What 40k might look like today

After my last post, and a reader’s comment, I started to really think about what a contemporary equivalent of Warhammer 40,000 would look like. Let’s do an experiment.

Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader was successful at the time, (and became the behemoth it is today) for several reasons, I think. One, it took tropes everyone understood from contemporary and canonical fantasy fiction and science fiction and mashed them together with very little to no shame.

Two, it had a rebellious, punk sensibility. The Imperium of man is a dystopia from the political perspective of a democratic western citizen in the 1980s (the target market).

Three, it appealed to a certain desire to be the bad guy: if you played an Imperial force you were fighting for a cause that was, in political terms, more evil than the Eldar, or the Squats, or even the Orks. Well, the Orks are pretty evil I suppose if you consider war for it’s own sake as evil. Yes, Chaos was icky, but the way people had responded to Chaos was to create a society no modern person would want to live in or fight for. You got to be the racist fascists with cool uniforms, or the weird aliens, and it was all a big joke.

What would a modern equivalent look like? It would have to be politically bold, that’s for sure, and you know what? Hardly anything is now. If we take the dystopian element and put it into today’s context, perhaps the Imperium would be a society that was free and democratic on the surface, but underneath was run by an elite for profit. The soldiers of the human race believe that they are fighting for freedom, but really they are just wiping out aliens who refuse to be corrupted by our commercial products so that we can take their resources for our endless capitalist economy.*

The human’s technology would have to incorporate more modern original sci-fi, like the Matrix or Elysium for example. So probably a lot of cybernetics, cloning/body replacement, and AI-controlled troops. I’m thinking a bit like Infinity’s treatment of technology, actually. Oh and the Force. There’d have to be something mystical/telepathic to keep fantasy nuts interested.

What about the aliens and other factions? They would have to be recognised tropes. Something like the noble eco-aliens of Avatar. Something like the terrifying xenomorphs of the Alien franchise. And of course, zombies of some description, and space raiders like the Orks or the Reavers in Firefly. Oh, and maybe humans who don’t fit in and are fighting for their way of life, again like the Ariadna colonists in Infinity.

Just some quick thoughts. I’m not really addressing the aesthetics or the game mechanics of course, which I’m sure had some influence on Rogue Trader’s success. And most of all, I think it would have to be funny. You were meant to laugh at the Inquisition and commissars, not think that they were a grim but necessary evil.

What do people think of this?

*I’m not saying this is how it is in the real world, I’m saying that this is a modern rebellious political narrative on a par with the fascist “for your own good” Imperium of Man.

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8 thoughts on “What 40k might look like today

  1. Thuloid says:

    James–Basically using this as a continuation of the last post, so responding to you hear. But this is interesting stuff. Yes, you do owe me an email. Though I’ve been insanely busy in the last few weeks.

    Last few years I’ve gotten much more attuned to the ways that theologies support various political structures. The old, satirical version of 40k was actually a somewhat interesting exploration on this front, a fun combination of messed up Christianity and Dune. Now I’m supposed to treat “for the Emperor!” as a good thing, rather than hilariously terrifying?

    I think a contemporary version could play up the strange relationship of powerful institutions to information technology–the attempt to master it so that 2-way dissemination becomes strictly 1-way. They are all watching, and terrified of being watched except in the one way they want to present. That is, I think, intimately connected to the economic considerations you mention.

    And you’re right–without the absurdity, the whole thing becomes somewhat dangerous. It’s not “serious” sci-fi, and it’s certainly not a game of heroes and villains–at least, not in any straightforward way. The tropes used make more sense if they also satirize/reflect aspects of human society–but this is what aliens are generally about in much of sci-fi.

    • beat ronin says:

      Yeah sorry. You know how it is: you read something and then you flag it, and then you feel like you’ve replied when you haven’t 🙂

      I’m actually now weighing up whether to write something like this – a satirical sci-fi setting that I would like to play. I think another big draw was that original Rogue Trader wasn’t just designed for Citadel miniatures, it was designed so you could mash in any models you liked. I think a modern, miniatures-agnostic politically satirical sci-fi wargame would be fun. I’m not the best game designer in the world, but maybe if I wrote a good setting someone might team up with me to write the crunch…

      I’m glad you agree with me about the satire. It’s always nice to hear someone shares your views. This last couple of days and the conversation here has triggered a bit of an epiphany for me with regard to 40k. I finally worked out what it was that was missing from the game I remember and the community: the humour.

