It’s Okay Baby, Khorne Loves You Really…
Introduction: The Warp Will Protect Me Like A Shield Of Steel!
Everyone loves the idea of being a bad@ss; that, given the right training and the right circumstances, we could – if only for a day – be powerful. So much of our art and culture is dedicated to allowing us the vicarious thrill of power, from superhero comics to Disney princess films, all of it allowing us imagined lives of dominion over a world that’s – frankly – pretty bloody terrifying a lot of the time. Wargaming is no different.
However, pure power fantasies don’t always make for compelling stories or intriguing narratives. This is something I looked at in my very first ‘proper’ article, where I discussed my perspective on what I perceive as the limitations that the followers of Chaos tend to suffer from.
In the comments, loyal followers of Chaos began telling me that while I may have raised some interesting points, I was – in the final analysis – wrong. Things that seemed obvious to a non-Chaos player like me, that Chaos’ soldiers would run out of bullets, batteries, food and water, oxygen, fresh armour plating, all the logistical details that allow an army to function… To the followers of Chaos, well, I was being shortsighted.
“You’re forgetting the power of The Warp,” I was told, “and you can’t do that. They don’t need things in the same way as the other factions. Chaos provides.”
Again and again, this was sentiment was repeated in different words and different ways, repeated again and again, like a holy catechism.
Well, this article is intended as something of a riposte to that notion, specifically looking at how that belief actually devalues one of the key things that makes the Chaos faction so interesting in the first place, making them a less interesting, and arguably, a less bad@ss faction. That those limitations are actually what makes them awesome in the first place, and a key reason the player base should embrace them.
His Scythe Hasn’t Rusted Because The Warp
In my first article, I used the example of Typhus and his Manreaper to demonstrate why Chaos has an issue with supplies and equipment:
Typhus’ Manreaper has become Unwieldy since the Horus Heresy… [That’s because Typhus is] living in conditions which are less than perfect for the correct maintenance of complex electronic equipment.
Seriously, Nurgle’s soldiers are held together by rust and duct tape. I’m amazed Manreaper only has Unwieldy, instead of a rule that says it bends like foil the first time he hits someone with it.
In the comments section, I was told (numerous times) that The Warp keeps him Typhus going. That it keeps him alive and sustained (all true), and so therefore, it should logically (!) do the same to his weapon; that it mades no sense for his scythe to be Unwieldy because Chaos Provides.
And this argument was made numerous times, about almost everything I had argued that Chaos’ followers would lack access to. No bullets? Well, Chaos provides, so now their gun shoots lightning. No food? Well, Chaos provides, so now their body survives by eating metal. No batteries? Well, Chaos provides, so now your marines poop lightning.
No matter how logical the imposition, how irksome the lack of materiel, how abominable the scarcity of resources, Chaos provides, because evidently, to some players, Chaos isn’t a terrifying primal force of destruction fuelled by the blood of billions, but an overprotective mummy with nothing better to do than swaddle her babies and give them everything they could ever need.
Pictured: Khorne, apparently.
Yes, arguably, Chaos does provide. Sometimes.
But by its nature, you cannot rely upon that aid; no general can reliably factor that aid into their plans. The clue, of course, is in the faction’s name: Chaos. If we are to judge the value of a thing, we do so based on its actions, not its words. And looking at the way Chaos behaves, I don’t think it treats its followers in the same way as a caring parent… Though I do believe it very neatly fits the profile of another type of intimate relationship.
The Most Dangerous Words In The English Language
There are lots of words in English that are dangerous on a personal level. Ignoring more extreme words most of us will never use (For example “Launch the nukes!”) there are many phrases that can lead to terrible harm. Examples include “Just one more won’t hurt”, “Oh, no, my pet Rottweiler’s great with children”, and of course “Go ahead, do it! You ain’t got the guts to shoot me!”
Oh he does. He absolutely does.
But the most dangerous words in the English language are more subtle than that. They’re not an encouragement to risk, nor a monstrous threat, nor anything else obviously danger… And that is, of course, why they’re so deadly. They’re narcotic, and like any drug, they don’t seem bad at first. They might even make you happy for a time.
