Friday 7 June 2024

Space Wolfe: Or, Why Grimdark Needs a Theology

As somebody who is, let's say, Warhammer 40,000-curious (I played an awful lot of Warhammer Fantasy Battle, Warhammer 40K, Necromunda, Blood Bowl, WHFR etc in my teenage years but have only half kept an eye on GW products since), it has always interested me how the setting sets up but spectacularly fails to deliver on an obvious Christian theological inspiration. We get the trappings of a kind of pastiche, parody or satire of religion in the form of the Emperor. But it's basically shallow and teenage. 

This is entirely understandable - since the people who come up with the rules and write the novels are probably mostly themselves agnostics and atheists, and since most of the audience are too. But it has the effect of denuding the setting of what could be a great deal of emotional heft and import - something which I think even non-religious people could appreciate, much as they are able to appreciate the obviously Christian themes within the fiction of, say, Tolkien, Lewis, and Wolfe without having to feel as though they are being preached to.

Sticking with the triumverate of Tolkien, Lewis and Wolfe for a moment then, while clearly Lewis's work was more actively engaged in Christian apologetics than the other two, there is a strong thematic commonality between the three of them in that they all sought to depict fantasy worlds which were very different from our own but which were animated by an idea of divine grace. 

This is made very obvious through comparing the work of these authors to their non-Christian or secular equivalents - Ursula Le Guin, say, or ER Eddison, or George RR Martin, or Terry Goodkind, which typically posit a world which is largely defined by human will: the interest is in how individual people or groups amass power, or shape their own futures, or remake society, through their own actions. For Tolkien, Lewis and Wolfe on the other hand, while undoubtedly their stories are characterised by human heroism, that heroism is always reliant for its success on the notion that there is an underlying or overarching (pick your preferred term) natural goodness in the universe which both pulls events towards an ultimate telos and at crucial moments intervenes miraculously in acts of mercy, blessing and so on.

Hence, for example, in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe Edmund is given the chance to become heroic by the fact that Aslan intercedes with the Witch on his behalf to save his life. In The Hobbit Bilbo is able to change the world because of miraculous happenstances (Sting found in a random troll hoard; secret entrances and hidden meanings discovered in maps at opportune moments; stumbling on the ring; the intervention of the eagles and Beorn at the Battle of the Five Armies, etc.). In The Book of the New Sun Severian comes across the Claw of the Conciliator by sheer fluke at the end of the third book. And so on and so forth.

A consistent theme in Wolfe's fiction in particular is the thrusting of a young man into an evidently perverse and dangerous setting (Urth; Mythgarthr; Greece in the aftermath of the Persian invasion; etc.) and the subsequent discovery by that character that he holds a different morality to those around him - rather by 'accident'. And not only this; the character also then discovers that that this personal morality in fact fits into a broader moral structure which underpins the universe, such that the prevailing social order in which he is enmeshed is revealed to be a corruption of what is in fact True. Thus, to take the most obvious example, Severian finds himself by accident (which is to say, grace) stumbling on the awareness that he simply cannot live as a torturer without compunction. And this forces him, over the course of the novels, towards the understanding that the society in which he lives is evil and alien to the proper moral way of things, with explosive results.

The problem that 40K has, as I see it, is that it sets up a kind of metaphysical halfway house in this regard, in positing the perverse and dangerous 'grimdark' setting but hiding away from the counterpoint of natural goodness or right. All of the different factions, including the forces of the Imperium, are basically variations of baddies vying to impose their own conditions of Being on the universe. That's fine, as far as it goes - it works as the setting for a tabletop wargame. But there is something thin and unsatisfying about it when it comes to role playing games - being mere rogues in a 'crapsack world' is only to go with the flow, and going with the flow is not the stuff of good fiction, whether emergent or otherwise.

For events to feel as though they have consequence at the individual level within the context of a setting like that of Warhammer 40K, which is defined by all-or-nothing conflict, they have to be accompanied by the sense that the individuals involved are in some sense wrestling with and against the very conditions of that conflict. I am much more interested in the idea of people in the Warhammer 40K universe trying to do good in terms of a vision of morality that sits entirely at odds with the prevailing morality across the conflicting factions than I am in the basically cosmetic choice of picking between those factions, or the superficial one of glorying in grimdark kitsch. A Warhammer 40K roleplaying game in which the PCs hunt daemons or battle orks is one thing. One in which they try to do good in a different sense is much more appealing.

What I want, I realise I am saying, is for Gene Wolfe to come back from the dead and write Warhammer 40K fiction. Then we would be cooking with gas.

88 comments:

  1. Really like this post... that's all I have to say I guess.

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  2. Thanks for this post. I too am WH40k curious and occasionally pick up White Dwarf. I'm not very good at delving into the more theological aspects of fiction - personally I barely notice them in Tolkein (the main characters are good and decent but I wouldn't say overtly Christian in their views and behaviour) and only know them in C.S. Lewis because he hits the reader over the head with his Christian analogies & proxies. With regards to WH40k I have previously just accepted that it is constant grimdark and there are no good guys, at least in terms of large factions. And benevolent, decent humans are never allowed to have an impact on the whole grim dark setting. However, you have made me think what a morally decent person would be like in WH40k, what sort of stories they would tell and whether or not they could make a difference even to one planet, one regiment or one space marine chapter. One could argue that being grimdark is WH40k's shtick. If it wasn't grimdark, it wouldn't be WH40k. But amidst all that grimdark, I like to think there could be some points of light.

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    1. This is the thing - I think the PCs need something to push against, and if the setting is relentless 'grimdark', then being the 'goodies' becomes the most radical position to adopt.

