A beginner’s guide to the world of Warhammer 40 000

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These days, you can’t step one foot outside without having a gigantic Space Marine demand that you swear loyalty to the Emperor of Mankind. Warhammer 40 000 is everywhere. There’re dozens of video games out there and on the way, starring soldiers who like Iron Man had a one-night stand with the Terminator T-800 assembly line.

It’s a massively deep universe, one born from decades of lore and expanded universe content from the tabletop game. So where do you even begin? I’ve been doing some reading, to try and understand how this Michael Baysplosion of a universe functions. Here’s a massively condensed timeline of Warhammer 40 000 history, to get you started.

What’s this Warp thingy that keeps being referenced in the games?

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You know how our universe is sort of…normal. Well something has to balance that out. A mirror universe if you will, a dimension built from the emotional energy and psychic resonance of our own reality. That’s the Warp, a domain where the laws of physics are given the middle finger and life tends to flourish when you’re about ready to go play hopscotch in the chest cavity of your angriest daemon.

Thanks to the constant wars and massive death tolls in our universe, the Warp is a hostile reality that is still essential for faster-than-light travel as ships pass through it during regular journeys. But it’s not the place that you’d want to find yourself stuck in, as the Chaos Gods would eat you alive in Warhammer 40K.

Chaos gods?

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Oh yeah, these entities rule the Warp, and serve as forces of nature that want to use us as meat-puppet playthings. Major Chaos deities:

  • Tzeentch the God of Mutation, Change, and Hope
  • Nurgle the God of Pestilence
  • Khorne the God of Blood and Lord of Skulls
  • Slaanesh the God/dess of Hedonism and Excess

There’s an entire pantheon of minor and forgotten Chaos gods, but the four above are the big guns in the Warp, who seek to dominate our universe.

Okay, but things have been just fine here, right?

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Oh hell, not even close. The only reason why the Warp is such a powerful entity, is because our entire universe has been at war since the Big Bang was still cooling off. One if the first major events that really wrecked things good and proper, was the War in Heaven. Long before Humanity rose to become a main-event player, the Old Ones ruled over the cosmos.

They mastered the Warp and had plenty of super-cool technology. Naturally, a rival race known as the Necrontyr were all like “you gonna share bro?” and went to war with the Old Ones.

Sounds bloody

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Only if you were of the Necrontyr. They got their asses handed to them in round one with the Old Ones, as that first war was the equivalent of Brock Lesnar fighting a puppy. Round two went differently however, as the Necrontyr tapped the power of the star-eating C’tan. By trapping their energy forms within into living metal shells known as Necrodermis, the Necrontyr could start kicking some serious ass.

And then they got tricked.

No way

Yes way. Thanks to one C’tan who became known as the Deceiver, the Necrontyr transferred their essences into Necrodermis bodies, which had the slight side effect of them losing their souls. And then things turned really ugly. The War in Heaven raged out of control, newer frightening weapons were created and the Warp was flooded with more negative energy than leftover homeopathic crystals.

The Old Ones would fight back with new servant races such as the Orks and the Eldar, but an invasion from the Warp by the Enslaver Plague shattered their race and pretty much wiped the Old One presence out of our universe. The Necrontyr then went to war with the C’tan gods, rebranded as the Necron and decided to have a nice afternoon hibernation for a few million years after the dust had settled.

What about the Eldar then?

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Right, so the Necron have embarked on an epic siesta, the Orks are running around like intergalactic football hooligans and the Old Ones are gone. That left the Eldar to pick up the pieces in Warhammer 40K, as they had managed to survive the Enslaver Plague. And for a while, it was a good time! They established their own empire that spanned the stars, created new technologies and kicked ass.

And then they fell into excessive hedonism, with enough excess to give birth to the Chaos god Slaanesh in the Warp. This event also ripped a hole in our universe that led to the Warp, a location known as the Eye of Terror. The Eldar split into two major groups, one that favoured being pure and above excess and the other party-time civilisation that would become known as the Dark Eldar.

The Dark Eldar may have also made things even worse for our universe, as they constructed their capital city of Commoragh inside a Warp travel system known as the Webway. Which pretty much destablised the Warp and left future travel sort of buggered.

What about Humanity?

This is where we started making a name for ourselves in the Warhammer universe. While the Eldar were splintering, Humanity started colonising the galaxy. This was Humanity at our best. We terraformed worlds, bred like rabbits on steroids and created the ultimate 3D printer known as the Standard Template Construct. Life was good.

