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On Inspiration and Historical Reference: What is 40k?

Warhammer KNC

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#1
Karak Norn Clansman

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On Inspiration and Historical Reference:

What is Warhammer 40'000?



40k is a smörgåsbord of a setting, where all manner of concepts rub shoulders: From emotionless killer robots, barbarian hordes and space bugs, to fallen empires, technologically advanced upstarts, religious fanatics and cruel pirates. 40k is rich aesthetically, and sports a vast written background which is meant to give players a universe in which they can dream big and craft their own nooks and corners, whether it be by creating their own Marine Chapters, Hive Fleets or Craftworlds complete with named characters and backstories.

The setting of 40k has been crafted lovingly by many hands and minds, some more learned and skilled than others. Poorer writers tend to end up with an impression of "Waaagh! The Emperor!" or "Look at the glorious heroes in their big pauldrons!", yet good writers never fail to display the deep flaws of humanity in the dark future. A great deal of ambiguity has been consciously injected into the setting, where the Emperor of Man can be viewed both as a divine saviour and a ruthless, bloodthirsty, powermongering mass murderer and tyrant.

One of the very best aspects of 40k has always been that the evil empire is its protagonist, and much of the setting is seen through its propaganda lense: This is leaps and bounds ahead of the more childishly black and white worldbuilding in Star Wars, for instance (certainly a great setting in its own right when it is done well). In Star Wars, we would never be shown benevolent sides of the Galactic Empire; and neither would the dark side of the Force ever be a fundamentally integral part of what it means to be alive, rather than just a corruption on the pure light side.

By contrast to Star Wars: In 40k, the Imperium is ridiculously oppressive and cruel, and its rotten stagnation may have doomed mankind, yet from another perspective it is also the sole remaining strong shield of humanity - incidentally brought about by the Great Crusade crushing all less extreme alternatives (an indication that the original vision for the setting has not been lost by later writers). Likewise in 40k, the daemonic Chaos gods are spawned by emotions which are inseparable from what it means to be alive.

Above all, 40k is a bonkers fun take on the most depraved aspects of human history, all exaggerated to such ludicrous heights that 40k has always achieved being its own parody. This is why religious wars, gladiator battles, human sacrifice, slavery, pogroms, G.U.L.A.G. labour camps, the Inquisition, horrible slum conditions, fascism, Stalinist purges, genocides, brutal repression, starvation, crazed sects, gang warfare, plagues and witch hunts all feature so heavily in the material.

It's a setting we love to visit for fun and dark humour, but not a place we'd ever want to live in.

It's all harmless fiction, and a great sweep of imaginary worldbuilding. Enjoy the ride!
 

Cheers!


Edited by Karak Norn Clansman, 24 July 2020 - 11:38 AM.

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#2
Fajita Fan

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Dan Abnett is my favorite 40k writer and I love how he makes it alllllmost seem like good can triumph in the setting right before slamming you back to reality.  


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Blame my iPhone for typos because I'm 95% on mobile.


#3
Karak Norn Clansman

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Aye, there is space left for hope even among all the grim darkness. smile.png

As an aside, the above write-up is not about badmouthing Star Wars. That setting was chosen for comparison since it is both of good quality, more well-known than 40k, and plays upon many of the same themes that Warhammer 40'000 does (historical basis, tragedy, space opera warfare, mythological themes and so on). And it does it well. Both are worth enjoying.


Edited by Karak Norn Clansman, 23 July 2020 - 11:48 AM.

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#4
Karak Norn Clansman

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Addendum:

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On Inspiration and Historical Reference:

What is the historical basis of Warhammer 40'000?


40k draws heavily upon a great number of science fiction works which preceded it, not least Dune, the Foundation series and AD 2000 comics. This is part of its enduring success as a smörgåsbord setting of science fantasy, where the best parts of existing works were included to make a greater whole. The founders of 40k were an unusually learned bunch, and this knowledge enfathomed not only fiction, but also included a thorough understanding of history, mythology and archaeology. It shows in their creation: Just like its fantasy counterpart, Warhammer 40'000 is steeped in learning and historical references, often carried lightly and with a parodic touch of exaggeration as befits the best of British humour.

The entire premise of the 40k setting is that of a golden age long since gone to hell, of a descent into darkness, barbarity, ignorance and fanaticism. This is heavily based upon the decline and fall of the Roman empire (both in the west and east) and the Dark Ages in general. The late antique inspirations are obvious:

The human Imperium is beset on all sides by an increasing number of lethal enemies, while its bloated bureaucracy has swollen to an unprecedented size. It is an oppressive tyranny, with religious fervour on the rise as doomsday seems nigh. The once-all-conquering Imperium is mired in bickering and rotten stagnation, even as its professional armies (in spite of  the general decline) still fight its ever-increasing foes with great strength and efficiency. Despite the societal decay and lack of innovation, one of the Imperium's core strengths lie in its sheer stubbornness and institutional ability to organize and muster resources; a very Roman trait.