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  3. As someone who has run a Dark Heresy campaign that lasted for years, I must say that "being mere rogues in a crapsack world" is an immensely fun and satisfying experience. Much more so than playing amoral rogues in a setting that has redeeming qualities.
    Also in my experience the archetypical WH40k story is good people trying to do good in spite of the world they live in, granted this may have shifted over time, I don't keep up with the books. In the early WH40k novels Jaq Draco, Gaunt, and even Lexandro D'Arquebus are fundamentally decent people, trying to make their world somewhat better. Their failure to do so makes their struggle more poignant, as they are dragged down by their own personal flaws, not unlike the Greek tragedies of old (only classical Greek tragedies were written better). So it is of course entirely possible to play morally good character struggling against the grim darkness of the far future, and I would argue there need not be any Christian themes in this, as seeing one's own morality clash with those around them and subsequently concluding that one is in fact morally superior is part of the human condition, and people of all faiths (or lack of faith) are prone to doing it.

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    1. But what underlying morality is the 'fundamental decency' of these characters based on?

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    2. Morality can exist without religion, sometimes people just Want To Do Good

      If anything I think wh40k gets milage from being very explicitly anti-religion and anti-christianity

      The world is explicitly one in which most gods are evil, and the closest thing to a "good" god must be fed with a parade of endless sacrifices. I think there's a lot more mileage in 40k as a tool to explore what zealotry does then as a tool to explore what genuine faith can do.

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    3. Well, no, I really have to challenge this idea that 'sometimes people just want to do good'. How do they know what 'good' is if they've grown up in the grimdark universe, and if there is no sense of any underlying objective (i.e. religious) good?

      No doubt 40K is very anti-religion (I understand what you're saying here) but this, ironically, makes it very mainstream and bland - and so pretty uninteresting - in the contemporary marketplace.

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    4. The simple principle of "Something bad happened to me, I want to make it impossible for this to happen ever again because it felt so bad" is a perfectly good motivation to do good without any sense of objective morality. But also simply helping your in-group is a pretty well-established behaviour in humans, and Imperium propaganda is pretty clear that the entirety of humanity should be your in-group (as opposed to heretics, mutants and aliens).

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    5. Now we're getting somewhere interesting. Can you explain how 'Something bad happened to me, I want to make it impossible for this to happen ever again because it felt so bad' lacks a sense of objective morality? It sounds like the motivation of somebody who wants to reduce suffering, based on an objective notion that reducing suffering is good.

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    6. But the notion that reducing suffering is good cannot be objective, because not everyone even agrees with it. The Tau would agree, that it is always good. The Slaaneshi would say of course reducing suffering is morally bad, what's wrong with you. The Khornite would say that suffering is morally neutral, it's simply a consequence of a morally good action (war). So no, 'Something bad happened to me, I want to make it impossible for this to happen ever again because it felt so bad' is not based on objective morality, it's based on a personal preference to not suffer.

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    7. So what you seem to be talking about here is a fundamental dispute about what is or is not morally good, based on competing ideals about what is objectively right or wrong. I'm struggling to understand how that is incompatible with anything I've said.

      If what you are talking about is about a purely personal preference not to suffer, then I don't really get what that has to do with morality. That's just like saying that a sentient being doesn't want to experience things it doesn't like. That's not a moral issue.

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    8. No, I'm talking about a fundamental dispute over what is or is not morally wrong, based on personal preferences, as at the end of the day what one considers moral or not is indistinguishable from personal preference (and many, including me, would argue that no such distinction exists in the first place). Notice how the hypothetical plot of the story about our morally-good-as-we-understand-it 40k protagonist doesn't change whether they want to do good because of an innate moral framework or because they don't want to experience things they don't like and are willing to bring about far-reaching societal change to achieve that goal.

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    9. OK - so no distinction exists between morality and personal preferences. That's what you believe. Gotcha.

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    10. I mean I see no reason to believe that there is a difference, and just stating that such a distinction exists sounds like a huge assumption to make without at least some good evidence.

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    11. Well, let's start with the basics. If there is no distinction between morality and personal preferences, why is child sexual abuse wrong? Some people have a personal preference for abusing children. Yet we feel perfectly able to say that preference is wrong. Why? Because we know that there is a distinction between morality and personal preferences, even if (for many people) it doesn't rest on a very carefully thought-out position.

      One's personal preference for abusing children should not trump the many other countervailing principles, and we take this position because we have a notion there is an underlying morality at work that is not a matter of mere 'personal preferences'.

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    12. Consider a different viewpoint: we say child abuse is wrong, because we are a social species, and as such we have evolved to prefer pro-social behaviours such as not abusing children, since they increase the rate of our survival as a group. We also have evolved to want to cast out members of our society who engage in anti-social behaviours (such as abusing children) since that also increases the rate of they group's survival. Anti-social behaviours however remain relevant, since if one gets away with them, they can significantly boost one's rate of survival to the expense of the group's chances of survival.
      Because both pro-social behaviours and the shunning of anti-social behaviours are to some extent hard-coded into us which is then reinforced by teaching from the rest of society we develop a feeling for what our society deems good and what it deems bad. This gives us the feeling to say that someone else's preference is wrong, even though the only difference between our preferences and theirs is that ours align more with those of others around us.

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    13. You're throwing up a smokescreen. Never mind evolution - we're talking about morality, not how our moral sense has evolved. Is it wrong for one person to sexually abuse another? I'm sure you'd agree that it is. But, if so, why?

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    14. It's not a somekscreen. It's an explanation as to why we feel as though morality exists as a valid category, even though it doesn't. To answer your question: yes, and the reason is because I'd prefer a world where nobody was abused (sexually or in any other way). But I can also say that preferring the Star Wars prequels over the original trilogy is wrong (and many would agree with me), because I prefer the original trilogy. I don't think you would consider that a moral question. So if morality is distinct from preference, where does morality end and where does preference begin?

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    15. Well, why would you prefer to live in a world in which nobody is abused?

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    16. Different Anonymous20 June 2024 at 07:31

      I'm not that person but I basically agree - We prefer to live in a world where nobody is abused because abuse is bad for our community/culture/tribe. Groups that allow abuse to happen are less successful. Being part of a successful group with rules against abuse means my children and my genes will be more successful. And there will be more of them to spread those rules.

      These rules are handed down to me both by my genes (Certain things are inherently distasteful on a biological level) and socially as part of a cultural memeplex. Different cultures have different rules and those cultures are in competition, both directly and indirectly.