      Obviously current, serious 40k is very popular. So there are many people who like it; but I guess I’m not one of them. It explains so much. Whenever I’d see a serious Guard player (or even worse, an Ork player) on a forum or a blog complaining that commissars (or wierdboys or whatever) sucked because they were a liability and only an idiot would field them, my inner voice would be yelling “you don’t get the joke! You’re not playing the right game!”

      But it was me who didn’t get it. I didn’t realise that the game had changed.

  2. Thuloid says:

    No, humor is hugely important to the original “feel” of 40k and fantasy. And I don’t think GW ought to discount that factor even now–when the game was growing fastest, it still had that sense of humor. It diminished some over time, but the total loss is fairly recent. I think it came along with the purge of a lot of the old writers.

    Only Orks still have it. Skaven some, on the Fantasy side–but the sheer silliness of the old models was important. It’s not just fluff–the new, fairly sterile (though beautiful in their own way) plastics don’t have a lot of “fun” to them, with a few exceptions (e.g., the totally unnecessary “dying Orc” model in the Empire archers box).

    The game feels, for lack of a better word, corporate now. The quirkiness is gone (except in a bad way–still totally incomprehensible rules in many places), the sense that a decision by GW might have been just some old gamer saying, “Why not?” The fluff no longer expects you to get jokes based in old sci-fi or fantasy, which means it’s really talking down to its audience. So it’s a game for children then–children with lots of cash.

    But back in OUR day, the game for children was cool to us precisely because it didn’t talk down. I didn’t get every reference, but that made me want to learn what I hadn’t yet understood. Anyhow, new motto: game for grownups. That is, do something inherently childish, but in a way that suits your mature tastes. GW isn’t it. No problem–you’re a grown man, and know just as much about gaming as most of the guys who built that company.

  3. beat ronin says:

    You’re right, I probably know as much as they did. I’m not sure I know as much as a modern game designer though. Game design has advanced quite a bit, as anyone can see if they compare the Warhammer games to pretty much anything modern.

    Still, you’ve given me some confidence…

  4. kaptainvon says:

    How do you think the religion would work?

    In the original you have the totalitarian theocracy of the Imperium, the godless science of the Tau, the elegant, tragic historical-mythology of the Eldar, the robust dualism of the Orks, the seething majesty of Chaos; weaving through it all there’s this idea of Graeco-Roman legend and Paradise Lost IN SPAAAACE.

    At a wild guess I’d say that 40K2K14 or whatever would have… let’s see…

    … a nominally secular ‘mainstream’ human culture, with an underlying religiosity – a belief in sin, and the scouring value of hard work and piety …
    … and on the fringes, a more intense and open religious practice, a willingness to die for one’s beliefs, possibly among your ‘humans that don’t fit in’ faction …
    … an arrogant technocracy, a veneration of progress uber alles – that’s a faction you’ve missed, actually, the soulless ‘you were once like us’ cyborgs who’ve LOST THEIR SOULS TO MOBILE PHONES, like the Therians from AT-43 (why did nobody tell me they existed? I’d have played the SHIT out of those…) …
    … a part-baked New Age spirituality that’s both noble and banal from the ‘mainstream’ perspective, but has a ring of truth and solemnity to it when described from its own perspective, that of the eco-warrior aliens …
    … and a gory, grotesque ‘shock value’ religion, that worships terror and disgust for their own sake, that’s adopted as a grand and defiant posture against the universe. One for your ‘Reaver’ faction, I suppose?

    • beat ronin says:

      You know, at first thought I would just leave religion out of it completely. Though I was raised a Catholic, the circles I currently move in are just so secular that I don’t normally think of religion as being a serious motivating force for anyone. Of course that’s a bit silly, as soon as I think about it more deeply.

      I reckon you’ve done a pretty good job of giving all the factions religions. I’ve actually started writing some notes for this project. Not committing to anything of course; just seeing where it goes while it’s still fun for me. And interestingly, my vision of the mainstream humanity has elements of your first ‘religion’ and the technocracy you mentioned. I haven’t got to anyone else yet. Probably the hippie aliens next…

  5. sincorazon says:

    My name is Sincorazon. You’ve piqued my interest. Prepare to read lots of stuff!

