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Karak Norn Clansman #2326

Good morning folks!

A consistent theme in innumerable great comments on DakkaDakka forum and Reddit about background writings, discussions and doodles which I've posted, is the impression of Warhammer 40'000 having been diluted down and lost its grimdark ways in later years.


Great as the discussion is, I've not got the same impression from what I've seen of 40k in the last years. To my eyes, the state of grimdark seem on the contrary to be healthier and a lot better handled than GW is often given credit for. A few observations about the general drift:

Cawl's secret army of uppity hand next level Astartes is fundamentally a rather cheesy and wish-fulfilling hope-inducing turn of events, for which I remain skeptical (despite a fondness for hidden laboratory mavericks). One thing hasn't changed since 2nd edition: Imperial Space Marines are sold as statuesque glorious heroes as an effective pull on many beginners. Still, Guilliman's impression of the rotten state of the 40k Imperium and his doubts about the Emperor stand out well as good writing, regardless of whether the 30k Imperium is actually portrayed as all that different (apart from religion) in the Horus Heresy novels.

The Sisters of Battle models took the grimdark themes further. The Penitent Engine includes an iron maiden option, and hilariously enough there is even a burning heretic husk for one of their bases.

The new Necromunda drive has been all positive from a grimdark background perspective, with novel cannibal corpse grinder cults (giving a twisted glimpse into corpse recycling for foodstuffs), lord Helmawr's giant drug smuggling operation with Ghast in the Segmentum Solar and all manner of freewheeling dark worldbuilding in the "House of..." books. Necromunda has received substantial expanded background, above what can be expected and likewise true to the demented, bonkers grimdark spirit of the setting.

According to a good friend of mine, an official story on a newly Tau-conquered Human world featured a Genestealer Cult scrambling into an uprising, since they would run a much increased risk of being detected and purged because Tau actually do something called public health care. Thereby continuing the good use of the comparatively milder-seeming Tau as a contrast reinforcer of the rest of the setting's grim darkness in general, and the dysfunctional Imperium's degeneration in particular. Tau remain an underappreciated part of 40k, despite playing up the overall horror, darkness and insanity of most all other factions by themselves seeming naïve and optimistic upstarts thinking they are building a better galaxy in a rational universe. Contrast is key, as Tolkien well knew.


Just a few observations: One would expect an excellently crafted dark setting like 40k to easily dilute and tone down its gloriously demented, cheeky regression in order to pursue a stupid illusion of wider market appeal. What instead seems to go on is a balancing act where grimdark material keeps being expanded upon true to the setting's bonkers spirit in more niche products in particular, while the cash cow and beginner bait of power armour warriors keep being portayed as noble heroes in general to draw people in with a fancy facade and eventually immerse themselves in the grimdark bounty of the wider setting.

Healthy signs, all considered. It could have been a lot worse handled.


Last edited by Karak Norn Clansman on 30 Nov 20, 06:37, edited 1 time in total.
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Karak Norn Clansman #2332

Relevant reply to a good DakkaDakka discussion:

3rd edition 40k and 6th edition WHFB has often been summarized as borehammer, which seem a tad odd to me, who got into the hobby at this very time and enjoyed the fun royally.

There were still clear humour in there (although nothing much compared to what I've discovered from the fantastic Rogue Trader era, the hilarious Redeemer comic aside), and more to the point, the overall tryhard edginess was all apparently faked and tongue-in-cheek, ironically overdone in a ludicrously exaggerated grim darkness that one couldn't take seriously because it was so bonkers over the top. 40k at its most serious is still a comedy wrapped in a tragedy. :D

The humour is still here. For instance, mecha-ostrich Ironstriders of the Adeptus Mechanicus (whose ancient efficient STC template almost manage to break the laws of thermo-dynamics) are used hundreds at a time in giant treadmills to generate electricity, and the tech-priests don't know how to stop them from running, which makes resupply and rider switch a tricky art. That particular piece of writing is on par with much of the best Rogue Trader humour in my book, and completely true to the silly, ironically tryhard, funny dark bonkers spirit of the setting.


The thing is that all creative endeavours evolve over time, especially collective ones produced by a long-standing studio. Generations shift and long-serving individuals' tastes, styles and creative explorations end up mutating over the course of their carreers. New decrees of overall art and writing approaches are passed, such as making the setting more dark and serious for 3rd edition 40k (and exploring the Inquisition) or bringing back Rogue Trader concepts which has barely been given any screen time for many decades (starting with Jokaero?).

The tone of the setting will live its own life, shifting and twisting, not least as talent is rotated in and out. This is all a natural part of the freewheeling nature of human creativity. Brilliant contributors may say their farewells, while more mediocre talents enter the stage, producing less well received content with the best of creative intentions. Middling talents often develop and improve over time, though, and brilliant new recruits may come again as the natural cycle of creativity plays out with its ebbs and flows, its styles and tonal shifts.

