We’re coming to the conclusion of why the Gathering Storm is bad and addressing its most severe problems in this post, where we’ll tackle the problems that came through in Rise of the Primarch and especially those in the leak of the fourth book, as well as how those problems lurked under the surface of the first two books.
40k is not epic fantasy. It is (space) fantasy, but it’s gothic (space) fantasy. Just like Warhammer Fantasy, one of its main draws is the clusterfuck of different factions and who have interlocking feuds and allegiances with one another. Even within the Imperium there are forces who are more likely to go to war with one another than they are with outside threats. Seriously, it is entirely plausible that the Ordo Hereticus would team up with the eldar to fight the Space Wolves. The galaxy isn’t reduced to just the forces of good and evil, it’s a whole mess of factions pursuing personal agendas and vendettas and some of them are nicer than others, but niceness doesn’t determine allegiance at all. The borderline noblebright Tau will team up with the hideously evil dark eldar against the Salamanders, the bro-est of all space marine chapters, because the dark eldar want slaves and the Tau want to expand their empire for the Greater Good and the Salamanders would rather they not do either of those things in Imperium space.
40k factions are driven largely by personal and tribal, not ideological, motives. It’s a major component of what makes things so grimdark. The setting has good guys in the sense that some of the guys in it are good, but it doesn’t have good guys in the sense that any of the guys in it are fighting specifically for goodness. Just like turning gothic fantasy Warhammer Fantasy into epic fantasy Age of Sigmar was a bad idea, turning gothic space fantasy 40k into epic space fantasy is a bad idea. So it’s concerning when factions start to get consolidated together.
The first examples of this could be seen as early as the release of 7e, when the alliance chart removed all enmity between Imperium armies. Imperium armies make up a huge chunk of the armies in the game and they’re the human viewpoint, which means making them all friends with each other is getting dangerously close to making them “Team Good” already. The Fall of Cadia solidified this Imperium unification with the Triumvirate. Now, it obviously makes perfect sense for the Imperium to be unified during a Black Crusade, when an existential threat aimed specifically and almost exclusively at them is on the rise, but that’s an in-universe explanation, and we’re talking about why books produced by Games Workshop are dumb, an out of universe problem. The issue here is not that it doesn’t make sense for the Imperium to unify under the circumstances, the problem is that Games Workshop decided to push a plotline in which the Imperium unifies.
At the release of Fall of Cadia it wasn’t clear if they were planning to make this permanent or if it was just the battle lines for this particular fight. After all, Imperium + eldar vs. Chaos is hardly an unusual match up in 40k history. Even so, in the wake of 7e’s lack of any enmity between any Imperium armies at all on top of Age of Sigmar’s actually going all the way and combining tons of armies into a tiny handful of super-factions representing good and evil, there was plenty of cause for concern that the Imperial unity created by Fall of Cadia was intended to be a permanent institution.
Fracture of Biel-Tan and Rise of the Primarch only made these fears worse. In Fracture, the eldar and dark eldar end up uniting against Chaos. Just like with Cadia, this is hardly a stretch given the circumstances. Eldar and dark eldar don’t get along, but they were originally split up by varying reactions to the birth of Slaanesh. They don’t have the kind of intense antipathy people usually assume they do from D&D’s drow vs. other elves split, they both hate Slaanesh something fierce (the dark eldar continue to engage in the behavior that birthed Slaanesh, but they do it because they refuse to let Slaanesh terrify them into changing, not because they like Slaanesh at all), so when Chaos comes knocking it is entirely sensible that they end up on the same side as one another. Again, the problem is that from an out-of-universe perspective it’s looking more and more like Games Workshop is writing stories specifically to push factions together, in this case combining eldar armies into one.
