It’s time to take a look at another true classic of my personal hobby life, and today’s contender will most likely have played a role in many people’s formative hobby years. This time on Totally worth it: The Warhammer 40,000 2nd edition Codex Imperialis and rulebooks.
My first contact with 40k didn’t happen by way of the rules or the background. It happened by getting glimpses of the miniatures. Ever since getting into the hobby through of HeroQuest and its futuristic counterpart, Space Crusade, I had been in love with GW’s two major settings — although I didn’t even realise back then that those two universes were actually part of a greater whole (and an IP of the same corporate entity): While HeroQuest seemed to me like a hodgepodge of all kinds of Tolkienesque high fantasy tropes (which, in all fairness, it was), Space Crusade looked like a simple remix of HeroQuest…IN SPACE! I already mentioned in passing how the horribly butchered background in the German version of the game did a fantastic job of making sure no one had a chance to realise that it was basically set in the 40k universe (or, indeed, that there was such a thing as a 40k universe).
So it took my good buddy Phil to actually bring me up to speed: He had gotten himself a copy of the then-new 2nd edition 40k starter box, and it was by seeing the models arrayed on the gaming table in his bedroom as well as by getting short glimpses of the rulebooks accompanying the game that I got my first basic impressions of the 40k universe.
Make no mistake, though: Back then, I saw 40k as a mostly straightforward Sci-Fi setting, only with orcs and dwarves and chaos involved. So I will never forget the Saturday morning I spent rolled up in bed, reading through the 40k sourcebooks I had borrowed from Phil to get a grip on the bigger picture behind the game. The experience blew my (much younger) mind, since the setting was actually nothing like I had imagined it:
Where I had expected the usual Sci-Fi tropes of technological progress and towers of glass and marble and the like, I learned of a galaxy in steady decline instead: All the great times had already passed, all the good things already happened, and the whole Imperium of Man was still trying to get to grips with the fallout from an event 10,000 years in the past: The Horus Heresy.
I was shocked by how dark the whole background was. And I couldn’t help but laugh at the audacity of it all at the same time: A universe 40,000 years into the future (just try to actually imagine that for a second, instead of just skimming over it and moving on!). Battleships looking like cathedrals. The Emperor of Mankind sitting on a throne that was nothing more than a glorified life support, trapping a last spark of life in what was, for all intents and purposes, a withered corpse. The brightly coloured, clean-cut Space Marines I had witnessed on the tabletop the result of half-remembered genetic experiments, likely to malfunction and create horrible results as often as not. The “Space Ogres” and “Space Dwarves” were actually mutated humans that had adapted to their new homes in space – the whole thing just couldn’t have been any more over the top and sinister and quirky — but somehow it still worked. And it rocked! Hard!
One of the reasons for that may have been the fact that all the background was accompanied by some of the most disturbing and brilliantly rendered art ever, such as these iconic John Blanche pieces:
Even though GW’s two main universes may have been a mashup of all kinds of well-established tropes and influences to begin with, 40k succeeded at finding its very own voice: Something between classic Tolkienesque fantasy and the disturbing visuals of the David Lynch version of Dune. Looking back at it now, the Orks and dwarves and chaos warriors using machine guns weren’t even the most interesting thing about the setting in the first place. They were just a point of entry. What I found much more compelling was the Imperium’s neo-Luddite approach towards technology, the promise of technological progress (so omnipresent in the Sci-Fi genre) fractured and broken and twisted into something else. A galaxy-wide Imperium, able to perform technological miracles by today’s standards, but still seeming strangely antiquated and dystopian, like a blend of 1984’s Oceania, Brave New World’s sinister view towards genetics and Victorian design sensibilities — there was nothing quite like it, and I guess there still isn’t.
After reading these books, I was immediately hooked. It would take years for me to get around to the actual gaming, and even longer to purchase my first own starter box for 40k, but ever since reading through the 2nd edition Codex Imperialis, I have found 40k to be by far the most original and interesting setting in GW’s catalogue.
But the Codex Imperialis wasn’t the only book in the 2nd edition starter box, so let’s take a closer look at each of them in turn:
I already described most of what I found fascinating about the book, so let’s just mention some interesting details here: The whole book is full of small pieces of additional background, story vignettes or simply “soundbites” from the grimdark future of the 41st millennium. Most of these were written by veteran author Bill King, supposedly, and he did a fantastic job of it: Though pieces of the background may have changed (or disappeared altogether), it’s often the single lines, the quotes out of context, that really breathe life into the scenario.
