Tuesday, August 5, 2008

There is Only War (40K)

"In the Grim Darkness of the Far Future, There is Only War."
It's fairly easy to explain away a lot of fantasy game violence as heroes overcoming evil. In fantasy games, there is absolute evil. There are irredeemable monsters who were born evil, with an evil nature, who want to hurt the good folks. They need to be destroyed. They will never live in peace with us or see our point of view. There is no moral relativism, so the heroes, who are good, set out to defeat these foes who have done some sort of mid-level wrong (but nothing too heinous, because this is a game, after all). However, in the 40K universe, humans aren't any better than their foes. There is no inherent evil. So how do you justify the darkness?

It's not all grim darkness actually. It's considered a terrible heresy to turn on ones fellow humans (or super humans). Since all humans are devoted to fighting for the imperium, and the imperium's will is a substitute for the will of God, killing a man is a sacrilege. For what it's worth, just remember that all that war and killing is in defense of humanity, rather than the modern violence of man-on-man dogma and belief. One thing the 40K world has done is remove modern religion. Modern religion is divisive, so it was a clever move for the writers. Instead we have an emperor, and as humans tend to do, they've taken him as a god of their own. If you want to unite humanity and you had a magic wand, this would be your first step.

Human life is cheap, kinda. There are millions of worlds with billions of humans. Many worlds, especially "hive" worlds are heavily populated with 50-100 billion people. So even single worlds are populated more than modern Earth. I've been playing humans in 40K, also known as Imperial Guard, and the cheapness of their lives is something you have to come to terms with. Squads of troops are often refereed to as "speed bumps" for enemy troops. Only large "horde" armies of humans can win a battle. Men are referred to as being as cheap as ammunition, and spent just as quickly. So life is cheap, right? Not really. If you read the novels, which I've been doing, the heroes of the imperium are those who value human life, regret the loss of life, and generally have modern sensibilities towards war. Gaunt, Cain and other leaders of the Imperial Guard are heroes that value human life and work hard not to waste it.

The Empire is expanding. This is arguably the darkest part of the 40K universe. Part of expanding the empire is uniting humans under one umbrella. The first thing you learn, is that there are other humans, even other emperors, who have their own imperium and are quite happy to fight for it, thank you very much. These kinds of conflicts against other humans are seen as regrettable, but it's part of the mission of humanity, at least the humanity that we're reading about. Only a united humanity can survive against species that desire their destruction. As for planets inhabited by other species, they are subdued or exterminated, much like those species do to human inhabited worlds. This is the endless war part of the 40K milieu, seen as a mission to grow or die. If humanity isn't expanding, it means their enemies, intent on their destruction, are growing in power instead. Through a lens of violence of humans fighting humans, this is pretty dark. Through a species-vs-species prism, it's akin to something like men versus dinosaurs (although not historically accurate).

The Meta. I don't want to be an apologist, but most people don't read the fluff. I wish they would read more, as you've heard me railing about kids who don't own their own rulebooks and codices. At it's base level, the game is about modeling and painting, and for the most part people don't even play humans. They're too expensive and difficult to play well. People prefer to play genetically engineered super humans, scary robots, giant bugs, green monsters in red trucks, and similar sci-fi fun. Now that's the game that people recognize. As for the future being only war, remember the humble roots of the game. It was always about models (and still is), with a light science fiction background with plenty of monsters. The fluff came much later. In fact, a big criticism about the game is that the company sees itself as a model company, with all this fluff a sales driver. It's infuriating if you take it seriously, which they clearly don't.

My son is too young to play these games. Would I allow him to play them if he was old enough? First, I would be fairly cautious about the reading materials and would probably consider the fluff I've mentioned as adult fare, not suitable for a young mind. Second, there are some good values in this game. It gets kids off electronic games, which I see as the most corrupting influence in turning my kid into a zombie. It's a game that requires social interaction. Many fathers are playing with their sons and most kids get into it because other kids are playing (the key to any game). Third, it teaches kids to think. It has much more tactics than I originally thought, despite the giant handfuls of tiny dice that determine an army's fate.


  1. One interesting thing about the 40k universe is that it's simple to justify playing any of the armies, and simple to justify playing against any of the other armies.

