THE NATURE OF CHAOS

In the late 1980s Rick Priestley wrote a treatise on the metaphysics of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000, titled ‘Chaos: Guide to the Fictional Background of Chaos in GW Games’. Partial copies of this document have appeared before, but I have now been able to piece together a complete copy, which can be seen below. A PDF copy can also be downloaded from here.

‘Chaos: Guide to the Fictional Background of Chaos in GW Games’, by Rick Priestley (1989)

I believe the document was finished some time between January and April 1989. A copy was sent with a letter dated 5 April 1989, and so it was certainly in existence by that date. Its absence from earlier correspondence suggests that it was then a recent creation, and this view is supported by a reference within the text.

The raw Chaos is drawn into the world like air into a vacuum. Here, it splits into the eight colours of magic dealt with in the Colleges article.

op cit, p3

The mention of the colours of magic is a prospective reference to the ‘Colleges of Magic’ articles, which appeared in White Dwarf 113-114 (May-June 1989). However, the colours of magic had been under development for some time prior to that point. Unpublished documents show that initially there had been only seven colleges of magic, and this was still the case on 16 January 1989. The reference to eight colleges in the Chaos treatise, therefore, means it was probably completed after that date.

This chronology places the article’s writing in a period during which there seems to have been significant reflection in the GW Design Studio on the ontology and theology of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000. In addition to the development of the colours of magic, work was proceeding on the second volume of Realm of Chaos: The Lost and the Damned (1990). Ken Rolston’s Realms of Divine Magic supplement was also under development. These works appear to have interacted and several ideas are common to them.

The article may also have been connected with another GW project of the time. In October 1988 David Pringle joined GW to establish a fiction line, whose first books would appear in September 1989. The article may have been drawn up partly to provide background information for writers working on Warhammer fiction. This view is perhaps supported by a reference within the document.

[This idea] should be reserved for exploration through only the more sophisticated media [sic] of novels.

‘Chaos: Guide to the Fictional Background of Chaos in GW Games’, p6

It is also consistent with the report of a Warhammer fiction writer.

In January 1989 David [Pringle] produced “a few rough guidelines” for us writers…. The nature of Chaos confused us all, I think.

– Stephen Baxter, ‘Freedom in an Owned World’, Vector 229 (May-June 2003)

This was probably not the article’s only purpose, however: the document was also sent to external writers working on gaming products.

In the treatise it is clear that the Warhammer fantasy games and WH40K share the same cosmology. We can therefore reasonably assume that they were considered at the time to be part of the same universe. This notion had been mentioned in White Dwarf while WH40K was in development, and a similar idea is implied by a passage in The Lost and the Damned.

The Warhammer Fantasy world and WH40K share the same universe.

– ‘Awesome Lies’*, White Dwarf 87 (March 1987)

The Warhammer World is bound by storms of magic so that it remains isolated from the other worlds of the human galaxy. Elsewhere, the forces of the Imperium tenaciously fight the influence of Chaos, so that the open aggression of Chaos Champions and their forces is restricted to zones not controlled by the Imperium.

The Lost and the Damned, p77

There is a surprising focus on spiritual matters, such as the nature of the soul, reincarnation and immortality. The article attempts to use these concepts to explain key elements in Realm of Chaos, most prominently the Star Child myth of WH40K. This myth was absent from Slaves to Darkness, but appeared in The Lost and the Damned (pp184-185) in the year after this article was published. The text here is therefore part of the myth’s genesis.

It is easy to see in the Star Child myth the reverberations of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke’s Star Child in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which itself seems to have been inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch in Also sprach Zarathustra (1883-1885). The WH40K myth also repurposes the Sensei and Illuminati content of Slaves to Darkness (pp216-217), which possibly show the influence of the kwisatz haderach and Bene Gesserit of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965).

For all its elaboration, the spiritual theory articulated in the article seems incoherent. For example, distinctions are drawn between concepts such as “spirit”, “mind”, “consciousness”, “will”, “personality”, “emotions”, “beliefs” and “energy”, but the differences are not adequately explained and the usage of the terms appears to be quite inconsistent. The account is little more than a collection of mixed metaphors and approximations. Of course, a coherent system of metaphysics is not an essential component of a tabletop game, but in that case it is surely better to dispense altogether with tortuous pseudophilosophy.

