Monday, 11 March 2019

Hobby Origins and the enduring appeal of 40k

Hi all,

I read a fascinating piece on the Old School Gaming blog today (ok, a while ago now by the time this gets published) about High Fantasy and whether or not it is dying a death. Whilst this post isn’t a response to that, it is most certainly inspired by it, and I’d love for it to become a series of guest posts where my readers (yes, that means you, even if you’ve never commented on my blog) set out their hobby origins and why they are involved in the hobby. It’s intended to be a similar type of post to Mike Corr’s Better Know a Blogger series, though specifically related to the 40k universe and less Q&A, more exploration of the different facets of the hobby that hook people in.

Way back when in the dim and distant past, much longer ago than I now care to remember (mainly because I can’t, I can barely remember what happened last week, who am I again?) my hobby career began. Much like many of us I suspect, particularly in those times, Games Workshop was not its origin, it was certainly not as ‘mainstream’ or easily available as it is now.

No, my hobby career started with Airfix (well, you could say lego, but that just depends how loosely you want to define the origins of model building). As a young something or other (around about the age of 10 I think) I looked on as my brother (obsessed with aircraft to the point he now works with real ones) got bought an airfix kit for Christmas. I wanted one, and sure enough, as my parents were never the kind to treat my brother and I differently before I knew it I had one too. I think it was an F-14 Tomcat. I excitedly set about building it and then gleefully gave my brother palpitations by instead of painting it in the drab greys of ‘proper’ aircraft colours, I splashed gloss red paint all over it, cos I liked red and it looked cooler that way.

Over the next few years, our interests diverged slightly, as my brother kept his collection modern, whilst I picked up Spitfires, Mosquitos etc. I also took the paint jobs a bit more seriously, and I started putting a lot more effort into them (to be honest, quickly outdoing the quality of paintwork he was putting on his, haha). That was when things reached the precipice though, as interest began to wane before a chance eavesdropping of a conversation in the school playground set me onto the Skaven in Warhammer Fantasy. My journey had begun, and though my initial foray into 40k a couple of years later wasn’t too successful (I borrowed a mate’s Tyranids and he proceeded to rip me a new one with his Space Wolves, me not having a clue what I was doing) I took the plunge, having been hooked by the background of the Blood Angels described in the 2nd edition boxed game. Many happy hours were spent cutting pieces off the 2nd edition boxed game with a stanley knife (yep, I shredded my thumb on more than one occasion) listening to the angsty tones of Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill.

Since that time, I’ve never left the hobby, even through my Uni years, and have started many different armies from many different factions. There are a couple of things that keep me firmly wedded to the hobby however, and these are the unique background created for the Universe, and the painting.

Looking at the background element first, what did, does and probably always will drawn me in and hook me to 40k like no other science fiction universe I’ve ever come across is the desperation of everything. Sure, there are other backgrounds out there set in a dystopian future, but 40k isn’t that, it’s not set in the ruins of civilisation. Equally there are loads of shiny technical science fiction universes out there, and it’s none of them either. If I had to pick a single other reference point to the 40k universe out there I would have to plump for the majority of the setting of Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Even that’s not close, because their technology is understood and there remains the progressive advancement of its society by the Alliance. In creating Firefly, Joss Whedon said “nothing will change in the future: technology will advance but we will still have the same political, moral and ethical problems as today”. And that’s the thing I guess, 40k as a setting explores the same dirty, scary vision of the future, albeit from a different perspective to Firefly. We have a universe where the main protagonist from whose perspective the story is told, has stagnated for 10,000 years. There is no progression, there are only a handful of individuals who even genuinely understand how its technology works and can be advanced. In the meantime, we have a ruling class who will do anything and take any decision to allow this society to survive. Destruction of a world and its billions of inhabitants? Fine, it’s a numbers game and if destruction of that world means the survival of others then have at it. I don’t think any of us could say we’d want to live in the 40k universe, but as a setting for the battles we fight, I honestly don’t think it has an equal. I’ve looked at various other games and settings over the years (though I’ll admit not extensively, 40k takes up all of my time in that respect) and in all cases the background has been pale by comparison. Why would you want to play a game set in a universe where your armies fight for corporation’s profit, yadda yadda yadda (that one was especially prevalent at the time when I played a lot of computer games) when you could be fighting for the very survival of the species on an interstellar scale? It’s no surprise really given the influences on the writers of the game at the time 40k was created that probably the best examples of other sci fi backgrounds would probably be Dune by Frank Herbert (the detail and interplay of its Imperial structure with ruling houses and a military elite certainly has comparable elements to 40k, as does the cast iron grip on interstellar travel of the Navigators and the title of God Emperor) and Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, both of which depict detailed backgrounds and explore the interrelationships between people and their surroundings and the philosophical responses to individuals placed into certain situations. There’s also some suggestion that the depiction of the mobile infantry in Starship Troopers actually inspired the concept of 40k Space Marines, which I find to be a delicious irony since the Mobile Infantry represented by the popular film are far more reminiscent of the Astra Militarum’s equipment and fighting methods.