On top of this, interference from non-creative suit staff, out of touch with the soul of their golden cow, may decree sweeping (and often creatively destructive) changes for reasons of IP mania, silly sensibilities or mainstream market pursuit that would betray the spirit of the setting and water down a fantastic niche built up through decades of mainly brilliant development by many different loving hands and minds, some more skilled than others.


Consider the natural cycle of creativity as a living and changing thing (not taking the high quality of e.g. Rogue Trader or late 3rd edition writing for granted to always endure without ebbs), and consider the risks of edicts from above stomping all over the creative works, and one may start to see that on the whole, Warhammer 40'000 is in a far better position today, than one would expect it to be.

It has been better handled by Games Workshop than it is often given credit for, once you consider all the pitfalls.

A longstanding studio culture of researching its older material (not least Rogue Trader era) is likely part of the explanation. 40k writers on the whole have never lost sight of their roots, or foundations. They keep going back to the original, mining it for ideas, even as they add their own take on the setting into the flowing stream.

The bonkers tongue-in-cheek, ludicrously grimdark spirit of the regressed setting is alive and well. It looks different than previously, but then yesteryear's grimdark looked rather different from what came before it as well. GW has not lost the plot, or betrayed their own glorious creation, even if not all writing can be on par with Rick Priestley's or Andy Chamber's, or all art on par with John Blanche's or Adrian Smith's.


- - -

Relevant reply to a good Bolter and Chainsword discussion:

It is imperative for the great spirit of the 40k setting that everyone is wrong, and no unequivocally good side is in sight at all. Making the evil empire into the setting's protagonist (seeing it mainly through the evil empire's propaganda lense) while having the strongest rebels not at all resemble those of Star Wars, but be insane Chaos worshippers - that is a masterstroke of worldbuilding.

Tau are not good, but this aggressively expanding, xenophile, propaganda state with all its implied Ethereal and Water Caste brainwashing and shady dealings are still miles away from the depraved depths of the counter-productively tyrannical, fanatical, xenocidal and massmurdering inept colossus on feet of clay that is the gloriously incompetent, corrupt and clumsy galactic behemoth known as the Imperium of Man. The nuance difference is huge. :)

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James #2335

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Definitely an interesting topic mate.
I didn't really have an understanding of grimdark when i collected as (very young) youngster ot maybe it didnt really exist. I feel like although i do love the grimdark style that some people feel the humour and jokey side doesnt really belong in 40k. But i feel like its been there all along really. Perhaps in some armies more than others, but i remember 2nd edition orks being pretty hilarious. Ah it's a tough one tho as the more spoofy death guard models i have i tend not to like as much!!!
Also karak.. i recently rediscovered a book from my childhood that you will love. I think it would definitely go someway to explaining my love for the hobby and other genres similar.
"Trouble for trumpets" by Allan cross. The art is absolutely spectacular
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pawl #2340

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I think the idea that the 40k setting has become less grimdark over the years misses the mark entirely, as you've suggested.

In the very early years of the lore the concept of "everything is canon (nothing is true)" was taken to extremes by the fact that nothing was really set in stone, and everything was suitably hyperbolised for almost comedic effect. Everything was scaled up, and so the tone was perhaps a little more obvious in its presentation.

In the modern era I think that things are perhaps a little more nuanced. Whether this is accidental ('better' or just different writers, or perhaps pandering to the idea that things have to be that way to attract new players?) or not is irrelevant, but I think that GW have managed to establish a world that on the surface appears much more simple than it truly is. You have written extensively about the state of the Imperium, but what of the main factions? To look at just a couple;

The Adeptus Astartes are the stereotypical space knights, glorified the universe over, holding back the tide of enemies on all fronts. They are also children forcibly removed from their homes to be subjected to brutal trials and medically re-engineered, often resulting in death. They then live a lifetime devoted to putting themselves in front of the most dangerous of foes, their only certainty death in combat. They are tools of war and nothing else, and they command the power to destroy entire planets with impunity. Grey Knights and Custodes go double for this.

The 'bad guys' come in four flavours of Chaos God. They're savage, insane, cruel and utterly evil. Yet they are also often victims of circumstance, pushed back by their peers, chastised for the powers they were blessed with, or even on the losing side for the right reasons (XX). A tragic tale, as the villain's often is.

Even the T'au, often branded as the 'new good guys', have an undercurrent of ethnic cleansing and brainwashing that is rather at odds with their far-left image.

This pattern is present in almost every faction in the game, with the possible exception of the Orks and Tyranids.

There are of course a small few who stand out as genuinely 'good' or 'bad' characters, but for those who scratch the surface of the lore there is more to the setting than colourful paint schemes. Possibly moreso now than ever, given the rate at which the Black Library releases material.
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