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Horus Heresy is over, Warhammer 40k needs a new civil war

The Horus Heresy told a compelling, dynamic story about an empire in real crisis - modern Warhammer 40k would be better if it did the same.

Warhammer 40k civil war story - Games Workshop image showing Gaunt's Ghosts in a spaceship, with Commissar Gaunt firing a bolt pistol

Warhammer 40k is full of amazing stories, but, for me, none carry the same epic scope and gravitas of its prequel saga, the Horus Heresy. It’s a grand tragedy built on weighty ideas – but above all, it’s a story where things change. The ‘current’ era of 40k lore, by contrast, feels like it’s in stasis; the Imperium’s peril escalates endlessly, but somehow it stays basically the same. I’m desperate for a story where it finally cracks; where humanity once again fights its most interesting enemy: itself. 40k needs another civil war.

Don’t get me wrong – humanity isn’t short of lore coverage, and aliens deserve more love too. Warhammer 40k is a diverse science fiction setting that does some of its best work in the weird, perspective-altering details of its many xenos races. Andy Chambers’ Path of the Dark Eldar dives into the malevolent machinations of the Drukhari; Robert Rath’s celebrated The Infinite and The Divine takes us inside the hyper-hierarchical rivalries of the ancient Necrons; even the wild and bestial Orks offer up compelling characters and narratives in Mike Brooks’ Brutal Kunnin.

And humanity is already well catered for. Across the hundreds of Warhammer 40k books, dozens of Warhammer 40k games, animated series, and assorted other media, the human Imperium of Man gets by far the most airtime of any Warhammer 40k faction. 40k’s current ‘main narrative’ centers on a big new war against the Tyranids – but, thanks to the unique, unknowable Tyranid psychology, even those stories will be heavily human-focused.

Warhammer 40k civil war story - Games Workshop image showing Inquisitor Eisenhorn and Bequin from the Dan Abnett novels

So why civil war?

With all those exciting aliens out there, why am I batting for the boring old human beans to hog even more limelight? Partly, it’s because my personal favorite 40k stories are human ones – Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn, Ravenor, and Bequin novels are stuffed with delicious insights into the politics and inner workings of Imperial society, and the epic Gaunt’s Ghosts series illuminates not just the complex lives of Astra Militarum soldiers, but the motivations of Chaos-aligned humans too.

Mostly, though, I’m craving a big, central Warhammer 40k storyline that has authentic impact and stakes; where the Imperium once again faces the only enemy that seems able to threaten its existence – itself – and is forced to embrace interesting changes as a result.

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Following Imperial troops as they battle alien or 40k Chaos hordes is often thrilling, can still convey big themes, and I love it – but I’m getting tired of the existential threats endlessly escalating, both outside and inside the Imperium, with no substantial consequences.

The fall of Cadia; the opening of the Great Rift; Mortarion’s Plague War; the psychic awakening; the Pariah Nexus conflict and the return of the Necrons’ Silent King Szarekh; Abaddon the Despoiler‘s weird Arks of Omen campaign – all promised doom, and all came and went. Every cosmic catastrophe, Xenos invasion, or Chaos plot that our heroes foil could notionally bring the Imperium into genuine, meaningful crisis – but it never quite does.

Warhammer 40k civil war story - Games Workshop image showing an imperial star map and Holy Terra

So far, so Warhammer 40k

This is, of course, entirely by design. Throughout Warhammer 40k’s existence, the Imperium has been portrayed as an aging empire, beset on all sides by external threats. Its borders are so vast that portions of it can be placed in limited, specific jeopardy for dramatic value, without the integrity or unity of the Imperium itself ever coming into question.

This allows creators to ‘dip into’ a localized story with still-big stakes (tens or hundreds of planets) and nod meaningfully towards the grander context of the galaxy-spanning Imperium, without having to grapple with telling a coherent story at that massive scale, or worry about fitting into an overarching plot (beyond some very loose guide rails).