So what are they, these most dangerous words in the English language?
“I love you, but…”
Now, on first glance, they look like nothing, don’t they? Perhaps even lovely. After all, we all want to be loved. Well, all of us except the real narcissists, but even then, we may still want to belong. Love is an object of the most fervent desire for almost everyone on Earth; to know that we are worth something, that our lives have value. That we are worthy of being loved.
That we existed, and that existence mattered.
“I love you, but…”
Love is something people just get ridiculous about. As a culture, we attribute it mystical powers – Doctor Who saves the world with it every other week; Jean-Luc Picard uses it as justification for the human race’s existence; Matthew McConaghy escapes a black hole with it; John Lennon tells us it’s all we need… On and on and on, giving it magical powers it doesn’t remotely have, all because it just feels so good.
“I love you, but…”
See how nice that sounds? They love you. They must. After all, they’ve just said so! It’s obvious isn’t it? How could these words be dangerous? How could any admission of devotion lead us to harm?
“I love you, but…”
It’s in the qualifier. ‘Love’ is unconditional. By its very nature, it represents a lack of choice. If I love you, I can’t just switch it off. Love isn’t like a tap. Once you love something, that’s just it. Anyone who adds a ‘but’ to that sentence, well… That’s a qualifier, isn’t it? That’s a condition.
“I love you, but you talk too much.”
“I love you, but you could do with losing some weight.”
“I love you, but I don’t like it when you spend so much time with your friends.”
Pictured: a none-too-subtle metaphor.
That “but” poisons the whole phrase, because it neatly proves that whoever is saying it? They don’t love you at all. They might like you, but they don’t love you. They might love what you can do for them (or perhaps to them), but they don’t love you. That’s because love is uncontrollable; it is accepting of flaws, because it has no choice. Love is tolerant of mistakes, because it can’t do otherwise. To love someone, truly love them, is to be unable to let anything else in the way.
Maybe they did love you once, but the moment you hear that “but…” it’s a sign: it’s over. Whatever feelings they had for you are gone, and now they’re using your feelings to their advantage.
Because that “but” always leads to a request. Cut your hair. Change your clothes. Stop hanging out with your friends.
Change yourself into what I want you to be.
Because I’m the one who’s important.
Now, hold onto these ideas, because we’re going to return to them. We just have to discuss magick first.
There’s an interesting thing in the mythology of GW’s interpretation of the Chaos gods; famously, each originally began as a more positive force in the universe. For example, Tzeentch was the god of hope, Khorne the god of bravery and determination, and so on. They all began somewhere more positive than they are now. This is not a unique idea. In fact, it is a very old one indeed.
Hermeticism is an eclectic religious tradition which basically involves being a wizard and is the source of all those creepy Goetic demonic names like Baal and Belial (well, original Abrahamic tribal sources nothwithstanding). It includes a great many ideas lifted wholesale from something called Kabbalah. This phonemically delightful word is the name for a specifically Jewish tradition of mysticism, rooted and based in maths and words. It’s the place we get the idea of the Golem from, as well as the root of ideas like the fact spells have to be spoken, that they use ‘magic words’.
All very interesting, but how does that relate to anything?
Shells is how.
You see, Kabbalism uses what I’ve always thought is a beautiful metaphor to describe the world and the way everything connects to everything else. It’s called the Tree of Life, and in essence it’s a kind of map of reality.
There are ten points on the tree (the big circles above) called sephiroth (and no, they’re not the villain of ‘Final Fantasy VII’). Each has a number and a name, and those numbers and names are linked. For example, the top, Kether (meaning ‘crown’), is numbered 1. It represents God, the self, the purest form of ego… hence why it’s number 1. Two is Chokmah, and represents ‘fatherly’ traits, such as leadership, authority… All those ideas associated with fatherhood. Its number is 2, because the shape you draw between two points looks like…
Three is Binah, and represents ‘motherly’ traits, such as caring, protectiveness, and so on. Its number is three, because that draws a triangle, which (if you angle the point so it’s pointing down) looks just like…
I’m sure you get the point.