Oh, and the Codex Imperialis also contains what may be the best piece of World Eaters related art of all time:
Vintage Mark Gibbons FTW! 😉
Well, I’ve told you often enough that rules are usually a bit of a blind spot for me. What’s more, my actual memories of the 2nd edition rules are as hazy as they are ambiguous: I only ever played one game using them (or rather: a pared down version of the rules that our young minds were able to deal with), and my memories of that game, against Phil, once again, are a bit of a mixed bag: I remember one of his Space Marines picking out my powerful models with a rocket launcher with effortless ease, while my own special weapon spectacularly misfired, wiping out even more of my guys (I got to play Orks, by the way, and that was definitely the short end of the stick in those days). Actually, at one point, my Dreadnought exploded and we had to chart its trajectory by some arcane means as the burning carcass made a few last jumps around the battlefield …killing yet more of my own models. Actually, that’s the main memory I have of the 2nd edition rules: Stuff blowing up in my face. And using strange mathematics and rather clunky mechanisms to precisely calculate how badly I had managed to mess up.
To be fair though, not only was it all a bit too complex for my younger self, but 40k was also still very much tied to the Rogue Trader days back then: The game was basically still a skirmisher in many ways, its system becoming more and more idiosyncratic and clunky as army sizes and unit complexities grew.
But the magic wasn’t in the somewhat obfuscating rules for me (not unlike today, come to think of it): I was drawn in by the dark and quirky setting, by the artwork and by what remains, to my mind, one of the most iconic colour sections of all time:
I cannot tell you how many of our school breaks we spent poring over those pictures, marveling at the fantastic models and their equally fantastic paintjobs — little did we know that both better sculpts and better painting would be available one day. Still: Good times!
Warhammer 40,000: Wargear
Having an own book for weapons and pieces of equipment may seem quite luxurious today, but 2nd edition 40k pulled it off in style: The wargear compendium features detailed descriptions of each weapon, both in relation to its background in the fluff and its actual rules on the table. Most weapons also got an accompanying piece of artwork, which is definitely a nice touch! Still, filling a whole book with this stuff was (and still is) pure madness, of course. But even so, it’s nice to be able to find out what sound a Meltagun makes (answer: pretty much none at all, except for an unimpressive hissing, it’s the target blowing up that makes the sound) or to marvel at the fact that, back then, pretty much every alien race in the galaxy was using trusty Lasguns and Bolters along with the Imperium’s finest.
Like the other books, this one also featured little vignettes of background, among them a fascinating short story about one Brother Captain Karlsen (of the Thousand Sons traitor legion), exploring what it must be like to have lived for ten millennia and the havocs such a lengthy lifetime would wreak upon even a superhuman mind. Fun fact: Brother Captain Karlsen actually appeared in the 6th edition rulebook! What a nice shout out!
Warhammer 40,000: Army Lists:
To tell you the truth, I never actually got a look at this. The book, also known as “The Black Codex”, as far as I know, supposedly contained army lists for the different factions in 40k along with the point costs, which probably made it super important back then and highly superfluous now. Moving on…
War for Armageddon Scenario Book
A thin black and white book containing some beginner missions designed to get people into the game, set against the background of the Second War for Armageddon. It’s mostly the usual beginner scenario fare, so let me point out the most interesting fact about the book (to me at least): It features one of my favourite depictions of the Emperor of Mankind during the days of the Great Crusade:
I really love this piece, clunky Space Marine design notwithstanding, since it shows the Emperor as more of a fighting man among his troops and less of a demigod in totally blinged out armour, pointing his huge sword everywhere. It also looks like the Emperor actually isn’t twice as tall as his Space Marines, which makes much more sense than some of the more recent depictions, in my opinion.
Anyway, when Phil sold me the remains of his 40k starter box some time during the early 2000s, it was missing the Codex Imperialis as well as the “Black Codex”. While the latter did not seem like too much of a loss, I had such fond memories of the former that I got a replacement for the former off ebay for a song, and I still think it was a great, maybe even an essential, purchase.
In fact, if you ever get the chance to pick these up for a good price, go for it! Some of the background may have been retconned, some of the artwork may be quirky, the rules are no longer viable, but the books are, of course, still totally worth it. And at least in my case, this is where the magic started!
Do you have your own memories of the 2nd edition books (or indeed of the game proper)? If so, I’d be happy to hear them in the comments section!
In any case, thanks for looking and stay tuned for more!