      If morality is about being successful, why do I not believe that Might Makes Right or that I should pursue some strategy of domination over others? Well, historically that has been an effective strategy, but it turns out that cooperation tends to win out over exploitation on a long enough time horizon. The field of Game Theory is all about this.

      Is this moral relativism? Yes. But not in a weak, wishy-washy 'everyone's opinion is valid' kind of way. In a 'I will ally with others who want to coordinate with me in being altruistic to punish those who who endanger our successful cooperation' kind of way.

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    17. Buddhism (to give just one example) predates Christianity by centuries, and has a pretty different set of underpinning assumptions. But by a sort of convergent moral evolution, Buddhists have arrived at a bunch of moral precepts that overlap quite a bit with Christian morality. In particular, Buddhism rejects cruelty in all its forms; an ideal Buddhist, like an ideal Christian, wouldn't want to live in a world where anyone is abused, and (ideally) would seek to end the abuse.

      Point here being, you could have recognizable-as-good-to-us "good guys" without necessarily needing a specifically Christian moral framework. A traditionalist Jew or a follower of Socrates would find the Imperium just as abhorrent as we do.

      Doug M.

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    18. Different Anonymous - it's not moral relativism; it's a category error. Saying that we have evolved a moral sense and therefore we have created morality, or that there is no underlying moral order in the universe, is like saying our eyes evolved and therefore we created light or that light just exists in our minds

      In any event, the point about the Sam Harris view on morality that is being espoused here is the same problem that Dostoyevsky described long ago: it doesn't tell anybody what they should actually *do* in any given situation. Should one act in accordance with moral precepts or not? And what actually are those moral precepts in the fine grained sense which human beings actually need? I'm afraid that cod evolutionary behaviourism doesn't answer those questions.

      (It also doesn't explain moral relativism, by the way - why it is that, for example, the Aztecs thought ritual human sacrifice was a moral good but modern Mexicans don't. Anyone who attributes the fact that human sacrifice is no longer practiced institutionally in Mexico to natural selection is - I am anxious not to use inflammatory language here - very poorly informed.)

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    19. Different Anonymous21 June 2024 at 00:46

      The universe doesn't owe us a satisfactory answer to the question 'What should we actually *do*.' I wish it were otherwise.

      I'm not sure I understand the point about the Aztecs.
      The Aztecs were conquered by the Spanish who imposed their Catholic system of ethics upon their defeated foes. Is any other explanation required?

      I do not claim that culture spreads by literal Darwinian natural selection. Just that there is an optimisation process involved where cultures that produce more effective societies usually (but not always) outcompete those that are less effective. I feel like this is reasonably self-evident. After all, culture includes things like technology. Ethics are, I would contend, a kind of social technology.

      The reference to biological influences on morality was about the fact that certain taboos seem to be backed up by behavioural adaptations in humans and some other species. For example, many species have mechanisms to discourage incest or cannibalism. But for some species it's the opposite! It just depends on what the most adaptive strategy is.

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    20. "Well, why would you prefer to live in a world in which nobody is abused?" Because it makes me sad to see/talk to people who have been abused, and I don't want to be sad.

      I'm going to offer my takes on some of the points you raised to Different Anon as well, since you didn't answer my question about the limits of morality.

      "Saying that we have evolved a moral sense and therefore we have created morality, or that there is no underlying moral order in the universe, is like saying our eyes evolved and therefore we created light or that light just exists in our minds"
      Oh, come on these two are nowhere near similar statements. We have multiple methods to prove light exists which are independent of our eyes. We have absolutely none to prove that morality exists, outside of feelings.

      "here is the same problem that Dostoyevsky described long ago: it doesn't tell anybody what they should actually *do* in any given situation."
      Well, yes that's the point. You shouldn't just wait for some outside force to tell you what to do, you should think about what kind of world you want to live in, and what steps that are likely to lead to that outcome.

      "why it is that, for example, the Aztecs thought ritual human sacrifice was a moral good but modern Mexicans don't."
      Because the Spanish came in and tortured and killed anyone who thought human sacrifice was a moral good, or who didn't impress on their children strong enough that human sacrifice was morally reprehensible. You are right that this isn't in the realm of natural selection, but it is definitely not because of some objective morality either, unless you consider having the ability and willingness to use extreme violence part of that objective morality (and I suspect you don't).

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    21. Without wishing to appear rude - how old are you? You've written that 'You shouldn't just wait for some outside force to tell you what to do, you should think about what kind of world you want to live in, and what steps that are likely to lead to that outcome'. I'm afraid, my friend, that you do then in fact believe that there is an underlying objective morality and indeed such a thing as natural right, but it seems you are simply unaware that you do! You are confusing the idea that there is an underlying morality with the notion that there is an 'outside force telling us what to do', which is not what it means at all. It simply means that there are some things that are naturally good and some things that are naturally bad. You obviously know this and believe it, because otherwise why would it make you sad to know that other people have been abused?

      On the Aztecs: I was simply pointing out that anybody who wants to attribute the development of our morality to evolutionary biological mechanisms is on a hiding to nothing. The reason why people in Mexico no longer carry out mass ritualistic human sacrifice is not because that behaviour was evolutionarily maladaptive - they built by all accounts a stunningly advanced civilisation for the period - but because of disease, war, the genius of Cortes, luck, etc. That was history at work, not evolutionary pressure.

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    22. No offense taken, I'm 33. Sorry, but implicit in the statement that there are things that are morally good and things that are morally bad *is* the expectation that you should do what's morally good and not do what's morally bad. Otherwise these wouldn't be moral categories, but simple descriptive ones like 'pro-social' and 'anti-social'. As for why it makes me sad to know that other people have been abused, it's this little something called empathy, that most of us possess independently of which moral framework we follow. Now you could use empathy to derive a morality system, but such systems can't ever be universal, simply because of the different levels of empathy different people have. That is to say one person's 'child abuse' is another person's 'eh, that's just how it is when you are a kid'.
      Basically what I'm saying is that if morality was some independently existing thing, like gravity, we would expect people to interact with it in the same manner everywhere, all the time. The fact that this is demonstrably not happening points to it not being some universal thing independent of ourselves, but something that each person develops themselves. This point is made even better when we consider how different what's seen as moral can vary between people who claim to follow the same system of morality. I doubt for example that you would find it morally good to murder people for refusing to convert to your faith, but for example Cortez, who derived his perception of morality mostly from the same sources you do, did.)

