The Warhammer 40,000 universe is nearly incomprehensibly vast, with 40 years of canon spread across game books, novels, animated shorts, in-universe documents, and video games. There isn’t any one narrative; instead, this truly is a galaxy full of protagonists with their own stories, most of which are cut short when someone is eaten by a space bug, kidnapped by a sadistic space elf, or is corrupted by the extradimensional forces of Chaos.
In recent years, some very interesting plot developments have unfolded. The God-Emperor, his Primarch sons, and other key characters are starting to emerge from stasis. The galaxy is now cracked in half, a Chaotic maelstrom ripping across the stars. The Imperium is under new management, with a very stressed and sad man named Roboute Guilliman taking the helm. The God-Emperor has even rallied enough strength to burn the gardens of Nurgle, a Chaos God of rot and decay. What inspired all of this change, and what does it mean for the 40K setting?
Meet the Emperor
If there’s anything approaching a main character in 40K, the closest thing would be the Emperor of Mankind. He is a carrion lord upon a golden throne, a rotting carcass that is barely kept alive by faith, ancient technology, constant human sacrifices, and sheer willpower. The Emperor, despite being a secularist in his time, is worshiped as a god by the vast Imperium of Man who rules the stars. If the Emperor fails, mankind fails along with him, as he powers the cosmic lighthouse that lets ships navigate the stars. He can only communicate with humanity fleetingly, through tarot readings and visions.
A common bit of boilerplate text, often published as a foreword in most 40K novels, describes the setting as such:
To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be relearned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.
Not great! Were things always this bad?
All in the family
Over 10,000 years ago, the Emperor was much closer to an actual man. He genetically engineered 20 sons to serve as his Primarchs, generals to his armies, and extensions of his will. Two of them were exiled under mysterious circumstances, and nine fell to the corruption of Chaos. (As it turns out, the Emperor is not an aspirational figure — he’s an abusive father and cruel dictator who was so terrible half his sons decided they’d rather deal with demons than continue to serve him.)
The loyalist Primarchs were largely lost — dead, vanished, or otherwise unavailable. While the Horus Heresy novels (which have run since 2006) explore these characters in depth, the Primarchs are largely figures of myth and legend in the modern day. That changed in 2018 when Horus’ successor, Abaddon the Despoiler, came out of nowhere with the metaphorical steel chair. He destroyed the world of Cadia, the Imperial world that held off Chaos, and opened a Great Rift across the galaxy. Oh, great! Now things are even worse for everybody!
There was one upside of the 13th Black Crusade and the opening of the Cicatrix Maledictum, the Great Rift infused with Chaos energy from the mysterious realm known as the Warp. Roboute Guilliman, the Primarch of the Ultramarines — lovingly referred to by fans by nicknames like Bobby G or Papa Smurf — was restored from stasis. Guilliman had been put on ice thousands of years ago after an injury left him on the brink of death, but now he’s back — and he hates absolutely everything about the Imperium. He’s mad at his dad, the Emperor; he thinks this whole “God” thing is pretty messed up; and in general he would prefer the Imperium prioritized the accumulation of skulls a little less.
Guilliman is sealed in the Armor of Fate to keep him alive, and is seen as a demigod by everyone around him. All the while he’s trying to figure out concerns like picking up paper with his clunky war gauntlets or finding a chair that will fit him. He also has to deal with the fact that his father’s Imperium is now split in two, with a “Dark Imperium” on the other side of the Rift that is cut off and under assault by Chaos.
In recent years, Guilliman has been leading an Indomitus Crusade across the stars to try and restore the Imperium. Unfortunately, he’s the only loyalist Primarch left in the setting (...for now, at least) and so his daemonic Primarch brothers will target him for their revenge. The flip side is that the Cicatrix Maledictum, combined with 10,000 years of worship from trillions of human souls, seems to have pumped the Emperor full of power. In the book Godblight, Guilliman’s Primarch brother Mortarion pulled him into the Warp to slay him in Nurgle’s garden. But the Emperor was able to heal Guilliman, use him as a vessel to burn down Nurgle’s gardens, and then revive his son fully — which is a power play that we’re not used to seeing from the big guy.
The Arks of Omen story, along with the Boarding Actions game mode, seems to be setting up the next chapter in this story. Angron, another Daemon Primarch, will star in his own Arks of Omen book along with Abaddon the Despoiler and Vashtorr the Arkifane. Fulgrim, a Daemon Primarch of Slaanesh, is apparently active in the galaxy as well. On the flip side, it does look like the scene is set for other loyalist Primarchs, like the Dark Angels’ Lion El’Jonson, to return. Warhammer 40,000’s plot moves very slowly, but we might just see a big ol’ family reunion in the coming years. Chances are, much like everything else in 40K, something will go horribly wrong, grim, and dark.