What is Warhammer 40k? A Beginners Guide.

Mechanicus Warhammer 40k

What is Warhammer 40k? A Beginner’s Guide to the Grim Dark Future

Commonly known as Warhammer 40k or just 40k, this popular tabletop game and science fantasy setting is like nothing else out there. Developed by Games Workshop over the past 40 years, 40k has grown into a massive, multilayered world filled with intricate lore.

What is the Warhammer 40k Universe?

Warhammer 40k is set around the 41st millennium, about 39,000 years in the future. Most of the action takes place in the late 41st century, around the year 40,000 AD. Humanity has spread across the Milky Way galaxy, but this is a dark future where scientific progress has long ceased. 40k combines science fiction with fantasy tropes like magic, demons, and classic races like elves and orcs. The presence of “psykers” with psychic powers fills the role of wizards. While 40k shares some fantasy elements with the related Warhammer Fantasy setting, they are completely separate universes. The God-Emperor does not exist in Fantasy, for example, and legendary Warhammer characters like Sigmar are not present in 40k.

The Grim Darkness of the Far Future

The Warhammer 40,000 setting is violent, bleak, and pessimistic. There are no benevolent gods, only malevolent Chaos deities and their demonic servants. Humanity faces threats from countless hostile alien races and the corrupting forces of Chaos. The Imperium of Man, led by the God-Emperor, fights endlessly against extinction. Heroes rage against the dying light, knowing that ultimately, the Imperium cannot triumph over such dark odds. This grim tone defines the “grimdark” sci-fi subgenre. As the tagline says: “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.”
Neopyhte war council

The Factions of 40k

The Warhammer 40k universe is home to a diverse array of factions and races locked in endless conflict. Let’s take a look at some of the major players:

The Imperium of Mankind

The human Imperium is the dominant power, controlling over 1 million worlds. Ruled by the God-Emperor, this authoritarian empire is xenophobic and hostile to aliens. The state religion centers on worship of the Emperor, who united humanity long ago but now sits immobile on the Golden Throne. The Imperium depends on ritual and superstition as much as advanced technology. Knowledge has stagnated over millennia and science is clouded by awe and mystery. The Imperium fights desperately to maintain control even as it slides into ignorance and decay.
Space marines Warhammer 40k
Space Marines
The superhuman Space Marines are genetically enhanced warriors encased in power armor. They defend the Imperium with bolters, chainswords, and more. The Space Marines are divided into specialized Chapters like the Blood Angels, Ultramarines, and Space Wolves.
Imperial Guard
The Imperial Guard represents the endless ranks of normal human soldiers conscripted from worlds across the Imperium. Guard regiments rely on strength in numbers and heavy firepower to achieve victory.
Adeptus Mechanicus
Tech-priests of Mars, worshipping and hoarding knowledge of machines. Cybernetic enhancements enhance strange, emotionless cult obsessed with recovering lost technology.

The Forces of Chaos

Chaos consumes those who turn from the Emperor to worship malevolent Chaos Gods like Nurgle, Khorne, Tzeentch, and Slaanesh. The Chaos Space Marines are traitors who rebelled against the Imperium during the Horus Heresy. Twisted Chaos cults and daemonic entities fight to destroy the Imperium.

Xenos – The Alien Threats

The Imperium uses “Xenos” to refer to all non-human lifeforms. Major Xenos races include:

  • Eldar: An ancient, dying race divided into groups like the Craftworld Eldar and sinister Dark Eldar.
  • Orks: A savage green-skinned species obsessed with warfare for its own sake.
  • Tyranids: Insectoid hive creatures that travel the void, devouring all worlds in their path.
  • Tau: A young, technologically advanced race aiming to unite the galaxy under their “Greater Good” ideology.
  • Necrons: Ancient skeletal robots awakening from eons of slumber to harvest all life.
  • Genestealer Cults: Vile cultist that invade planets to sow chaos in the local populace before a Tyranid hive fleet arrives.
  • Dark Eldar: Sadistic space pirates wielding poisoned blades, terrifying slave-taking raids fuel their debauched lifestyles.

Each faction has its own aesthetic, motivations, and preferred combat style. This diversity drives the richness of the setting. Now let’s explore some key themes and elements of the 40k universe in more detail.

Society in the Grim Darkness

The Imperium offers the deepest look into human society in the 41st millennium. Here are some of its defining features:

Faith and Zealotry

Citizens are expected to worship the Emperor unquestioningly. The Ecclesiarchy preaches strict devotion and oversees countless rituals, prayers, and holy days. Any deviation from doctrine is heresy, punishable by death.
Dark Eldar Warhammer 40k

Mutation and Xenophobia

Mutation from exposure to Chaos energies is common, and abhumans like Ogryn are tolerated, but major deviations are purged. Xenos are hated, with most aliens killed on sight. Only human life has value.