      On a sidenote: I don't think anybody who has the slightest idea about behavioural evolution has ever claimed that aggression towards out-groups (the Aztecs mostly sacrificed their defeated enemies) is maladaptive. You'll notice that Cortez and friends were doing it too, and it worked out great for them and their descendants.

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    23. I raised the Aztecs only because somebody further up in the comments was precisely making the point that people's moral sense had evolved on the basis of what was evolutionarily successful. I was using that example to demonstrate that this is patently false and ahistorical - and only that.

      Let's focus on this idea that 'this little something called empathy' is something that 'most of us possess independently of which moral framework we follow'. And let's try to unpick that sticking with our Aztec example. The Aztecs sacrificed human beings at an almost industrial scale. So, please tell me: Did they have a lens on this 'little something called empathy' which 'most of us possess independently of which moral framework we follow'?

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  4. feels to me like 40k is (at this point in its existence) simply a setting tremendously unsuited for any sort of trad-ish roleplaying games. I'd love to see a more detached, narrativist game where you chronicle the doomed, tragic last days of an Astra Militarum regiment, or where you play actual demigodlike figures capable of significantly influencing the setting but straightjacketed by the bureaucracy of the Imperium, or-- and this one is a helluva stretch but I WANT IT-- collaboratively map the insides of a Tyrranid hive-mind through experimental poetry or something.

    but just straight-up playing an Inquisitor or a Rogue Trader or whatever just doesn't feel like a rewarding thing when so much of the setting is primed to make these roles feel comically, cosmically irrelevant.

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    1. But how different is this insignificance compared to that of Call of Cthulhu, where you know that all victories are temporary and ultimately meaningless? Are a mid-level D&D party's exploits any more meaningful with regards to the cosmic battle of Law and Chaos?

      I think there is definitely place for local change and local victories in a 40k game. Sure, you'll probably not topple the whole Imperium or instigate social change throughout the known universe, but you can still make a difference in a geographically (and if our own world's of any indication, temporally) limited fashion.

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    2. I really like those ideas, Captain Crowbar, and I know what you mean. But I also agree with Ynas Midgard.

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  5. The essence and maybe the import of this post seems applicable across many popular tabletop game subcultures. We players, and more importantly, referees, GMs, authors and designers seem too often to not delve too deeply into anything of substance. I suppose the fact that "it's just a game" is a mitigating factor, but the missed opportunities to explore something meaningful bothers me. Given the amount of time many of us spend in the hobby there should be something of substance that emerges. We can each contribute a bit more to our own games toward that goal, but the fun may suffer as a result. This is a topic which could occupy an extended discussion I suppose. Perhaps someone will write the book.
    Cheers!

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  6. Within the deep and strange lore of 40K, and at a RPG-level, you could dabble in the Sensei? They're presumed to be the offspring/descendents of the Emperor when he was walking around as a "normal" man for ~30,000 years, now maybe blurred into the category "Perpetual" (a kind of Immortal, basically - like Highlander but without the mutual extermination), and were basically a way to play a Jedi Knight, but in the universe of WH40K - trying to do good, being a Robin Hood or Javert figure, but constantly struggling agains the corrupt empire of your presumed Father figure. They got semi-written out in 3rd Edition, as a presumed Chaos Cult, but then the Perpetual stuff turned up in Heresy, so who knows...

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    1. That's a nice idea. Space paladins. Although I think space marines make the most sense as occupying that role in general.

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  7. (Sensei Anon on a second post) I would also suggest Oll Pierson as an example, in fact he's a *very* Wolfeian character, as he is literally a Catholic, despite (spoilers) being about 4,000 years older than Christ?

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    1. Ollanius Persson is who came to mind for me as well.

      To be fair, he is also explicitly a man out of time, AND lives in the 30k timeline which is merely shadowy, not GrimDark.

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  8. "That's fine, as far as it goes - it works as the setting for a tabletop wargame. But there is something thin and unsatisfying about it when it comes to role playing games..."

    - When I wargame, I enjoy running odious villains - my usual Warhammer Fantasy/40k faction on the table is Chaos, whether for skirmish games or big battles. But in those (vanishingly rare) times that I get to PLAY and not run an RPG, I somehow keep role-playing heroes looking for a chance to die in defense of the party or their cause (probably a sign of some martyr complex behind my green curtain) :-).

    Though I'm skeptical about much of contemporary 40k as a "satire," the satirical quality of the original setting pushes back against the theologizing move you raise here. I suppose that satire, always being critically and externally referent, doesn't need to (can't?) sustain an internally coherent mythic moral universe. Today, the proliferation of 40k products and stories puts the satirical in conflict with the heroic and they mythic - raising the problem, as I think you've already noted here, that everyone is a jerk, so why are we rooting for one side as heroes?

    For me, there's sort of an opposite effect here to what one might call the "Roddenberry Effect." Growing up watching old Star Trek episodes, I always found that the most genuinely interesting stories were the rare ones that showed some darkness through the cracks, showed that even Gene Roddenberry's space-utopian vision still had room for genuine ugliness and ambiguity. With 40k, perhaps it's the opposite. Even canonically, the setting does have little glimmers of stories about hope and virtue; it just tends to squish them casually (I think of a side note about an imperial assassin sent to kill the entire gov't of a planet that turned to ancient-style democracy).

    One of the more interesting examples of a 40k story that really gave room and scope for exploring issues you raised came in a somewhat celebrated fan-fiction project years ago. Someone made a setting called "50k: The Shape of the Nightmare to Come." Basically, they took 40k, pushed it forward into the future the same distance from the Horus Heresy, and then showed how the setting could get even worse, even MORE grimdark. But then something interesting happened; the same writer (I think) later released "60k: The Age of Dusk." Here, 20,000 years after 40k, the galaxy was in an utter mess (there were two rival "chaos imperiums" and myriad fractured human principalities, and the old emperor had long since become a horrifying Warp God of Order and a great bane to the galaxy. But there was a gleam of real hope; the ancient Primarch Vulkan returned and began carving out a new, smaller, desperate realm dedicated to his understanding of virtue -- and to fighting against the twisted, tyrannical successors of what once had been loyalist imperial space marine chapters.

