Monday, November 3, 2014

Myth-busting 40k — part 1

Warhammer 40000 lore doesn't seem all that complex at the first glance. But 27 years do count for something and the more you dive into the universe, more complicated and tangled it becomes. With all the various canon sources constantly adding more lore to the already well-detailed universe, it becomes ever more easy to make mistakes where the background is concerned, and the number of wrong conceptions about the 40k lore is ever-growing.

I decided to put together a list of the most widespread and misleading of those misconceptions. It should be noted that 40k fluff is open to interpretation more often than not, and so I tried to avoid the areas that are made from the start to be dependent on reader's opinion, leaving only those where the lore is pretty much set. I also avoided small misconception devoted to small sub-factions. But the number of myths ended up being too high anyway, so I ended up dividing one post to three. And in the first one I've listed all general misconceptions, not really connected to a single 40k faction.

If the reader with the average fluff knowledge, who are supposed to be prime audience for this post, will learn something new, my mission will be accomplished. However, as many other articles dealing with canon and background, this post may occasionally take 40k more seriously than it deserves. Consider yourselves warned.

Let's roll.

Myth #1: In 40k there's literally nothing but war
Lore: 40k universe is an infamously militarized one and most stories that take place in it are connected to that main theme. No place is really safe from the conflict and its presence is felt in every corner of the galaxy. But most of the time the majority of planets enjoy relatively peaceful experience. Many worlds just have no dangerous neighbors or serious inner threats, allowing whole generations to grow up and die without ever experiencing war. Even extremely militaristic societies of Orks and Chaos worshipers are actively trading and are content with small conflicts until there comes a time to launch another big invasion.


Myth #2: In the grim darkness of the far future there is no logic
Lore: Warhammer 40000 is a very unusual setting that is defined by its weirdness and often seems very strange to those unfamiliar with it. It is basically made of one grotesque concept on top of another: technology worship, religious fanatics in space, constant whispers of dark gods in your ears and a universe where almost everything is against you and where even the basic survival is not a birthright. This universe was created to challenge our assumptions of what is right and logical and it would be strange to blame it for it's lack of correspondence with our assumptions.

40k is also filled with inconsistencies and minor mistakes. But those can be found in any fictional universe comparable in size and depth to 40k, and those should be blamed on careless writers, not the universe itself. Besides, any fiction's accuracy is mostly defined by willing suspension of disbelief of its readers, and whether they try to find errors in fluff or justifications for them. Finally, 40k is an example of speculative fiction, and it's purpose is to sweep the rug under our assumption of the future, not go along with them. That is what 40k does well. And if it's accuracy and attention to technical detail that you need, there is a lot of hard science fiction literature around.

Myth #3The 40k wargame accurately represents the fluff of the universe

Lore:  These views are mostly spread by hardcore tabletop players, that aren't interested in anything but a tabletop game and who want to shrink the universe to the size of a rulebook. However, the fluff is obviously much more deep and complex and variable than tabletop game despite relying on it a great deal. Fluff armies don't look like tabletop armies and it's a common knowledge that battle strength in fluff and on the tabletop aren't really related. The same is true for specialist games and videogames. They are representation of the fluff but their mechanics and internal balance often require a step away from the background and that's OK. Warhammer universe outgrew the tabletop a long time ago and it's important not to mix game mechanics with actual lore.

Myth #4: Human worlds divided during the Age of Strife only started to be unified by the Emperor after the beginning of the Great Crusade
Lore: Even before the great Warp-storm of the Age of Strife died out allowing the Great Crusade to begin the newly formed cult Mechanicus started to send out expeditions to the distant parts of the galaxy. Supported by the forces of Collegia Titanica, these expeditions have founded a huge number of Forge Worlds all over the galaxy and made alliances with even more Knight Worlds. Although in most cases these colonies had no way of contacting the Red Planet, they still remained subordinate to the authority of General-Fabricator. Thus, when the Emperor started his crusade, an alliance with the worshippers of Machine God and recognition as a representation of Omnissiah gave him not only the support of Mars, but also the support of its vassal planets once the expeditionary fleets eventually came in contact with them.

