Why the 40k universe should stay right where it is
So I had this big convoluted post written about why I don’t think the 40k universe needs to be advanced in terms of storyline. It was inspired by a conversation I had with Thor and a few other assorted riff-raff the other week. I think it’s great that we have a community here where all the writers don’t have to tow the line with one another or pay lip service to a particular audience or style of gaming. We’re all good people here, and it’s a rare and valuable thing to have an online community like that. Even when half of them are crazy foreign devils with too many (or not enough) stars on their flags.
I said I had it written, but then I realized I could say in a few words what I had planned to say in a ginormous essay:
I don’t think Warhammer 40,000 is a story. I think it’s a setting. And it doesn’t make sense to advance or rewind a setting.
To me, the 40k universe’s main purpose is as a game setting, and we as gamers provide the stories (our games). It is a moment in time, and that moment is ten seconds until lights out on the poor old human race. And it’s one hell of an emotive setting. It’s a cliffhanger of a setting. It’s good. You can’t get much more emotional investment than a cliffhanger for our entire species, and I suspect this emotionally charged setting is the single most important reason the game has persisted so strongly for over thirty years.
The thing is, it can only end one way: in the destruction of the setting. Because for it to end at all is to resolve the cliffhanger and turn it into history, and thus take away the power of players to make their own stories in that once-shared emotionally charged universe. Once the “plot” advances, the new setting becomes the present, and what we think of as the present becomes the past, just like the Horus Heresy is the past. It becomes part of the history of the setting.
I put it to you that if you feel the Warhammer 40,000 setting needs advancing, it’s not because it actually does – it’s because you personally have explored it very deeply, and right now everything feels illuminated, and you feel that as far as you’re concerned, there’s no more room for stories within it. You have grown tired of the unresolved cliffhanger. So what you personally want is a whole new setting. GW actually understands this. That’s why Age of Sigmar happened. They couldn’t advance the “plot” of Warhammer Fantasy Battles without dissolving the setting, and so that’s what they decided to do.
But I don’t believe that a game setting can be exhausted simply by time passing in the real world. Unless it becomes a dorky relic of the past because the wider culture moves on, like uh, Dragonlance (zing!). Every game we play is a new story, created by the players.
Anyway that’s enough about that. I suppose I just want to urge those of us who call for advancing 40k to stop for a moment and think of someone coming to it for the first time. It’s a pretty damn good setting. It held your attention for a long time didn’t it? Have you ever heard of anyone playing three games of 40k and saying: “yeah bored with this now. When are we going to find out what happens next with the Emperor and the broken throne and stuff? Is Chaos going to win or what?”
Now that’s sorted out, I also wanted to share something with you and issue a challenge of sorts. If the storyline of everybody’s favourite grimdarkness were to be advanced, what do you think would be a good way to do it? I’ve tried to come up with ideas, but I keep hitting walls. It’s really hard to come up with ideas that make sense within the established rules of the setting, yet still retain elements of conflict. Whatever happens, we have to be able to play a wargame in that setting, remember?
This is the best I can do right now:
The Throne fails and the Emperor dies, entering the Warp finally and irrevocably. All living psykers are killed instantly, their souls being drawn into the Warp and merging with the Emperor’s. At the same moment (in realtime), the gestalt Emperor/human soul-thing immediately coalesces with the Chaos gods, as humanity’s hopes and dreams are re-united with their fears and despair. Balance is restored. Chaos and the Daemon realms all cease to exist. The Eye of Terror becomes ordinary realspace.
There are no human psykers any more, and never again will there be any. The Astronomican snuffs out, and humanity is left alone in a universe of hostile aliens, barely understanding their working technology and unable to communicate between systems or travel at warp speeds. Of course, there is still the Imperium, and the Ecclesiarchy, and the Space Marines, huddling suddenly alone in a cold universe. What happens next is up to you…
So this is maybe even more grimdark than the current setting. It maintains all the conflict, but it sacrifices all of the fantasy elements, and several favourite factions. There are no more daemons and magic, it’s just SF now. In many ways it’s not Warhammer as we know it. I think this kind of illustrates my point that the setting would have to be destroyed to be advanced, but maybe I’m just not imaginative enough to do it.
Are any of you?
Looking forward to reading your responses!