    I tried making my own hacked 40k setting for our home games, in which a coalition of Astartes finally yield to conviction and start fighting against imperial tyranny, but my kids refused to condone such a betrayal of the satirical grimdark principle. :-)

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  9. Warhammer is unapologetically a pastiche. The Emperor is of course lifted from Frank Herbert, and the other religious faction, Chaos, from Michael Moorcock. Given that Dune is on one level a criticism of organised religion, and that Moorcock consciously rejects Tolkien-style romanticism, it's certainly POSSIBLE to inject a religious-moral viewpoint, but it seems to stretch the usefulness of the pastiche. It's not fertile ground.

    Also, although my familiarity with it is twenty years out of date, Warhammer isn't too serious a game. It's hard to maintain the pathos of fighting for virtue in a setting where a polkadot space marine in heels can shred a green football hooligan to death with his electric guitar.

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    1. I think over the last twenty years or so it has become a lot more serious. That's what I gather from keeping half an eye on things.

      I don't know if I agree that it's not fertile ground. Of course it was pastiche when it was first conceived, but the setting as it now exists has evolved far beyond those humble beginnings!

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    2. Just because a fictional universe has completely silly and goofy ass ideas when examined closely or taken at face value doesn't mean you can't still treat the in universe actions decently seriously. Take anime/manga: a lot of the stuff in it, when described in a vacuum, often sounds like an inane mashup of ludicrous concepts and they are. Take Dragonball, the ur-modern fighting Shonen: the Android and Cell saga alone is a riff on Terminator, with a time travelling character warning the heroes (themselves a gaggle of wuxia characters-mixed-with-scifi elements) that a mad scientist is going to create robotic killing machines that will end their lives. Only to later spiral into more chaos when another creation of said mad scientist, a genetic combination of all the major heroes and villains with access to all their powers show up, culminating into a storyline about the passing of the torch from father to son, with said father being an alien who is based off Sun Wukong given a Superman-esque origin. Sounds utterly ridiculous at face value and an an insane mish mash of concepts.

      But if you're reading the story and can suspend your disbelief, then it stop becoming an issue. You don't even think of the universe in those terms, because the universe follow (mostly) its own internal logic where all these disparate scifi and fantasy elements are blended together.

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    3. Yes - I definitely think that 40K has become much more than the sum of its parts. (This was also true of the old setting for Warhammer Fantasy.)

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    4. All the fun/interesting settings are more than the sum of their (often goofy) parts. That is what makes them click with people and make them attached, as you can always strip down any fictional universe to its barest components and inspiration, declaring it a trite amalgalm.

      40k is just a tiiiiny bit more blatant with the, ahem, 'inspiration' on a conceptual level.

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    5. All the fun/interesting settings are more than the sum of their (often goofy) parts. That is what makes them click with people and make them attached, as you can always strip down any fictional universe to its barest components and inspiration, declaring it a trite amalgalm.

      40k is just a tiiiiny bit more blatant with the, ahem, 'inspiration' on a conceptual level.

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  10. As much as I'm a fan of the grimderp as a whole setting aesthetic, this is not necessarily how I played it off when I was running Dark Heresy. The true crushing grimdark is in the inescapable realities of the setting, such as mankind's decayed state, the inescapable attempts at corruption from the whispers of Chaos and the fact most Xenos are generally either flat out utterly evil or at the very least self serving.

    However, on the smaller scale of things there's still room for heroism even if one could argue there's nothing really truly heroic in keeping the status quo, but changing said status quo to the 40k universe is such a herculean task not even a Primarch with plot armor could feasible do it. Instead, the focus is on the human sacrifice to rage against the dying of the light. The desperate battles, be it actual grand battles or unearthing and exposing of evil forces, to keep the flame of humanity alive. The Imperium may be a crappy place but there's no denying that from Imperial citizen to the lofty Astartes, fighting and sacrificing themselves to save others, be it a single hive to a whole sector is nonetheless a heroic act worthy of a whole ttrpg campaign. I never played off the average Imperial as some pants on head evil person. While the setting is rife with sociopaths for sure and the Imperial creed is a hateful one toward what it deems heretical, to me the average Imperial citizen is still fundamentally human with the same aspirations, hopes and dreams as anyone in the current age.

    So to me, at least, it still has room for heroism even if that heroism is a heroic sacrifice usually prefaced with shooting a bolter or lasgun into the face of a monster. Maybe it doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things, but it matters to the characters and the people they try to save, which is a rare ethos in 40k but one you can find among the likes of the Lamenters.

    40k also just lend itself well to horror games, where its fine if more than half the cast die off in some gruesome way. Pick anything suitably scary from the setting and throw it at people who are ill equipped to fight it and you have an instant B-Movie scenario.

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    1. To me 40K's universe makes a million times more sense with the Imperium as flawed goodies (which is kind of how I remember it) rather than as yet another variation of the baddies.

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    2. It effectively always is, despite the protests to the contrary.

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    3. To me the entire premise of the setting and of the Imperium as a whole IS the very interesting idea that such a crumbling, corrupt shitshow of a totalitarian Empire ARE THE GOOD GUYS BECAUSE EVERYTHING ELSE IS WORSE! As far as humanity is concerned, if you like being a human and a horribly mutated insane slave to darkness or a corpse, this is as best at it gets. There's not a whole lot more out there for you except maybe Tau who may or may not sterilize you.

