By Scott Krammer
On April 27th, we saw the release of Dawn of War III — a real-time strategy game for computers. Not only does Dawn of War III stand on the shoulders of its award winning predecessors, Dawn of War and Dawn of War II, it also stands on the shoulders of one of the largest intellectual properties in the sci-fi genre — Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000.
Originating as a tabletop wargame back in 1987 as a sci-fi counterpart to Warhammer Fantasy, the grim, dark future of the 41st millennium has grown exponentially, with thirty years of novels, video games, board games, card games, role-playing games, and more. To someone new to Warhammer 40k, so much content can be daunting.
Fear not — if it’s anything like its predecessors, Dawn of War III won’t require an existing familiarity with the entirety of Warhammer 40k canon. You will be able to thoroughly enjoy the crushing blows of a power fist, the psychic energies of an eldritch storm, or the volatile devices of an ork mekboy without fully understanding how it all works or where it all came from.
That being said, a little bit of a primer wouldn’t hurt, would it?
There are eight things you need to know —
Warhammer 40k is Still Fantasy
Within the science-fiction genre, there are two dominant sub-genres that are often used: hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi. In hard sci-fi, the science aspect of the genre plays a larger role, including more realistic applications of scientific laws or theories, and more often a scientific resolution to the plot. Soft sci-fi isn’t usually as concerned about the nitty-gritty details of the science it uses; there’s often a lot of hand-waving when it comes to explaining the science behind what we see.
On the hard-to-soft spectrum of science-fiction, I would place Warhammer 40,000 a few steps beyond “soft”. Let’s be honest, it’s practically fantasy.
The universe of Warhammer 40k does involve spaceships, aliens, lasers, and other aspects typical of science-fiction, but then it adds a healthy dose of sorcery, daemons, gods, and more. Sure, they explain away most of the “magic” as psychic energy, but they’re still not really trying to get anywhere close to hard science.
While I did say that Warhammer 40,000 is the sci-fi counterpart to Warhammer Fantasy, I wouldn’t hesitate to argue that 40k is no less fantastical.
Dystopia is an Understatement
Science-fiction is often used to explore the variety of potential futures, ranging from optimistic dreams of utopia to cautionary tales of dystopia, and everything in-between. Warhammer 40k takes the path of dystopia, but turns it up to eleven. The Warhammer community has adopted the use of the expression “grimdark” in order to describe it, derived from Warhammer 40,000’s own tagline — In the grim, dark future of 41st Millennium, there is only war.
So, what makes it so grim and so dark?
As the tagline states, there is only war. The universe is embroiled in constant warfare, with millions or billions of lives lost daily.
Yet, there’s more than just the warfare.
Humanity lives in an extremely oppressive system — unquestioning loyalty is forced, understanding of technology is shunned in favor of mysticism concerning the “machine spirits,” legislation is mired in a level of excessive bureaucracy that would put even the Vogons to shame, and every misstep is scrutinized by an overzealous Inquisition.
And that’s just the Imperium.
Beyond that, we’ve got endless hordes of rampaging orks, space elves whose depravity birthed a terrible chaos god, ancient undead robots that want to exterminate all life in the galaxy, and unknowable horrors hiding around every corner.
While I’ve daydreamed about what it would be like to visit Hogwarts, Narnia, Middle-Earth, Krynn, and any number of other fictional worlds, I wouldn’t wish a visit to the 41st Millennium on anyone.
The Immortal God-Emperor of Mankind is on Life Support
Humanity is ruled over by the God-Emperor, but he’s really not in great shape. The Emperor united humanity in the wake of some pretty dark times, and built a grand old galaxy-spanning empire, but then his favorite son, Horus, betrayed him sometime around the year 30,000. A massive conflict, known as the Horus Heresy, tore the Imperium apart, and at the end of it, the Emperor was dealt a mortal blow by Horus.
But humanity couldn’t live without their Emperor, so they entombed him in the Golden Throne, a device that kept him alive, though with severely limited capacities. Really, the only aspect of the God-Emperor that is still functioning is his psychic energy, which is focused into a beacon known as the Astronomicon. A thousand psykers a day are sacrificed to keep the Astronomicon alive, for without it, the Imperium would fall.
What’s the Astronomicon? Why is it so important? That’s up next.
There’s a “Warp Drive”, but no “Warp 9”
In most science-fiction settings, faster-than-light travel is a rather clean affair. You flip the switch, pull the lever, and suddenly you’re traveling to a flashy tube called hyperspace, and before long you’re halfway across the galaxy. Some are a little more serious, particularly as we move up the spectrum towards hard science, but it’s still usually a matter of having the right technology. In Warhammer 40k, faster-than-light travel is a nightmare.
There exists a realm — parallel to the material plane — known as the Warp. It’s a realm of pure chaotic psychic energy, wherein the laws of physics are merely guidelines, and terrifying daemons run rampant. To gaze into the warp is to go mad. Cthulu would love it there.
