Warhammer 40k and thoughts on World-Building


So I went full nerd the other day and watched around 3 hours of Warhammer 40k Lore:

part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KyPjE1Sn-Ts&t=7s

Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2F3y2bJzDJQ&t=4935s

Now just to justify such an action, the videos are largely auditory – so I could have these playing in the background whilst I cooked, cleaned, parented and so forth, and the narrator (Luetin?) has the most chilled British(?) accent its surprisingly easy listening. Also I really enjoyed Space Crusade as a child, which is a much pared back version of Warhammer and I figure I should finally make sense of the source material.

The lore is pretty detailed but by and large the history of the sci fi universe goes something like this:

  1. Humans reach a very high level of technological advancement, colonizing the galaxy and presenting a far superior force to other alien races – people live in a relative utopia heavily reliant on AI
  2. AI turns against us (surprise surprise) and through a massive war, no longer having AI to rely on, and the ‘warp’ (a method of faster than light travel) become unstable the human race becomes scattered and surviving planets going the Mad Max way
  3. A Super powerful (sort of like Professor X crossed with Highlander) Emperor figure appears on Earth, conquers the planet, invents the iconic space marines and proceeds to re-unite the human planets across the galaxy. Things get good again, although AI is no essentially a heretical taboo which somewhat halters progress
  4. Through a series of mistakes the Emperor fails to protect his space marines from CHAOS (the big bad that comes from the warp) and an even more massive war happens almost resulting in the death of the Emperor and destruction of mankind
  5. The Emperor is left mortally injured strapped to his throne, requiring the sacrifice of psychics (I’m sure it makes sense somehow) to keep him alive, and despite his attempt to create a rational secular society, becomes an object of worship, and mankind becomes a sort of tyrannical sect, with the Emperor as God, and Chaos as heretics. Most of the race is devoted to warfare, individual lives matter little and overall everything sucks quite a bit.

But I wasn’t really posting to try and summarize a lengthy lore, I confess I actually enjoyed the chronology, certainly far more than I expected, which gave me some insight into what seems to make good world building:

  1. There is a fair dose of hubris and error

Just like in more individual stories, we are most interested in people, and how their beliefs lead them through a narrative. While the temptation is to use fiction and world-building to embrace joyful fantasy, the fact is we are naturally drawn to controversy and flawed heroes. Indeed sometimes it feels that in real like will we get is hubris and error, ergo there is only so much make-believe we can tolerate. All-knowing All-compassionate, always right leaders and cultures in lore are boring and bizarrely unbelievable (as Luetin notes in his videos the 40K universe is completely over the top, yet its the personal flaws that make the lore compelling, i.e. we’re willing to tolerate armoured space marines with angel wings because the characters are flawed like human beings)

2. Not everything goes according to plan

Similar to above I think a key part of fictional lore is not simply having a series of historical bullet points about what humans (or whatever) did next, but a history of intentions versus real outcomes. Middle Earth is a good example of a fictional world that contains numerous examples of planned creation and how it went haywire.

3. Provides fertile soil for story telling

Really this is the ultimate goal of world building. It seems to be achieved by meeting the above points. The brilliance of the 40k universe is there is enough going on to create endless stories; recurring threats of AI and Chaos, attempting to recover lost technology from a brighter time, religious strife, alien warfare, dodgy history and so on and so forth. A creation myth like ‘There are good guys and bad guys and a nice continent they live on and fight over’ (Ok I don’t know any world building that is like that but often I see attempts which focus too much on details which don’t prompt stories)

4. Finally the lore is riddled with gaps, controversy and hearsay

That first this might seem like cheating – ‘oi you just want to leave the lore open so you can tweak as necessary’ but mostly fiction needs to be realized as just that fiction. The beauty of make believe is the ability to retell stories in different ways. The 40k Lore is considered very variable with various ‘accounts’ variations and some large gaps. What this does brilliantly is leave imaginations open. I think when most authors think about world building they see the likes of Rowling and Tolkien get complicated on their level of detail and think they have to completely flesh out every step of their creation. Personally I think the real skill is knowing when to miss a fact, or blur some information.

Thanks for reading – if you have any great examples of world building please comment, or if you have any criticism happy to discuss too!





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