    I’ve come to this through Von’s Game Over and other writing. It’s a fascinating area for discussion. I’m working through a lot of this in my head right now too. Are you British? You sound like you might be, although I mean nothing by it either way. I’m just curious. The way you describe the political roots of 40k – now there’s an interesting topic for debate – sounds like you are like me, and Von to a slightly lesser and younger extent: a child of the British 80s. I’ve been having a discussion with Von here that originally started off as a rearguard action regarding modern WFB and 40k: http://kaptainvon.wordpress.com/2013/02/19/40k-battle-report-the-perfect-storm/#comments It’s become something so much more involving.

    What I found most interesting in this post was this: “It would have to be politically bold, that’s for sure, and you know what? Hardly anything is now.” That in itself is a politically bold statement, that hardly anything nowadays is politically bold. It suggests you have an idea in your mind of what is politically bold, and that such ideas are not reflected in modern political debate. It’s very subjective, which of course it must be, so it has me in two minds.

    The first mind is this: people of our generation wouldn’t be the first to claim that hardly anything is politically bold/fresh/new in our “today”. The children of the early 20th century may have said the same thing, as they saw their world slide into global war and death on a mass scale. The children of the 16th century may have said the same thing, as they saw empires rage over lines on maps, clinging to outdated notions of rulers born by blood to rule.

    It reminds me of that quote often attributed to Socrates: “The children now love luxury; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are tyrants, not servants of the households. They no longer rise when their elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize over their teachers.” The idea that children “these days” are now worse than they were in some mythical golden past when they were all little angels. Is the potential for boldness in politics really any less than it was in the 80s and 90s, when we grew up? There was a lot of political rubbish back then, too. There were only a few bright sparks. I remember. God, it was grim. I don’t want to go back to my childhood. Computer games, roleplaying games and wargames were my escape from those dark days, which is why I still cling to them (the latter two, at least) now I have more money to spend on them.

    I’ve used the analogy with Von of being really into a band when they start out and make it big, and then decrying their later, more corporate releases, turning up our noses at anything other than their first two albums, “before they sold out”. Do we view the past, its politics, its music, its 40k, with rose-tinted view-visors? Have we changed or did they change? Maybe both? Maybe it’s time move on? Maybe we have had our time with these things, and it’s time to put our toys away. There are at least three new generations since we had our heyday. Let them play with toys whilst we set about more important things, not least trying to make their world a better place to grow up in than our dystopian past. https://beatronin.wordpress.com/2013/11/05/too-old-to-play/ Hmm?

    And here’s the second mind: you’re onto something. I think it’s not so much that there is less political boldness now than there was back when Rogue Trader first came out. Although, I will admit that I agree with you in that regard. What is really lacking from society – and this is a straight-up comparison with 80s Britain and 00s/10s Britain, so apologies to our friends across the pond if it does not apply to you, and indeed it might not, although it might – is SATIRE. Ghazgull Mag Uruk Thraka. So obviously Ghazgull Margaret Thatcher. Could you imagine modern 40k introducing a new Imperial Warmaster or Chaos Warlord called Kravent Onib Lair? You just can’t. Satire is lacking from current British society, so it’s almost inevitable that a modern British wargame with its roots in the cultural milieu of the 80s also lacks satire, if we are to say that culture and art reflect the times in which they are made.

    Not just satire of politics, but satire of everything. As a society we worship and glorify that which in the past we satirised. Big Brother from 1984 satirised the idea of an all-seeing eye: Big Brother in 2001 glamourises it. We are told to worship the all-seeing eye. Robocop of the 80s was a glorious send-up of privatising all aspects of society, even law enforcement and the human body itself: Robocop of 2014 takes the whole damn thing seriously. And like you’ve pointed out countless times, modern 40k takes itself seriously. Which completely defeats the whole point! I speak as someone who started at the dawn of 3rd ed, which means I never actually played RT or even 2nd ed, like someone who likes 60s music but was born in 1991. It’s got to the point where stuff which is pure satire has become reality and pure reality has become satire. Witness our law enforcement officers acting like Judge Dredd. And how easy was it for 2000AD to send up Obama’s “change” campaign with Dan Francisco?