Now, this is all a massive oversimplification of a highly complex system of thinking (and if you want to know more, I can’t recommend you read Alan Moore’s magnum opus ‘Promethea’ enough. Seriously, it’s one of the most interesting books ever written; go get a copy now!) but I hope it gets the key point across, namely that the tree of life is entirely metaphorical, as well as deeply symbolic. The points of the sephiroth represent parts of everything, and everyone, because everyone has a masculine side, a feminine side, the purest part of themselves, as well as the other ideas I’ve not listed (which include a sense of justice, a sense of beauty, and so on).
The thing is, just like Spiderman has Venom, the Emperor has Horus, and Amazon.com has basic human decency, the tree of life has a tree of death; as you might imagine, it’s bad news. It’s an inverted tree of life, with the sephiroth replaced by their deathly opposites, called ‘qlippoth’.
Now qlippoth doesn’t mean ‘demon’ or ‘devil’ or ‘Justine Bieber’ – you know, creatures of pure evil – like you might at first think. It actually means ‘shells’. Specifically, empty shells. That’s because Kabbalism doesn’t look at evil as a specific act; you can’t ‘be’ evil… Because there’s no such thing: evil is an absence.
In the dark ages, there was a mythical substance called ‘frigoric’; it was supposed to be like coal, only it gave off cold rather than heat. Certain alchemists argued this was where cold weather came from, but the idea is laughable now. We all know that cold is simply the absence of heat. In the same way, Kabbalism argues evil isn’t a thing that exists in and of itself; it’s simply an absence of goodness. Evil acts are acts committed without humanity. Those who do them don’t do them because they’re evil; they do them because the goodness isn’t there. Now, you may or may not disagree with that, but the point it that that’s why a the tree of death is made of qlippoth: because it’s all that’s left over once the goodness has gone are hollow shells.
Allow me to illustrate.
Imagine a man called Dave. Dave loves Stacy, but Stacy isn’t interested. Dave’s love compels him to try his best to win Stacy – buying her gifts, helping her out, listening to her problems… But Stacy’s just not interested. So she turns to him, and speaks her truth: ‘You’re a good man, but I don’t love you and I never will’. And it’s true, she won’t.
Now, sephirothic Dave, filled with goodness, listens, and hears. And because his love for Stacy is true, he says to himself ‘This might mean I spend the rest of my life unhappy… But I’d do that for her, because I love her… Which means her happiness is more important to me than my own.’ So he thanks Stacy for her honesty, wishes her well in her search for love, and leaves her forever… Hopefully to look for someone who will love him back. Maybe they stay friends, maybe they don’t; it’s irrelevant, because Stacy is happy. Dave’s love for her made her happy. Hopefully Dave is happier too, because he’s made a clean break and can start looking for the right person for him – the one who will love him back.
Qlippothic Dave, though? He hears her truth… But ignores it. See, he doesn’t actually love her; he just loves the way she makes him feel. He listens only to his own feelings, this selfish need for her. He judges her needs as less important than his own, and so he carries trying to win her over. When she keeps rejecting him, he gets angry – his feelings keep being hurt: why doesn’t she care about his feelings? He’s been so good to her!
He can’t see that he is responsible for his own misery, because his compassion is missing. If he could only see that his constant attention was making her first annoyed, then frustrated and finally terrified, that every attempt to win her actually makes her hate him more, then he would see that there was not even the possibility of happiness there for either of them. But he can’t; his empathy is missing. He can’t see her feelings, only his. So he keeps listening to his desires, following her around, stalking her, making her life a scared, wretched misery… And all in the name of ‘love’.
So the qlippoth of love? Is stalking. Love itself is neither good nor evil. It requires compassion and empathy to be good, or it’s simply a hollow desire that can easily form the basis of some truly psychopathic behaviour.
And as it is with the qlippoth, so it is with the Ruinous Powers.
They may have once been gods of hope and honour and a great many things besides, but those days are long over. The Ruinous Powers are exactly that, and can never be anything else. Not any more.
