Or…the difference between Tall settings and Wide settings.
Back when 8th Edition was released, there was a lot of talk about the Sigmarization of 40K. How it was being reduced to a children’s game, etc. etc. While I have my issues with 8th ed. even in its mature form (a post I’m working on soon), I think the critics missed on that one a bit.
But what they also missed was a change in the way the 40K setting works that paralleled the transition between Warhammer Fantasy and Age of Sigmar.
The storyline advanced. And the setting got smaller.
Or more accurately, it changed dimensions.
What Do You Mean By Tall and Wide?
Let’s talk about data for a bit – because that’s where I first encountered this concept. Essentially, a tall data set is one with lots of entries, whereas a wide data set is one with lots of variables. So, for example, a list containing every active phone number in the United States? Tall. A data set with just you in it, but where each movie in the IMDB database is a variable with a 1 if you’ve watched it, and a 0 if you haven’t? Wide. Obviously these are extreme examples. But lots of information about a small number of things is wide, and a little information about a large number of things is tall.
What’s this got to do with 40K?
Let’s think of Tall vs. Wide in another set of dimensions, instead of people and variables.
Let’s think about it in Time and Space.
Thinking about it this way, a “Tall” setting would be a setting with a lot of history to the setting, and a “Wide” setting would be one with a lot of space in the setting – that is places where things happen.
The fundamental assertion of the rest of this post? Games Workshop has been moving from Tall settings to Wide ones – and they’ve done it with both Age of Sigmar and Warhammer 40K.
The Old World
I got started thinking about this when I was talking about what I would play in Age of Sigmar if I had time (the Daughters of Khaine), and how if I was going to do that, I would just have to ignore my instinctive dislike of armies built around special characters and field Morathi, because she’s Morathi. And she’s a giant snake-lady. And she’s awesome.
But it made me realize that I really never liked WHFB on the scale a lot of people thought about it in – massive armies clashing with big heroes and dragons and whatnot. I liked it…at the scale it was on the table top. Not in the mental math “You have to look at a block regiment of troops and think of each guy as representing ten…” but…each guy representing one. A battered garrison of Middenlander’s squaring off against a raiding party. The few surviving Knights of a doomed Grail Quest ambushed by a band of Wood Elves at the outskirts of a forest.
To me, those small stories were the most interesting ones – and I think this is why the WHFB universe still has such a hold for roleplaying. The boundary between “Your party defending a coaching inn in the middle of the forest” and “A company of state troops defending a coaching inn in the middle of the forest” is a thin one.
To me, the Old World is the epitome of a Tall setting. There’s a lot of history contained within it, and a lot of room to move around in there. You could theme an army around the War of the Beard, or Magnus the Great, or the original Vampire Counts, and the game really could pretty much support that just as much as something taking place in the “modern day”. My own WHFB armies, such as they were, were based on drawing from that history. My favorite were the “Last Sons of Solland” — literally a band of dispossessed noblemen from Solland intent on taking back their ancestral lands from the Orcs and other races that had taken it, and setting up a new Elector-Count.
But it was never a particularly wide setting. There was really only one way the various hordes of Chaos were ever going to attack the Empire – down from the North, through Kislev and Middenheim. Things like that.
Then They Blew It Up…
Whether or not ending the Old World was a good decision, it was a dramatic one. And, to my mind, it shifted the setting very much from a Tall setting to a Wide one. Planar settings are often wide settings – there’s probably an Elemental Plane of Cheddar Cheese if the adventure calls for one. And while technically there’s a lot of history in the Age of Sigmar setting, it’s largely backstory that’s not capable of being played in. Lots of references to by-gone kingdoms sacked by Chaos, and relics from a forgotten age. But you can’t really play those relics, and a lot of the excitement for the setting is coming from the new elements – Chambers being opened, the various flavors of aelves returning, Slaanesh slipping their leash.
There’s a lot there, and it’s easy to carve out your little corner of a realm to write your own narrative in, but by and large it’s all happening now.
And that’s the shift I want to talk about in the 40K setting.
Sigmarizing the Imperium
The Fall of Cadia and subsequent shenanigans around the Great Rift widened the setting tremendously. The iconic Imperial Guard regimental type is literally scattered to the wind. Several “stalemate” settings – Armageddon, the Thousand Sons vs. the Space Wolves, Chaos generally, etc. get reinvigorated. A whole Tau sphere expansion is just…lost. You have the Rift itself, which has made the Imperium not just one place, but two. Spears of the Emperor by Aaron Demski-Bowden does an excellent job of showing just how not okay the other side of the Rift is, and if the Imperium is hard pressed, Imperium Nihilus is in a world of hurt.
The setting got wide, and it got wide in some really cool ways. But it also got…less tall.
Now, of course, the timeline didn’t change the way it did in Age of Sigmar. But I’d argue that the setting is considerably less tall than it used to be, for one reason, and one reason alone.
Belisarius. Fucking. Cawl.
Or, more particularly, the Primaris Marines. Now this is not a critique of the Primaris marines themselves. I’ve written that already. What this is instead is a note about the narrative effect of the Primaris marines. They are a temporal anchor. There is a point in the history of 40K where you can point to and say “If you have a Primaris marine in your army, you must be prior to this date.”
As an example, my Space Wolves are an army I’ve nicknamed “35K”. They use a lot of Heresy bits, and avoid some of the Wolfier elements because I don’t care for them. And I can field them with my Sisters of Battle (and have), because the falling out between the Space Wolves and the Sisters is a relatively recent phenomena. There are thousands of years of 40K history to play in before this becomes a problem.
The moment I add an Intercessor, that stops being true.
The time frame I have to work with is much narrower. Lets say, for the sake of argument, that’s a 500 year span. That’s an oft quoted figure by GW, though it’s also cloaked in “But nobody knows!” and also they don’t really treat it like a 500 year span (there’s an awful lot of people alive when Cadia falls who are still alive in a lot of the present fiction).
Even if it is, that’s 4.7% of the post-Heresy timeline available to the setting.
And yes, you can ignore the Primaris marines, but classic marines are, at this point, an end-of-life product outside of the Heresy. Yes, you can still buy them, and you might be able to buy them for years to come, but it’s pretty clear that’s no longer what GW is interested in, or designing for. And they’re not alone – the use of any Ynnari characters puts you in the same boat, for many of the same reasons. And this will become more true over time – Games Workshop has started linking new units to events in the game, rather than “I dunno, we found an STC at some point…”.
So Is This Bad?
Not necessarily. It changes what you have to do to carve out your little narrative niche – there’s a loss of something like what Dan Abnett can do with the Gaunt’s Ghosts series, in terms of setting your armies and campaigns in the past. There’s now a couple bright lines in the setting where you can’t go back further than that without either ignoring the suddenly conspicuously tall and somewhat sleeker Space Marines or the death-obsessed Space Elves. But there’s tons of room now to write narratives of little pockets of space that are cut off and out of reach of the wider Imperium. There’s less call to say “That’s the same sector the Ultramarines are in, why haven’t they sorted this out?”
And it’s a new way to tell stories.
But there are consequences to that. The 35K Space Wolves are…collecting dust on a shelf. That’s not just because of this, but it hasn’t helped. And it’s not that I don’t like wide settings – the Horus Heresy setting is basically the platonic ideal of a wide setting. A thousand little dramas taking place on and between worlds, over the span of a decade at most.
But it’s definitely a shift, and if the 40K team borrowed ideas from AoS, I’d argue that this is the more consequential of them.
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