turf in your game. Either way, this upcoming game promises to add to the feeling of desperate survival and potential grim glory found throughout the 40K Universe.
What makes 40K so compelling?
One pedestrian reason the 40K universe can pack in so much content is its sheer temporal and spatial breadth. From the time the Emperor of Man revealed himself as a leader of Men until the Forty-first Millennium “present” is roughly eleven thousand years. Action within that time spans the whole of the galaxy. That’s a big stage on which to pack a ton of stories. There are characters who have been alive for large periods of that time, and there are characters who died tragic deaths after publically epic lives, and there are characters whose whereabouts have been a mystery for centuries.
A single sector of space contains hundreds of inhabited and habitable worlds, some of them explored, many with varying levels of civilization, all with histories that go back at least hundreds of years – more likely several thousand or, in the case of Necron Tomb Worlds, millions of years. Most worlds have seen action in one war or another among any of the myriad factions that inhabit known and unknown space. A jungle world seething with Orks may have been a thriving human colony a few hundred years before and a palatial Eldar world a few thousand years before that. Any story that an author or game designer wants to tell can find its place in such a vast menagerie of potential settings.
More substantively, the Warhammer 40,000 universe is an array of contradictions, and I think that’s what keeps people coming back. The Emperor Himself is a paragon of everything that makes Mankind great. He embodies what nearly every human would ever want to be. He is perfect, He is beautiful, and He is in charge. The Emperor of Mankind also sowed his own ruin, by making deals with Chaos that he thought he could overcome (he didn’t), and he now finds himself a shriveled husk of a man in the proverbial center of a shriveled husk of an empire. Many fans of 40K admire the Emperor as a totem of everything every boy wants to be when he grows up and becomes a superhero, but he was always written as a tragic, ironic character. His vision of humanity – free from superstition and dominant in the galaxy – has been twisted and corrupted so badly that it is now a parody of itself.
The Imperium of Man in the Forty-first Millennium languishes in its own paranoia, sprawling across the galaxy but unable to effectively maintain its own borders. Likewise, the forces of Chaos, while purveyors of ruin and servitude, also offer the potential for unimaginable power. And it can’t be said that their foe, the Imperium, doesn’t also purvey its own share of ruin and servitude in the name of only marginally better purposes.
With this in mind, the world portrayed in the Forty-First Millennium is one that is most unkind to reasonable souls. To be a member of the governing structures of the Imperium who understands the strains and hypocrisies arrayed around oneself is also to be placed into an extraordinarily vulnerable position. How does one express the need for reform or alert others to existential weakness when such concerns are easily portrayed as dissent at best and heresy at worst? Worse yet, most “members” of the Imperium are little more than subjects used for furthering the careers of the powerful. What place is there for dissent, or even for a deep understanding of the creaking ship of state around you when your days are spent in endless toil, wondering when the next Xenos incursion will come?
There is a saying that Star Trek fans want to live in Star Trek, Star Wars fans want to live in Star Wars, and 40K fans would never in a million years want to live in 40K. To engage with the 40K universe causes just about anyone to question what they would do in such desperate circumstances. The Imperium is oppressive and corrupt, but it may be Humanity’s last hope for survival. The Inquisition is over-powerful and brutal, but the menaces they hunt are horrifying. Chaos is the source of unutterable suffering and despair, but is it really that bad compared to everyday life in the Imperium, and is it worth it to take the chance that things could go well for you in its service?
All of these reasons combined – the vast scale, the array of heroes and villains and in-betweens, the never-ending existential crises, and the ever-present “thank God I don’t actually live here” feeling – add up to an adventure for which “turned up to eleven” is an understatement.