    That’s just the setting though. Try as some might to divorce it from the experience of buying and painting and playing, the setting is the only reason anyone does any of this, let alone why anyone in their right mind would spend any money on it. Without the setting, 40k falls down. GW falls down. It’s a testament to how good a job Priestley et al did with it that, almost 30 years later, the company of which they are no longer part, are able to ride the coattails of it, despite losing sight of what made it good in the first place. It was just that damn good, that you could never really advance it except to strip out the humour and add unfunny silliness to it (the worst kind of silliness), and get rid of everyone who was responsible for making it more than just a fad (Priestly et al) whilst keeping everyone who never got it in the first place (Kirby et al), and STILL today’s kids find it amazing. Even GW understands this. They have no idea what to do with the setting (God how I hate the term IP), but they guard it jealously and with a vengeance that makes them seem like the Imperium they originally satirised, because it’s all they have. Cf. “Spots the Space Marine” and Chapterhouse etc.

    That’s why for both 40k and WFB, the new codexes only ever change small things in the background. It’s a con. They change almost nothing fluff-wise except to make it more stupid, then they nerf units that were good before and make the new stuff powerful. It’s something the Inquisition would do. Or the Soviets. That guy who was awesome and who we should look up to last year? This year he is a heretic. Here, here’s a new guy to hero-worship.

    It’s also why the game itself has atrophied. Anyone who knew how to write a good game back in the 80s has long since left GW. All that’s left are jobsworths who with all the best intentions in the world, and all the love for what 40k used to be, either lack the sufficient creativity to make a good, modern game or are constrained by the same corporate cult that forced out guys like Priestley. I don’t begrudge them. It’s still better than stacking shelves at Tescos, not that they could probably get that gig now. So with no creative direction or freedom, all they can do is rehash stuff, both fluff and crunch. It’s not how you do a wargame or any creative endeavour. The artistry, the passion, the creativity, the originality – these are what draw people in. They will spend their money if you give them something good. If you nakedly demand their dollar they will turn away in shame, stifling a tear as they contemplate the desecration of their childhood.

    As to what 40k might look like today. Hmm. For one thing, it shouldn’t be set so far ahead. That’s ridiculous. I know, that was the whole point. But you can’t just do it again. It’s been done. Either specify a timeline where humanity are likely to even remotely resemble how we are now, and how we have been in the past – so not so far ahead in the future where the very concept of fighting with swords or walking on a pair of legs are obsolete – or completely detach this new setting from any modern notions of time and space. Time is artificial, so would it really matter when a new game was set? I don’t recall Iain M Banks ever relating his timeline to ours.

    Which brings me to my next point! Your guidelines for what you would do with humanity, with religion, with aliens – it does remind me greatly of The Culture, the Idirans, and so on. Now THERE is a universe with humour. Very Little Gravitas? Banks, you are a legend.

    If you wanted to actually satirise modern society in the way 40k did the 80s, you need to start by looking at what society is like. Hence my exploration of your statement about the lack of political boldness today. I suggested with Von that our feelings about hobbies that we have maintained since childhood are inextricably tied up with our overall feelings about how we relate our childhood to our modern, adult selves. I think that British society, and to some degree European society, have not come to terms with our own broken childhoods, the economic and political wreckage of the 1980s that has not thrown up anything particularly new since then. You’d think when the entire global economic system stopped working, that we’d have plenty of alternative paradigms to adopt? Nope. We’re just carrying on, doing the same thing, even if it works for almost no one. We’re stuck in the 80s. Like 40k. Why is it so many young people are unemployed? There is a crisis of confidence. A cost-of-growing-up-crisis. Figure out what’s wrong, then satirise it. Maybe something positive can come of it.

    Another suggestion. Don’t centre the setting around an anti-hero/villainous/fascist faction like the Imperium. By all means, include such factions. Any setting is boring without something that threatens what we hold to be true. What you don’t want is people idealizing such a faction and for that faction to become the protagonists of a setting, like the Imperium/Space Marines have become. Don’t make any one faction a protagonist over another. Shades of grey. Maybe even don’t have factions. Just characters. Or themes. The possibilities are endless!