      Its worth noting that the Imperium definitely doesn't see itself as evil. Sure, few factions do (except Chaos when its self aware enough to admit it and Dark Eldars who don't give a fuck). Anything vile it does is seen as a necessary evil and despite what the writers sometimes claim a lot of what they do is indeed necessary. If you're an average human being in 40k, everything else wants you dead. The Imperium will probably end up killing you, but that's probably more out of neglicence or considering your death a necessary sacrifice for the greater whole of humanity. But in practice, most people fighting the enemies of the Imperium genuinely do it out of the belief that it is to save the species and help secure its survival and place in the galaxy against overwhelming odds. Sure, some Imperial leaders are genuinely psychos but for every Kryptmann or Goge Vandire there's a generally upstanding guy who wants to save as much of humanity as he's capable. Imperial history is just as much littered with self sacrificing martyrs as it is with planet destroying psychopaths.

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    4. Yes - I wrote something a few years ago about how this elevates the setting to one of tragedy in the dramatic sense: the only viable option is to struggle vainly against bad outcomes. That message has a very venerable tradition in literature...

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  11. This post brought to mind the Chalion books by Lois McMaster Bujold. They're fantasy books set in Not-Reconquista Spain (with a prequel set a few hundred years in the past in Not-Medieval Germany) with an I Can't Believe It's Not Medieval Catholic Church. Not too creative on its face but she puts more effect into breaking life into the Not-Catholic Church than in any of a hundred other similar fantasy churches I've seen in books and games.

    She doesn't have the subtly or skill of Tolkien and Wolfe so that it's much more cut and dried what the gods are doing, how they're doing it, and why they're doing the things they do. But what is nice is that the theological worldbuilding really comes through to drive the plot in ways that are satisfying.

    The gods come across as basically benevolent in the way that they use humans as pawns to get what they want, but with very different priorities than those of humans.

    It's also nice that the closest thing to a Satan analogue isn't force of cosmic evil and the evil that exists is more understandable human fuckery. Tolkien can pull of a Satan analogue well but probably the single worst thing about Tolkien pastiches is their endless parade of Dark Lords who don't really have human motivations.

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    1. That sounds interesting. I've read some of the Bujold books; I don't dislike her. Thanks for the receommendation.

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    2. For Bujold's fantasy The Curse of Chalion is the main starting point. It's really my favorite take on I Can't Believe It's Not Medieval Catholicism fantasy I've read, although that's really not a high bar. Although more "huh, that's a clever bit of worldbuilding" than the sort of, sublime you get from Tolkein at his best.

      REALLY like the worldbuilding in the prequel (The Hallowed Hunt) but the plot is a bit thin.

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  12. Would you believe I've been putting together notes on something related?

    Anyway, something more constructive.

    1) I'm pretty certain that someone in the early days of 40k had read The Book of the New Sun and worked elements of it in. The ruined future feudal world is part of that; the tip-of-the-hat in the shape of a spaceship called Terminus Est another. The likeness of the Alzabo to the Omophagea is also telling. You'll occasionally see fan material commenting on the weirdness of the latter - a testament to the depths of the source of the former?
[https://wh40k.lexicanum.com/wiki/Creation_of_a_Space_Marine#Omophagea]

    2) Further Wolfean young men thrust into 'an evidently perverse and dangerous setting' - The Land Across (American traveller in shadowy isolated Ruritania gets his passport confiscated), Pirate Freedom (young man from the Near Future chucked back in time to the Spanish Main).

    3) I'm not certain I can quite see a way forward for 'Doing Good' in a stereotypical sense for a 40k RPG. However, there is a lens of interpretation we can use for a 40k-authentic (or, at least, fitting) form of virtue.
To turn to Lewis - we do have an image of the helpless and hopeless in his work. We can point to The Last Battle.* Per Michael Ward's Planet Narnia, we can consider through the lens of Saturn - the Medieval and Renaissance Saturn, described in (among other things) The Discarded Image** and The Ransom Trilogy. Quoting Ward, that quality which Lewis called Saturnocentric 'means astringent, stern, tough, unmerry, uncomfortable, unconciliatory, and serious, though not necessarily profound or virtuous.' Lewis identified those who has gone through the Great War as born under Saturn.
That said, Saturn is not as such an evil - Saturnine characters are not exclusively villains in Lewis's work. Indeed, in Dante's Paradisio, Saturn is present alongside the other planets; his sphere is that of Contemplatives.

    4) So, if we must imagine a 40k fiction or game working with the Saturnine qualities and ending with some triumph of the good, what do we get? A bitter struggle, despair, trudging, misfortune. The triumph is in some distant preservation for a coming dawn (..a New Sun). Resting on the association with contemplatives and monasticism, perhaps we see an iteration of A Canticle for Liebowitz.***
    Our protagonists by the end are dead or thrust into some form of hermitage: waiting, watching, guarding, whispering prayers ceaselessly.

    *(Assume I'm aware of assorted criticisms of things in it.)
    ** Of Saturn in The Discarded Image: 'In the earth his influence produces lead [soldiers?!]; in men, the melancholy complexion; in history, disasterous events....He is connected with sickness and old age.....A good account of his promoting fatal accidents, pestilence, treacheries and ill luck in general occurs in [Chaucer's] The Knight's Tale....sometimes called The Greater Infortune, Infortuna Major.'
    ***One canticle is clearly no longer enough: in the Grim Darkness of the Far Future, we require FORTY THOUSAND Canticles for Liebowitz.

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    1. Really interesting - you should write it all up. I like the emphasis on the Saturnocentric in particular. I have The Land Across in my unread books pile; I was also thinking of the first part of the Fifth Head of Cerberus.

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    2. As requested....
      https://worldbuildingandwoolgathering.blogspot.com/2024/06/lewis-and-saturn-in-41st-millennium.html

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  13. Hmmm, I do not have an answer rather more just a collection of
    half-baked thoughts on this.
    In some ways, this is coming from the perspective of someone who likes Chaos, warhammer 40k has a theology, and it is Chaos. Though, it is a law of the jungle morality.
    Also, I do not think I would like a theology in warhammer that is based on Christianity, partly because the Imperial Cult isn't Christianity, it is a parody on Conservative Christianity and authoritarian religion and authoritarianism in general. Though that doesn't negate that there are characters who perform a Christian morality in the Imperium.
    The Emperor isn't Jesus Christ (regardless of what the lore says), he is the conquering, authoritarian oppressor (he is more an evil Charlemagne). The warrior king Jesus as opposed to the actual Jesus who was a practicing Jewish anarchist.
    To make a theology with the Emperor in charge of it, would be falling into the folly of the Imperium. Taken from an outside perspective, the Emperor is a truly horrific figure, a ruthless authoritarian, oppressing monster. The Emperor isn't some good god fallen from grace, he is a fascist god fallen into disgrace.
    I feel like I'm rambling, partly because I do not want to come off as somehow Anti-Christian. I'm not Christian or Catholic, though, and I don't want to be disparaging them. Yet I think there is a critique of Christianity (though how well done is up for debate) in 40k, showing a mirror, evil version of Christianity would seem from someone outside that particular worldview.
    In some ways, the Chaos Gods are better than the Emperor, at least they are honest about themselves.

