Visions of War: the grimdark of Warhammer 40,000

by Thomas Turnbull-Ross

Visions of War: the grimdark of Warhammer 40,000
May 3, 2020 Thomas Turnbull-Ross

Even if you’ve never set foot in a Games Workshop store, chances are you’ve at least heard of the company’s biggest intellectual property, Warhammer 40,000. To a newcomer, the vast array of characters, factions, locations, and events accumulated in over 30 years of fiction can seem overwhelming. Let us introduce you to the grim darkness of the far future…


It is confusing to the uninitiated partly because this is both a consistent fictional universe as well as a complex tabletop game. In terms of mechanics, the game plays similarly to many wargames: players take it in turns to move units and attack targets, according to rules and limitations set out in the official guide, and roll dice to ascertain whether an action is successful. 

The ranges of models available from Games Workshop provide tabletop wargamers with the opportunity to make and paint their own armies — and these armies are the heart of the franchise. In addition to this, they produce a whole set of fiction, known as the Black Library, to tell the story of Warhammer 40,000. That story is intimidatingly deep and continues to grow.



Unlike a certain franchise that takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Warhammer 40,000 (often referred to by fans as simply ‘40k’) is set in the distant future of our own galaxy. Most games of Warhammer 40,000 would occur somewhere between the end of the 41st and start of the 42nd millennium. These dates are often abbreviated to M41 and M42 respectively, following the in-universe calendar format. From Earth, known as Holy Terra, humans control the largest empire in the galaxy: the Imperium. Most of Warhammer 40,000’s story focuses on the efforts of this Imperium to preserve its existence, and this faction includes many of the most iconic and popular armies among players.

The easiest and most effective way to introduce the Warhammer 40,000 universe is through its factions: the various armies that make up the meat of the 40k experience. 



Most human factions in the game fall under the twin-headed eagle banner of the Imperium, including the Adeptus Astartes — more commonly known as Space Marines. Easily recognisable by their bulky and often brightly-coloured power armour, Space Marines feature in the majority of Warhammer 40,000 publicity and are wargaming’s most recognisable mascot. Organised into chapters, the Space Marines are monastic, genetically-enhanced super-soldiers, armed with some of the Imperium’s best technology and conditioned to be fearless in battle. 

Chapters of Space Marines are easily recognisable by their heraldry, from the deep emerald of the Dark Angels to the icy grey of the Space Wolves. Every starter box for the game since 1993 has included Space Marines of one type or another, most commonly the blue-clad Ultramarines, and they are an excellent choice for beginners due to their versatility. While best at ranged combat, Space Marines are durable and no slouches in close quarters either, with enough variety in their units to fit any playstyle.

Foremost of the other factions belonging to the Imperium are the Astra Militarum (originally called the Imperial Guard). Drawn from countless human worlds, there are a variety of models for these armies, so the aesthetic of these soldiers can vary widely. They serve as the bulk of the Imperium’s armies. Equipped with cheap, mass-produced flak armour and ‘lasguns’, the soldiers of the Astra Militarum become a powerful force on the battlefield when coordinated properly by experienced officers and supported by heavy tanks and artillery. Where the Space Marines are a flexible, elite force, the Astra Militarum rely on large numbers of low-quality troops, whose effectiveness is boosted dramatically by orders from their commanders. 

There are many other Imperium factions: the tech priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus, the Battle Sisters of the Adepta Sororitas, the covert Officio Assassinorum, and the Inquisition. Each has a part to play in the war machine of the Imperium, and many have their own rule sets and army lists.

The forces of Chaos

This otherworldly force is the greatest threat to the Imperium. The forces of Chaos originate in the Warp, an alternate dimension which exists alongside the material plane. Every thought, emotion, dream, or nightmare experienced by anyone in the galaxy becomes real in the Warp, and every conceivable hope or fear manifests as a daemon. These daemons hunger to see the material world fall to their depredations, slipping across the veil to sow havoc wherever they can — whether it be through the mind of an unprepared psyker or a hasty bargain made by a desperate soul.

Yet despite its threat, humanity finds great use in the Warp. Psykers are individuals able to harness the power of the Warp to manipulate reality. Ships also use the Warp to make faster-than-light journeys, though doing so is exceptionally dangerous. 