Of course, that doesn’t stop Chaos’ worshippers lying to themselves. Denial is, after all, the most predictable of all human responses.
But He Loves Me!
Chaos is generous. It gives its followers gifts, powers, mutations, boons… On and on and on. But the thing is, Chaos doesn’t follow rules about how and why it does this. Unless it does. And then changes its mind. The one thing you can rely on when it comes to Chaos, is that Chaos? Is chaotic. It’s unpredictable. There is nothing to say that one day, it won’t just look at Abaddon and go ‘You’re a chaos spawn now and forever because banana-flavoured monkey skirts!’
By nature, Chaos cannot be controlled, channelled, funnelled or manipulated. So the idea that Chaos provides is a flawed one. Because it does… But it takes away too. And without rhyme or reason. Even if you’re part of a Chaos Legion, even if you’ve been working up the ranks over the millennia of The Long War, you can never be safe, because the parts of the Chaos gods that made them worthy of worship… They’re just not there any more. Khorne doesn’t care if you die or your opponent does, so long as someone gets got. Tzeentch doesn’t care if it’s plans are confounded, as long as it’s the one doing the confounding, and maybe not even then.
Tzeentch: for when the only thing missing from your plan is bird seed.
As we established, the Chaos gods are all, ultimately, shells of what they once were, their most important parts missing. And you remember how we discussed that anyone who says ‘I love you, but…’ doesn’t love you at all?
Well. A practical example of that.
Sharon was a woman who grew up quite an unhappy little girl; looked over and mistreated, she’d been through various relationships with various men, never quite enjoying an emotional connection of any sort. She liked them well enough, but really none of them ever did it for her.
Then she met Steve.
And Steve was great. Charismatic, charming, intelligent, dynamite in bed… He was everything she’d never known before. He made her laugh, he made her smile, he made her feel safe. He was a great, great guy. So when he voiced the fact he didn’t really like the way her mother treated her, taking advantage of Sharon’s need to feel loved by making her do lots of little favours she hated, well, it was only right she listened. After all, her mum was a pain. She’d been doing favours for her for years without thanks or praise, and Steve was only repeating things to her she’d already said.
When Steve pointed out that her Dad was the same, always getting her to store his ridiculous collections of plastic tat at her house despite having room at his, well, he was just telling her what she’d told him. He was only a mirror to her own feelings. Steve even offered to talk to her parents about it when she couldn’t, and he did too. He was great, really positive with them – not difficult for a man as charming as him – and within a month or so, the house was clear and Sharon didn’t have to do any more of those annoying little favours.
About a month later, when Steve pointed out how unhappy her friends were making her, well, he was only mirroring her own thoughts again. Because they were all so passive aggressive, weren’t they? Especially bloody Leona. God, the way that woman talked behind her back, it was like being back at school. Steve was right, completely right, and anyway, he was all she needed, wasn’t he? Not a bunch of annoying grown-up girls who only ever wanted to go out and drink Prosecco, pretending to be better than they were as they moaned about how…
It was no great difficulty to stop replying to their texts. And it was no great loss when the texts stopped coming. And slowly, Steve came to be Sharon’s entire world; her balm against loneliness, her shield against the world.
And he cried so hard after the first time he hit her. It wasn’t his fault; he’d had a hard day at work, and it wasn’t like he was an abusive partner, not really. He didn’t get drunk and mistreat her or call her names, he didn’t intimidate her into leaving. Yes, he might have said he didn’t know what he’d do without her – may have threatened suicide if she left – but that was only because of his deep love for her. That was just how important she was to him: she was his everything. How could she turn her back on him?
That’s what she told herself the next time he hit her. And the time after that. Every time was the last, every time. And he wasn’t lying, either. He meant it every time. Every single time. Every time, it tore him apart inside, and the next day would be flowers and gifts and meals out and apologies…
Until there weren’t.