Awesome!

And then everything went to shit.

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Dammit

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Yep. Rogue AI such as the Men of Iron decided to war with us, in an event that almost extinction-slapped our young civilisation. Humanity brought amazing weapons to the battlefield and eventually won, but it was a Pyrrhic victory that cost us a lot of our technological achievements. We’ve pretty much been at a standstill ever since, with precious few new breakthroughs being discovered in the millennia since then and our ancient technology being regarded as holy hardware.

The awesomely-named Psykers began popping up in greater numbers, a double-edged sword that resulted in more Daemonic incursions from the Warp and led into the Age of Strife. This was also the time in our history, where the Emperor would be born.

Sounds sort of evil

Quite the opposite in fact. The Emperor of Mankind is like Superman, Jesus, Buddha, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Batman and Iron Man all rolled into one powerhouse super-messiah. Born of the psychic energy tag-team of hundreds of Earth Shamans, the Emperor has been guiding humanity for centuries. He eventually took control of our first Earth, using his sheer willpower, charisma and battle skills to kill the shit out of anyone who stood in his way of completely uniting our civilisation into the dominant universal player that we would eventually become.

One man did all this?

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Enh, sort of. Thanks to the help of the Adeptus Mechanics, the Emperor decided to have some sons, children who could help balance the workload of running an empire and who would be kickass warriors much like him. He donated enough DNA to father twenty kids, but then the Chaos forces decided to throw a spanner into the works and scatter these Primarchs around the galaxy.

The Emperor would launch the Great Crusade to find all of his sons, a quest that would reunite him with all of his superhuman progeny and lead to the establishment of the Space Marines. And for a time, life was good again.

I feel like the fan is about to be hit with some major crap

Yeah, life has a habit of going quickly south in the Warhammer universe. So listen, out of all twenty primarchs, Horus was definitely the favourite one. Imagine the charisma of Grant Gustin on the flash, bundled into a mountain of muscles that He-Man would be jealous of. And then he was corrupted by the forces of Chaos and launched an intergalactic assault on the Emperor in an event that became known as the Horus Heresy. Some tough parenting was needed at this time.

This sounds like Humanity’s greatest war

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It pretty much is. It’s like the bastard child of Wrestlemania and World War Two, only with a lot more cannon fodder helping to move a brandy cabinet a few planets closer at the time. The Horus Heresy splintered the Primarchs, with half of the brothers siding with Horus and the other half standing against him as loyal Space Marines fought corrupted Chaos Space Marines.

Horus almost obliterated the Imperium of Man, and delivered a heavyweight KO to the Emperor that left him reeling. Horus would have taken over, had he not he turned heel, killed his brother Sanguinus and massively pissed the Emperor off to the point where he went over 9000 with his power and freakin’ shattered the soul of Horus into oblivion.

The Emperor was pretty much knockin’ on heaven’s door at this point, so his comatose body was bundled into a kickass life support system so that he could still protect mankind with his vast psychic powers. Provided that he was fed a daily sacrifice of a few hundred Psykers or so. But after ten thousand years, the Emperor’s Golden Throne (the life support, not his toilet) is starting to fail…

So what’s the state of the universe now?

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Not too good. Everyone is at war, Horus Lieutenant Abaddon the Despoiler has risen to become the defacto leader of the Chaos forces and is currently working towards some grand scheme that has made use of thirteen black crusades to acquire ultimate power. Several of the Chaos-loyal Primarchs still survive, while the the rest of the loyal Primarchs are either dead or missing in action.

The Tyranids have also made their presence known (think even bigger, nastier versions of the Xenomorphs from the Alien series) and life is tougher than ever for the Imperium of Man in a universe under siege by hostile forces both internal and external. And that’s how the Warhammer 40 000 universe works these days.

Quick note: I’m still new at all of this, but I hope I’ve covered the basics. There’s still so much information out there, on massive events that will be covered in the future. Please don’t shatter my soul and set the remnants of it adrift in the Eye of Terror if I got a fact or two incorrect.

Last Updated: February 24, 2016

Darryn Bonthuys

Something wrong gentlemen? You come here prepared to read the words of a madman, and instead found a lunatic obsessed with comics, Batman and Raul Julia's M Bison performance in the 1994 Street Fighter movie? Fine! Keep your bio! In fact, now might be a good time to pray to it!

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