While every daemon is unique, the vast majority are subservient to one of the four Dark Gods of Chaos, the Ruinous Powers, rulers of the Warp, and foes of all life. First amongst them is Khorne, the Blood God, who desires nothing more than endless carnage and slaughter. His daemons are the most classically demonic, possessing horns, red skin, and a lust for blood. They excel in close-quarters battle, especially against heavily armoured opponents, thanks to their hellblades. Next is Tzeentch, the Changer of Ways and Master of Fate. Tzeentch is a master of magic and manipulation. His daemons are formless creatures of flame and disorder, with a penchant for twisting and mutating mortals into strange and unpredictable shapes. On the battlefield they employ large numbers of psykers and random effects, with plenty of tricks to skew the odds in their favour. Third is Nurgle, the jovial Plague God, who governs all sickness and disease. His daemons are swollen, putrid, and rotting, yet grin and chuckle as they spread their infectious gifts to all they meet. These are the toughest and slowest of daemons, using their sickly resilience and poisoned weapons to slowly whittle their foes down. Finally, Slaanesh is the God of Excess, a sadistic tempter whose daemons shift between being enchanting beauties and crab-clawed monstrosities. Lightning fast but very fragile, Slaanesh armies overwhelm their opponents with negative modifiers and flurries of vicious attacks.

There are several chapters of traitorous Space Marines who worship the Dark Gods of Chaos, including the Death Guard and the Thousand Sons. In battle, the Chaos Space Marines function similarly to their loyalist counterparts, though with a slightly stronger focus on melee combat. They also have access to powerful daemon-possessed war engines, as well as being able to take detachments of daemons as allies.


Chaos is not the only threat faced by humanity. Several alien civilisations (termed ‘xenos’ in Warhammer 40,000) exist in the galaxy, seeing humans as fools, upstarts, or vermin to be eradicated. 



Akin to Tolkien’s elves, the Aeldari are tall, slender humanoids with pointed ears who possess some of the galaxy’s strongest psykers. Their empire predated the Imperium by millennia, collapsing when their own corruption and debauchery created the Chaos God Slaanesh and the Eye of Terror. Most of their race was wiped out in this event, but a few enclaves had the foresight to survive. Building immense interstellar arks, known as Craftworlds, the surviving Aeldari travel the galaxy living lives of asceticism lest they fall to the temptations of Slaanesh once more. Following the psychic divinations of their Farseers, the Aeldari prefer to manipulate galactic events as puppet masters, though they are not above directly involving themselves in conflict. 

Characterised by hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, the Aeldari utilise highly specialised ‘Aspect Warriors’, who devote themselves to mastering a single facet of combat before moving on to another. As such this is an army of specialised, fast-moving units — dealing high damage, but easily lost. 



Not all Aeldari escaped on the Craftworlds. Many of the old empire’s most corrupt individuals escaped the destruction of their race in the pocket realm known as ‘the webway’, a labyrinth dimension existing between reality and the Warp, used by the Aeldari as a safer alternative to Warp travel. These Aeldari aristocrats became cursed, their souls and bodies shrivelling away unless sustained by a diet of the suffering and misery of others. Known as the Drukhari, these sadistic warriors often send raiding parties into the galaxy to kidnap slaves for their amusement and sustenance. Lightning-fast, employing hovering transports and all manner of inventively cruel weapons, the Drukhari rely on speed and terror to win their battles, preferring to toy with their prey rather than engage them head-on.



More common than the Aeldari, and considerably less civilised, the Orks are amongst the most numerous xenos of the galaxy. Inspired by the Orcs of Tolkien, Dungeons & Dragons, and Warcraft (1994), the Orks have a certain humour that the other factions in Warhammer 40,000 lack. While savage and violent, the Orks’ love of combat and generally low intelligence make them a lighthearted addition to the faction roster. Their ‘teknology’ should, by all rights, fall apart when first switched on, yet often manages to perform beyond expectations. Luckily, an Ork is more inclined to club someone over the head than go to the trouble of shooting them, and as such they are one of the strongest close-quarters armies in the game. An army of Orks is known as a ‘Waaagh!’ due to their distinctive war-cry, and while a terrifying prospect, it relies heavily on the guiding hand of a Warboss, the biggest and strongest Ork in any group. If he is defeated, the collapse of the Waaagh! soon follows.

