As far a primordial, defining foes go, it doesn’t get much more dangerous than Chaos. Here’s why.
“These are the End Times, Siroca. None of you are destined to survive the coming of the Crimson Path. The Imperium has been losing the Long war since it was first declared, and now we enter the endgame.
I will tell you everything, Inquisitor, because, for you, it will change nothing.”
-Khayon the Black
Like most of BoLS’ discerning, enlightened, brandy-swishing readership, I quite enjoyed the recent article on why Chaos is going to whizz galactic conquest down their spiky legs. In fact, I translated it to latin, then to medieval french in order to better take in its nuances in ways that only the early romance languages allow, and noticed some microscopic flaws of hardly any consequence…that makes it hideously, glaringly wrong, you see.
Now, let’s be clear here: the real reason no faction ever ‘wins’ in 40K is because the setting is geared to stay on a permanent, unchanging brink forever, or until GW decides it can make more money by reshuffling the deck. Some settings are built to evolve and offer new facets as they develop; others are just a static moment in time where stories take place. You could have Chaos outnumbering imperials 20 to 1 with armadas that eclipse the stars, and the fluff would still say that the Emperor cast a mega-spell or something that seals them in the Eye or something. Orks could have a system-sized battle station to eats whole sectors and you’d bet a plucky young Ultramarine pilot (or worse yet, Uriel -freaking- Ventriss) would fly down it’s exhaust vent and bomb its core, then go dance with Jokaero on Catachan to celebrate.
It’s a staple of 40K fluff, in fact, from the Hive Fleet attacks to Black Crusades: some powerful menace gathers, rampages across some bit of imperial space, then is stopped with great loss of life and the great sacrifice of the Emperor’s Dairy Cows, that honored, much-beloved Space Marine Chapter everyone totally cares about.
Chaos gets singled out in the pack of Imperium-Ending (but never quite) threats because, well, it is the one that started the whole mess. The Horus Heresy was the trigger for the entire setting, and it’s natural that we want a conclusion for that. Even if the very idea of a ‘conclusion’ goes against the current mindset.
That said? Chaos could win. It needn’t even be all that hard.
Some rise by sin. Some by virtue fall.
Let’s start with the bad stuff. Chaos is rife with infighting, has worse tech (even though is shouldn’t) and fewer allies than the Imperium. It’s also not as big by several degrees.
The infighting and strife is a given. As was said in one of the novels, warriors who already turned back on their greatest commitment often will have an easier time forsaking other bonds. And thematically speaking, many of the forces seen as barbaric (Or ‘chaotic’) in history had feuding, contentious warlords: Mongols, huns, the tribes that ate the Roman Empire, and so on). That’s the whole point: a collection of proud, unruly warrior tribes that only really get in gear when a strong enough leader knocks enough heads, or when a golden opportunity presents itself.
The tech issue is minor (mostly because it’d affect the tabletop game if they pursued it more seriously), and honestly should not even be there. There whole empires of dozens of thousands of systems in the Eye and the Maelstrom; certainly enough to supply armies of a few hundred thousand posthumans and their billions of thralls. We have one planet currently and we manage to churn out ordnance like nobody’s business! In theory, the dark mechanicum, not being bound the Adpetus’ silly (but fun) restriction on innovation, should be making stuff better than their imperial peers. Plasma guns that don’t fry you 16% of the time, AIs that pilot entire fleets, the works. But that wouldn’t be grimdark, so they spend most of their time finding new ways to bind daemons into walkers to make them WS3 and BS3 (no, I’ll never let it go!).
But still, Chaos tech is as good as it needs to be. Astartes, even of the fallen kind, are still warriors born; they notice when their weapons fail them, and they care. It might look crappy and be coated in nurgling snot, but it has to fire and not jam, or some menial slave will suffer. And that’s not even taking the warp into effect. What are material needs, when you can create a continent-wide fleshmetal fortress into being with a thought?
((Small aside: the reason the Talon of Horus doesn’t have the same stats from 30K to 40K is not degraded tech; the Black Legion has far more access to tech than the average warband, and in fact than most chapters. It is stronger when worn by Horus for the simple reason that the Heresy devs realized that giving a primarch an AP3 weapon would be a joke, and doubling a Strength of 7 means gaining only 3 points, making it a very lackluster melee weapon for its job))
The Killing Blow(s)
The Imperium is a colossal, powerful edifice resting on crumbling pillars. Its very size is as much a liability as it is a strength; that’s a lot of borders to defend, and a lot of malcontents and rebels to police and stamp down.
One of the key things about Chaos is that it posits that there is power in giving in to vice and embracing your darker side. And in this setting? It’s actually right. Plague Marines are bloated things of rust and sickly ichor. In any other system, they’d have a dirt-low Toughness and be pushovers, right? You don’t see many Ebola patients winning MMA tournaments.
Here? It actually makes them insanely tough, durable infantry that will laugh at shots that waste their health-conscious pals with pristine armor in one hit.
Being a frothing maniac bent on murder is a surefire way to just get tripped by a calmer opponent and taken out cleanly.
