Thursday, December 3, 2015

Comparative Theology: WH40k VS Moorcock

"Why is Conan -?" Let me bandy with words a bit, in these panels he's my WH40k stand in.

Since getting back into roleplaying games in my 30s, it's become clear that I missed out not getting into two cultural phenomena that were around when I was an adolescent but I never delved in to.  I saw the Warhammer people, especially the 40k dudes, at conventions all the time - they were usually setting up or playing in the same room as the D&D games I was in. I never joined though - I was (and am) both impatient and too poor to afford endless terrain and miniatures. It also seemed like a place where macho militarism and nerd culture met - and that wasn't a place I was interested in being. No one ever told me there was a tabletop RPG version of it and at the time I never stumbled on it.

As for Elric, my sister was really obsessed with the books right as I was getting to an age where I was keen to reject what I saw as her retreat into fantasy to escape the world. (Yeah, now I realize she introduced me to everything that was cool, but you know, maturity and hindsight). Plus, I was depressed and had an addictive personality myself - I thought at the time the Elric books would immerse me in emotions I was looking for release from.

So not getting into these two things during the ages where one has time to really get lost in such stuff, I always feel like everyone else I'm gaming with now knows a lot more about these two worlds and mythologies than I do. I've been reading a bit of both recently - digging into their RPG forms, anyway - and am seeing some trends that I find interesting. 

Teasing out the implications of a world's mythology can help the DM run it in a flavorful and unique way. Understanding the underpinning philosophy of a setting can help you make the right aesthetic choices.

Kaleb Daark WH40k comic and some recent Elric comic

The way Chaos and Law/Order are manifested in these two settings influence a lot about the feel of them, who is a hero*, what it means to be powerful and adventure in those worlds, etc.

In Michael Moorcock's Elric! (and other) stories, both Chaos and Order are mystical forces and multiverse-influencing theologies, and both have current, active, powerful gods using those forces and pushing their agenda. Chaos is used by Arioch, who seeks to further Chaos' influence, and whoever the Lords of Law are they're doing the same for their side of that struggle. In this multiverse, Balance is it's own distinct metaphysical power and keeps a thumb on both Chaos and Law. 

Arioch, can we talk about your wardrobe?

With all these hugely powerful, reality-affecting supernatural beings around, what role is there for a person of such import that they even become aware of these forces? If you're an Elric, or a PC, where do you fit? You may have more power than the guy that makes your shoes, or even the town guard, but you'll never be Arioch (or at least not for a looooooooooong time). So - you align yourself. You become an instrument of something larger than yourself so you can benefit from it's power. You didn't make this thing, you don't steer it, but maybe you control a little bit of something locally. You're harnessing dangerous stuff you can barely control, and the more powerful you get the more your puppet strings show.

It's sort of an institutional model- you're contributing to something, subsuming yourself in it, hoping to benefit thereby. Ultimately, however, the great forces will exist and struggle without you. Also - you could walk away and join the other side, and probably only people at your level would even notice. Your entire species and way of life could die off, and it probably wouldn't even sway the struggle for one side or the other. Law has other tools, as does Chaos, and Balance will fill whatever gap you leave without noticing. Your existence doesn't matter to the cosmos - only to you.

While it's not clear exactly what Moorcock thought out early on and what he developed later when their popularity chained him to these stories, I think this essentially nihilistic and near-Lovecraftian view of the universe serves the apathetic, lethargic feel he wanted. Individuals struggle in an ultimately cold, uncaring world.

Conan's not WH40k but he's making a point.

...and then we have Chaos and Order in Warhammer 40k. 

Chaos is pretty similar to Moorcock actually, although perhaps a little...warmer. Encompassing more variety. Welcoming you to rub against it. 

The Warhammer Chaos Gods. They can design my outfit any day.

You don't just channel it's forces, serve it's gods, it doesn't only warp your mind or shapes your body. WH40k Chaos gets intimate with you.

Yeah...roll for initiative. Or comb your tail-head's hair.

But in the end, you could squint and say it's just another dimension's interpretation of the same force. Chaos here is more here-flavored but it's all there from the Elric stories - Chaos Gods, Demons, Thralls, Sorcerers, et cetera.

The real differences aside from fashion come in with Order.

Unlike Chaos, Order and Law have no extant, active Gods, Angels (or other Demon equivalent), or other Cosmic presence∆. At least in the books I've read. Order is a thing conceived by humans (and some aliens), created by them in the universe, and maintained by their concerted activity. Order is a thing made from human will. It is made up of the actions taken by mortals to further it - and nothing else. Like Justice in the real world.

I think this is why grot fits the 40K world, and perhaps Warhammer in general. It is a place of sweat, of human effort. A mortal struggle to create order against the forces of the universe. All is not Chaos because creatures have carved a space for something else through their sweat and sacrifice. Your individual place in the universe may be small, but by working for or against something, or steering it in a different direction, you may have some consequence - you probably aren't going to be a storm, but to pull out an old chestnut, you may be a butterfly flapping it's wings.

Whether a particular character works for Order, Chaos, neither, or both, it's a universe with fundamentally different underpinnings than Moorcock's. It's a universe shaped in a more essential way by the efforts of a group of mortals, who have achieved something beyond their own scale. Existing as a ground-level creature in such a universe seems like a much more visceral, involved thing. You may be apathetic, but someone-or some thing-is not apathetic about you. It's a universe shaped by sweat and mud and blood. There are no real puppet strings - if you're aligned with something, it's because you made a choice.

OK, I feel like I'm droning on, but I hope I got my point across. Even if I'm wrong due to ignorance about some point of Moorcockian or Warhammer cosmology, I think the point about the difference of existing at a human scale in each universe stands.

*by "hero", I'm really just referring to "protagonist" or "the type of person that a PC is." Not necessarily someone who acts heroically. 

∆ I have read about some of the ancient cosmic Order in later books like the star-parasites and their soulless-gelfling-mind powered killer robots, but that doesn't really feel like Order/Law as it is in Moorcock and it's more of an ancient Order that went nuts. I guess it's really fascism, which is where Right and Left meet back on the other side.

Obvs the P Craig Russell Elric comics were formative here, as was Moorcock's writing. The Michael Whelan covers of the Elric books my sis read when we were teens stuck in my mind; I wished they were bigger and told the whole story. What does that sound like?

The WH40k books I've mostly read are the original 1ed book and Slaves to Darkness, as well as countless wiki pages and fan sites.

Some images I downloaded for this post and didn't use above:

MANNNN what happened to this metal as fuck blue logo?

The original text I jotted down when this idea emerged fully formed while I was busy doing boring things at work:

both chaos and order are divine metaphysical forces

only chaos has metaphysical forces, order is a human concept only extant through human effort