So I’m going to start with a summary of my position, handily provided by Justicar on the Millenium Gate:
“I, for one, like the GRIMDARK as it was originally implemented. Gothic is/was a fun change from the usual Star Trek, everything will be better in the future spiel. People just talking their problems out, every violent situation is based on misunderstanding, yada yada, etc. 40K was somewhat unique in that everyone fights everyone else. A very handy thing to have when you are marketing a wargame.
“That said, you are right that GW has gone too far with the pervasiveness of the GRIMDARK aspect of the setting. I think one issue is that GW has gone overboard with this and developed some tunnel vision with the GRIMDARK aspect. Part of the problem is that GW is treating it as the same as the Warhammer setting where the Old World is essentially doomed, it is just a matter of when, rather than if. This of course has been institutionalized most recently in the countdown to doomsday stuff they stuck in the fluff section of 5th edition which I think limits the large scale appeal of the setting.
“That outcome may be "certain" as to the Old World but that is 1 planet in a much larger universe. 40K has always had the GRIMDARK thing going on but in the past there was some balance with things like Rogue Trader fleets expanding the borders of the Imperium and Adeptus Mechanicus Explorator fleets pushing past the boundries of known space. There were tangible examples of recovered technology being implemented to improve the advance of technology in a number of the Imperial codices. We don't see much if any of that anymore. GRIMDARK is a large part of what makes 40K memorable and unique but like all good things, a complete excess of it is not desirable.”
So, I’m not against grim darkness, never ending war, a galaxy of horrors, and never ending danger. I just want to have a reason to fight against it, and have a slim hope of being heroic and saving the day against all odds (until the next horror comes along).
I think it is necessary for the games longevity to continue to strip away some of the GRIMDARK that has infested it. Why? Well look at it this way – you’re playing a game, be it on PC, Xbox, or whatever. Now it is no ordinary game, but one where your controlled force is your own. You lead them to victory time and time again. But each time you win, a message pops up saying ‘you won, but achieved nothing as the universe is still doomed no matter what you do’.
Why would you keep playing with that shoved in your face all the time? That’s what GRIMDARK overdose means to me.
Waaaaay back in the Rogue Trader days humanity had a future – not just in that it wasn’t monumentally screwed, but the Emperor had a plan. What was that plan? Well he knew that over time, humanity would become more and more psychically aware, much like the Eldar before them. He guided and nurtured humanity over the centuries, working to the goal of preserving his species.
Eventually his body gave out (later, Horus beat him up) and he retired to the throne. But the Imperium was set up to cull out the weak psykers and eventually, should the guard and marines prevail against the odds, humanity would emerge out the other side victorious against the galaxy.
It was still a very slim chance it’d work, but there was a nebulous, far off goal Humanity was working towards more than mere survival. What does this have to do with a-bombs, iPods and Eldrad’s toilet?
Depth of the background
Many decry the newer editions as ‘dumbed down’, ‘made for ten year olds’, ‘aimed at kids’ etc. We’ve all heard it, maybe even said it when our Codex has had its story section reduced to tales of the Ultramarines being awesome.
I started 40k when I was seven or so, back with Rogue Trader. My brother was a bit older than me, but we both started with Marines (RTB01 FTW!) and mostly messed around like kids did. There were no GWs in Australia yet, we mostly went to Tin Soldier in the city or Games World out at Hornsby. They had a club, NaSGuL (Northern Shore Gamers League), and this is where I discovered Space Hulk, Blood Bowl and the wide variety of games out there.
However, I was more interested in the models and stories than playing (as you may have guessed from my blog), and devoured every book and expansion I could get my hands on. I didn’t get most of it at the time, but I pretty much memorised the RT rulebook, the Compendium and Compilation. I can still find things almost instantly in them.
Many years later, I was going back over the Random Mission tables in the back of RT, specifically the pudding one, and I went “ahhh, it’s parodying the second coming of Jesus!”. It’s terribly obvious now, but it took a good decade for me to see it. Similarly, I didn’t immediately get that the Sisters of Battle being based on a planet called Ophelia was a Hamlet reference.
Add to that the sheer volume of background contained in those early books. It’s staggering how much was developed in such a small space really. Does the current background have the same staying power? I don’t think so, unfortunately. When I need to reference something about the Administratum or the Astra Telepathica I don’t turn to 5th ed, I pull out the ancient, dog-eared Rogue Trader book. Maybe 2nd ed if I want another view, but it’s almost always RT first.
I don’t think that the background needs to be dumbed down to be accessible to.