Myth #5: During the Horus Heresy each Astartes Legion chose its side as half of them stayed loyal while the other half sided with Horus
Lore: Even though the legions were led by Primarchs that ended up choosing one side in the wars of Heresy, the legions themselves were divided as well. In most traitor legions there were Astartes that remained loyal and in many loyalist ones there were warriors who sided with Horus. Garro's followers and doomed loyalists of Istvaan III are relatively known, but they are by no means the only ones. For example, here are two loyalists from the Iron Warriors legion:

Myth #6: After the last duel with Horus and ascension to a Golden Throne, the Emperor never contacted the outside world
Lore: Even after the ascension to the Golden Throne the Emperor is known to mentally contact a select few people known as "Auditorii Imperator". Known ones include Inquisitors Hector Rex and Jaq Draco along with Alicia Dominica, founder of Adepta Sorroritas. Among the functioning of the Astronomican and certain miracles, that are attributed to him (such as the destruction of the Vandire's fleet by the Storm of the Emperor's Wrath), this serves as a proof that the Emperor is still alive in a way and still has some degree of influence on the workings of the Imperium.

Myth #7: Warhammer 40000 timeline ends at 999.M41
Lore: Most sources stop the timeline at the beginning of 13th Black Crusade at the end of M41. But some canonical events from M42 are also known: examples include a Medusa V campaign and the misfortunes of commissar Ciaphas Cain.

Myth #8: 40k galaxy is an exact copy of our Milky Way galaxy
Lore: Warhammer 40000 setting is presented as our own galaxy some 38 thousand years later and a lot of stellar objects in Solar system and beyond can be found in it. However, it should be noted that we don't have the exact knowledge of how the Milky Way galaxy looks from the outside, which makes the stellar geography of 40k galaxy largely fictional. This step away from reality actually makes a lot of sense - the space is actively studied with new facts discovered every year and it would be silly to change important fluff each time a huge discovery is made to avoid the direct contradiction between the lore and read world data.


Myth #9: Space battles are fought at the distances of kilometers
Lore:  Taking space battles artwork too literally is a bad idea. When it comes to space battles, tens and even hundreds of kilometers are considered to be extra close distances and ships almost never come this close to one another. Battles in the void are fought at the distances of tens of thousands of kilometers, which is well shown in Gothic War novels and BFG rulebook they are based on. All distances at the miniature games are just as symbolical.

Myth #10: All 40k spaceships are extremely big
Lore: 40k is famous for its enormous spaceships and battleship-class vessels may indeed be up to ten kilometers long. However, most of 40k space craft are system ships and most of warp-capable ones are trading and civil vessels. First ones don't require massive warp engines, while the second ones have little need for huge weapon systems and as a result usually end up being not that big. In most space battles there are swarms of system defense monitors for every Navy cruiser, so, despite forming a backbone for Imperial space fleets, they are more an exception than a rule in terms of size. More notable feature of the setting is a complexity of travel between star systems, which does make most warp-capable ships very big, as opposed to settings like Star Wars where hyperdrive is occasionally mounted even on single-man fighters. Still, some older sources describe very small warp-capable ships, like Tormentum Malorum from Inquisition War trilogy.


Myth #11: All Space Hulks are infested by Genestealers
Lore: Started by Space Hulk tabletop game and supported by its adaptations like Death Angel, this myth is more a stereotype than misconception. In the lore, Space Hulks are often simply uninhabited, sometimes used by Orks as a way of transportation or serve as havens for humans, warp-beings or various breeds of xenos, even Necrons. Only in some cases they are indeed inhabited by genestealers.

Myth #12: Warp-travel is the same as hyperdrive
Lore: Warp-travel is often described as roughly the same way of transportation as hyperdrive from classic science fiction. Both methods do use similar principles, but all the hazards of lifeless hyperspace are nothing compared to the raw energies and hunger of the unnatural beings that inhabit Immaterium. That makes warp-travel a much more unpredictable, risky, and dangerous endeavor than jumps through hyperspace: each jump through the Immaterium is a journey through the domain of daemons and a gamble with one's soul and sanity. It is also relatively slow: for some, a whole life is not enough to cross the galaxy from one end to another. Warp-travel becomes even more sluggish and perilous once the ship wanders away from the well-traveled passages or dares to navigate a warp-storm. That is why most humans live their whole lives under the light of one sun, and that's why many regions space often become isolated, left at mercy of their galactic neighbors. These factors are a huge part of what make 40k such a huge, dark and dangerous place.

Myth #13: Machine Spirit is the same as AI/Machine Spirit doesn't exist
Lore: The whole concept of Machine Spirit is often misunderstood and is either declared just an AI under different name or just discarded as a superstition. In the lore it is often describes as a kind of "soul" that machines have - one that might be "hurt", when the machine is damaged, "angry" when used without proper rituals and so on. And there is an explanation for this kind of treatment.

