(Here’s another thing about me. I also play tabletop wargames and do some roleplaying. I am a nerd. Also, Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol sucks. It’s awful. It’s a truly dreadful book, and you will never, ever get to the end of my chapter-by-chapter critique of it, because I abandoned reading it – something I almost never do – and shoved it back in the recycling box at work for some other poor sap to endure. You may, if I feel cruel, get the notes I did make.)
Dave Kay at the Scent of a Gamer blog posted an article commenting on the current state of play in the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop miniature wargame. In summary, it’s becoming pretty clear that something big’s about to happen with the metaplot and, thusly, the shape of the game itself. Games Workshop, the publishers, did something very similar a few years ago with the Warhammer fantasy version of the game, after its sales kept falling. There’s no indication that that’s been happening with 40k, but there’s been a definite bounce in fantasy sales since it was re-released as Age of Sigmar.
Anyway, I posted an overlong comment on that article, so I figured I may as well post it here as well, for posterity. Here goes:
If they’re running a Warhammer-style End Times event (and it’s looking more and more likely, with such stalwarts as Fenris getting popped and the major strategic shift that is the fall of Cadia, plus the constant rumours of primarchs – Magnus never left, so he doesn’t count), I’m torn between what I’d like to see in the rebooted setting.
Both old Warhammer and 40k have beautifully detailed settings, that have been written about and fleshed out over decades. WFRP is my favourite roleplaying game, ahead of even Delta Green, Call of Cthulhu and Unknown Armies, and I’ve bought nearly every book from the 40k RPG ranges without actually running anything other than a few campaigns of Dark Heresy.
But what to expect from the new setting? Will it be an advance in the plotline, or a complete reimagining?
A few thoughts of my own:
1) Advancement in the plot – The Imperium has never been completely static. Even aside from the Horus Heresy, there have been ages of expansion and change: the Age of Apostasy and the crusades of Lord Solar Macharius, for example. If 40k is to emulate the ‘hope’ theme of Age of Sigmar, then it needs to start a new period of expansionism, rather than its current state of slow, but steady, crumbling under relentless assault from all sides and within. Both of the post-Heresy hope spots that I’ve mentioned featured some great hero, Sebastian Thor and Macharius, and I suspect if GW go down this route, that hero will arrive again, essentially as the Emperor reborn in the Sigmar-Valten kind of way (but hopefully without him allegedly being murdered by his own side, and the skaven possibly getting framed for it, as awesomely Warhammer-dark as that was).
2) Revert to the Horus Heresy – This is a massive, radical change, but GW have started taking Forgeworld’s niche idea for running Astartes-heavy games in a historical period for 40k and turned it into plastic. With the two Heresy-era board games, they’ve essentially released multiple plastic kits in their main game range, and even released the first ever models of the Sisters of Silence, and the first Adeptus Custodes since the 1980’s, for a spin-off written and produced by one of their subsidiary companies, which can’t even be used without buying Forgeworld products. We’ve already seen how the Deathwatch and Genestealers got a ‘trial run’ of sorts with Overkill, before the full weight of the GW machine was thrown behind them in full army releases. Yes, I know there’s a long, long lead-in time that overlapped, but sales would still have indicated how much promotional effort it would be worth putting behind the new armies, rather than publicising X other release instead. But it does seem that the Horus Heresy has captured imaginations. It’s the single-longest serialisation of novels that the Black Library have ever done, which then spawned several other ‘in-setting historical’ Black Library series, including the epic Beast series. Space Marines are, and always have been, the most popular single faction within the game, despite being a minuscule portion of the Imperium’s incredible military power. Meanwhile, the Horus Heresy is about a civil war executed largely by, and motivated by the egos, agendas and prejudices of, Space Marines. It’s not impossible to imagine that the next edition of Warhammer 40,000 embraces the power armour love and sets itself back to the 32nd Millennium, where the Imperium was a more optimistic place, and is struggling to maintain that optimism in the face of not only the increasingly-Chaos-tainted enemy, but also its own desperation-induced militarism. Existing Astartes models in Mk VII or VIII armour could be easily