Rise of the Primarch makes this even worse. The eldar and the Imperium have both been established to be working together, and in Rise of the Primarch both of those mega-factions make alliance with one another to revive Roboute Guilliman. This is the point when we entered parody. This genuinely sounds like a 4chan greentext written in 2014 about what it would be like if Games Workshop gave the Age of Sigmar treatment to 40k. It even calls upon those old rumors that Matt Ward wanted Roboute Guilliman to return so that he could give his Mary Sue marines a Mary Sue leader. The Horus Heresy novels have pretty firmly established that Roboute Guilliman is a pretty noble, idealistic, and effective leader, and Rise of the Primarch is certainly not reversing that. Anyone who’s afraid that 40k is going epic fantasy has plenty of reasons to worry when the Imperium-Eldar alliance gets a suspiciously noblebright leader.
The resolution to the conflict between Hive Fleet Leviathan and the Blood Angels confirms about half the fears reasonable people had when they heard about Roboute Guilliman coming back, and made the other half seem more probable than ever. For those unfamiliar with the leak, it’s a sidebar detailing how Hive Fleet Leviathan besieges Baal itself, the Blood Angels and their successors pull out a last ditch effort to fend them off, and then Roboute Guilliman and a bloodthirster show up and wipe out Leviathan and save the Blood Angels.
There’s a couple of reasons why this is bad. First off, it completely obliterates any hope that the Warp rift splitting the Imperium in two would actually result in part of the setting being cordoned off to remain grimdark while Roboute Guilliman fixes everything in the other. Guilliman gets his entire crusade through the rift with no particular difficulty at all in the same plot that destroyed the greatest threat to the so-called Dark Imperium in an instant. It’s definitely not the case that old 40k is going to be preserved in one half of the galaxy while things go epic fantasy in the other.
That’s not even the worst problem. It’s not known exactly how much of Hive Fleet Leviathan was destroyed (anything from “a particularly large tendril” to “pretty much the entire thing” are possible), but we do know that the Blood Angels weren’t involved. In a fight between the Blood Angels and the Tyranids, the winner was Khorne. Chaos has been the primary villain of the Gathering Storm so far and that’s fine, but the point when other antagonist factions are wiped out just to try and make Chaos seem impressive is the point when Chaos is becoming the primary villain not of the Gathering Storm, but of all 40k, which again means that things are shifting from gothic fantasy to epic fantasy. Having any force be the main villain of the entire setting, especially one that conforms so closely to an evil overlord as Chaos, again breaks down the factionalism run on personal agendas and vendettas and turns the story into two competing ideologies, and not even interesting ideologies. One side wants to rape orphaned puppies and the other wants to send orphaned puppies to college.
And that’s not even the worst problem. Turning 40k into epic fantasy without nuking the setting and starting over means that Games Workshop has to try and write Roboute Guilliman taking the feudal, corrupt, and incompetent government of the Imperium and straightening it out into something that can be called “the good guys.” Games Workshop aren’t any good at politics, and indeed, generally speaking when they write something about politics they usually write about how something very simple and straightforward brings about amazing results. The intuitive solutions of the human brain are designed for the kinds of groups we evolved in, tribes of a few hundred who can all trace a common lineage through some combination of blood and marriage, and they don’t work at all when scaled up to nations of millions, let alone nations of millions of planets. Political think tanks would not exist if policy issues could be solved by a couple of half-assed game devs in Nottingham winging it.
Roboute Guilliman’s noblebrighting the Imperium up is not only a betrayal of the setting’s foundational tone and principles, it’s also something I have no confidence in Games Workshops’ ability to actually pull off, and instead I anticipate an awful lot of “Guilliman does something stupid but it works out great because of his Mary Sue plot armour.” Most epic fantasy dodges this problem by having Team Good’s territory start out nice and pleasant to live in. We don’t know exactly how Gondor and Rohan are achieving their prosperity, but they clearly have, and since that’s the status quo, no explanation as to how they got there is required. In 40k, Games Workshop can at-best handwave things. A better team could write a compelling story of incorrigible Inquisitors and Arbites handpicked by a revived primarch to untangle the Imperium’s corruption one sector at a time (and as fast as possible so that corruption and incompetence will stop leeching the life out of an Imperium that desperately needs to be firing on all cylinders to combat the forces of Chaos), but I have no confidence that Games Workshop will actually write that story, and even if they did, it would still mean that the far future is no longer dark or grim.
And that’s not even the worst problem. The worst problem is what we’ll get into next time: Mary Sues.