The kids who like 40k for ‘rarrrgh explosions’ would just skip the boring bits not about dismembering, and the weird quiet ones will absorb everything anyway (I used to be able to recite, from memory, the weapon loadout of every 3050 mech [including all the Clan varients]). Those who initially skim the background might grow into it, or they may just enjoy toy spacemen – that’s what the game is to some people after all, just a game. But not having it is a disservice to those who enjoy it in my eyes.
Another salient example, linking with the background disconnect, is the manner in which 40k is sold to people (of all ages). There are no FLGS’s near me, the closest is around an hour away and it is often lacking in F. There is a FLGW about twenty minutes away and next to where my girlfriend works, so I go there when I go gaming. As a result I’ve seen a lot of GW’s pitch technique. It seems to be less aggravating, more laid back here in Australia than in other countries from the stories I’ve heard, so take that on board.
When someone comes in, expressed interest in 40k, the demo game is Marines vs Orks from the AoBR set. The standard setup is to have the staff play Orks, the new guy play Marines. Now the Marines are portrayed as heroic, mighty, fighting for humanity etc etc. I’ve noticed they never add on “but it’s pointless as the galaxy is doomed no matter what.” They talk about the brutality, never ending war, explosions, skulls, chopping people up and next to no chance of survival (unless you are mighty enough!). But they stop short of serving the full GRIMDARK sandwich.
Because it’s depressing. Nobody’s going to play a game where the tagline is “you will never win – it’s in the rulebook (for reals!)”. They will play “you’ll never win, mwahahahaha- what? You’re totally awesome and still triumphed? Noooooooooo!”
It means your victory on the tabletop with your little men counted for something. It’s like playing call of Cthuhlu – you’ll ultimately never win, but you know that going in. However the big difference is that CoC is a horror RPG, not a sci-fi wargame.
But, back to depth of background and the point... having a deep background means you constantly have more to discover (duh), and more to keep players (customers) interested. The paucity of background available in the rulebooks is tragic in my eyes. Sure, there’s the BL novels, Fantasy Flight’s RPG supplements and erm... that’s it actually. And those are all pretty pricey if you want everything. Even still they lack certain crucial bits of data.
For instance: Navigators only being able to pass on the Navigator gene if both parents are Navigators. Pretty sure it’s not in 5th ed. It’s certainly not in any Codex. It might be in a Dark Heresy or Rogue Trader RPG book, but I don’t own those. It is in Rogue Trader though, some twenty years out of print.
Have some fun at a GW – say you want to do female Space Marines. Someone will say it’s impossible due to blah blah blah. Ask what book the article is in. Ding! There is no book available in a Games Workshop that contains the infamous ‘only males can be Space Marines’ line.
This is more than trolling for anti-FSM hate, but illustrating that knowledge is being lost from the books. The depth of the 40k verse is getting shallower. I am obviously a fan of story based games, and not having this depth hurts that, as very, very few of the younger gamers come up with overly complicated back stories for their armies any more (or any story at all). 40k is becoming ‘40k the novels’ and ‘40k the game’, with little cross over between the two.
The previously discussed logic holes hurt the background as it is ‘interactive’, so to speak. While a TV series like Star Trek or a linear game like Half Life could have gaping holes in it, the POV is restricted and controlled so you only see what the director wants you to. By the time the hole appears you’re past it (hopefully). In an open game universe such as 40k (or any RPG setting), the cracks are much more evident as you’re essentially asking people to rummage around and see what they find. When there are so many solid wargaming/RPG settings out there, the holes, missing bits and disconnections make 40k look rather rough around the edges some times.
This isn’t really a good way to keep people interested. If every time they want to make an army or explore an idea they run into a contradiction, something that makes no sense in-universe or can’t find an answer, it’s discouraging. We’ve all likely had it happen with something – you’re interested, but finding what you want to know is too much of a pain so you get frustrated and give up (potentially going to a competitor).
Note: not saying that you have to make a background, but that the situation is limiting the option, and that’s bad for those of us who want to.
What to do about it?
So, if you’re like me and think too much, you’ll wonder odd things. Like thus:
Eldar choose to go on a path.
That Path is a very focused speciality, be it art, music, war.
They only do one sort of thing on the Path, no others (except in times of war).
So who chooses to go on the path of the Janitor?
If such a path does not exist, who cleans the toilets?
Do the Warp Spiders (the tiny ones, not the aspect warriors) do it?
Do they have some sort of autonomous construct?
If they do, why not use said constructs for war?
And so on...
I think it is a valid question. We know the answer for the Imperials: you do. Grab a shovel (Marines go to the excretatorium and have servitors). But we know precious little about everyday life for the Eldar, or even much about Craftworlds themselves. I can think of only half a dozen pictures in the last twenty three years that show the inside of a Craftworld. There are a couple of descriptions in a couple of novels, but nothing really detailed like Imperial cities have gotten.