The Inquisition

The secretive Inquisition monitors for heresy and psychic corruption. Its agents have unlimited authority to destroy anything they deem a threat.

Diversity Across a Million Worlds

From medieval feudal societies to industrial hive cities, Imperial worlds have vastly diverse cultures. The sprawling bureaucracy struggles to maintain control.

The Astra Militarum

The Imperial Guard recruits regiments from across Imperial space. Though weak individually, together they hold the line against humanity’s foes.

Life is War

Every world serves the Imperium’s war machine. Entire planets are dedicated to producing weapons, crops, or training soldiers. Life is endless conscription, toil, and sacrifice. This description only scratches the surface of the Imperium’s labyrinthine culture! The aliens of 40k are no less detailed, but remain somewhat inscrutable to human eyes.
Sisters of battle Warhammer 40k

Technology in the 41st Millennium

The Imperium’s technology is advanced but shrouded in ritual and superstition. Fear of uncontrolled AI has stalled innovation for millennia. R&D is banned, and most tech is based on barely-understood ancient designs. Techmarines chant prayers over tanks to appease their “machine spirits.” Servitors – lobotomized cyborgs – function as organic computers. A tech-priesthood shrouded in mysticism operates the arcane machines of the Adeptus Mechanicus. In contrast, Xenos races employ technologies far beyond humanity’s current science. The Necrons wield reality-warping superweapons. Tau battlesuits and plasma rifles outclass Imperial arms. Orks build ramshackle but effective gear from scrap. Only Chaos and the Eldar use similar technology to the Imperium, but both factions warp their arms with sorcery and psychic energy.
Eldar Warhammer 40k

Magic and the Warp

The Warp is a psychic alternate dimension that enables faster-than-light travel. Psykers draw on the Warp for powers like telepathy and telekinesis. But the Immaterium is filled with predatory Chaos entities who corrupt psykers and possess the unwary. The Chaos Gods grant psychic boons and mutated flesh to their followers. Daemons manifest in realspace to slaughter the Emperor’s servants.

Endless, Brutal War

In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war. Every faction endlessly fights for survival, supremacy, or simply the joy of violence.40k warfare employs advanced ranged weapons and medieval melee combat in equal measure. Troops wield chainsaw swords alongside assault rifles firing rocket grenades. Iconic tanks and mechs smash entire regiments underfoot. Battles rage from trench warfare slaughter to noble duels between champion warriors. No two factions wage war the same way – the diversity of combatants leads to endless tactical possibilities. Now that we’ve surveyed the setting, let’s look at the epic storyline that has unfolded over 40 years.
Orks Warhammer 40k

Major Events in 40k History

Two major events define the 40k timeline:

The Horus Heresy

This civil war tore the Imperium apart 10,000 years before the “present day” of 40k. Warmaster Horus and half the Space Marine Legions rebelled against the Emperor in a Chaos-influenced uprising. Horus mortally wounded the Emperor, who in turn destroyed Horus. The surviving traitors fled into the Eye of Terror, leaving the Imperium forever changed.

The Indomitus Crusade

In the “current” era around 999.M41, the return of the Primarch Roboute Guilliman and his crusade has partially restored hope to the beleaguered Imperium. Guilliman’s reinforcements arrived not a moment too soon. Chaos made major gains, including the fall of Cadia and the creation of the Great Rift dividing the galaxy. The Indomitus Crusade pushed back the darkness, but new threats like the Necrons’ awakening will continue to test the Imperium’s strength in the coming centuries.

Welcome to the Grim Darkness of the Far Future

I hope this beginner’s guide has helped introduce you to the sprawling, complex universe of Warhammer 40,000. There is still so much more to explore across thousands of novels, battle reports, and lore videos. As you dive deeper into the fandom, always remember that while the Imperium fights valiantly against terrifying odds, its cruelty and oppression are not to be celebrated. The moral ambiguity is part of what makes 40k such a compelling and thought-provoking setting. Now grab your chainsword and bolt pistol – it’s time to experience the grimdark sci-fi universe for yourself! Let the team at WarhammerUniverse.com guide you on this epic journey. For the Emperor!
How to Get Into Warhammer 40k

Explore the intricately crafted, war-ravaged universe of the 41st Millennium through this beginner’s guide to Warhammer 40,000.

3D Printers

Read up on our article for 3D printers!

Warhammer 40k Books For Beginners

Step into a universe of endless war and grim darkness with our beginner’s guide to Warhammer 40,000 books.

Related Article