In 40K? It lets you punch tanks asunder and fight harder, faster and better than that ascetic warrior-monk that trains 18 hours out of each 24. He really should take up frothing.
The insane are hardly the best leaders and tacticians. But what is sanity when Tzeentch can make your madness merge with reality and let you know the path of every enemy bullet and the aim of their every plan?
Things get a little wonky once bad things turn out to be good. Or rather, when someone is rewarding you for being bad with raw power that helps you be even worse…I mean, better.
But back to the task at hand. The Imperium likely has more war material and bodies than not just Chaos, but than nearly all other forces combined (endless fleshtides of Tyranids exempted). But that doesn’t really mean much. The Romans also had more men, armor, pikes and supplies than the warbands that brought them low; even the largest force can’t be everywhere at once, and if you try, you’re usually spread thin everywhere and easy prey for a focused assault. In this case, that only means that the Imperium will call vast reinforcements from other sectors after taking the initial hit, and crush the invaders.
Unless they strike roughly at the same time.
It doesn’t even need an alliance or planning, really. A big ork Waagh rampaging through a cluster of systems? Time for the Night Lords to pay a visit to the neighboring sector. Tyanids drowning Ultramar in xenos flesh? Why, move the next Black Crusade up a few decades! Shouldn’t be too hard, especially when one of your patron deities is in charge of prophecy (even if he is a horrible troll half the time).
The thing about massive, immovable empires? Once they are hit hard enough, they break. Chaos only has to succeed once. It can even be argued that it already did, during the Heresy, and the aftermath is just a slow, drawn-out agony.
It would actually make for a cool setting, but will likely never happen. A Black Crusade that nukes Cadia and blazes onward to a new, desperate defensive line within spitting distance of Terra, causing a Mechanicum Confederacy to split free, several chapters choosing to defend their own turf instead of the empire while others abandon their fortress-worlds and move to the Throneworld, human-Xenos leagues, an independent renegade (but not chaotic) Astra Militarum segmentum holding out against all comers like a space Prussia…hell, I’d play that.
Instead, we get to see the Imperium succumb to the slow degradation an corruption of institutions, basic premises forgotten, infighting between its many parts, the human toll of its survival become higher and more bitter, and of course, the fact that many of the things that does actually feed the dark deities it built itself to oppose. Idolatry, eternal war, fanatical faith (Lorgar must be either amused to hell of endlessly pissed off…), a massive exploited and diseased underclass, a decadent and affluent nobility that literally owns planets…
On the other side, there is the dynamism and ruthless meritocracy of the fallen legions/warbands. There’s a scene in the brazilian movie Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad, 2007) that I like to quote, in which cops talk about the druglords that command entire favelas (shantytowns that serves as havens for crime): “A gang leader can be as crazy as he likes, but he can never afford to be dumb”. Warbands with dumb leaders get eaten by those that are as brilliant as they are insane. A warband that starts winning usually keeps winning and gaining momentum, because while the Imperium would scuttle a captured chaos ship (and with good reason), chaos marines will gladly take in slaves, looted weapons, armor, ships, tanks, and even geneseed.
That’s another thing that often gets overlooked. Loyalist astartes may be more disciplined, but they draw from a much narrower pool of candidates, testing them thoroughly to see if they can resist corruption and mutation, seeing if he can recite the 5000 Canticles of Detestation and so on. On the other side, most traitors can just find the most brutal and cunning kid that can survive the implantation and there you go; fresh replacements. Maybe not as great as a loyalist at first, but give him a few centuries of experience in the Eye of Terror and he’ll be up to shape, and if not, you get his geneseed and try again until you get a proper killer worthy of the Pantheon.
There’s strength and purity in what we’ve become. There’s a savage honesty in the Nine Legion’s warbands now. They follow warlords of their choosing instead of those assigned to them. They create traditions rooted in the cultures of their parent Legions, or completely defy their origins according to their own whims. I admire that unshackled freedom and have no desire to walk back from where we stand, sorcerer. I’m speaking of taking what we have and…refining it. Perfecting it.
Whew, that’s a lot of words. As fun as talking about which fantasy space-dudes are the coolest and bestest (and it is fun, make no mistake), we should arrive at a point. All of it to say a very basic thing: Any faction can win if it’s written to win.
The real matter is how much you need to stretch the situation to make that victory feasible. It can be a grueling, hard-fought story that feels rewarding (or empty!) for victor and vanquished alike (Betrayer), a cop-out where one side just craps the bed or worse, the heroes just deciding it’s time they won already because they are just that good and righteous (Sword of Truth).
Between sorcerers of reality-bending power, avatars of the gods themselves, hordes of veterans of millennia of warfare backed by endless daemons, and the insidious infiltration and corruption of the enemy, Chaos has plenty of tools to do it and look good while pulling it off.
Plenty of strengths can be easily converted into war-losing flaws. Anyone who’s read A song of Ice and Fire or watched the series knows how well fealty and honor served the Starks…
Tell us how amazingly wrong we are and how many boogers Chaos eats, in the comments!