Subtitle – How I Made Up a Thing Sixteen Years Ago and Now it has Totally Reshaped the Warhammer 40,000 Cosmos!
One of the early lessons in background-writing was that a mystery is worth ten facts when it comes to describing the Warhammer 40,000 universe. The lore has always been intended as small spotlights in the darkness, illuminating just a tiny portion of the shadowed whole. The parts we show serve to hint at what lies in the gloom beyond, perhaps even guide players and readers and painters into their own explorations, but never fully reveal the workings of the universe.
For the longest time, the idea of an ongoing narrative was anathema to the background of 40K. Things changed, were added in, but it was very much a SETTING. Its purpose was not to tell a story, but to enable players of the game to tell stories with their miniature armies.
I still strongly support this idea. I think that when the power of narrative is invoked too heavily by designers and authors, it robs that power from hobbyists and readers. If too much story is generated from the centre – in terms of actual ongoing plots and timelines – then it leaves less room for others to add their own stories, rather than generate more.
The purpose is to shape the sandpit that others can use, not to define and manage every grain of sand.
Anyway, that’s a slightly different topic I shall go into soon. The short version is that I like the idea of a meta-story…
One of the ways that we give context to the battles of the 41st millennium is to leave hooks that hint at untold stories, or ongoing narratives not yet resolved. One great line from the Codex Imperialis for 2nd Edition springs to mind.
“Even today the planets of Saharduin remain dark and unexplored, whilst Imperial armies guard the Gates of Varl from the quiescent perils of the C’Tan.”
From this one line later sprang forth the C’tan star-eaters, and with them a whole new swathe of 40K lore regarding the Necrons, the Old Ones and the ancient wars that took place sixty million years before the present day.
Sometimes a hint goes a long way.
When we were creating the Codex supplements for the third edition of Warhammer 40,000 we were under very tight constraints in terms of page count.
We could not have page after page of ‘word of god’ background text and so have to lean heavily on evoking the image and idea of the armies and cultures rather more than explaining them. It was not great for conveying the depth of information we needed to, but it did generate a lot of ways to hint at much larger topics in a characterful way.
So it was that when I was putting together the Codex: Craftworld Eldar supplement – a tome of army lists and information regarding named Craftworlds that could not be fitted into the main Codex: Eldar – I had a page to talk about the cosmology of the eldar. Part of this I gave over to an exploration of the war god Khaine, it being a book about the armies of the Craftworlds after all. The other part I wanted to use to flesh out the character of the greatest farseer of the craftworlds, Eldrad Ulthran, and perhaps hint at something bigger.
I had spent a lot of time thinking about the eldar and their spirit technology, and talking over ideas with the likes of Jes Goodwin
. It occurred to us that while the craftworlds were storing the souls of their dead in their infinity circuits, there might be some other effect of all that concentrated psychic energy. Just as the burgeoning hedonism of the eldar psyche had created their destroyer in the form of the Chaos god Slaanesh, perhaps the souls of their dead might prove their salvation.
So I wrote what is called colour text – a short vignette of prose – that described Eldrad sensing this build up of collective psychic potential. He feels the interconnectedness of the eldar infinity circuits, joined through the webway in what I called the eternal matrix. The piece ends with a line that has now echoed forward to the present day.
“This was Ynnead, god of the dead. Ynnead, last hope of the Eldar.”
The Avalanche Effect
That was all Ynnead was intended to be at the time. A hint of something that may transpire. The text itself talks about countless lifetimes through which the eldar must die to create a being strong enough to save them. It’s a myth-yet-to-be.
All it takes for something big to happen is a small thing to gather momentum.
I always had it in mind that Ynnead did not exist to stop the eldar dying out, as that ran counter to their whole schtick as a species facing extinction by their own creation. Instead, it was meant to save their souls. When the last eldar died during the final battle – the Rhana Dandra – Ynnead would rise from the spirits lost and destroy the Great Enemy, thus freeing the eldar from eternal damnation, but leaving them extinct. It’s a spiritual salvation, not a physical one.
The story developed at the hands of Phil Kelly, Jeremy Vetock and others, in particular the role of Eldrad in the scheme of things. Through the lore added for the Death Masque game, Eldrad is not content with spiritual salvation, he wants to give Ynnead a boost and kick Slaanesh’s butt before the last eldar has to die.
But since 40K is heavy on death and light on cake* Eldrad’s plan goes awry. Ynnead is only half summoned and a part of the Whispering God awakens but at the cost of nearly destroying the eldar anyway.
*Death being bad things that happen to characters and cake being the rewards they earn.
From this sprang the ‘awakening’ of Yvraine as the spirit of Ynnead passes through her, touching her soul and elevating her to the position of Emissary of Ynnead, the Opener of the Seventh Way.
And so, sixteen years later, I can write Ghost Warrior about her exploits, and the tribulations of the Ynnari and those around them.
Incidentally, Ghost Warrior also features Iyanna Arienal, a character I created for the same Codex, and the next novel Wild Rider stars another, in the form of Nuadhu Fireheart. All-in-all, for a slender book originally intended to shed a little light on the individual craftworlds, the ramifications have been quite large!
I think there is a lesson here for other games background creators, but also writers in general. World building is an ongoing process, it continues for the life of the thing you are creating.
The Rise of the Ynnari shows that no reference is ever really throwaway, and that it’s not necessary – or even desirable – to explain everything. For every area you explore, add another shrouded in darkness. For each loose thread tied up, leave two more hanging. You’ll thank yourself later.
Much intriguing indeed.