The Warp, however, is the only way mankind can achieve faster-than-light travel. Starships enter the Warp, protected by a technology known as the Gellar Field, and are able to travel across the galaxy at an exponentially increased speed. Hopefully. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out so well. If the Gellar Field flickers, even for just a moment, a daemonic incursion could spell doom for the ship. If the ship runs right through a warp storm, it could be torn apart. If the ship hits a temporal anomaly on its way out of the Warp, it could be tossed hundreds of years into the future — or perhaps it will arrive before it had even left.
I mentioned that gazing into the warp would cause insanity. How can you expect someone to navigate a starship through the Warp under those circumstances? There are two things that make it possible — Navigators, and the Astronomicon.
Navigators are humans that have been genetically altered through selective breeding to possess the Warp Eye — a third eye that can gaze into the Warp unprotected. The Navigator opens their third eye and peers into the Warp, seeking out the Astronomicon, the psychic beacon projected by the God-Emperor, and uses that as a lode star to navigate their vessel.
Without Navigators and the Astronomicon, faster-than-light travel would be impossible for humanity to achieve, and the millions of worlds within the Imperium would be isolated from one another, and overrun by their countless enemies.
And that’s why the God-Emperor matters.
The Imperium’s Prime Directive: Destroy the Alien
While Gene Roddenberry imagined a future wherein humanity lives in harmony with other species, and the crew of the Enterprise always makes a big deal about not interfering with any alien culture, any God-Emperor-fearing citizen of the Imperium of Man knows that there is only one proper response to contact with an alien species — extermination.
Humanity is extremely xenophobic to all alien life, which they refer to as the Xenos, to the point that any tolerance of the alien is considered an act of heresy.
It’s not an entirely bad policy — the Xenos want to destroy humanity, as well.
Alas, the wisdom of Bill and Ted — to be excellent to each other — has been long-forgotten in the 41st millennium.
Don’t Call for Tech Support
Technology in the 41st millennium is at the same time incredibly advanced, yet shrouded in ignorance. The Adeptus Mechanicus — the Machine Cult — are the only authorities on technology and how it works, and the general populace is left with no choice but to believe the mysticism that the Tech Priests spread concerning technology. A good, upstanding citizen knows better than to think that a device functions because of electricity, circuitry, or feats of engineering — it functions because of the Machine Spirit that dwells within it.
Outside of humanity, technology is a completely different story. Races like the Eldar (Space Elves) and the Necrons possess insanely advanced technology, such that it is beyond the comprehension of humanity. On the other hand, the Orks possess technology that is so un-advanced that it simply shouldn’t function. One of the younger, less dominant races, the Tau, possess technology that is more advanced than what humanity has, and is rapidly making technological advances. The Tyranids, on the other hand, don’t possess true technology, per se, but are capable of evolving advanced bio-technology.
Back to Dawn of War III. The game will include three factions to choose from. Let’s take a look at who they are:
The Space Marines
The Space Marines are genetically-engineered super-soldiers, the poster-child of Warhammer 40k. Serving the immortal God-Emperor of Mankind, they fight valiantly to protect humanity from the threats that they face on all sides — aliens, traitors, heretics and worse. Wearing high-tech power armor and wielding deadly boltguns, chainswords, or power fists, the Space Marines are a force to be reckoned with.
A mysterious and ancient race, the Eldar appear to be very similar to humans, in form, but with an unnatural grace and agility. They possess immense psychic powers, and have mastered the arts of divination. The Eldar live incredibly long lives, such that the passage of time means little to them; Eldar have been known to patiently bide their time, scheming for thousands of years to attain their goals.
Hulking, green-skinned brutes, the Orks are a race that is eternally violent. They aren’t evil, per se — they just really like smashing things. Orks gather into massive hordes, falling under the command of whoever is biggest among them. When an Ork horde grows large enough, the “Waaagh!!!” is called. Despite what the name implies, a “Waaagh!!!” is more than just a battle cry — it’s a military campaign, a great crusade of Orks just looking for a fight. Orks possess technology of a sort, but it appears to be little more than cobbled together scraps. Orks refer to themselves as Boyz, but in truth they have no gender — they grow from fungal spores left behind by other Orks.
Four’s a Crowd
Let’s talk about Chaos.
Even though the forces of Chaos won’t be a playable faction at this point, a familiarity with Chaos is integral to understanding the Warhammer 40k universe, and what makes it tick.
Ruled by four Chaos Gods — Khorne, Tzeentch, Nurgle, and Slaanesh — the daemons of the warp are the single greatest threat to the denizens of the 40k universe. The powers of Chaos work tirelessly to corrupt humanity, they feast on the souls of the Eldar, and often manipulate the Orks into doing their bidding. Each of the four chaos gods rule over different aspects of chaos, such as violence, change, disease and excess.
Regardless of whether or not Chaos will rear its ugly head in Dawn of War III, the 40k universe has been shaped by it.
There’s more. There’s a whole lot more. But this was a list of eight things, not eight-hundred, so we’ll leave it at that. If you want more, you can help yourself to one of the countless books, video games, tabletop games, or other ways to get into the universe of Warhammer 40,000.
Now get out there and play Dawn of War III!