Sunday, March 3, 2013

My problem with Grimdark

I played a ton of 2nd Edition Warhammer 40,000. I definitely played more 2nd Ed. than any of other versions combined. The box had a rather large banner exclaiming, "In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war." Thus the term "grimdark" was born.

In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only codex creep.

For the uninitiated, grimdark means a setting that is dark and edgy, even nihilistic, perhaps. The setting of 40K, even in its RT-era form was dripping with grimdark before we knew what it was. The imagery in the book, especially that drawn by Ian Miller with its jagged, black forms, medieval Space Marines and vicious Orks with Stahlhelms all lent credence to that.

"Bandersnatch Squad has taken Objective Jubjub most frumiously! Execute Battle Order Callou, variation Callay!" 
The early descriptions of the Emperor of Man and the daily tithe of 1000 human souls is of course at the heart of grimdark.  Rick Priestly's introduction cements the nihilistic intent of the setting with the reminder that the armies of the Imperium campaign on thousands of worlds with casualties in the millions. "After all, the universe is a big place. And no matter what happens, you will not be missed," he admonishes.

The path of grimdark is unrelenting. The release of the Realms of Chaos books were even more instrumental in layering on additional coats of grimdark. Now, whatever threats alien races posed to the Imperium of Man, they were insignificant compared to the threats posed by the gods of Chaos and their exploitation of inevitable human weakness and general entropy.

Kinda like my resolution to stop eating McDonald's.
Of course, another cause of the cancerous decay of Humanity came about in the form of the bio-weapons known as the Tyranid. Their infestation of human settlements (and Ork, and Eldar) via Genestealers was also implacable and unrelenting.

Essentialy there's no hope for anybody. It's one big shit sandwich and we're all gonna have to take a bite.

As the number of editions mounted, so did the depth of the grimdark. "Necromunda," a standalone game set in the 40K universe, has grimdark in the title. The idea of gangs fighting to the death over the scraps of the upper-class betters is quite bleak. The hive world of Necromumda is a microcosm of the larger 40K universe. Things are as good as they're going to get. There is essentially no hope for any of us. It's raw survival. Nothing more.

Raw survival means having all the catnip you can smoke.

I don't like nihilism. I want my heroes to have purpose. I don't like to be reminded of the cruel, cold realities of  the universe. Nihilism is antithetical to my being. Sure, there are descriptions of heroic actions. They're usually last stands. They usually end with "and then the entire regiment was destroyed by an exterminatus order from an Inquisitor who happened by."

It's just not for me. Even worse are the extremes that they've taken the Chaos and Imperial stuff. Skullz and spikez, skullz on spikez, spikez on skullz, it gets to be a bit much.

If you type "a bit much" into an eBay search, this is what you get.
One reaction to the grimdark is to make light of it in a particularly trollish fashion. I endorse this approach. I can only hope some fanboy has a coronary having to play against and maybe even lose against such a novelty force at a tournament. Tournaments are another thing altogether, best served in a separate blog post.

Bonus victory points for causing an epileptic seizure in the opposing player.
Another antidote to the grimdark is to play Tau, I suppose. They seem pretty optimistic on the surface. Plus they take design cues from anime, which is a good thing, in my book.

Prototype Tau models.
In some regards, Helsreach is my own safe haven from grimdark, without rejecting the 40K background altogether. I don't have to worry about corruption from Chaos or Tyranid infestations or piles of skullz and spikez and all that. I can play with old skool Space Marines and my band of ne'er-do-wells. Heck, there might even be a deodorant stick hover car in my future.


  1. I'll save you a seat in Special Hell, as you know the fanboys will consign you there!

  2. They'll really flip their lids when they find out what rules I'm going to use.

  3. Amen. The whole nihilism bit is one of the reasons I have never really gotten into GW's 40K setting or game. I go as far as Space Hulk, and ignore the garbage fluff. Warhammer fantasy (and its sibling Warmaster) at least offer some brighter settings (or at least silly ones), and it's a bit easier to ignore the fluff where it goes overly grim.
    I honestly don't get why GW went for the quasi-fascist, nihilistic, everybody's more-or-less evil setting. What's wrong with having some side be the "good guys?" Or just at least allow for a political situation where conflict occurs without either side being necessarily "evil", merely opposed (as 16th-17th century England and Spain, or 18th-19th Century England and France, etc.). If it's all nihilism and "life sucks for everybody and then you get blown up/mutated/cyber-linked to a mechanical killing machine," what's the motivation for any side to fight? If life can't be better if you win and the consequences really aren't worse if you lose, why would you bother to fight? You wouldn't— you'd shoot your own officers and settle in for one last round at the pub before the retaliatory punishment rained down from the sky. Why the heck not? Same end result, just less headache.