As its wars changed from conquest to defence, its armies reorganized, and its Legions were broken down into smaller units. And so a doomed empire seemingly claw itself back from the brink of collapse time and time again, even as its internal strength slowly erodes away, much like the Roman empire did both in late antiquity and following its disastrous loss of all eastern provinces bar the Anatolian Themes.

These traits of late antiquity are mixed up with a decentralized feudalism/warlordism of the European Middle Ages, complete with knightly orders, an Inquisition and a very powerful (but often divided) Ecclesiarchy. The theme of fanatic religious wars are likewise sprung primarily from the Medieval centuries, inspired by those of both large Abrahamic religions (and including emperor Heraclius' last chance campaign against the Sassanid Persians), although the Catholic basis is clearly the strongest inspiration. The inspiration for plagues, starvation, witch hunts, colonization attempts, pogroms, slavery and alchemical mysticism are particularly drawn from the Early Modern period, while the sheer cruelty and harshness of state oppression is plucked from all over known history.

The 18th century has likewise lent inspiration not for rational philosophy and science, but for corrupt and decadent nobles, and for spaceship combat largely based on ships of the line during the age of sail. The 19th century is a large source of inspiration for 40k, with its overpopulation, polluted industry and miserable urban conditions of working and living.

The 20th century is unsurprisingly a strong basis of inspiration behind 40k: Its unravelling balance of power along with mass mobilization, dark deeds and different branches of extreme thought gave rise to a tide of bloodletting, hatred (both of classes and peoples) and artificial starvation, ranging from the conventional warfare of both World Wars in particular; through a long list of mass murder and genocide; to chemical warfare, massive purges, labour and extermination camps, barrier troops, human wave tactics, terror bombing, commissars, secret police torture and weapons of mass destruction.

While the concept of the Imperium as a theocratic dictatorship is largely sprung from an imaginative rethinking of the Middle Ages for purposes of fiction, the concept of the Imperium as a bloodthirsty police state mainly stems from the 20th century, with special mention to Soviet Chekists for pioneering this field. Likewise, the unhinged willingness of some 20th century scientists to experiment on living humans rings strongly with the sheer inhumanity of the grim darkness of the far future, as does the 20th century willingness of certain armies to make lab rats out of their own troops for atomic tests. Excessively deadly special forces training is likewise something mainly derived from the 1900s, although accounts of ancient Spartans likewise have a prominent place. Finally, 20th century Soviet stagnation rhymes well with that of the ancient Romans as a source of bleak inspiration for the grim darkness of 40k.

There is much more to be said in detail for the historical basis behind 40k, yet one thing is for sure: If there is anything dark and dramatic in human history, the kind of stuff which makes for the most harrowing and thrilling of stories, you can be sure that Warhammer 40'000 stands ready to be inspired and make good use of it for the purpose of crafting over-the-top fiction, as bonkers as it is majestic in scope.

People who like Star Wars and 40k tend to share a love for history in common. Indeed both settings play on strings of mythological themes and historical foundations: Both Anakin and Horus ironically caused a dark future to come about because they attempted to avoid it at all cost, in a narrative twist familiar from a great number of myths and legends, including Enkidu's faulty dream interpretation in the Epic of Gilgamesh or any number of folk tales documented in Herodotus' Histories.

If history has anything to teach us, then it is that the human condition ultimately is a tragedy. Good storytellers have long been aware of this, and the stories and worldbuilding found in Warhammer 40'000 is no exception. And so the far future is painted in dark colours, as a grand tragedy and unfolding catastrophe. The historical basis of 40k constitutes no small part of its grim darkness.

Cheers!


Edited by Karak Norn Clansman, 24 July 2020 - 11:38 AM.

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#5
Lord_Caerolion

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I hate to ask, but any reason these are being posted as images containing text, rather than just typing?


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"And then Horus landed on the Moon, which looked like the moon. Funny that, isn't it?"


You're hired.


#6
Karak Norn Clansman

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No worries, ask ahead. smile.png

Just an attempt to make it a little more fun to read, and give visual reminders of the setting while reading the dry writings. I can copy in the text as well, if you like.


Edited by Karak Norn Clansman, 23 July 2020 - 10:35 PM.


#7
Doctor Perils

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No worries, ask ahead. smile.png

Just an attempt to make it a little more fun to read, and give visual reminders of the setting while reading the dry writings. I can copy in the text as well, if you like.

