Warhammer 40,000 stands apart largely because of its vast scale. Billions of people are stacked in hive cities, trillions of people sign up for the Imperial Guard (and die horribly in the process), and quadrillions of humans are spread across the galaxy. That’s without mentioning the various alien races, known as xenos — terrifying space bugs, ferocious orks, awe-inspiring space elves, and immortal robot skeletons.
But that’s not what fan conversation tends to center on. If you check out Warhammer 40K fan spaces and content channels, you’ll find that much of the conversation surrounds twenty terrible boys and all the bad decisions they make. What’s up with that?
The God-Emperor of Mankind is the guy who set up the Imperium of Man, powers the lighthouse that all Imperium ships use to travel, and stops an endless horde of demons from breaking into Terra and exploding the planet. The God-Emperor sustained an ouchie 10,000 years ago that means he’s confined to the chair, a carrion lord who consumes a thousand souls a day. And it’s all because of his terrible sons — the Primarchs — and their nonsense.
The Primarchs and their exploits started as vague myths and legends, half-remembered from a lost age. These characters existed far back in history, and had no realistic bearing on contemporary gameplay — and their stories weren’t explicitly told. That was before Black Library, the prolific book publishing arm of Games Workshop, started putting out books about these boys. There are now dozens of books in the Horus Heresy series, detailing each Primarch’s exploits.
The various authors of the Black Library pull this off by writing the Horus Heresy series like a particularly nasty WWE-style feud, or a soap opera with constant gunfights and walking tanks. Many of the Primarchs seem either ridiculous, or they just blend together into a smear of big men and space battles. Each Primarch also has their own supporting cast from their legion of Space Marines, transhuman biosoldiers built from the gene-seed of their Primarchs. Space Marines are the poster boys of the setting, and one of the most iconic parts of 40K, and each legion has their own role and function.
If you’re not deep on the lore of Space Marines and Primarchs, though, this nuance can easily be lost on the reader. The Imperial Fists, Iron Hands, and Iron Warriors, for instance, each have their own niche — but if you’re interested in reading about the Aeldari or Necron, they all just look like Space Marine palette swaps. (Although if you are interested in the nitty-gritty, there are good resources to help break that down.)
Two of the God-Emperor’s sons got deleted from the record — we don’t know what happened to them, and we’ll never learn, thanks to a series of memory wipes and document burning — leaving eighteen boys behind to start the Great Crusade, the Emperor’s attempt to reunite humanity and take over the whole galaxy. Each boy has a legion of Space Marine sons, which causes a recursive spiral of bad dad/son relationships. The Emperor went into the basement to work on his projects for a couple of decades, only showing up once in a while (and making things worse in the process).
But the Primarchs can also feel over-represented in the setting. The problem is that there becomes a vicious cycle where people love Primarchs, so more Primarch books are written, which helps build a fanbase for Primarchs. If you’re pursuing stories about other factions and you’re not a Space Marine fan, it can be frustrating to feel like every other vast corner of the universe is drowned out by the nonsense of these big sons.
Personally, I used to fall into this camp. I’m still not that into Space Marines as they’re depicted in 40K. But I have found myself being charmed, first by the memes and tidbits of knowledge I picked up about these guys — did you know Fulgrim, Primarch of the Emperor’s Children, is a giant snake demon who had his soul stuck in a painting for a while? Or that big Bobby G of the Ultramarines once fought in space with no helmet for twelve hours, fueled by rage at brotherly betrayal? — and then by delving into the actual stories depicted in print.
In the modern day of 40K, only two loyalist Primarchs have returned — Lion El’Jonson and Roboute Guilliman. Guilliman’s return in 2017 was a massive deal that flipped the entire setting upside down, but as time went on, he became less of a protagonist and more of a garnish on top of the nightmare pasta that is the Imperium of Man. The traitorous Primarchs make fantastic bosses and have cool tabletop models, but they’ve already lost. They lost 10,000 years ago, and it means that characters like Angron are more like environmental effects than actual characters.
These characters are at risk of overwhelming the setting due to their sheer popularity, but they work best as background figures who just make things worse (or at the very least, more complicated) for everyone around them. They’re also a reminder not to take the setting too seriously. When characters like Corvus Corax of the Raven Guard are running around, it’s a charming relic from the older days of 40K where everything wasn’t so carefully and meticulously sanded-down to be cool. I love my garbage boys just the way they are, heresy and all.