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    1. Interesting you say that that theology of Warhammer 40K is chaos. That makes sense in its own terms.

      I wrote this a few years ago and feel it is relevant: https://monstersandmanuals.blogspot.com/2022/08/chaos-and-history.html

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  14. I enjoy Warhammer 40K for its deliberate straining of various moral frameworks for what is at least quasi-humorous effect. Presenting factions that in any other setting would be striking, memorable villains and rendering them, through circumstance, sympathetic. But it's not just about ironic inversion; there is also a more standard ethical virtue to the setting -- it's noteworthy, I'd argue, that I enjoy 40k as a universe, whereas misanthropic, black-and-black-and-very-dark-grey settings don't interest me.

    It's a setting where most of the exits are sealed and all that seems to be left for its inhabitants is a slow, inevitable degradation, and yet they strive to hold back the final descent in whatever twisted, crippled, but genuine way they can, often even without really knowing what they're doing. It's a setting about survival of the soul.

    I'm not religious, not theistic, but for those that are -- and assuming this question, this scenario, makes any degree of sense within your worldview -- what would you do if God were dead? Give up on everything He was? Or try to be some remnant or echo of Him, to shine a little of His Light even in the most wretched of circumstances? Blasphemous as it might seem, you are God now, or the only, stunted substitute possible.

    There's the Imperium itself, a brutal totalitarian zealous military machine fuelled by blind faith (knowingly blind, blindness as an acknowledged virtue), in which individual human life is meaningless. Yet not only is there justification for these traits, they preserve some genuine human spirit in the face of that which is memetically completely inhuman -- and some of that human spirit is even compatible with more common notions of virtue. Circumstances and cruel conspiracy has pushed them to the very edge of "worth saving", and yet much as the Emperor Himself does, we see that they still are. That spark of "be better than you are" always remains, always striving for some sort of expression no matter how warped the vessel (forgive the possible pun there). Is that not inspiring?

    There's the Tau, expansionist silver-tongued manipulator-imperialists who will remold everyone into servants of the Greater Good. In most other settings, an obvious evil; here, the closest the setting comes to a default "good guy" -- in that, they're the only faction where their conquest and annexation of your planet might *improve* your standard of life, and who might genuinely want what's best for you. And if they genocide you, they'll at least be universalist enough to weave a fiction that "explains" your disappearance, rather than assume that they don't need an excuse.

    There's the Harlequins and Cegorach, creepy cultish circus performers who are led by and worship an entity not too far removed from Pennywise the Dancing Clown (mocking, sinister, space-sewer-dwelling master of fear and deception). They'd usually be demonic; here, they're a force for *resistance* against damnation, for small, sustained hope for the future, for restoration of culture, honour and purpose. The Laughing God is arguably a "good guy" among the few remaining deities.

    Even the Orks, the most obviously comedic faction, who recontextualise brutal warfare as simple good fun and who are inherently likeable simply for being (ironically) at peace with their nature -- even in the most brutal, pointless, uncultured life there can be something inspiring, because life strives.

    There's a reason why my favourite Chaos God is Nurgle -- arguably the inversion of the inversion. Nurgle, as with all Chaos, is unquestionably No Good. It is spiritual evil to succumb to him. Yet Grandpapa Nurgle is quite a nice fellow, really. He just wants to hold us all in His Pestilent Embrace. Isn't it nice to simply give up and accept the bliss of not having to be better, to wallow happily in your deficiency?

    No, says the Human (and Tau, and Eldar, and even arguably Ork and Necron) part of the setting. No, it's not enough. We must strive.

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    1. Yes, thanks for that. I am fully sold on that as a description of a compelling setting. My only quibble is that I think that message is definitionally and inescapably theological. That's because Why strive? is itself a theological question.

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  15. I know that it's not 40K and I have neither played the game nor read any of the books but ...

    ... would Fading Suns be more up your street? Not only is the Church a major part of the setting but, apparently, one of the designers cites Gene Wolfe as an influence. (The line even have a LARP called Passion Play.)

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    1. Fading Suns is not unknown, nor irrelevant!
      https://worldbuildingandwoolgathering.blogspot.com/2021/04/fading-suns-passion-play.html

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    2. I have had an eye on Fading Suns off and on. It struck me as being very much 'of its time' in terms of system though.

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    3. I mean, there was a d20 version, if that helps? (https://www.drivethrurpg.com/en/product/600/Fading-Suns-d20-roleplaying-game-rulebook)

      I would take a look at the original rule system but I must admit, I'd probably just convert it to my beloved Traveller or BRP/ Mythras.

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  16. Would bringing back the Gods of Law make things more interesting? They were never, as far as I know, part of the 40k setting (searching online seems to suggest that they were eaten by the Chaos Gods or dismantled by the Necrons) but their return might make the 40k universe feel more Moorcockian again ...

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  17. Recently read the Warhammer 40k comic "Bloodquest" which I think nails what you're looking for in this post - tragedy without descending into nihilism, temptation, redemption, characters who are good within their moral paradigm and admirable from ours, etc.

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  18. Yeah, I know, it's a "C" rpg, but you might be interested in checking out stuff about the Rogue Trader computer game from Owlcat. It has a three-sided morality system. There's the traditional Dogmatic, adhering to the Imperial Cult even when it doesn't make sense. There's also the Heretical option, courting the favor of Choas, and of Tzeentch in particular.