The discussion makes a noteworthy reference to GW’s Confrontation game.

A reincarnated person may be brought to full knowledge of their previous existences, both living and spiritual, by the use of a special drug called psythol. Background on this drug and its associated cult of Man Incarnate is discussed in the Confrontation game.

‘Chaos: Guide to the Fictional Background of Chaos in GW Games’, p2

Confrontation was a skirmish wargame in the WH40K universe, a derivative of Laserburn (1980) and forerunner of Necromunda (1995). It was never released, though extensive extracts were printed in WD130-132, 137-138 and 142 (October-December 1990, May-June 1991 and October 1991). At the time the Chaos article was written, it was in the early stages of development; its first mention was in WD107 (November 1988).

Confrontation, WD130

Extract from ‘Confrontation’, White Dwarf 130 (October 1990)

The drug psythol and cult of Man Incarnate are not mentioned in the published Confrontation material. However, similar concepts are present under different names: the drug spook and cult of The Immortals.

The most significant outlet for spook is the secret cults that lurk in many hives. These cultists needs a regular supply of this psychic-enhancing substance. The Immortals in particular require vast quantities for their rites and the expansion of this cult is certainly the single greatest factor in the growth of the spook trade. Most of the spook lords who rule the Forbidden Cities are probably members of this cult.

– ‘Confrontation’, White Dwarf 130 (October 1990)

Psythol and spook are notably similar to melange in Dune.

The treatise also attempts to provide some motivation for the worship of Chaos. It is not wholly successful (we might question that politeness should lead to the worship of Nurgle, for example), but at least this often-neglected matter is raised.

Law is discussed, with a remarkable assertion.

The Powers of Law are entities which exist within Chaos just like the Powers of Chaos themselves….. It could be said that a Power of Law is a single aspect of a great Power of Chaos (which could well be the case) but I think this paradox would be a bit of a head-spinner for most of our readers…. The strict division of Powers into the two pantheons of Law and Chaos is little more than a question of perception by their worshippers…

‘Chaos: Guide to the Fictional Background of Chaos in GW Games’, p6

This idea links back to a much earlier box insert, also written by Rick Priestley.

Dim Ponn represents the Lawful aspect of Khorne – as a God he is that part of his master that is most able to rationalise and organise. It is strange to think that one of the aspects of a Chaos God can be Lawful, but a Chaos God can encompass any possibility within his divine make-up.

– ‘The Warrior Knights of Chaos’ (November 1983)

This notion eliminates any meaningful distinction between Law and Chaos, and renders Chaos so broad a concept as to become almost meaningless. It seems to encompass almost all existence and experience.

Three gods of Law are described. Solkan reappears from the WFRP1 rulebook; in the same year he would also appear in Advanced HeroQuest (1989). A version of Arianka from WFRP1 is provided, with the possible name Astasis, because of the intellectual property dispute around the goddess.

This is only an idea – check before using or developing to see if we want to pursue it. This is the Power described as Arianka in the Kaleb Daark story – we don’t want to use the name as we would like to avoid any irritation with the authors. She represents stasis – the force which mitigates against change….

‘Chaos: Guide to the Fictional Background of Chaos in GW Games’, p6

Her purview was previously unspecified. Here it is defined very broadly, in terms that seem indistinguishable from the overall notion of Law.

The third deity is wholly new, an unnamed god of craftsmanship and engineering.

… a patron of workmanship (as an imposition of order and the human will on the naturally chaotic material of mindless nature – yunno very Blakean) built upon the ideals of permanence embodied by craftsmanship and engineering. A Power of good, conscientious builders (OK I’ve never met one either but this is fantasy isn’t it [sic]).

ibid

Other Warhammer gods, such as Ulric, Shallya or Sigmar, are entirely ignored. They seem to have been trapped in metaphysical limbo since their creation. However, their nature could be explained by extending the article’s concepts of Law Powers to them.

…Powers are creations of belief and emotion, [sic] they become what their worshippers expect of them…. Their own souls are made from the same Chaos matter as other Powers….

ibid

This would, however, continue the expansive concept of Chaos, leaving little else beside it.