Me, I’d read a book all about the ins and outs of a Craftworld or inside of a Tyranid ship. A sort of Incredible Cross-sections series for 40k, and not just the tanks.
Developing the alien races will remove them from their fantasy backgrounds – which I think is a good thing. There is a certain stigma attached to 40k that it is just ‘fantasy in space’, and while that certainly used to be true, the races have moved into their own niches, but they need to be explored more.
Make a background book for each race and have it NOT TOLD FROM THE IMPERIAL PERSPECTIVE! Have it neutral and factual, much like the Horus Heresy art books. Facts. Like what the Eldar use as currency (do they have one? Is it barter, socialist collective, no economy at all or what)? Who runs every day stuff (Farseers? Surely they have better things to worry about than whether L’Shin needs to mow his lawn more often or Jathen speeding on his jetbike through a school zone)? Come to think of it, what are Eldar kids like? How fast to they age? What’s the deal yo?!
I am reminded of a conversation on the Giant in the Playground boards, talking about the Princess Bride novel. Someone mentioned the funny edits mad by the ‘editor’ of the ‘original story’. Someone else commented about the court scene, and how the editor cut out the long descriptions of courtly fashion as nobody would be interested in that level of detail. The poster then lamented that they were interested, and would have loved to have read it.
If you weren’t interested, you’d either skip it or forget the details. They need to bring that sort of detail to the other races in 40k.
Solution to lack of depth: DITCH THE IMPERIOCENTRIC VIEWPOINT FOR EVERYTHING
It is very, very constraining, and the ‘woooo mysterious’ stuff gets annoying after a while. If I’m playing a race/character, I’d like to know that they’re not actually the bad guys and are just hiding it if I initially liked them as good guys (even if they have a terrible secret). The whole Dark Angel traitor mystery thing hurt my love of them when it got really silly during 3rd, and as much as I liked Necrons the vagueness and ‘unknownness’ of their story wasn’t enough for me to sink my teeth into.
Not to say a little mystery is a bad thing, far from it, but knowing what side your faction on is a pretty big one.
Losing the Imperial view for a neutral one would give much more freedom to explore things previously unknown to us – just add on ‘but the Imperium is yet to discover this terrible secret’. It gives the developers something to work towards and the audience something to speculate about and look forward to.
A good example of this is the Void Dragon. You know it, I know it, Dalia knows it, The Emperor knows it, the Necrons know it, but the Imperium is in for a very rude surprise some day...
Solution to lack of depth 2: STORIES IN SOME REGULAR FORMAT THAT AREN’T EXPENSIVE
It seems this is coming true, with Black Library announcing at Games Day that they will be doing a monthly magazine filled with stories and such. Huzzah! Now fingers crossed they’re not all from the human POV...
General point: STOP WITH EVERYTHING BEING RELATED TO EVERYTHING ELSE
I liked it when it was just ‘here is the galaxy. It will kill you’. Now it’s all Star Gods this and Old Ones that and grand interweaving conspiracies about everything. Making everything interdependent makes it harder to advance any one part on its own, and makes each part less unique.
In regards to the evolving society and the background (tech, politics etc), many people got the impression I was for some drastic overhaul to make 40k more shiny and happy and such. Not quite the case. I was for ditching the GRIMDARK, scaling it back to grim, relentless war, and accentuating the sci-fi aspects that are already there, but seldom/never used. Also I’m in favour of highlighting the religious tensions that exist between Marines and the Ecclesiarchy and the Mechanicus, highlighting the growing numbers of Psykers (if they still do that), and having the Imperium doing something – anything!
Of the three global campaigns, the Imperium has been defending for three of them. In most Forge World books the Imperium loses or has a pyrrhic victory. It’s rather disheartening to have your faction always on the back foot, defending (losing) and never seeming to win, unless you’re the Ultramarines that is.
Last point: A GLOBAL CAMPAIGN WITH THE IMPERIUM ATTACKING
Use it as a tie-in to release xenos terrain, xenos world / background sourcebooks and such. Hell, do a bunch of civilian figures for all races if you want to go crazy. Adding more detail never hurt, except for the ‘lol Old ones made everyone’ crap, so yeah.
This is the end of my thoughts now, and I hope you have found it as interesting reading as I have pondering it. I Could certainly go on, about the impending end of the galaxy, the stuck timeline (not necessarily a bad thing) and so on, but that’s it for a while.
I do realise much of this may come across as bashing on 40k or the designers, but that is not my intention. I know that no major change is going to happen overnight, and that it does look like GW is moving in the right direction in terms of increasing the love for the background nutters, and expanding their viewpoints. The ranting and complaining is because I love.
Or they could just bring back Rogue Trader, consarn it *shakes fist*