It’s probably why I’m given to exploring the 40k background myself through written lore for my armies and background to conflicts, and I also love writing narrative for campaigns.

Turning to the second part, I just love painting. I’ve met many people in the hobby over the years, and painting is something that continues to be possibly the most individual part of the hobby, and I don’t just mean that in a physical way, I mean that each hobbyist’s relationship with painting is distinct and different to each other. I’ve met guys who have no interest in painting at all and would happily play with grey models, I’ve even played guys who used card versions of models to save money and who had no intention of ever buying the kits those models represented. At the other end of the scale I’ve played some beautifully painted armies and met (and followed) even more talented painters on the various social media outlets. But the painting isn’t just split between those who like to paint and those who don’t - every painter has a style that is usually recognisable to their schemes. I was asked a few weeks ago why all my colours schemes were matt-looking. It was an interesting question because I’d never really considered it before. As I noted at the start of this piece, when I first started out painting I went really bright and glossy, and it’s no surprise therefore that my first army was Blood Angels. As time has passed by however I’d like to think that my painting has evolved from those early stages, and whilst I’m certainly still no stranger to a bold colour scheme, I’d like to think I’ve added more realism and edge to my models. I’m still not one for a ‘dirty’ scheme though, and I do tend to shy away from the use of metallic paints (probably a hangover from trying to do all the gold trim on a defiler with the old GW shining gold). Other painters I know paint very quickly with a heavy drybrush bias, or a more high-contrast, representative painting style designed to look good on the tabletop and still more go for the extreme detail, smoothly blending colour transitions through airbrush use and a myriad of weathering techniques.

I’m not capable of all of this, but I just love painting and it’s a rare day when I don’t get my brushes out at all.

To be honest, I’m not sure where this article has ended up, but I felt the need to type something and get some of the brain fuddle onto the page, but I think it started out as an article about stuff I like about the hobby, so it’d be unfair in the extreme not to finish on the one topic that has linked all of my 40k life. The Adeptus Astartes.

I know they are often looked at as the ‘intro’ army or ‘easy’ to paint, but I have never got over my love for those guys in power armour, and the longer I am in the hobby, the more I realise that I have no desire to do so. As much as I enjoy many different factions, the one army I keep coming back to is the space marines, as you can tell from the list of Chapters I’ve started/finished over the years.

Blood Angels
Tiger Legion
Sons of Draco
Serpent Guard
Storm Guardians
Spirit Sentinels
Brotherhood of the Eternal Sword
Raven Guard
Iron Fists
Dusk Knights
Swords of Dawn

There are others I’ve planned out and put to one side too, but generally speaking I’ve not kept too much record of those.

So yeah, I’m a marine fanatic, and do you know what? I’m ok with that!

If you’d like to write a guest post for the blog on your hobby origins, let me know, just send me an email to the blog address and I’ll get in touch to schedule something in.

Till next time!


  1. Writing things out to figure out what's going on in your head is a time-honoured tradition. This comment is actually a bit random and rambly as well.

    The one setting that I feel comes close to that of 40K is BattleTech's. There are actually a number of similar factors, like dark ages, lost technology, and religious organizations with monopolies on some tech. However, even that setting doesn't have nearly the same capacity for players to make it their own. It's a much smaller area of space than the full galaxy, and much more of the space, the history, and the organizations in it are nailed down much more firmly.

    Over the years, I've actually known quite a number of people who had a similar progression through D&D to BattleTech to 40K as I did, moving steadily toward more Models and more things that can be done with them.

    The Starship Troopers movie has always annoyed me, since I was a fan of the book long before it came out, and the movie had essentially nothing in common with it other than the title and the characters' names. It was like they filed off everything *except* the serial numbers. It's a fine movie in and of itself, don't get me wrong, but it ain't Starship Troopers.