Overall, the article is a very peculiar piece of writing. It addresses concepts rarely discussed in published GW products, and adopts a high degree of abstraction. Yet, while it tries to offer a systematic explanation of philosophical matters, the result is mostly psychobabble. One wonders what Warhammer fiction authors made of it.

For us authors… this kind of thing could be baffling, and not always derivable even from the gaming manuals. But it wasn’t arbitrary; we writers learned that the Nottingham priesthood, led by Bryan Ansell himself, guarded their lore carefully.

– Stephen Baxter, ‘Freedom in an Owned World’, Vector 229 (May-June 2003)

FOOTNOTE

* Not this blog, but the original White Dwarf column after which it is named.

Title image from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Used without permission. No challenge intended to the rights holders.

31 thoughts on “THE NATURE OF CHAOS

  1. “This notion eliminates any meaningful distinction between Law and Chaos, and renders Chaos so broad a concept as to become almost meaningless. It seems to encompass almost all existence and experience.”

    I feel, on the contrary, that it potentially makes Chaos a very meaning concept: the fantastique element of Warhammer.

    “What is distinctive about the fantastique is the intrusion of supernatural phenomena into an otherwise realist narrative. It evokes phenomena which are not only left unexplained but which are inexplicable from the [player]’s point of view. In this respect, the fantastique is somewhere between fantasy, where the supernatural is accepted and entirely reasonable in the imaginary world of a non-realist narrative, and magic realism, where apparently supernatural phenomena are explained and accepted as normal.” (“Fantastique” in Wikipedia : https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantastique)

    One of the classical theory of fantastique fiction is that just one thing should differs from our real world. But this difference would normally have many significant consequences.

    Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay’s authors attempted to create a quite realistic universe and added all the fantasy elements that were part of Warhammer Fantasy Battle. This document (and publications such as the Realms of Chaos, Ken Rolston’s draft of Realm of Sorcery and Realm of Divine Magic) attempts to rationalize those fantasy aspects through the Chaos… It lead Warhammer to the path to become a fantastique role playing game.

    A genre that have a tone which might be close to how Games Masters who see Warhammer as a Renaissance Fantasy Call of Cthulhu might imagine it should be:
    “Instead, characters in a work of fantastique [commonly tend to be], just like the [players], unwilling to accept the supernatural events that occur. This refusal may be mixed with doubt, disbelief, fear, or some combination of those reactions.” (idem)

    (As a trivial note: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay was published in France under the title of Warhammer, le jeu de rôle fantastique, [“Warhammer, Fantastique Roleplay”] instead of le jeu de rôle merveilleux [“Fantasy Roleplay”].)

    Like

    1. The problem with the article’s approach is that Chaos is defined so broadly that it is not clear what is not Chaos. Chaos seems to incorporate both change and permanence: all forms of physical appearance, emotion, sensation and ideas. What else is there? And if everything is Chaos, the great struggle against Chaos is just a struggle against reality. The Law-Chaos equivalence might look like a superficially interesting paradox, but in my opinion it leads to incoherence.

      Like

      1. I perceive it as :
        -The Chaos being the metaphysical, supernatural and immaterial world. The unreal space. It is the place of souls.
        -The “Cosmos” being the physical, natural and material world. The real space. It is the place of bodies.

        The fantastiques aspects of Warhammer seem to be related to the irruption of the metaphysical, supernatural and immaterial world into the physical, natural and material world, through the collapse of the polar gates who triggered notably the Great Struggle against Chaos.

        In the material world, nothing comes from nothing (we might call that the “cosmic change”) while in the immaterial world, everything could come from everything (we might call that the “chaotic change”). The spread of chaos into the “cosmos” brought such chimeras to the material world.

        In the material world, nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed (we might call that the “cosmic permanence”) while in the immaterial world everything could be lost or created (the “chaotic change”, again) or could stay forever untransformed (we might call that the “chaotic permanence”) which is one of the possibilities of that “could”. The spread of chaos into the cosmos brought such destructions and such eternities to the material world.

        The Great Struggle against chaos could, hence, be seen as the struggle for an ordered world, where the two dimensions are kept separated, against the confusion of those two dimensions through the spread of Chaos all over the “Cosmos” which corrupt the normal laws of the nature and confuse the reality with the wandering of ideas. The struggle of our world -we, the players- against unreality.