    However, there's a third option, Iconoclast, which is kinda-sorta humanist. It's not always the "right" option (there's a choice near the end of the 1st act that very much showcases this), but it's very much two big middle-fingers towards the other options, and is clearly strongly influenced by the common morality assumptions of the early 21st century.

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    1. Sounds a little like the “Neutral” alignment in the Stormbringer RPG. - Jason Bradley Thompson

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    2. I wonder if that's a bit self-serving. There are the two bad alignments and then the not so bad one (that just happens to align with the values of the authors...). ;)

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    3. I think it's a bit to drive home the idea that you're not in Kansas anymore; one of the "nice" options early in the game haunts you for the rest of it. But I suspect if I dig deep I'll find that the "nice" path is the most beneficial to the player.

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    4. Isn't the original post self-serving in the exact same way, if that's self-serving? Isn't it asking for an alignment in Warhammer that just happens to align with your values (rather than the CRPG authors' values)?

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    5. When I played Rogue Trader, I balanced out between being a Dogmatic and Iconoclast. As a Rogue Trader, my character (and thus the player, me) is afforded great freedom and there are definitely moments where there is no point being a completely unhinged zealot who enforced the Imperial social hiearchy and tenets with ludicrous amount of violence. There's just no point being a dick when I know my character has the choice to do good and the ability to not be instantly crushed by the system. For example, there are events on the ship where the crew suffer ignoble conditions and you can just flat out ignore it, or you can choose to investigate the situation and clearly exposes that the situation on the ship are awful and your security/higher ranked crew and staff are just being bullies killing, abusing or even stealing from people.

      However, I never took the descisions which went against the core tenets of the Imperium, as there were just things I found I could not compromise on, given the nature of the setting. Blatant heresy and destructive dabbling with xenos bullshit just couldn't be tolerated. Open worship of chaos from a character or anybody was definitely a 'BLAM!. situation because yes, Chaos IS just that bad. So in the end, I went with what seemed the most reasonable choices for the standard of the setting: to do good where I can, when I can but never compromise too much on the core tenets of the Imperial creed or else it would make my character a damn heretic and...yes, the heretical options are very clearly labelled as being nothing more than a power hungry dickhead. And power hungry dickhead Rogue Traders are already dime a dozen, the galaxy didn't need one more deluded fool thinking he can 'control' chaos bullshit.

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  19. The theology of 40k is the WAAAGH!

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    1. Is that the theology or the doctrine?

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    2. In the grim darkness of the perpetual present there is only WAAAGH!

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  20. Your post makes sense for me of how Iain M. Banks and China Mieville push against wargaming kitsch, where a galaxy of infinite sentient diversity gets flattened into just another playable race, by working through ideas about politics and history rather than religious ideology. I was a student of Wolfe's and asked him to contribute a "petty god" to Dwimmermount when Autarch was trying to salvage the project. It never came to pass but I like to think of an alternative universe in which this was the start of a process by which I would gladly sacrifice my psychic life-force so that he could rule the Black Library for 38,000 years to come.

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    1. Yes, great point. This brings us to Leo Strauss. Some are interested in 'natural right'. Others in 'history'. Either way is thematically much richer than 'every difference is cosmetic'.

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  21. It seems to me there's plenty of potential for tragedy and drama and meaningful morality tales in grimdark WH40K, it's just more existential than theological or teleological. You don't need divine grace and the underlying morality system on the universe on your side to strive to do good, and succeed, and fail, and not be sure if you've succeeded or failed, as shown by the fact that people do that in the real world.

    In mainstream RPGs, having that arc that bends towards justice is
    a lot more common than what WH40K is doing.

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    1. I'm interested in this idea that one doesn't need there to be an underlying morality system to do good. If there is no underlying morality system, how is whether one is 'doing good' assessed?

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    2. Ambiguously and inconclusively, is my experience from the real world.

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    3. You don't get out of it that easily! How is whether one is doing 'good' at a given moment assessed, if not by reference to an underlying morality? I'd really like to know.

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  22. I don't think 40K needs base morality as a setting, but I'm certainly amenable to the idea that to actually roleplay in it, you might want some.

    Certainly the base 40K setting is an entirely amoral one where there are no heroes, there is no overall morality, and everyone is appalling yet in uniquely disgusting ways. That's always seemed to me to be one of the key points and not to be taken seriously. (If anything I'd say that some people nowadays seem to take it too seriously, or more importantly _not to get the joke_ - it's a parody of all sorts of works with one side having an earnest moral positions of one side.) This is great for a wargame where you're just amorally playing out situations anyway for the fun of it - pick one of these grotesque armies and go for it! One could also say that it parodied wargames in general.

    But after having played a lot of RPGs where the world is amoral you make up your own motivations blah-de-blah, particularly say "cyberpunk" games (very different to actual cyberpunk literature but that's another story) I find that as I get older players get tired of it and would like something where they're trying to achieve something good in the world and can actually succeed, the universe isn't constantly pointing out the pointlessness of what they're doing. Literally players say to me "I don't want another game where what I do means nothing beyond what I want to do, I want to be able to achieve something".

    So I think to satisfyingly play characters in the 40K universe they would need at least some sort of micro level ethical principles to work with where their actions had rewards beyond "I wanted to do that and I did it so that's great". I don't think it needs an overwhelming change to the nature of the setting but the game would have to focus on a particular subset of it for that to be achieved. I could imagine, say, a group of characters on a hive world pulling together a self-sufficient co-operative community in the face of gangs and police.

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    1. Yes, I've observed the same thing (at least in myself anyway!).

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  23. This post was such a disappointment. The first few paragraphs argues that 40k often uses Christian imagery but clearly shows a superficial understanding of Christianity. Ok, that’s a pretty neat subject for a post. The middle talks about how secular writers tends to value human agency over Christian writers, in which write as if the world was gently being guided by God. That’s a pretty interesting observation. But in the final part it drops the ball. It’s just a complainfest about “How am I supposed to care about anyone in 40k if everyone’s the bad guy? Where’s the good guy for me to root for?”

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