After two years, even the apologies had stopped. And, bruised and broken (though not always physically), Sharon began to wonder if she’d made a mistake. That she loved him was undeniable… It hadn’t been like when they got together in so long, but she still remembered how it had been at the start. And it wasn’t like she had anywhere else to go. She hadn’t spoken to her parents in over two years, hadn’t seen another soul in nearly as long. And it wasn’t like Steve was going to kill her, was it?
You could change Steve’s name to Emma if you like. Or Sharon’s name to Brad. Or both. Patterns of abuse are frighteningly similar across genders; every human is capable of hurting another. I simply framed the story this way because Sharon was a really good friend of mine and I’m just telling her story the way it was told to me. (Names changed to protect her, obviously).
More importantly – and relevant to this article – you could also change Steve’s name to Khorne, or Tzeentch or any of their kin if you like. Then, you could change Sharon to Angron, or Mortarion or a hundred other named characters.
When they’re written well, the Ruinous Powers come to you as a friend. Not as slavering, gibbering, obvious evil, but as the charming, wonderful, misunderstood loves of your life. As the part of you that was missing until right now. They’re seductive; they call out to your insecurities… Even Khorne, whose warriors all began as probably the most insecure of all. They come to you and they’re the answer to a question you didn’t know you’d spent your whole life asking. Whatever you need, they bring it to you… It and everything else. The power to save the Imperium with mighty magicks? Not a problem, Magnus. The glorious death your father cheated you of when you lead the slave revolt and your sisters and brothers died without you? Here you go, Angron. The chance to demonstrate your superiority to the father who never loved you?
Sure thing, Horus. We can do that for you.
And the Powers smile and tell you they love you, that you’re the only one for them, all while telling every one of the people around you the exact same thing. They tell you they’ll never hurt you, that you are Chosen, that you are their Champion, that if you follow their rules, that if you’re strong and brave and never let them down, the universe and everything in it will be yours.
So it’s not their fault when they hit you. You must have done something to earn that. It’s not their fault when the next Black Crusade fails, or when your human warriors are swallowed by a campaign where you were promised daemonic support that never materialised.
It must be something you did.
Chaos isn’t a caring mother, or a protective father. It doesn’t give you its gifts because it cares for you, or wants to see you succeed or grow. It’s an abusive spouse, constantly undermining whatever there is left of its followers and replacing that with itself, hollowing them out until they’re nothing but a brainwashed slave, slathering for violence or drugs or to spread disease or make pretty pretty spells. And all the while, as this process of erosion goes on, the worshipper justifies it to themselves – it’s what I want. It must be, or else why am I allowing it? I must want this. Denial is the most powerful emotion that an abuser can take advantage – that simple refusal to see things as they are, because… because… because… Always a different because, and it’s never true, but it’s close enough to the truth that the person can allow themselves to believe it. And all the while, that sense of self, that self-esteem and happiness, all slowly gets worn away and replaced by a spiritual parasite, incapable of anything except further abuse.
To be a Chaos worshipper is to live a life of constant, horrifying abuse. Even if you’re at the top of things, you’re still less than the god which demands your soul.
See, Chaos isn’t anyone’s friend. It’s not a superpower or a fuel. It’s not the bullets in its worshippers’ guns and it’s not a Plot Device that wallpapers over the faction’s deficiencies.
Apart from when it is, I suppose… And the fact that some writers use it as that? I think that’s a problem.
See, 40K, at its best, is all about Forging A Narrative. Whether that’s on the tabletop or in a book or wherever, there have to be real odds. In Greek tragedy, they don’t call the hero a hero, because they understood the hero doesn’t have to be heroic. The word they use is ‘protagonist’. It means ‘the one who struggles’, because stories are all about struggle. They’re about things going wrong, and a character trying to put them right, no matter the cost.
A key part of that is that they should have some agency against the ‘antagonist’, the thing they struggle against. If there’s no chance they can win, then the story becomes dull… And likewise, if there’s no chance they can lose, the story becomes dull too. Drama comes from the possibility of success or failure – that mid-stage where we literally have no idea what’s going to happen.
