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Karak Norn Clansman #1563

G'day folks!

@pawl scooped me up from Bolter and Chainsword over this topic. I've sometimes stumbled across people who describe Warhammer 40'000 itself as something nefarious, which has always struck me as incredibly narrow-minded and an odd interpretation to say the least. Ergo, this is my attempt to describe 40k from a workshop perspective of writers' overarching visions, knowledge and inspirations as implicitly evident in their work and explicitly explained in interviews and White Dwarf designers' notes.

The references to Star Wars is in no way a smear attempt toward that good setting, but a comparison with a more well-known setting which most people can recognize. Star Wars is strong in its simplicity, but the simplicity itself also narrow down what we can expect to see from that setting. Both Star Wars and 40k are most enjoyable (and everyone who is the least bit interested in the former should check out the masterful four episode Clone Wars finale post haste):


On Inspiration and Historical Reference:

What is Warhammer 40'000?

40k is a smörgÄsbord 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!



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 smörgÄsbord 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.

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pawl #1575

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I still think this is a fantastic write-up!
I wonder though - do you think that the parallels and parody of both the modern and historical world were intentional, or closer to happenstance?
Given that GW was basically founded by a couple of guys in a shed who wanted to play bigger D&D (and maybe sell some models) I was of the understanding that early 40k was simply "Fantasy in space", with some generic sci-fi thrown in. I've also seen some suggest that references to both the real-world (events, works or people) and existing sci-fi universes is simply lack of creativity - particularly in relation to Space Marines. "Romans, Mongols, Monks, Vikings - Astartes in every historical flavour!"
Do you feel that limited creativity is at work, or is it rather a case of utilising elements that are known to either work as they are, or can be expanded on?
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Karak Norn Clansman #1579

Thanks! Good question. I'm firmly on the side of most of it being a case of intentionally utilising elements that are known to either work as they are, or can be expanded on.

I certainly don't see it a case of limited creativity. In much the same way that Tolkien's strong historical basis to his fantasy setting is not a case of limited creativity, but of making a much more detailed fantasy world than we could ever expect to see, and thus help it come to life that much more.

In Lotr there are basically steppe nomads from RhĂ»n, Barbary corsairs/Carthaginians in Umbar and something much like the Byzantine Empire (complete with signal fires and wrecking plagues) in the shape of Gondor. NĂșmenor in its dark heyday is clearly based on colonial empires of Tolkien's own day, and Dwarves are a mix of Nordic sagas and some narrow aspects of Jewish diaspora cultures (before this great mix was introduced, Tolkien's Dwarves in the 1920s were mainly just evil tightwads hiring Orc mercenaries - the injection of cultural inspiration improved them a lot), while Avari Elves being displaced by Humans in the east seem more than a little inspired by Finno-Ugrian peoples in particular. And so on.

It's a chosen style of worldbuilding, and it have many great advantages over coming up with more or less completely new stuff:

First, it deals with things you're likely to recognize.

Second, basing it on something out of history helps it write itself in some regards: A lot of more details click into place faster, because there are selective strains of historical themes that will translate most fine to whatever fictional setting you're writing. It just rhymes well.

This is especially advantageous for people homebrewing their own stuff and building on the official material (true to its spirit): In Warhammer Fantasy, that made coming up with Cathay and Ind homebrew army books intuitively possible. Base Cathay on historical Chinese armies from various eras, throw in dragons, magical fighting monks, terracotta soldiers and some other fantasy features based on folklore and mythology such as stone dogs, and you're good to go. Take something historical, and twist it with fantastical stuff fitting to the themes you've chosen for the faction.

The interactions between factions also help write themselves to some extent in a historically based setting: In fantasy, Chaos Dwarfs are basically ancient Mesopotamian slavers, sacrificers, mad scientists and industrialists, based in the equivalent of Central Asia. The Central Asian location and their ravenous slave hunts help inform homebrewers that they are prime candidates for incursions into Ind, because India suffered a great number of bloody Central Asian nomad invasions. Check out ashur's ongoing Chaos Dwarfs versus Ind writings in the CDO background section. The historical basis makes it immensely easier for people to explore vague areas of the setting. It is not a lack of creativity, but a peculiar mode of creativity that is highly fruitful in its end results.

