The Noob Grapples with the Grimdark

DOCTOR: Surely you realise something here must be wrong?
ZARGO: Wrong?
DOCTOR: Yes.
CAMILLA: What is, is.
DOCTOR: No. What is, is wrong. Look, societies develop in varying ways. Yours just seems to be sinking back into some sort of primitivism. Wouldn’t you say so?
ROMANA: Oh, yes. In terms of applied socioenergetics, it’s losing its grip on level two development.
DOCTOR: On level two?
ROMANA: A society that evolves backwards must be subject to some even more powerful force restraining it.
DOCTOR: An even more powerful force?
ZARGO: How very mysterious.

-Doctor Who: State of Decay (Nov. 1980)
Vampires in Doctor Who? Now THERE’s some Grimdark!

While I was casting about in research for some article or other, I saw a video link to a piece on YouTube about why Mankind can no longer seem to invent in the 40K game setting. And it hit me in a place that may be the one thing besides cost that put me off about the grimdark setting. That mankind for several tens of thousands of years has plateau-ed and ceased being a species of hope or knowledge. That after the millennia, human knowledge is backsliding. Like my namesake… well, my middle namesake, said in his book, ‘The Demon Haunted World‘,

Image result for Carl Sagan

“…when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”

-Carl Sagan

And maybe that hits a little too close to home for me to find enticing or fun in my gaming. Where the sect of humanity that governs high technology is riddled with the tropes and trappings of theology. Not that they’re incorrect in doing so, given that the setting literally has souls and literal ghosts in their machines to deal with. It still hits me a bit like whistling past the junkyard, so to speak. Especially where this seems to be happening in real life to a large degree, as science leaves an under-educated public behind, and superstition rushes in to fill the void.

Emperor Pyrrhus and Serpentor seem to have the same taste in gold armor, anyway.

Have there ever been storylines where Mankind sought to unite with non-chaotic Xenos in order to face the Dark Gods and their twisted daemon children as one? That’d be an endgame to work toward wouldn’t it? One where humanity isn’t one seeming machine out of control, purposed only for killing what is other, brutally holding the line against what it considers corruption, resistance or heresy. How is a soulless mankind without direction any better than it being consumed by Chaos in the first place? (Was the Emperor’s name Pyrrhus by any chance? Serpentor maybe?)

I mean, I’m pretty sure the whole breakdown in human advancement is due to a perpetual state of war. And I tend to like my futures utopian instead of dystopian. Or at the very least, a future that’s trying for something better. In that, I am a lot more Star Trek than Grimdark. Now don’t get me wrong. I see plenty of potential for bravery, heroism and sacrifice. I certainly see all manner of potential for positive change for all the races. But does that hope exist anywhere in Warhammer? Fantasy or 40K? I want to find it. I want the shooting and the punching and battles to mean something. Not just be another paragraph in a long history of the same where the evolution of knowledge has stopped, and mankind is locked in a neverending dark age.

“A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?” -Joshua / N.O.R.A.D, ‘War Games’ (1983)


It’s the sort of thing I’ve seen in Sci-Fi and Fantasy hundreds of times. From the Borg to the Daleks to the Galactic Empire to the Cybermen to the Archons to the . Obsession with superiority, with victory, with vengeance. Races that having found an endless and immortal anger with that in the universe that cannot be resolved… progress just stops. Locked into a battle machine, humanity carved out or sealed away forever. Changed into a seething lump of hate that fuels a desire for victory at whatever cost.

Probably my favorite moment in the 12th Doctor’s tenure.

Warhammer I think is unique in its presentation of a war-torn dystopia that lasts for the foreeable eternity. That’s THE bad outcome should the heroes of whatever show or movie you’re watching or book you’re reading. Bold of them to have STARTED from there. The only thing that comes close I think is Ravenloft. There was another one I can’t remember that was D&D-like as well. One where you START in a world that has fallen to evil.

And maybe that hits a little too close to home for me to find enticing or fun in my gaming. Where the sect of humanity that governs high technology is riddled with the tropes and trappings of theology. Not that they’re incorrect in doing so, given that the setting literally has souls and literal ghosts in their machines to deal with. It still hits me a bit like whistling past the junkyard, so to speak. Especially where this seems to be happening in real life to a large degree, as science leaves an under-educated public behind, and superstition rushes in to fill the void.

Maybe it’s me. I don’t think I can ever match the nihilistic fervor of the characters in the game. And the roleplaying element is really too much a part of any game I tend to play. If I can’t get into character, where’s the fun? I can’t just go on looking for the funny parts and getting my lols over names like Iron Hand, progenitor of the Iron Hands. (Ya know… Manos… ) I suppose the form of play carries the setting. If it’s less RP and more battle encounter set pieces you don’t have to worry OVERLY about the hopelessness of the setting itself. That’s more set dressing than something you have to connect with emotionally.

Coexistance in Warhammer? Report to the Inquisition for termination, Heretic!

It’s cheesy. But it’s true. Maybe it needs a bit more research than I’ve done so far. But I wonder what humanity might be able to achieve with the prowess of the Space Elves and the Tau folded in. Legions of Tau Battlesuits, Astartes Armors and Hosts of Aeldari unified in common cause to bring the battle to the Eye of Terror itself, bringing Slaanesh and the other dark gods low. Rekindling the fire of imagination and wonder instead of fear and xenophobia. Not exactly handholding, rainbows and folk music, if you savvy that. But honestly, with the coming holidays, there’s something to be said for peace on earth and goodwill towards men. Or whatever else would unite with us in resistance to evil and the death of hope.

It’d be one hell of a campaign, wouldn’t it?

-Edward SAGAN WinterRose changed his name legally in 2012 right before he had a High Gallifreyan wedding ceremony at DragonCon 2012 in a theater with a pipe organ.  And is often too softhearted to pursue any ‘renegade’, ‘sith’, or ‘so evil he eats live puppies to hear them squeak’ dialogue options in a given RPG.