The real point of Warhammer 40K

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The real point of Warhammer 40K

Postby Felblood » Fri Oct 18, 2013 1:05 am

Reading the comments under #455, I have to get something off my chest.

Bossman, you are really missing the point of Warhammer 40K.

--or more correctly, WH40K has two points, and you are too busy seeing the one that isn't for you to catch the one that you would really groove on.

See, 40K is a strange exercise in the effects of scale on storytelling.

Looked at up-close, the characters seem impossibly badass and ready to take on anything. Your personal chapter of Space Marines can have a Librarian (Don't laugh, 40K librarians are basically Cyborg Jedi) who lops the heads off of Tyranid Hive Queens and saves worlds, with his mighty Force Blade.

--but when the camera pulls back, we see him in an entirely new light. Behind that Tyranid hive he just defeated, are a million more hives, standing in line for a shot at bringing him down, and even the mightiest of champions cannot withstand that onslaught forever. No matter how powerful he is, he and his tiny world are a speck in a universe that must someday end. In a few short epochs, even the tyranids will be extinct, and the worlds that hold their fossils will be dwindling in number. In the grand scheme of things, even the mightiest champion is but a feeble, flailing child, before the ravages of time itself.

Moreover, any hope of an alternative solution is crushed underfoot by an even more insidious threat: Human nature. This is the part that really can turn people off, if you don't handle it carefully, and sadly a number of Games Workshop's own have handled it quite badly. See, if all of humanity could just learn to communicate effectively and put aside their differences to work toward the common good, and forge alliances with the other races, they just might have a shot and winning this thing, but that isn't going to happen in this setting. --Ever. Runs the world logic: If we, in this age of enlightenment, can't get one planet of people to work together, than 40 billion worlds full of basically medieval rubes aren't going to have any better luck.

Again, this is a problem of scale, and you have to treat it as such for it to work. On a billion worlds, statistically, you're going to have plenty of people who just aren't very good people. That's more people than have existed in the whole of human history. Imagine a universe where everyone who has ever lived is alive at the same time, and trying to pursue their own agendas separately. Imagine what happens when Tojo hires Miyamoto Mushashi to help him beat back Charlamaine, but has to recall him for homeland defense, because his ally Julius Ceaser has just been assassinated by well meaning Senators, upset by his appeasement of Hitler. Meanwhile, the cold war is still going on, at the same time as World War One and the Crusades. Now, introduce the unstoppable conga line of alien death fleets, to this existing mess. Even with the combined efforts of Ghandi, Napoleon, Constantine, Jesus and Confuscius working together, they wouldn't even be able to unite the people of the world in time, to even try to find a way out of that mess.

There's an old quote from Rogue Trader that the good writers use to explain this, "All the best and worst of the human race comprise the Imperium of Man." You are allowed to have characters who are doing good (or at least have good intentions), but you can't have everyone just be paragons. Sometimes people just don't get along and somebody gets both his arms broken, and sometime you find yourself with good reason to be glad that certain people got high enough to saw their own heads off. That doesn't have to mean that everyone is an ass, just that nobody is perfect, especially not everybody.

Partly, this is a matter of simple necessity. In a wargaming setting, you need to have the potential for thousands of battles to take place, without truly altering the nature of the game-world, but people want to play as effective characters, who do things that are important and interesting. Likewise, everyone, even people who are both playing Imperialists, need an excuse for their armies to show up for every round of the tournament. So, your Space Marines can take an Eldar warband as allies, and you can talk about how they met and how they have banded together to fight the forces of evil as one, but at the end of the day the other Marines and Eldar are going to see your guys as traitors, for fraternizing with those aliens and heathens. What happens on your table won't change the fact that in every other tournament, Eldar and MArines are mortal enemies. Your Marines can be as badass as you want them to be, and they can win a thousand battles, but someday the Tyranid players in your town will learn how to use infiltrated units effectively and you're going to lose a round or two (Genestealers with Scout=OP!).

However, when you look deeper at the history of the Cosmic Horror genre, this pattern of duality stretches all the way to the very beginning. It's rooted in the very DNA of the phrase Cosmic Horror. The lines that define the borders of "Cosmic Horror" were sketched out originally, by two men working in very loose confederation: H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.

Lovecraft, is known to everyone who knows the phrase "cosmic horror"; they are practically synonyms. His stories are the large scale sort of cosmic horror, and feature a cosmos so vast and powerful and uninterested in mankind that the famously mighty C'thulhu is actually a very minor player, and he causes empires to crumble when he rolls over in his sleep. The race of man is but a single flower, destined to grow, bloom, wither, die, and turn to dust. Survival merely delays an inevitable death, and learning merely reveals how little we ever understood.