Immaterium reflects all emotions of sentient beings, leaving traces on objects around them. A knife, with which a brutal murder was committed, will have a faint trace of hatred and fear it was connected with. This effect becomes more noticeable as the tech becomes more sophisticated. If, for example, the factory workers that put a tank together have a strong hatred towards Orks and say a prayer with each turn of a screwdriver, asking the Emperor to crush the vile хenos, the vehicle will have a weak psychic reflection. It will not have a will of its own, but it will have an emotion - hatred towards Orks, that will make it more effective in battle. In this way, Machine Spirit is a complete opposite of an AI. Where AI is an intellect without emotion, the Machine Spirit is an emotion without an intellect. 40k spaceship will not open fire on its own, but of two similar craft one will make more stable warp jumps, while the other will be more accurate when firing on Eldar ships, because the first one "likes" to travel, while the second one "hates" Eldar.

It's important to understand that the really noticeable machine spirit only exists in very complex and/or ancient tech and most talk of it IS superstition. Lasgun won't become more accurate if you appease it's spirit with a regular cleaning. Obviously, the good treatment of the weapon will improve its performance on it's own. In this case, the superstitions just make a good job of explaining the need of maintenance to ignorant people of 40k. It's impossible to say where the unjustified belief in spirits ends and where something real inside the machine begins and that is mostly on purpose, adding mystery to the universe.

But I've read about a Land Raider fighting without the crew - that must mean that the machine spirit is capable of independent action, right?
Imperial Land Raiders contain inbuilt cogitator cores that are capable of taking control of some of the vehicle's systems if needed. In these cases it's this cogitator that takes action, not the tank's machine spirit. Still, the core has a machine spirit of its own ant it influences cogitator's capabilities and dispositions. The same is true for Mechanicus' robots and some other complex machinery.

Myth #14: All technology in the Imperium is based on STC and has its roots in the Dark Age of Technology
Lore: Imperial technology is very standardized, allowing machines from different parts of the galaxy to integrate to each other. This is achieved largely by the use of Standard Template Constructs (STC), but it doesn't mean that all 40k tech came straight from the Dark Age of Technology. A lot of it was introduced much later, although most examples make use of common standards and practices introduced in STC and allowing for that impressive level of compatibility. Examples of a more young tech include Astartes power armour and many spaceships. And that's even before we start talking about tech Mechanicus save for themselves - from thallax to Ordinatus. It should also be noted that it's wrong to imagine STC as the exact blueprints of any particular machine. Instead, it describes general principles of its construction, meaning that even STC-based tech has a lot of variation and different patterns utilized around the galaxy.

Myth #15: Promethium is a specific substance.
Lore: "Promethium" is a Low Gothic word used to refer to any form of combustible fuel. 40k has its own counterparts of gasoline, kerosene and napalm, and all of them are considered to be kinds of promethium. That explains both the huge number of the promethium applications (from fuel for flamers and tanks to raw stuff used in production of dyes, plastics and pharmaceuticals) and the possible ways of its extraction (from pumping the atmospheres of gas giants to processing of certain rare ices).
It should also be noted that, contrary to promethium, amasec is a specific substance, analogous to wine. A lot of other alcoholic beverages, such as Dammassine, Old-Foiz, Rotgut and others are also widely used.

Myth #16: Lasgun is an ineffective weapon, unable to inflict real damage
Lore: Lasgun is the most common weapon for a reason. It is comparable with most modern hand weaponry, but surpasses it in reliability, tolerance of wider range of conditions, lack of recoil, availability of ammunition and simplicity. Its parameters are comparable with most sci-fi weaponry, such as Star Wars blasters. Lasrifles' only real shortcoming compared to solid projectile weapons is in their inability to use exotic ammunition, and even that shortcoming is somewhat levelled by lasguns' varied power setting. And a lack of punch against a lot targets is just a demonstration of how powerful weapons in the dark future might be in order to slay the incredibly tough creatures that can be found in it.

Myth #17: Boltguns use caseless ammunition

Lore: Bolt weapons use gases from the burning primer compound for initial acceleration of the bolt projectile after which it continues to accelerate using its own miniature engine and fuel supply. These weapons used ceaseless ammunition only in first editions. This minor detail was changed a long time ago, but misinterpretations on the subject can still be found.

Myth #18: Hive-cities only exist on Hive Worlds
Lore: Hive worlds are planets where hive cities contain almost all of population and production centers. Hive cities themselves may occasionally be found on civilized worlds, forge worlds or any other planets, even non-Imperial.