Orks on the tabletop are subject to chaotic rules which make them an unpredictable but entertaining prospect. 


T’au Empire

In contrast to the Orks, the relatively young T’au Empire is a small yet highly advanced civilisation of blue-skinned aliens with more interest in diplomacy than warfare. With a strict caste-based society, the T’au foresee a bright future, ignorant of many of the galaxy’s dangers. They are always willing to accept new allies into their growing empire, with even some humans defecting to join their cause. However, they are unafraid to bring the power of their military Fire Caste to bear should their attempts at peace be unsuccessful. Always on the cutting edge of new developments, T’au warriors favour powerful long-range energy weapons over melee combat. They employ agile, armoured battlesuits to carry heavier weapons and strike from unexpected angles, while robotic drones provide fire support, shielding capabilities, or accuracy-enhancing markerlights.


Even more advanced than the T’au, and even more ancient than the Aeldari, are the Necrons. Once creatures of flesh and blood, the Necrons long ago forsook their mortality in favour of nigh-indestructible android bodies. Retreating to stasis tombs some 65 million years ago to escape a galactic calamity, the Necrons are just beginning to reawaken, and they are displeased to see so many new races squatting in the ruins of their empire. Taking the appearance of mechanical skeletons much like the T-800 of Terminator (1984), with a healthy dose of ancient Egyptian in their looks and language, they wield technology so ancient and advanced it seems as magic to others. Relying primarily on close-range firepower and teleportation, the Necrons are one of the toughest armies on the tabletop, their warriors even able to recover from fatal damage thanks to self-repair systems.



The final threat to the Imperium, and potentially the greatest after Chaos, is the extragalactic menace known as the Tyranids. Appearing from the void beyond the galactic edge, the Tyranids are a terrifying race of insectile predators, inspired by the xenomorph from Alien (1979). Descending in swarms upon inhabited worlds, the Tyranids consume all organic matter they find, leaving worlds as desolate husks before moving on. They possess no conventional technology, instead undergoing a constant process of adaptation to meet their needs. From the living artillery of Exocrines to the walking tanks known as Carnifexes, every Tyranid creature has a specific purpose. Even their ships are simply gargantuan, space-bound devourers. Coordinated by a sinister driving intelligence known as the Hive Mind, the Tyranids utilise swarms of expendable creatures supported by fearsome monstrosities. Tyranid armies are very adaptable, able to tailor themselves to best fight any foe, though they become vulnerable if their leader-beasts are eliminated.

There are more factions. The Space Marines and Chaos Space Marines encompass several divisions and chapters within them, and we haven’t touched on the Harlequins or the Genestealers. 


There is only war

The first edition of Warhammer 40,000 was released in 1987. Over the 33 years since, each edition and each official licenced novel has added to the lore and timeline. New armies, like the T’au and the Necrons, have been added, and countless battles have been fought on tabletops by wargamers. It is such a popular game system that ‘40k’ is synonymous with wargaming to many people. 

It has flagrantly borrowed influences from popular culture and history to populate its grim universe, but rather than becoming derivative, this cultural pick ’n’ mix has made it among the richest fictional franchises for storytelling out there. ‘Grimdark’, 40k’s particular brand of gritty, nihilistic fantasy, has become a wildly popular subgenre itself. 

In recent years, much of Games Workshop’s success has come from licensing this formidably successful franchise to video game developers. The 40k universe is a popular setting; it has an established and passionate audience, it saves a studio establishing a setting from scratch, and the framework for the conflicts is already in place. To date, around 50 video games have been set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.

Therein, perhaps, lies the secret to Warhammer 40,000’s popularity. It’s the most-played wargame because of the richness of its lore. In this article we’ve just given you a flavour of it, with an overview of the various factions; the next time we visit the universe we’ll talk more about the mechanics and gameplay that make for such a rich gaming experience. In the meantime, if you’re curious, many specialist wargaming shops around the UK host games regularly, and popping in to watch or browse is a lot cheaper than buying a whole army.