Howard is less well remembered, because it is not the mythos as a whole that he did his most famous work on, but rather two characters of particular cultural resonance: Conan the Barbarian, and Solomon Kane. If you don't think that this is relevant, note that 40K lore contains at least half a dozen characters named after Solomon Kane. Kane and Conan are warriors, called by destiny and the warrior spirit in their own hearts, to fight against the darkness. Every man dies, but these two men live, if only for a moment, to draw a line in the sand and say that mankind will die fighting, or not at all.

While they each stress different perspectives, it's important to understand they they were telling the same basic story:

1. Man discovers a grave threat will wipe out the earth, usually without even noticing it was there to begin with.

2. Man confronts his own insignificance, in the face of the fact that he is one out of a swarm of billions, and even together they are unlikely to amount to much on a cosmic, or even galactic scale.

3. Man uncovers cryptic clue as to how to save the day.

4. Man overcomes his self-doubt/skepticism of the supernatural/Fear of the unknown, to take action.

4. Through his unique combination of wits, brawn and surprisingly applicable hobby skills, man thwarts the immediate threat. (You were a special snowflake all along!) However, it is so far beyond him as to be like a god, and he cannot end the threat forever.
(Seriously though; in one story, Conan cures C'thulhu of his insomnia by punching him into unconsciousness--making him problem for future generations to solve, 4000 years later. Get it? --because he is a metaphor for plutonium.)

5. Man is unable to prepare mankind for the horrors he has uncovered, as the public-at-large is unable or unwilling to accept his discovery.

6. Epilogues vary a bit by character, but usually involve leaving cryptic clues for the next generation, joining a secret society of paranormal investigators, being locked up/burned for speaking the truth, or Conan looting the bodies and spending his gold on wenches.

There's a lot of variety to be hand on that skeleton. Plus, both authors, and many that came after change up this formula in a lot of ways. --but that's the basic Cosmic Horror bit, in a nutshell.

40K is no different. It's all about which part of the story you fixate on. In part 4, you get to be the hero and save the day. whether it be by decoding an obscure cypher (The Dunwitch Horror), remembering something you learning in seminary school (Solomon Kane), re-arranging furniture very quickly (The Shadow Over Innsmouth) or punching a god, the good guys win. In part 6, we get a stern reminder that all men are mortal, and we often fail to appreciate what the other members of our little space-anthill have to contribute, while they are here.

It all depends on the writer and the reader.

For you, Tailsteak, and assorted Tailsteakers, I recommend Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn Trilogy Omnibus. Your local library network probably has a copy, and it's a lot like Leftover Soup, but in space, and the protagonists hunt demon worshipers for a living, instead of being Canadian hab-proles. It's kind of amazing how Abnett can make a backdrop of superheros vs. space-wizard battles seem completely secondary to a very human character drama. There is even a scene where the inquisitor has to learn about N-Word privileges.

TL:DR: Read this book: http://www.amazon.com/Eisenhorn-Warhamm ... 1844161560 I think it's right up your alley, so don't let the Black Library logo scare you away from it.
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Re: The real point of Warhammer 40K

Postby kais » Thu Oct 24, 2013 4:40 am

In the hope that maybe someone else will go and read the book, I would just like to state my support for Felblood's recommendation. Eisenhorn is one of the most enjoyable works of fiction I have ever read and while there is some lingo that might take a bit to get used to, there isn't much that shouldn't be able to be determined from context/word roots.
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Re: The real point of Warhammer 40K

Postby Merle » Thu Nov 07, 2013 9:57 am

Many of the characters aren't even all that powerful in their own right - look at Ibram Gaunt and all the IG troops under his command. True, a good number of them are skilled and experienced soldiers - but they are quite human. The body count over the course of the books is quite high. But Gaunt still keeps going, still keeps fighting for the protection of humanity in general and his men and women in particular.
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Re: The real point of Warhammer 40K

Postby Felblood » Fri Nov 08, 2013 1:57 pm

Merle wrote:Many of the characters aren't even all that powerful in their own right - look at Ibram Gaunt and all the IG troops under his command. True, a good number of them are skilled and experienced soldiers - but they are quite human. The body count over the course of the books is quite high. But Gaunt still keeps going, still keeps fighting for the protection of humanity in general and his men and women in particular.



