Tuesday, 20 December 2016
40k and White Wolf- a word of caution
Before anyone gets over-excited, this isn't some sort of rumour post about a tie-up between White Wolf, the legendary paper RPG makers, and Games Workshop. Rather, it's a look at how the fate of one might foreshadow the travails of the other.
Back in the day, when I used to do pen-and-paper roleplaying, there were several systems that were big with our gaming group, and few were bigger than White Wolf's "World of Darkness". To this day, my old gaming buddies and I can happily regale an unsuspecting victim with tales of the Vampire clans of the Camarilla and the anarchistic Sabbat, the tribes of the Garou and the various flavours of Mage, amongst other things. The Storyteller system, supported by a steady flow of sourcebooks, allowed players to take part in a struggle to decide the very fate of reality itself. Eventually, the story reached its own End Times, known variously as Gehenna, the Ascension, the Apocalypse and various others.
Of course, the thing with a story is once it's over, it's over. You can write a sequel, but if you basically end by destroying the world then the only option is reboot city. We've seen this recently with Age of Sigmar, and White Wolf did the same thing with the "New World of Darkness".
Now, I don't move in those circles any more, but from my perspective this reboot never really took off. Veterans didn't really appreciate all their knowledge of the setting becoming obsolete overnight, and new players were intimidated by the negativity from the older ones. These days, White Wolf are a shadow of their former selves who were recently bought out by the makers of Eve Online.
What does this have to do with 40k? Well, the Warhammer reboot was, I think we can agree, eventually fairly successful, especially once GW wised up and released the General's Handbook to add a points system. The thing was, though, that this was with a background of very low sales of Warhammer and a world that was largely stagnant and very derivative. 40k, on the other hand, is still for all its faults one of the best-selling and most famous sci-fi wargames in the world.
I've always said that one of the great strengths of the 40k setting is that massive battles and campaigns can be won and lost without the larger galaxy giving much of a damn. Entire star systems can be eaten by Tyranids, overrun by Orks, or lost to Chaos and there's still plenty more where that came from. It means players have a lot of room to tell their own stories and need not worry unduly that something official will come along and render them invalid. Recently, though, this has started to change. The threat against Baal, the desolation of Fenris, and now possibly even the destruction of the Cadian Gate are events too serious to ignore, and the rumours point to Chaos forces even reaching Holy Terra itself. But for me, this whole thing actually started with the Tau.
The thing with the Tau Empire is that, compared to most 40k factions, they're tiny. The Tau Sept Worlds are a mere postage-stamp in the galaxy, and the whole race could conceivably be wiped out by the Tyranids, Orks or even the Imperium if they got around to it in the space of one lost campaign. For all the talk of the Tau being a faction of hope- even the only 'good guys' in the galaxy- there's no scope in the setting for them to suffer a serious reverse. They're uniquely isolated in one place, they don't have that many worlds, and they have a lot of enemies. Put the Tau in a campaign and we know the worst they'll do is a stalemate because if they lose heavily, they're gone- and you can ask any old Squat player how that feels. This is really the first time that the huge 40k setting finds itself lacking space for stories.
Now we have Chaos possibly breaking through to Terra, Daemon Primarchs returning and Loyalist ones waking up or being rediscovered. Rumours point to Luther escaping The Rock, and the Eldar possibly creating Ynnead and defeating Slaanesh. Many of these events would have impact that the 40k setting, as it stands, cannot sustainably absorb. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Maybe the Black Crusade will be defeated at Terra and we'll enter a new Great Crusade, an age of progress and reconquest. Maybe the Emperor will die, and maybe be reborn, we just don't know. But the problem for me is that all of this picks away at that great strength of 40k- a setting that was too big, too awesome in scope and wide-ranging in timescale to be broken. We're seeing more galactically significant events in a decade or so than have occurred over the previous ten thousand years, and that begins to pick away at the foundation that makes 40k's world so compelling.
Perhaps I'm worrying over nothing. Perhaps if they break the galaxy this 40-something might decide to make a clean break with the whole thing. Maybe, since the galaxy is such a big place, I won't be missed. But the thing with big events is that they tend to make everything around them look small, and 'small' is never a word we want to see associated with the 40k galaxy.
But maybe a reboot is what the whole thing needs. Let's just hope it goes better than the White Wolf one.