But the Imperium itself generally remains constant: a monolithic state, justifiably warring against hostile Others. The Imperium gets attacked by an enemy, the enemy gets fended off somehow, and by the end of the book/game/miniature wargame edition, it’s much as it was at the beginning, with all its internal issues and conflicts unresolved.

Warhammer 40k civil war story - Games Workshop image showing Astra Militarum soldiers firing

That’s the natural state of 40k. Humanity’s constant, brutal warfare is justifiable because it’s for survival, not conquest; the repression and ever-present enemy threats mostly stop people from rebelling; the colossal machinery of Imperial government does just enough to keep the wheels turning, but not enough to change or improve anything; thus the Imperium limps forward by inertia alone. The empire is perpetually described as being on the brink of collapse, spread too thin, barely containing its internal turmoil – but somehow that pot never quite boils over on a wide scale.

I’m not knocking it, it does the job. It’s a neat satire of how authoritarian propaganda justifies oppression by convincing people that existential threats are always getting worse, and it keeps the stage open for our games to play out across unlimited theaters of war. But it’s not a satisfying narrative overall, because fundamentally nothing really changes.

Once you’ve hung out in this galaxy for a while, it can start to feel a little sterile and superficial – especially when drastic change is constantly foreshadowed, but never comes. At least since Roboute Guilliman‘s return at the outset of 8th Edition in 2017 (and arguably much longer) 40k has been constantly edging us with the promise of one central, cataclysmic, existential threat to humankind – so I say, make it so!

Warhammer 40k civil war story - Games Workshop image showing Gaunt's Ghosts ready for a fight, with Commissar Gaunt screaming the advance

Why now?

The Imperium has been a tinderbox ready to erupt into civil war for years now.

The Great Rift has split the Imperium in two, locking thousands of planets and countless billions of human subjects away from Imperial support, communications, and military protection. The Dawn of Fire novels confirm that renegade and secessionist movements are popping up all over, from Chaos insurrections to idealistic, ad hoc mini-Imperiums (it’s happened before, remember).

Warhammer 40k civil war story - Games Workshop image showing Roboute Guilliman holding the Emperor's Sword and firing his bolter

The risen 40k primarch Guilliman has taken de facto control of the Imperium, royally pissing off the already fractious political and religious authorities on Terra, and siphoned all humanity’s resources into a huge galactic crusade that’s making – at best – slow and costly progress.

Dark Angels primarch Lion El Jonson has returned in the cut-off zone of Imperium Nihilus, and is following his own idealistic quests, which include rehabilitating former Dark Angels who had become Chaos Space Marines – something the wider Imperium would consider unforgivable heresy.

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Both returned primarchs hold views about the divinity (or non-divinity) of the Emperor of Mankind that could easily set huge portions of the Imperium against them, given the right circumstances.

The stage is absolutely set for the Imperium to split into warring factions with vastly different ideas about humanity’s goals, ethics, methods, and government. I think that schism could be the most meaningful and exciting storytelling opportunity in Warhammer 40k history, giving the Imperium the chance to properly confront its demons for the first time in 10,000 years.

Warhammer 40k civil war story - Games Workshop image showing a Horus Heresy battle with tanks and titans

The Horus Heresy series hooked me so completely because it acknowledged the inherent internal conflicts of any galactic-scale human endeavor and dove right into them, glorying in the philosophical depth and dramatic value that allows.

Instead of goodie-by-default humans endlessly fighting baddies because they’re afraid of them, and changing little as a result, it showed me morally grey (trans)humans being forced to choose their own side, for complicated political reasons with profoundly recognizable roots – with the destructive consequences permanently reshaping the world.

Instead of a decrepit power locked in meaningless stalemate, it showed the mightiest human empire ever built, splitting in half and burning itself to the ground within a few years, because of human emotional drives: ambition, fear, betrayal, anger, and personal vengeance.

If Warhammer 40k did the same, it could be the most exciting thing to happen to the lore of GW’s sci-fi setting in my lifetime.

While we wait, though, make sure to bookmark our Warhammer 40k news page and follow Wargamer on Google News – if the Imperium collapses, we promise we’ll let you know.