    In terms of rules, simplicity and clarity are key. Von’s Warmachine might be perfectly balanced between factions (of course it’s not, and the balance within factions is torn to shreds – why can’t I play a purely undead pirate army within Cryx and still win a game? What do you mean this or that unit is not competitive and I should be playing with that Warcaster instead and what the hell is this Colossal? I thought I left GW because of that nonsense?) but it’s not simple. It’s MtG with minis. I hated MtG when I was 14 and I still hate it. I hate the game itself and the financial model WotC have to support it. The background is of absolutely no consequence. There are a zillion combos to use. That’s not simple. That’s not accessible. And as adults, we have these things called responsibilities. And spouses. And kids. Why can’t we play a game where they can get involved without having to read lots of rules, either in books like GW games or on a bazillion cards and counters like PP games. Complex rules? Ain’t nobody got time for that.

    MAKE IT SIMPLE, please. As simple as Chess. But as deep! Monopoly is great. Make it so you can play a game in an hour. It doesn’t have to be a skirmish game. Many people like modern GW games because they aren’t skirmish. They like the big panoramic sweep of stuff. Warmachine is no longer a skirmish game, if it ever was. Kings of War is a mass battles game that you can play to a decent points level in about an hour. Maybe make the models pre-undercoated, like in a board game, so they are detailed but quick to paint.

    Those are my two cents.

    • beat ronin says:

      Hi Sincorazon, and welcome! Thanks for such a long and considered response. And apologies for the slow reply – I deliberately try to make sure that this blog is not high on my list of priorities, so it moves a little more slowly than many others.

      Right… that’s a lot to answer! Firstly, no I’m not British, I’m Australian. Although funnily enough I lived in the UK between 1980 and 1984, and did my first three years of school there. I have dim memories of Thatcher’s Britain, and even still have a drawing I did of the Argentine fleet sinking a British boat, which got my parents called into the school to explain. Apparently I told everyone that I felt sorry for the Argentinians because they were losing the war so badly.

      That brings me to my next point. I think both of your ‘minds’ make sense, and that line about hardly anything being politically bold was one I debated putting in. You’re right of course – things are probably the same as they always were. I think the main issue for me is that it seems I was born a bleeding heart leftie (see the story above), and things in Australia right now are moving ominously in the other direction. So I was in a bitter mood when I wrote that.

      But you’re also right about the satire. That was a good analogy about Ghazkhull. No games company I can think of today would have a game with a modern prime minister or president thinly disguised as a tyrannical ruler. Least of all Games Workshop; that thought is so far out there as to be laughable. Back in the 80s though there was Rogue Trader, comics like Dredd, and RPGs like Paranoia. I think our leaders were less revered (feared?) back in the 80s, and even the 90s. Now it’s a very different world. We have all seen evidence of what they might be prepared to do and how far they might go, and many of us don’t have the sort of concern that we might no longer be the good guys that fuels satire. We know we aren’t the good guys. And who is?

      I’m not sure I agree that the best way to go would be to avoid making the dystopia the central faction. It would be fine if the factions were all balanced in terms of whose voice is the default one in the game’s narrative, but if you do that then a dystopia becomes the villain pretty quickly, and that’s not satire. It’s a fine line. Perhaps we need to just trust our audience to be grown-ups, as Thuloid said, and not care if people don’t get it? Creatives talking down to their audience by somehow making sure they get the satire is pretty weak I think. Exciting things need to be bold, which means yeah, some people are not going to get it. But the difference is, it’s still a satire. Modern 40k is not. There are no dissenting voices in the narrative, so the Imperium is essentially fascism-porn.

      As for simple games, hell yes. Not much more needs to be said that you didn’t already. I got excited by the thought of making a game like this and wrote some background, but now I’m wondering if I’m the person to do it. My heart is not really in designing an entire game just to “show ’em.” If I’m going to make a political statement I’m sure there are easier and more widely accessible ways to do it. We’ll see.

      A really interesting reply though, again, thanks. I regret not replying to @Von so deeply, I was very busy in the real world and didn’t give his response the reply it deserved. Hopefully I’ve given you a decent reply.

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