This isn't a question of power level. The power levels mask the deeper patterns. Gaunt and his ghosts are relatively minor players in WH40K but in just about any other setting they would be in serious danger of being overpowered.

They lose so many guys because the deck is consistently stacked against them. The fact that any of them survive at all means that the faith that gaunt has in their ninja-like stealth skills is not misplaced. --and their faith in Gaunt's tactical prowess, survival instincts, loyalty and chainsaw kung-fu (You didn't forget that Commisar Gaunt is a master chainsword duelist, and more than a match for most of the generals and lords who treat him like a servant, did you?) are not misplaced either. The Ghosts work as characters because, while they have extraordinary gifts, they have corresponding weaknesses, and have to work to get into positions where they can use their unique powers to survive.

However, the thematic elements that define the Ghosts of Tanneth serve as a great example of what I was talking about before.

For those of you who do not know: The planet Tanneth was overrun by the Forces of Chaos, and their commanding officer, Commissar Ibrahim Gaunt, ordered the last defenders to retreat from the doomed planet, in order to fight another day. These soldiers aren't going to fight out their tour of duty and then go back home to their families. Their homes and families have been eaten by space demons. The Ghosts are excellent recon specialists, and have been an integral part of operations that have saved many other worlds from the same fate; they are largely unsung heroes, with millions of lives saved, to their credit.

However, in every battle, more of the Ghosts die. Eventually, there simply won't be any left. There are occasional awkward conversations about what they might do if they ever manage to retire, but deep down every character knows the truth. Somewhere down the line, the last Ghost of Tanneth will fall, holding back the darkness until his last breath. The goal is to save as many worlds as possible, for as long as possible, before your own inevitable mortality drags you down.


I think the reason a prefer Inquisitor Eisenhorn to Commissar Gaunt, as a hero, is a matter of scale the other way. Eisenhorn is vastly more powerful than Gaunt, but he faces challenges at his own level, and still has to sacrifice to win. Then, those sacrifices have the potential to be much more personal. Gaunt's men are his adoptive country, unit and family, and it hurts him to sacrifice each soldier, but Eisenhorn sacrifices himself, one piece at a time: His face, his sidekick (Gideon), his mind, his girl, his soul, his office, his allies, his ship, his faith, his limbs. You really feel the sting of each loss, and elate with the hero as he finds a way to rise and continue, knowing how the next adventure must end.
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Re: The real point of Warhammer 40K

Postby Merle » Fri Nov 08, 2013 3:19 pm

Tanith, but that's a very good summary of the backstory. Thanks!

I do want to read Eisenhorn, just not sure where to start.
And of course, we mustn't forget that 40K does hold other kinds of stories; I'm a fast fan of Ciaphas Cain (HERO OF THE IMPERIUM!), for instance.
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Re: The real point of Warhammer 40K

Postby Felblood » Sat Nov 09, 2013 12:09 am

Dag! I probably wasted more time trying to decide if I needed to look that up than it would have taken to just look it up. :oops:

With Eisenhorn it is imperative to begin at the beginning.

If you're going to commit to reading the whole series, or even just the first trilogy, grab the Eisenhorn Omnibus I linked to up above.

If that tickles your fancy, then move on to the Ravenor Trilogy, and then to Pariah: Eisenhorn Versus Ravenor.

I await Penitent: Esienhorn Versus Ravenor, with baited breath.
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Re: The real point of Warhammer 40K

Postby Horizon » Sat Nov 09, 2013 11:24 pm

Felblood wrote:If that tickles your fancy,

I can't help but feel that 'fancy' is a euphemism for genitals. Just wanted to point that out.
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Re: The real point of Warhammer 40K

Postby JustinReilly » Sun Nov 10, 2013 4:33 am

Nah, it's a Middle English corruption of fantasy. It's the same sense of fancy as when a Brit says they fancy someone or something.
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Re: The real point of Warhammer 40K

Postby Merle » Mon Nov 11, 2013 8:58 am

JustinReilly wrote:Nah, it's a Middle English corruption of fantasy. It's the same sense of fancy as when a Brit says they fancy someone or something.


On the other hand, "wit" certainly is a euphemism for such.

Now think about the Ravenclaw motto and realize Rowling snuck a dirty joke into Harry Potter that nobody caught for years.
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Re: The real point of Warhammer 40K

Postby JustinReilly » Mon Nov 11, 2013 10:36 am

Merle wrote:On the other hand, "wit" certainly is a euphemism for such.

I can't find any evidence of this. Although I suspect that I'm just nerding up your joke as I am wont to do.
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