    So, yeah, I say blow off GW's nonsensical fluff and go as silly as you like. Giant anime-headed kittens out to conquer the galaxy makes about as much sense as anything they've written— if not more.

  4. Jay, first off, thanks for the work on your blog. I have really enjoyed what I have seen so far. Second, my apologies in advace for the very long response I am posting. I didn't realize I would write so much (and, yeah, its a lot of writing about what is a very silly and nonsensical interest of mine).

    I have an extremely similar reaction to grimdark as you do. I do enjoy grittiness and even a degree of bleakness the themes of my film and book preferences, but in the end I am an optimist at heart and always hope for a positive ending in some form. Where one is not readily evident in a book, film, or game, I either reject the whole thing out of hand (which is why I also am pretty "meh" about most zombie apocalypse themes and the Aliens universe), or I find some way to impose a more optimistic take on it that may only exist in my head but that makes me see redeeming qualities.

    So while I completely agree with your take on the wearing nature of grimdark nihilism, my own way of dealing with it has taken me in a somewhat different direction from yours.

    While I can't stand much about the official world of 40K that GW has concocted (I don't even play 40K rules and most of the details of the fluff just annoy me), there is something about the universe itself-including the Imperium and Chaos - that I find relentlessly appealing. Much of it has to do with nostalgia, as the 40K backrgound was introduced to me along with miniature gaming around the same time it was for you. Another part of it comes from my natural reaction to moral vacuity. It is SUCH moral and ethical void that I can't take it seriously, and by "it" I mean literally that I can't buy that such a morally vacant universe could exist, so good has to exist somewhere.

    So the gaming universe that my own games are much like the official 40K universe, with most of the same history and factions and certainly many of their models. But the critical difference for me is in terms of moral and social evolution, something must be about to happen in the game world, and it's something BIG.
    All my games have a theme lazily woven through that revolves around some bit of fluff that I read about the inquisition - that there is a little-explored heretical faction of the Inquisition call the "Xeno Hybris" whose members believe that the only way for humanity to evolve is by allying with and learning from other sentient species' where possible. I took this tidbit as a way of redeeming 40K from grimdark. So in my own gaming campaign background's version of 40K, every Imperial institution and most alien factions have elements that recognize that the only way to survive and evolve is to overthrow the entire old order. To me, it seems a small nod to the "stand together or hang separately" philosophy of the revolutionaries of many periods. So all the campaigns and individual games that take place in it revolve around uniting the plotters, forwarding their agenda, and bringing down, bit by tiny bit, the old order. The ultimate goal of the meta campaign is that the Xeno Hybris plotters infiltrate or destroy enough governments and institutions that they can muster the power to exterminate both the Emperor and free all sentient species to a harmonious and prosperous existence. I plan for the last campaign to take place with the rebellion mustering enough force-drawn from most factions and races (even the Traitor Legions)-that they assault Terra, storm the Golden Throne, "liberate" the Emperor from his stasis, and restore balance to the galaxy by eliminating the rift he helped to create and preserve. So there it is-an overly windy and detailed account of how I negate grimdark in my 40k gaming. Jay, your own appraisal of the whole grimdark business got my wheels turning. I am heavily medicated at the moment (flu), so I will blame that for the length of the post. :)

    Please keep blogging! I find your writing very engaging and look forward to seeing what you do with Hellsreach.

  5. Speaking of antidotes to grimdark:

  6. Hi!

    I totally agree with your comments on Grimdark! Whats the point of playing a game set in a universe where everyone is doomed and without even the slightest hope!

    The original Rogue Trader lightened it with lots of dark humour, somewhat akin to 2000ad and much of the background wasn't totally without hope and Helsreach was a perfect example of that. Yes its lawless and isolated but its got its own vibrancy where Humanity and Orks coexist after a fashion and seem to be doing ok for themselves.

    The random scenario generator has lots of good stuff in it too, much of it with a fair slice of humour (giant space pudding cultists, Abdul Goldbergs constant re-appearance and so on!)

    Either which way, I am really enjoying your blog so far and cant wait to see more stuff!

    All the best!

  7. You ruined everything, you are consigned to a special pit of hell reserved for lawyers and people who talk at the movie theatre. Burn for eternity, heretic.

  8. We should have lots of sex. Hey, i am looking for an online sexual partner ;) Click on my boobs if you are interested (. )( .)