Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Wargaming Wednesday: The Pure Insanity of Warhammer 40,000

Continuing with my push to deliver more blogging content, I'm dedicating Wednesdays to wargaming and role-playing games. Although in recent years I haven't been able to get in much (or really any) of either tabletop wargaming or pen-and-paper RPG playing, I still count both among my hobbies and interests.

Today I just wanted to highlight the wargame I am most invested in on an emotional level - Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000. For those who don't know what it is - I'll do this REAL QUICK - a bunch of British tabletop miniatures folks had a set of wargaming rules called Warhammer. It had armies of Elves and Dwarfs and guys with swords and pikes, and orcs and goblins, even skeletons and ghouls and "chaos" warriors and monsters. Basically every fantasy trope you can think of circa 1985 or so, thrown into a blender. Warhammer became super popular, and as it grew, they decided to do a version of the game as a sci-fi skirmish game, which they decided to call "Warhammer 40,000".

Just Another Day in the 41st Millennium

The universe of Warhammer 40,000 has changed somewhat in the 30+ years since its inception, but, well, I'll just cut and paste in the quote that appears at the beginning of most of their products:

It is the 41st Millennium. For more than a hundred centuries The Emperor has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the Master of Mankind by the will of the gods, and master of a million worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the Imperium for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day, so that he may never truly die.

Yet even in his deathless state, the Emperor continues his eternal vigilance. Mighty battlefleets cross the daemon-infested miasma of the Warp, the only route between distant stars, their way lit by the Astronomican, the psychic manifestation of the Emperor's will. Vast armies give battle in his name on uncounted worlds. Greatest amongst his soldiers are the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines, bio-engineered super-warriors. Their comrades in arms are legion: the Imperial Guard and countless planetary defence forces, the ever vigilant Inquisition and the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus to name only a few. But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat from aliens, heretics, mutants - and worse.

To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.

Yeah, it's like that. This is the kind of science fiction wargame you dream up when you're a young British nerd who subsists on a diet of heavy metal, Michael Moorcock, Tolkien, the punk aesthetic, European political chaos, Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars, the Alien franchise, Hammer horror films, and a thick, heady dose of Generation X nihilism.  The "good guys" in the Warhammer 40K universe are the Imperium of Man, but you quickly realize that in 40K, "good" just means not quite as demonically horrifying as the "bad guys", but still pretty goddamn awful. The Space Marines, genetically modified super-humans in a suit of nigh-invulnerable power armor, might be call "the Emperor's finest", but they're also know as "The Angels of Death", and they'd stomp your skull into paste as soon as look at you if they thought you were a threat.

'Ello Guv'ner!
Even the Imperial Guard, the "good little guys" who were just your normal humans in basic body armor and carrying basic guns - somewhat analogous to regular army guys of today, just with sci-fi trappings - are often portrayed as psychotically violent and xenophobic, or just plain insane. Many of them come from "death worlds" where everything there tries to kill you, and it's basically Rambo with a plasma rifle and a chainsaw sword.

Some of my favorite parts of 40K are when things get delightfully subversive. There are nuns in 40K, but they are sociopathic religious zealots running around in black powered armor with all-white hair (white head covering, black outfit, like a nun's habit), blazing away with guns and flamethrowers, slaying heretics and the "impure". The Space Marine chaplain isn't a kindly older man giving you spiritual guidance...well okay he is, but he's also an eight foot-tall crazed murder machine in coal-black armor with a skull-shaped helmet, smashing people to pieces in the name of the Emperor and driving on the troops with his "inspiring presence". Yeah, it's like that. Even the Librarian is a force to be reckoned with, as "Librarians" are actually Space Marines with psychic powers, who can blow your body apart with their minds, set tanks on fire, and cause all sorts of supernatural havoc.

Yes, this is one of the Good Guys.
If anything, my biggest criticism of 40K in recent years is that they seem to be toning down the darker, more punk-rock elements of 40K in favor of something a little more family-friendly. There are still demons and mutants and heretics, but the Good Guys are a little more Good and the Bad Guys are a little more Bad. While 40K has always bee appealing to teenagers, I think Games Workshop knows that they need to aim for a younger audience, in order to get brand loyalty at an earlier age *and* tap into the "toy money" of the parents, rather than 30- or 40-somethings who have discretionary income, but who can also say "$35 for a single model an inch and a half tall? Ehhh...".

And that's my other big complaint - the cost. New model kits and new pricing structures mean that a playable, "competitive" army can set you back $400 or more if you buy everything at store prices. Sure, hobbies can be expensive, but the nature of wargaming is such that you feel the need to buy the newest, coolest stuff, as the rules and the "meta" changes to give different armies an advantage.

Glorious Old-School '90s Boxed Set Artwork!

But despite these problems, I really like the universe of Warhammer 40,000. It's cruel and violent and cynical and bloody as hell - in fact, it reminds me of that other British dystopian setting, JUDGE DREDD, in a lot of ways - but back in its earlier times, 40K didn't take itself as seriously as it does now, and I think the new, more serious 40K has lost a little something because of that.

Now, pardon me while I go burn some heretics - I mean, search on eBay for an out of production miniature...

1 comment:

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