    The Imperium is pure evil along the lines of the dark ages Catholic church - the leaders use the state religion to force the people into unthinking obedience, while they each maneuver and scheme to gain more power for their own faction/bureaucratic fiefdom. The inquisition roams around torturing, killing, and maiming indiscriminately, and entire worlds are murdered for the suspected thought crimes of a few. There is little original thought, and the people are kept ignorant to allow the church to maintain control.
    Look at the example (or non-example) of the Squats - a human race that still viewed technology as tools, rather than religion. They were eliminated and the record of their existence has been virtually wiped clean.

    Chaos is freedom for humans - until they take it too far and end up enslaved by the Chaos powers and their disciples.

    Tyranids are simply following a biological imperative.

    Both the Orks and the Necrons are only doing what they were created and engineered to do - since both were created as weapons systems.

    The Eldar are a race that has lost much of its vitality. Their population is shrinking, and they have lost the desire to move forward. Some have sunk so low into decadence that they seek extremes of sensation to amuse themselves - becoming the Dark Eldar, who regale in pain (inflicting or receiving).

    This leaves the Tau - a race that is young, growing, and in a state of technological development (rather than the technological regression/stagnation found everywhere else in the 40K universe). Their ethos is socialistic/communistic, and they have the least individuality of any race in the game.

  2. Have I ever told you my theory of the parallels between 40k and life?

    That, and it's a guide to better sex...
    The things that make for a good match also make for better love making. ;)


  3. I am curious, but at the same time frightened.

  4. To elaborate on what Joe said, the fiction that portrays the heroes as more sympathetic characters with modern sensibilities is a relatively recent phenomenon. The older fiction I've read tends to be far more grim with "heroes" that fully believe in the ends justifying the means. In fact "protagonist" is probably a better word to use than "hero" for many of these characters.

    The background of both Fantasy Battles and 40K has its roots in the writings of British authors like Michael Moorcock who often wrote about tragic, doomed heroes with cruel streaks who sometimes managed to create a better world, but only by destroying the one that existed before.

    This was the same artistic culture that featured a lot of death metal and other dark and depressing stuff.

    Ultimately, the problem for humans in this universe is that unless you live a very regimented and structured life, you will be corrupted by chaos. In such a universe freedom is literally a path to damnation and something to be stamped out wherever it's found.

    The problem for GW marketing is that not everyone likes to play the bad guys, even when everyone's a bad guy. Thus, we've seen the introduction of the Tau and fiction that features more sympathetic Imperial Guard and Commissar characters.

  5. As for Usi's comment: Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter

  6. Wow, interesting background. I love Moorcock, by the way. Oh crap, I said I love.... never mind.

  7. I love sci-fi, but I love history more. I think that the 40k fluff is fantastic (I am partial to Space Marines and their fluff, surprise surprise), but I have this nagging feeling that the writers of the fluff can make drastic changes without repercussions to the big picture. Again, Squats are brought up as an example. Their total elimination from the game has no real effect on the fluff, because 'all records were wiped out,' all at the whim of a few real people. No explanation on their part needed. Can't do that in a historical game.

    One thing that I do applaud about how GW has approached their 'universe' is that it can go on indefinitely; there is no 'V-E' day or 'V-J' day limiting them, unlike in every historical game.


  8. "Can't do that in a historical game."

    Yes, but history itself is highly subjective and often written by the winners of a conflict, or ignored or glossed over by the losers in future generations. Also, Flames of War players will argue endlessly over the historical merits of various bits of equipment. Someone can explain to me why the .50 cal is such a worthless weapon in FoW.

    GW does have a historical thread running through the game, a timeline that advances with each new release (a 5 year cycle). However, it's a very slow moving timelines, which frustrates the heck out of some people but others enjoy the stable back story. I find it overly cautious, but hey, it's their business.

  9. As far historical vs. Sci-fi, there's always the gamers who like to blend them at times. I've seen a FOW scenario that has troops vs. flying saucers and aliens who are sent to the battlefield's of ww2 to capture earthling soldiers. If anyone is curios, I can email the mission and army lists, etc.

    There is also the blending of Hitler's fascination with the occult in gaming and you end up with Nazi-Zombies, etc.

    Silliness but some people seem to enjoy the blending of the genre's.Bowie1

  10. Being more of a fantasy guy, the first thing I asked about Flames of War was whether there was a supernatural element. I've played Weird Wars before, which is a WWII supernatural RPG, so yeah, Zombies and the supernatural sound perfect.