        Like

        1. However, this is not a distinction Rick Priestley draws in the article, where Chaos encompasses both the “physical” and the “immaterial” and both “order” and “confusion”.

          Like

          1. So I’ll have to read it again…
            However the drawings in the first page of the document quite clearly opposes Chaos with the material universe and set the first being the realm of souls and the second being the realm of bodies (with an anchor that Ken Rolston strangely call the animus). So the distinction is explicit, there, at last.

            Like

      2. The classic answer to this metaphysical is that Law/the material world is an “absence” or “withdrawl” of the totality of being/possibility, a vacuum (see the quote about the Winds of Chaos as before), just as with the Many Worlds Theory is more about us being ignorant of reality rather than things “happening” as we usually understand it.

        Like

      3. The “Realm of Chaos” is not the same as a Chaos Power, if you take one of the other names eg “Sea of souls” then the problem mostly goes away. “All gods -lawful, chaotic or neutral derive their power and temporary substance from the sea of souls” this means all gods are derived from what some Oldworlders call Chaos not that they are Chaotic by nature.

        Like

        1. I don’t think that solves the problem. Even if we accept the Chaos that makes up the Realm of Chaos is entirely different from the Chaos that defines the gods of Chaos, the latter conception of Chaos still has to encompass the spheres of influence of the gods of both Law and Chaos (“the strict division of Powers into the two pantheons of Law and Chaos is little more than a question of perception by their worshippers”). Therefore this notion of Chaos has to embrace revolution and stagnation, mutation and permanence, ugliness and beauty, magic and engineering, etc. I struggle to see any unifying idea behind these disparate and apparently contradictory concepts.

          To illustrate the confusion, I note that the text simultaneously states that a god of Law is a form of Chaos god (eg “it could be said that a Power of Law is a single aspect of a great Power of Chaos”) and that a god of Law is anti-Chaos (“Power for placing doors against Chaos”). The former requires Law and Chaos to be the same, the latter that they be different.

          In any case, I don’t think the distinction you propose is observed consistently by the document. For example, magical change is caused by the leaking of material from the Realm of Chaos into the material world (“The raw Chaos is drawn into the world…. It splits into the eight colours of magic…. Wizards can focus this raw magic to themselves in order to cast their spells”). Here there the stuff of Chaos and the influence of Chaos seem to be connected.

          Like

          1. Ok, i could have made my comments a lot clearer, i was basically sweeping a lot of the article aside and stating how i saw what was intended in the “final form” in the published works was supposed to be taken.
            You get a lot of these contradictory problems in unfinished works, just look at the later Tolkien releases that Chris put out from his Father’s working notes.

            Like

            1. I understand. I don’t claim to know the “final form” of Chaos in Warhammer (if such a thing exists and can be defined). I have limited myself to discussing the conception in this document.

              You are quite right to point out that this document was not intended for publication, and it is understandable that it is rough and ready. That might explain the problems in the documents, but it does not eliminate them.

              Like

          2. “Even if we accept the Chaos that makes up the Realm of Chaos is entirely different from the Chaos that defines the gods of Chaos, the latter conception of Chaos still has to encompass the spheres of influence of the gods of both Law and Chaos (“the strict division of Powers into the two pantheons of Law and Chaos is little more than a question of perception by their worshippers”).”

            Chaos is, explicitly, not entirely different but is said to be distinct than the Chaos that defines the gods of Chaos. Chaos is the immaterial world, the realm of souls. The [Cosmos] is the material world, the realm of bodies and of spirits.

            Gods are a coalescence of souls in the Chaos. The chaotic gods of Chaos are made of souls, just like the chaotic renegade gods of Chaos, the chaotic gods of Law and the other chaotic gods of men, elves, & al.

            Just like humanity encompass Jesus Christ, Diogenes and Adolf Hitler -and that isn’t contradictory-, Chaos in the fictional setting of Warhammer encompass gods of law, gods of chaos, gods of men, gods of elves…

            Like

            1. JPRP suggested drawing a distinction between two conceptions of Chaos. We could term them Chaos(1), which concerns that substance of which all the gods are composed, and Chaos(2), which distinguishes deities of Chaos from other deities. Your argument concerns Chaos(1), mine Chaos(2). Never the twain shall meet. If deities are all made from Chaos(1), it tells us nothing about how they might be divided between “gods of Chaos” and other deities like “gods of law, gods of men, gods of elves”; that requires Chaos(2).