Consider the classic problem of DC’s Superman. He’s so absurdly tough, so ridiculously unkillable, that it’s borderline impossible to get an audience fired up about him. No-one’s cared about Superman since the 1940s. All his best writers acknowledge this; how does he meaningfully struggle against anything? They have to work to put him into situations where he’s either struggling against things he can’t solve with his powers (like dating) or struggling against problems that can never be solved (like famine or human cruelty) or struggling against godlike villains (like General Zod or Darkseid). When they have him against Batman, Batman is the default hero because Superman so obviously wipes the floor with him; the end of ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ is amazing specifically because SPOILER Batman wins. Superman is dull because there are no stakes in any of his stories; he’s not a bad@ss. He’s a flying brick.
He even thinks in melodrama.
Now compare him to Captain America. In so many ways, they’re fundamentally the same guy: all-American, decent and good. They both want to protect and serve the world in the best of all possible ways. They both hate bullies, care deeply, and are slightly nebbish is private. But Cap is so much more awesome because he’s so much more vulnerable. Oh, he’s faster, tougher, stronger… But he’s still got to run from an airstrike. The stakes are higher because he has to struggle in human, meaningful ways that Superman doesn’t.
‘Chaos provides’ turns Chaos from Captain America into Superman and makes them ten times more dull as a result. It’s narratively shortsighted. Say Abaddon leads a Black Crusade, fights all the way to Pluto, then suddenly BAM! Khorne manifests on Earth for no reason at all and kills everything while Abaddon is forced to watch… See, unless the story is about how Abaddon will always be Chaos’ useless little punk, The Lord and Master Of All Human Failure, then he just got cheated. He didn’t do anything to win. In his own story, he just sat there and let Chaos do the heavy lifting. He becomes completely secondary.
In order for the story to be interesting, he has to have agency, which is a posh way of saying ‘he has to be capable of affecting the story outcome himself, and be the one who does so’.
If Chaos is going to be the main character of its story, if it’s going to be the protagonist, then it needs to be able to fail., because that possibility of failure is what drives our excitement. Chaos’ forces need to have unique flaws – things that its followers have to struggle against. And their unique flaw is their lack of everything. It’s what makes their defiance so exciting. They have to be worried about getting new bullets, refuelling, resupply, all in a way the Imperium or the Craftworlds or the Tau Empire does not, because in a very real way, that’s their story. That’s their struggle. The key trait of the Chaos Worshipper is refusal to submit. Taking that away, making it so they don’t need to fight to keep going? It turns them into evil Superman… Great if they’re the villain. But otherwise? It just makes them dull.
A Chaos Worshipper, be they Cultist, Chosen or Champion, is, at their heart, a person utterly alone. They’ve fallen in love with something that does not love them back… Something that is incapable of loving them back; the Ruinous Powers’ qlippothic natures mean that they are utterly incapable of caring; the part of them that could is long gone. They can no more care for their followers than a person without lungs can breathe. So the Chaos worshipper’s very source of what power they have left mistreats them, lies to them, manipulates them, abandons them at exactly the worst possible moment, hurts them… And they’re the ones who have to always come crawling back, because Chaos is all they’ve got now. They left all their support networks behind and can never go back. Never.
And that’s awesome, because it makes for great stories. From the outside, Chaos is a monolithic, terrifying mass of lunatic killers and monsters. From the inside? It’s basically the same thing, only every single one of those killers and monsters is hanging on to the edge of a deep, black abyss by their fingertips.
So saying ‘Chaos provides’ is actually incredibly demeaning. It’s short-changing the faction, saying ‘We don’t need to put any effort in, because no matter how badly we foul the bed, mummy Chaos will come along and wipe our little bum-bums’. It’s to deny those amazing Chaos characters their story: that they struggle ten times harder than any Imperial, because their friends, followers, even their god… The whole entire universe is against them on a literal, personal level.
And they’re still fighting.
That, my friends, is what makes a great protagonist, and it’s why Chaos players shouldn’t get angry about their faction’s struggles. It’s why they should embrace them. Despite all appearances to the contrary, no-one else has to fight as hard.