    Thinking about your comment at the end, about how the Astartes have been the big constant in your time in 40K, for me, it has to be Chaos. GW really hit on something primal and archetypal there, and despite their attempts to codify and standardize it (and their obsession with Khorne, and more specifically the more boring aspects of his area of power), it remains the heart of the infinite potential that the 40K universe has.

    Actually, that in turn makes me think of something else that sets it apart from most dystopian settings: However desperate the situation is, and however slim the odds may be, the possibility is actually there for things to get turned around. It'll never happen in canon, because then GW wouldn't really have a wargame left anymore, but theoretically, it's possible. Yes, humanity has been locked into a war for its survival for 10,000 years, but it's held up remarkably well, and it's still fighting, after all that time. There's something inspiring in that sort of persistence.

  2. Thanks for the comment WestRider. I've never been exposed to battleTech I don't think, with the exception of the Mech Commander PC games, which didn't really go into much detail about the history.

    I think the main failing of the Starship Troopers movie (notwithstanding deviation from the book, which is on my bucket list to read) is its failure to actually get across the message it's trying to portray. Listen to the director's commentary and the serious political messages are all there, but they're put across in a fashion that came across as black humour and a gung-ho attitude instead.

    The two key parts to the 40k background and narrative are a credible and threatening 'bad guy' - 40k most certainly has that and whereas many sci-fi settings have a 'big bad' none of them are quite so subversive or prevalent as the good guys - and quite often simply represent a different faction of those same good guys. In 40k the bad guys really do represent the destruction of everything the Imperium is trying to preserve. The second is the timeline. I've read somewhere that the original intention was to put the Rogue Trader game in the year 4,000 and at a relatively late stage Rick Priestley decided to stick an extra zero in there and really throw the setting beyond any scope of the predictable future. It's the problem many sci-fi settings have - they put their story in a timeline that's going to be within the lifespan of their readers, I guess the classic example is the Arthur C Clarke book 2001: A space odyssey and its sequel 2010. Both set a long way away when written, but both have comfortably passed with no hope of the human race getting even close to the kind of technology they detail.

    And with respect to your last point, somewhat harking back to the BattleTech setting you mentioned as well, another strong element of the 40k setting is that you can throw major disasters at it like the Cicatrix Maledictum and the Imperium is so widespread, so far reaching that even something like that doesn't destroy the Imperium, it's very scale that makes individual elements vulnerable also makes the whole very resilient to damage.

    1. A further level of issues with the Starship Troopers movie is that Verhoeven doesn't actually like the book (and in fact has never read more than a couple of chapters of it), and his intended messages were, in many ways, opposites of Heinlein's. In particular, Heinlein's conception of moral growth as bringing more and more people into our "in group" until it finally includes everyone, and the principle that Authority must always be balanced with Responsibility, are not included. Add in the fact that the script was actually originally written as an original property, and later adapted to Starship Troopers IP, and it just turns into a mess. Would have been far better as its own thing.

      I've run into that time scale issue with Star Trek recently. In Space Seed specifically, there are a bunch of bits talking about the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s, and how that was such a dark and chaotic time.

      BattleTech's timeline started diverging from ours very quickly after it was written, with the fall of the Soviet Union seven years later completely throwing things out of whack. The actual gameplay is all set in the 28th-32nd centuries, tho, which I think is fairly safely outside the lifespan of anyone currently living ;)

      BattleTech has also always been lacking in actual villains, yeah. There are a few exceptions, but by and large, the warfare there is politically or ideologically motivated, and it never comes anywhere near 40K's struggle for the fate of not only humanity, but possibly reality itself.

  3. Great read Nick, interesting to see your current thoughts on the hobby and where it came from. I'll get working on my own entry, which of course you are desperate to share ;)

    Have you changed the blog style recently? I actually find it quite hard to read the blog at the moment. The stark white on black background does weird things to my eyes. Is it only me?

    1. Thanks Mike! I've written a brief so I'll send you the link to it.

      I've not changed it *recently* (before Christmas I think). I've always had quite sensitive eyes in relation to computer screen brightness, I used to get bloodshot eyes quite a bit after a long day at work, so I default to less contrast (I know, counter-intuitive but it seems to work). I'll tweak it when I get a mo and see if that's better for people, after all, I don't read the posts myself once they're published!