hand-waved by rewriting setting so that that style of armour did actually exist back then, but was rare, and not releasing new models in those style of armour. Imperial Guard models could be rolled into the Imperial Army without much difficulty. The Adeptus Mechanicus rolls even more easily into the Mechanicum. The difficulty with a Horus Heresy reset is that, without rewriting large swathes of the non-Imperial side of the setting (which isn’t impossible, of course), certain factions would either cease to exist or be difficult to include. The Eldar would be different, probably something that combines the Craftworld, Dark and other varieties into one faction – something touched upon in the article as being what happened during the Warhammer End Times – even if those different factions had varying ideologies about how to cope with the new horror of Slaanesh’s birth. The orks would continue as normal, and have the Beast to look forwards to as well. Necrons have always been there, and can be rewritten to be waking up then as well. The Tau? A harder sell, but there’s no reason why they can’t be shuffled back in time (metaphorically) and reaching their interstellar expansion era at the same time as the Great Crusade. Tyranids and Genestealers? Grey Knights and Deathwatch? Adepta Sororitas? (Sorry, ladies, but at least you got Celestine for the Time of Ending.) The setting could be rewritten. The Imperial Agents list could well become a proto-Inquisition, set up to deal with the newly-growing threat of Chaos. And Chaos? The Chaos Space Marines are simply late-Heresy rebels who’ve given themselves over to The Eightfold Path.
3) Reboot from scratch – The 40k setting has had its time. Let’s rewrite it from the start. Keep certain elements: the Imperium, possible the immortal God-Emperor (or make it hereditary if we don’t want to remain stagnant?), the threat of Chaos, orks being a thing, eldar as a hangover from a previous great civilisation, but start the rest with a blank slate. What is the Imperium? Fascism was a thing in the 80’s, both as living memory from the war and post-war era and as a satirical swipe at Thatcherism and the National Front. And then the fascism of the Imperium became cartoony, bowdlerised. Compare the Imperium of the Ian Watson Jaq Draco novels with the way it’s presented in today’s Black Library novels: it’s not nice, but it’s filled with great heroes who fight against evil, so it’ll turn out fine.Even the Inquisition are heroic, even if only because Chaos is so much worse. But fascism has gotten itself a bad name these days. (Did I seriously just write that sentence?) Not dipping too deeply into real-world politics, but it may be advisable for GW to edge away from glorifying fascism (even satirically) for a little while, just in case the world does turn into a complete dystopian nightmare over the next few years. My alternative theme for the Imperium? Embody it in the Imperial Guard, who arguably got their name from the era anyway, and model it on the Napoleonic Wars. Expansionism, large armies of lots and lots of infantry models backed by artillery and cavalry (tanks, but also those rough riders that everyone loves but no one fields). Basically, take the aesthetic stylings of the Imperial Navy officers, and put them onto the infantry; remove the 20th-century fascism and replace it with 18-19th-century imperialism. Maybe have the Astartes as Roman-inspired, what with being Legion-inspired anyway. Perhaps get rid of the small Chapters and borrow the Legion-style of Astartes from the Horus Heresy era. Beyond that, I’ve no real thoughts. It’s possible my entire thinking in this direction would be satiated by a single box of Napoleonic Astra Militarum infantry that I’d never actually get around to starting an army of.
Personally, I’d like to see 2) or 3), rather than just a straight continuation – without drastic changes to the setting, it would turn the Time of Ending into just another summer campaign.
But the big change (again, -if- anything changes) is going to have to be the rules. The Warhammer fantasy rules worked pretty well, probably mostly due to the constraints of a regimental game. But 40k’s rules are a shambolic, bloated mess. I’ve ranted about this many times elsewhere (I think including in a comment on Scent of a Gamer), so I’m not going to go into great depth, but every time I pick up an alternate set of modern or near-future, or sometimes even fantasy, wargaming rules, I’m struck by how much better, more simply and with fewer rules in the rulebook, these games manage to replicate the things that the 40k rules also allow. Many of these games even have concepts that 40k has either never tried, or never managed to successfully implement, such as storming buildings, suppressive fire or explosive attacks that don’t need large discs of card or plastic to work out which individual models are hit.