The Gathering Storm is the latest meta-plot arc in Warhammer 40k, booting up the story after its lain dormant for something like a decade. Anyone who’s read the title of this post will not be surprised to learn that I am not super keen on it. I’m going to jump in under the assumption that people have the basic Warhammer familiarity to know what things like the Age of Sigmar and who the Tyranids and Blood Angels are and why those two don’t get along so well these days, so if you have no idea what any of that means and you’re just here for a good rant, you will probably be lost. Vitriol begins beneath the break.
So, fuck everything about the Gathering Storm. I’ve had some serious concerns about the direction things are going and the recent leak of the resolution of Hive Fleet Leviathan’s attack on Baal has confirmed every bad thing I’d suspected might be in the pipeline. It was like a parody of the worst of all 40k writing. The plot was driven by the need to push new models, a protagonist faction gets sidelined to make the Ultramarines look badass, an antagonist faction gets sidelined to make Chaos look badass, the whole thing reads like someone’s made-up parody of how much things would’ve gone to shit if Games Workshop had let Matt Ward write the return of Roboute Guilliman like he allegedly wanted to clear back in fifth edition (including the actual return of Roboute Guilliman).
So let’s start where things first started going to Hell in a big way: The Age of Sigmar. Everyone hates Age of Sigmar – I am about 40% sure that literally everyone who has ever defended it has been a paid shill of Games Workshop – but most people don’t really know how to articulate why and tend to latch onto superficial details. As a much older example, everyone hates Jar Jar Binks and for good reason, but he didn’t single-handedly destroy the prequel movies. Ever since Plinkett’s prequel reviews went viral in the Star Wars community people have had a much deeper reserve of things to say about the prequel movies than just “Jar Jar sucked, midichlorians are dumb.” Audiences pick up on a lot of things subconsciously that make an experience much better or worse even though they can’t actually explain back to you what those things were after the fact. So, criticism of Age of Sigmar has coalesced around the most obvious wrong thing that happened: They blew up the setting.
Unlike Jar Jar Binks, whose presence the prequel movies could have survived if they were otherwise executed competently (granted, it would be really weird for a competent screenwriter and director to leave Jar Jar in, but if for some reason they did the movies still could have been good if everything else worked), the demolition of the setting may have been enough all by itself to make Age of Sigmar a bad idea. Everyone with a Warhammer Fantasy army has the lore they’ve made up, character relationships they’ve invented, a story, and that story is all deeply tied to the Old World of Warhammer. If you blow all of that up, you’ve blown a huge hole in the lore people make for their armies. Blowing a huge hole in any component of the armies people build is a terrible idea, because building an army is what you do in Warhammer Fantasy. Telling players to scrap some or all of their army and start over to gel with the new lore and minis is a really big ask and even if you have an ironclad reason for doing it, a lot of people will probably be too resentful to go along with it, and either keep playing with their old army or play another game entirely. If you have to rebuild half your army (or more) to keep up with the new lore, well, jumping ship to Infinity or Warmahordes is just as difficult but has the added benefit of stabbing at GW from Hell’s heart.
It gets worse than that, though, because Age of Sigmar had basically nothing in it for a Warhammer Fantasy fan. Warhammer Fantasy is a 16th-ish century setting where gunpowder is present and easily available to those factions who want it, but firearm technology hasn’t yet become so dominant as to make obsolete the infantry/cavalry/ranged trifecta that defined combat since the invention of the chariot, so knights and pikemen and such were still a valuable part of a field army. Age of Sigmar is a setting that is nearly devoid of gunpowder and instead relies on more 14th century tech with selective 15th century elements (like full plate armor), the same milieu that D&D settings default to.
Warhammer Fantasy players, especially ones who play Warhammer Fantasy exclusively, are very specifically not playing Warhammer 40k, even though Warhammer 40k is more popular and thus easier to get games for and also typically requires fewer models and is therefore cheaper and less time consuming to purchase and paint an army. Even players who play both are still choosing to play Warhammer Fantasy some of the time when they could be playing more 40k. This means that Warhammer Fantasy fans are at best indifferent to space marines, since they are going out of their way to play the game that does not have them. Age of Sigmar puts its “stormcast eternal” Sigmarines front and center.
Warhammer Fantasy is a setting that droops with ancient history and complex interactions between many, many different factions. Each of over a dozen different armies represents at least one distinct faction with different goals and histories. Age of Sigmar has consolidated all armies into four factions and has placed them in a setting that revolves around nine different planes, each of which, much like the D&D planes, is not really treated as a place so much as a theme. The Realm of Fire doesn’t have a specific map which different factions have occupied sections of and have different borders and those borders have shifted over time and factions losing or retaking territory has led to ancient grudges and blood feuds and so on, it’s just where battles take place if you want to bust out your volcanic terrain and use the special rules for things being very hot (also, and this is a separate issue from the lore, but, those rules include getting bonuses for wearing red, yellow, or orange clothes to the fight – the fuck?).
In Warhammer Fantasy, elves are split into three distinct factions and the Tomb Kings and Brettonia exist at all. In Age of Sigmar, all elves have been consolidated into one army and while the Tomb Kings and Brettonia have been updated to new rules, they’re absent from the lore. Other factions, most notably the Empire, former main viewpoint faction of the entire setting, have been drastically reduced in importance to the point where the new fluff doesn’t really do anything except acknowledge that yes, they are a thing that exists at all.
People who liked Warhammer Fantasy were given almost no reason to like Age of Sigmar at all. Even ignoring the fact that many fans don’t want to reconstruct their armies’ lore (and in a few cases buy and paint completely new armies just to have a place in the lore at all) just to go along with a new setting that’s taken a giant shit all over their old setting, completely ignoring the motive of spite to abandon Warhammer Fantasy now, even if Warhammer Fantasy were discontinued and Age of Sigmar were presented as a spiritual successor by a completely different company who’s being kind of like Warhammer Fantasy but not really purely for reasons of copyright, it would still have difficulty appealing to Warhammer Fantasy fans just because it really only has superficial similarities to Warhammer Fantasy. Warhammer Fantasy was a relatively grounded and gothic world whose fields were soaked by the blood of ancient grudges and declining empires. Age of Sigmar is a world where the forces of good and evil are united multi-planar empires who struggle constantly with one another for supremacy over all reality. They have as much in common with one another as Greyhawk and Dragonlance.
But that’s not what people on the internet complained about. People on the internet complained about the most obvious problem: They didn’t like having the setting blown up. If Games Workshop was listening to the feedback on Age of Sigmar at all, the only thing they’ve learned is that they shouldn’t literally destroy the entire setting and rebuild it from the ground up, and while that is definitely something they should not do (if nothing else, leaving the existing setting more or less intact makes it easier to walk changes back on the off chance they ever come to their senses), the Gathering Storm has been nearly as bad in terms of having nothing to offer fans of 40k. The betrayal of the tone and themes of the setting has lurked under the surface for a couple of releases now, and in the leaks of the next book, we’ve seen some of that burst through. Time will tell just how totally the Gathering Storm ends up jumping the rails. We’ll get into exactly how tomorrow.