Religious War in 40K

I was listening the NPR this morning on my way to work. They were talking about a certain religious extremist group who had surrounded a village and was effectively besieging them. The village was largely populated by a small religious minority, and the main group labeled them as heretics and were starving them out and imposing their own version of religious law.

Perhaps it was their use of the word ‘heretic’ that did it, but I immediately thought of the assholes of 40K. Black Templars, the Ecclesiarchy, Sisters of Battle, Inquisiton, etc. And those are just the humans… Along with other geopolitical news going on and the continued presence of brutal religious wars, it got me thinking about how our hobby relates to these kinds of conflicts.

I don’t want to get too deep into modern politics right now. Not in this forum, anyway. But, perhaps we could take a moment to reflect on the ‘brutal regime’ that is the Warhammer 40,000 Imperium. Even though there is an incredible diversity of religious expression on different worlds all throughout the imagined galaxy, there is one core faith and set of dogma. Anything else is put down with rabid enthusiasm by some of the so-called heroes of humanity. Black Templars are a great example in that, even on modern-day forums like Bolter & Chainsword, their supporters really get into this stuff.

I know there’s a lot of humor and role-play going on, but in our modern world we would likely think of these extremists as some of the very worst sort of people.

Those whose faith is never questioned, who are brainwashed, and who feel that the core of their faith is the destruction of heretics. Templars of the Catholic Church. Jihadists. “Domestic terrorists.” The list goes on and on. People who don’t see them as right are liable to be terrified of what they’re capable of, and shake their heads at the lengths to which these extremists will go.

It’s very much in keeping with the fluff, and if you play the Warhammer 40K Roleplaying games like Rogue Trader, Dark Heresy, etc. there are still hints that those sorts of radicals are not ‘good.’ However, in the tabletop game, I think the fluff has shifted further away from openly calling out the good guys as just being a different set of bad guys. We get a lot of justification of their actions being necessary, but no alternative is ever presented. Back in the intro to the original Rogue Trader game (not the RPG), Games Workshop made no bones about calling the Imperium the “cruellest (sic.) and most bloody regime imaginable.”

Rogue Trader was written in a spirit of satire, highlighting our own history of violence and extremism as a species.

There’s something that always gets me when I see Sisters of Battle or Inquisitors held up as heroes. To be a citizen of the Imperium would be a terrible thing. The entire galaxy is in a state of total war, with every effort being made to marshall resources and fight back against the enemies of mankind. I get that. There is no time for enlightenment, education, philosophy, political discourse. Any break from the status quo is questioned and most likely brutally put down. It’s really tough to role-play in these games, because my buddies are quite liberal and educated and basically rail against the injustice inherent in virtually any branch of the theocratic government.

I think, a long time ago, the satire of the game is what drew me in as an embittered, disenfranchised youth. I identified with the anarchy in the original artworks (who doesn’t remember the moral ambiguity of the renegade space marines in the bar, “Smash the Empire” scrawled on the wall behind them) and the raw bitterness of the citizenry. I understood that this was not a good place. Nowadays, it’s harder to see that, I think. The fluff has been fleshed out and gone in different directions, and lip service is still given to the old ideas (I think every edition of the core rules have included the same initial intro about the bloody regime as far as I remember).

Maybe it was the Space Wolf codex rumor-mill that’s got me pining for the gritty, raw, and deeply offensive nature of the old stuff.

Mentions of claws made of ‘enchanted alien ice’ and magical ‘Glimmerfrost Crystals’ granted in secret to Leman Russ by the Emperor Himself just rub me the wrong way. I just don’t see these things as being compatible with my crustpunk view of old-school 40K.

All I’m saying is that if we were to take fictional extremists like the ‘modern fluff’ Black Templars and compare their behavior to anyone, even to a country at war, the world’s population would rise up in defiance at their egregious breach of any sense of humanity at all. They say as much in the official fluff, but only in passing and there are no teeth behind it.

What do you think? Ever have a moment of clarity and think that your heroes are really just a bunch of dicks?

EDIT: This has turned into a pretty fun debate on Bolter & Chainsword.