In the Ninth Age, we have the homebrew background proposal of Kegiz Gavem complete with concept art, which is basically light-worshipping Ethiopian fantasy Dwarves, complete with lion chariots, warrior priests and master stoneworkers (stone golems and even stone ships being a specialty, based on famous Ethiopian carved obelisks and rock churches). This one is basically a reimagining of what Karak Zorn could have been:


In short, the more you know, the easier it is to come up with new stuff, and mix up combinations of old stuff. And many of the fictive stuff based on historical events, works and people often feel more compelling than stuff made up out of whole cloth (unless the latter is very well made and thought-through). 40k with its vast size is particularly fine here, because it can easily contain both brand new concepts, and things very much based on historical groups, in space. Elysians and Salamander Space Marines are not historically based on anything in particular, for instance: They have drop troops and fire and compassion as themes. While Death Korps of Krieg are Great War Germans/French in grimdark space, and Space Wolves are Vikings in space.

When people see nuns with guns, green football hooligans, murder skeletons, space bugs, space marines, space Romans, space crusaders, space Saracens, space Mongols and so on, they don't tend to think "How uncreative." On the contrary, lots of people understand at a look what is going on (whereupon the background expands a lot on the first impression), and find this kind of thing a lot more exciting than factions made up out of whole cloth and come off as unrelatable. In fact the bold mixes are creative in and of themselves.

Games Workshop has always tended to be unsubtle in its historical basis, but the broad brush strokes and obvious inspiration sources are part of the charm. I've never found it unimaginative; on the contrary, the very concept of an Inquisition in space and space Romans has made me fly away in the imagination as much as the concepts of a regressed machine cult (Ad Mech) or technologically advanced upstarts (Tau).

Taken together, the obviously historically based parts of the setting being woven together with more invented parts (though inspired from other settings as a rule) is part of the immense charm of Warhammer 40'000. It's both relatable, mysterious, convoluted, multifaceted and bizarre all at the same time. It really stimulates the curiosity and encourages one to come up with more ideas for this vast fictive creation.

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James #1580

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Hey finally had a chance to read all this. It's a very interesting read and thanks for sharing it.
Is there further videos or writing you'd recommend on it?
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pawl #1584

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Not only have you put more thought into this than I have just about anything in my life, I have a feeling that your knowledge of history might be just a touch better than mine!

I had never considered it from an army/fluff building perspective. The fact that there is a real-world basis that you can explore and link to 40k is possibly very important. It gives you the opportunity to include elements that GW haven't already, without necessarily breaking the canonical character of the race/army you're working on. If you were compare that to something that's been entirely invented you have both much more freedom and much less, in a way.
Less in the sense that a 40k 'Roman' Astartes army should be Roman in nature, whereas a 'generic space trooper' army can be anything.
More in that a 'Roman' Astartes force has the whole of the Roman Empire for inspiration (not just what GW has already told you), and it's 'right' to use it. The generic brand trooper doesn't give you much inspirational direction, and likely stays quite bland as a result. Is it 'acceptable' to give them a Roman theme? Maybe, maybe not.

I also hadn't thought about your point on recognition.
"These guys look Mongolian, topknots and sabres and cavalry (bikes) everwhere. I'll bet they like fast, surprise attacks!"
Before even reading into the history and character of the White Scars you have an idea of who they might be, based purely on look alone. How obvious this is does of course vary between factions in 40k, but there are certainly times when it's very clear. At first glance you would expect a Catachan force to operate very different to a Praetorian force, for example.

There is also the benefit that it would allow a potential hobbyist the opportunity to simply say "I like Spartans. What is similar to Spartans?" and find either an easy answer, or a perfect opportunity to create their own.
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Karak Norn Clansman #1639

@James : Thanks a lot! From the top of my head, these two interviews, both with Rick Priestley, are the best ones out there:

Realm of Chaos interview with Rick Priestley

Baron Bifford's interview with Rick Priestley

@pawl : Thank you most kindly!

Indeed. A lot of what Games Workshop has done in 40k and Warhammer Fantasy has been left vague in details, leaving it up to people to have fun figuring it out for themselves reasonably within the spirit of the setting. Luetin's 40k lore videos are gold nuggets in this regard, highly recommended.

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pawl #1656

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I've never dived down the YT lore rabbit hole, but if I have time later I'll have a look!
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Karak Norn Clansman #2222

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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James #2234

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Love the idea of star wars mad max mash up. Very apt. I also see alot of the dune style ships in the artwork.
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pawl #2242

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Mad Max meets Star Wars really is a fantastic description of the setting!
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