Yeah, it would be far more reader friendly sorry - plus you can still intersperse with images using the bbcode
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sml_gallery_29004_12090_3983.pnggallery_77459_13226_2824.png The War Wolves - Previously known as Lord Thørn

#8
Karak Norn Clansman

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Sure thing, I'll keep that in mind for the future. I've copied in the text under the images in the posts above now.

 

This format was used experimentally for Chaos Dwarfs Through the Ages, and lots of people liked it, so I gave it a try here as well. smile.png


Edited by Karak Norn Clansman, 24 July 2020 - 11:41 AM.

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#9
RandyB

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One quibble: "unusually learned", no. "Well-learned", yes. There's nothing unusual about their level of knowledge of history and literature, especially when you consider their backgrounds in wargaming.
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Put the toys on the table and throw the dice. Everything else is just noise.

 

...Unless you're just in this for the modeling. In which case, show your work. Yours likely looks better than mine, anyway.


#10
Karak Norn Clansman

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Well-learned may well be a better formulation, especially given the background in wargaming. Good catch!

What may be more unusual for that time may instead be the amount of knowledge which they put into the light-hearted creations. The attention to detail always ran above and beyond the call of duty for what they were coming up with.

This particular piece of wording is based on an Oldhammer interview (I can hunt it down later when not on phone if wished for) where the interviewed man described the unusual amount of archaeology degrees and foreign languages which the GW studio sported in the 1980s. It made sense, given the setting background, but it may also not be unusual for such circles.

Edited by Karak Norn Clansman, 24 July 2020 - 02:40 PM.


#11
alfred_the_great

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40k = Milton's Paradise Lost.
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#12
RandyB

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Well-learned may well be a better formulation, especially given the background in wargaming. Good catch!

What may be more unusual for that time may instead be the amount of knowledge which they put into the light-hearted creations. The attention to detail always ran above and beyond the call of duty for what they were coming up with.

This particular piece of wording is based on an Oldhammer interview (I can hunt it down later when not on phone if wished for) where the interviewed man described the unusual amount of archaeology degrees and foreign languages which the GW studio sported in the 1980s. It made sense, given the setting background, but it may also not be unusual for such circles.


It wasn't. Read Jon Peterson's "Playing at the World", which is a history of the precedents and origins of D&D. He touches on the British wargaming scene to which the developers of WH40K belonged. Wargamers of the '60s -'80s were a well learned lot, on both sides of the pond.

Put the toys on the table and throw the dice. Everything else is just noise.

 

...Unless you're just in this for the modeling. In which case, show your work. Yours likely looks better than mine, anyway.


#13
Karak Norn Clansman

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Two quick observations:

Warhammer 40'000 is a comedy dressed up as a tragedy.

My step-brother, at age 11, earlier this year pointed out that this artwork looked like a mix between Mad Max and Star Wars. He is not acquainted with Warhammer 40'000 yet, and his summary of that Imperial Navy battleship's aesthetic is the best description to outsiders that I've ever heard anyone come up with for 40k. I've seen a lot of good descriptions of the 40k setting, but nothing as concise and accurate as his observation.


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#14
Karak Norn Clansman

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A note on the elite of elite of elite Imperial orders being exclusively female or male, since it's all about worldbuilding choices:

40k plays on archaic strings. It's better worldbuilding by being more archaic by having the exclusive elite warrior orders mimic monks and nuns and be separate. Female Sisters of Silence and Sororitas on the one hand, and male Astartes and Custodes are much better worldbuilding ploys than mixed orders of Astartes and Custodes. You don't mix monks and nuns and retain an archaic impression.

This is one example where GW has stayed a lot truer to the spirit of 40k through all these decades, than one would expect. Kudos to GW for playing the right strings to build their setting, where so many others would have fallen for outside pressure and muddled the setting.

Of course, the elite monks and nuns situation does not apply to the Mechanicus/Titanicus (who cares little about fleshly matters) or the ragtag plebeian hordes of Imperial Guard (where any setup conceivable, such as mixed or separate regiments, or just male or even just female regiments will happen somewhere depending on local culture). Neither does the Inquisition need it, since it's such an excentric individually focused organization. Sororitas/Astartes and Custodes/Sisters of Silence is the relevant arena. They are the big shining warrior orders.

And they ought to feel archaic. This isn't the Dark Age of Technology, but the regressed, myopic and parochial Age of Imperium, where things often do not make sense and weird traditions are king. There is a good reason why Games Workshop in the 1990s abandoned the idea of female Space Marines and gave the Sisters of Battle a true remake into their very own cool thing.

Cheers

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