Myth #19: Abhuman means Ogryn or Ratling
Lore: Administratum lists a lot of various abhuman types and subtypes, major of which are Ogryns, Ratlings, Squats, Beastmen, Troths, Longshanks, Pelagers, Felinids and Neandors, not counting the extinct ones. Most aren't really described at length anywhere, but are present in the lore nonetheless.


Myth #20: Squat race was cut from the fluff/Squats were eaten by Tyranids
Lore: The whole idea of the Squat race to have been eaten by Tyranids arose from a joke answer GW employees used to give to fans who wanted to know where have the Squat disappeared. There isn't a single printed source to confirm this theory, so it remains nothing more than a joke to this day. Squats are no longer a major faction in 40k games and are almost never mentioned in modern sources, but some, such as 6th edition rulebook (see quote above), still list them as present in the canon. It is actually a common mistake to think that if something is no longer mentioned means it is doesn't exist in the lore anymore. Obviously, all the myriad bits of fluff don't have to be repeated in each new codex to stay true.

Myth #21: Mutant equals Chaos
Lore: Various types of mutants can be found all over the galaxy. Origins of human mutations vary wildly and are not always connected to Ruinous Powers. As a result, mutants themselves are not more likely to worship chaos than any other human and are usually just held as second class citizens, contained in reservations, used for dirty labor and rarely just destroyed altogether.

Myth #22: Humanity is divided to Imperials and followers of Chaos
Lore:  The galaxy is filled with a great number of unaligned human worlds and even empires. Some of them weren't discovered during Great Crusade and stayed self-contained for millennia, while others seceded from the Imperium or were simply forgotten by it at some later age. Inhabitants of some of those worship Chaos or ally with xenos races, but most stay independent. Severan Dominate from FFG's Only War may serve as an example of one such empire.

Myth #23: Canon of Warhammer 40000 universe is set in stone
Lore: Whether it's good or bad, there is no clear hierarchy of 40k canon sources as there is for Star Wars. All GW products are formally canonical, but conflicts between those are quite often. As a rule of thumb, all newer fluff overrides the old one and the tabletop-related sources override all others. However, these principles are often not enough and a lot of conflicts remain unresolved. It was often told by authors that a lot of the lore is more legends and tales than facts and each may choose the explanation that satisfies him - some 40k fans choose to ignore whole pieces of the fluff, and there's nothing wrong with that as long as they don't force their views upon others too hard.

That's all for general myths. But a lot more misconceptions surround the various factions of 40k. In the following posts I'll deal with those, starting with ones related to the most popular one - the Imperium of Man. And for now, I'd be happy to hear about the myths I might have missed or the mistakes I might have made. Till next time.

Next parts in the series:


  1. This is really a great piece of informative article writing. You really took your time to prepare and research it. I hope everyone takes the time to read it. I was actually surprised about myth 7. I did not know there was anything going on with the Imperium in M42!

    1. Well, thanks. Spread the word :) And more is coming as you can see.

      Sharing the obscure bits of the fluff is the whole point of this series so I'm glad I could find something unknown to you.

  2. A huge thank you for putting together this list and the origins of the evidence you used. As someone with a more moderate interpretation of the 40k universe myself I really appreciate the quality of the investigation into that perspective.. Keep up the good work and I can't wait for your next installment!

    1. Thanks, man, nice to know someone finds this stuff useful)

  3. Sorry about the rank on the Xenos thread but you have some good points in this one and the imperium
    Really nice work~

  4. Awesome work! Some of that I didn't realize

  5. but.. but... the Squats were eaten? Surely? I was aware that some had slipped through the net but I thought they were mostly gobbled up by the Great Devourer. Myth #20 makes me sad. Can't the Tyranids do anything right?

    1. So I've heard time and time again, but at the end of the day there is no single piece of lore mentioning the event. And if we start counting forum jokes as lore... well, that a sure way to madness.

      Kinda sad, really, when GW decided to get rid of Old World it at least gave us a spectacle of End Times to send it off. As it stands, re-watching the (non-canonical) Tyranid ending of DoW:Retribution is one of the few ways to convince yourself space bugs are still a threat. And there was that Anphelion thing too I guess.

      Overall, GW kinda wastes Nids: they were so awesome and menacing in the lore of the 4th edition codex, but by now they often seem just a space zoo on tour. IMO they make the most sense as the big bad of 40k. Constantly pushing Chaos to that role makes no sense at all, that's for sure.