              There is also no single “concept of Chaos in fictional setting of Warhammer”. Multiple conceptions have been expressed at different times. (Try, for example, reconciling this document with WFRP1, pp89-90.) I would argue there are even multiple conceptions at specific points in time (such as in this document). You cite no textual support for your assertions, and it is not clear how they can be substantiated in the varied conceptions of Chaos either within this document or in all the other sources.

              Like

          3. “To illustrate the confusion, I note that the text simultaneously states that a god of Law is a form of Chaos god (eg “it could be said that a Power of Law is a single aspect of a great Power of Chaos”) and that a god of Law is anti-Chaos (“Power for placing doors against Chaos”). The former requires Law and Chaos to be the same, the latter that they be different.”

            I perceive a fault of logic there:

            The former do not require Law and Chaos would be the same… could is the conditional mood of can.

            The latter do not require that they would be different. As a matter of fact, we know by empirical experience that many beings happens to place doors against themselves or against their pairs.

            Like

            1. From a grammatical perspective, you are quite right that “could” denotes some uncertainty (though I think English grammarians consider it a modal verb, not a conditional mood). However, from a semantic perspective, the situation is quite different. The author of the comment is not an observer of an independent reality, but the creator of an invented world. He not only has the knowledge to describe the world fully, but also the power to change that world. In this context the expression of uncertainty is pure artifice. Either the author’s comment is true, which leads to the problems I describe, or the comment is false, which means the world creator does not know how his world works or is misleading us about it. Each of these circumstances is detrimental to the intelligibility of the setting.

              I do not believe there is an error in my statement that Law and Chaos are required to be different in this situation. This is quite definitely not “a matter of fact”, and there is no “empirical evidence” at all about the nature of Chaos in the Warhammer world. It is, after all, just make-believe. Even if you were to provide real-world analogies (which you do not in your comment), they would not refute the a priori arguments about the conception of Chaos in the Warhammer world.

              In truth, this document is so riddled with problems that I am not convinced that it is worthy of particularly involved analysis. I think we’re no better getting our philosophy from games designers than our games from philosophers!

              Like

      4. The idea of the struggle against Chaos being a struggle against reality seems entirely appropriate to me. This is how I’ve always thought of Warhammer as working.

        Chaos is everything, the stuff of which the universe is formed. The familiar world we know is merely one, particularly ordered arrangement of primordial Chaos, and one that is inevitably doomed to collapse back into the raw stuff of Chaos undivided. The struggle against Chaos is a fundamentally futile one; a raging against the dying of the light; the impotent strivings of ignorant mortals to arrest the heat death of the universe.

        This fits the generally pessimistic tone of a lot of GW products, and works fine for me as my personal interpretation. Though, as you mentioned, it’s not like this irrelevant pseudo-philosophy actually has any real impact on play.

        Like

        1. I agree a struggle against the inevitability of the rise of Chaos is a fatalistic trope characteristic of Warhammer. However, that is not what is entailed here. If Chaos encompasses everything, the fight against Chaos is a fight against everything (all matter, energy, perception, emotion, etc). Those seeking to defeat Chaos are seeking the obliteration of the universe. They’re the bad guys. In this situation the fight against Chaos isn’t futile; it’s insane.

          Like

          1. I think that’s a bit like saying that trying to prevent a landslide is insane because a landslide is the raw untamed earth and bricks are made of earth and so trying to prevent a landslide means destroying your own house.

            Like

            1. Your analogy actually illustrates my point quite well. The original argument requires that no distinction be drawn between the bricks and the landslide. That one has to destroy both the house and the landslide is the problem.

              Like

  2. This is probably egotistical of me, but I can’t help feeling that my Warpstone article, Womb of the Gods, provided a slightly more understandable and practical approach to the setting’s metaphysics.

    Great article as usual. I love how you discover all this interesting material.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Is there any possibility of reprinting your Warpstone article? Warpstone back issues are extremely hard to get hold of.

      Like

      1. With regard to the article, I’ve sent you a message on rpg.net (to you, not the other Gideon!)

        Like

  3. An absolutely fascinating article and pdf. As a reader of the Horus Heresy novels it’s amazing how much of this the authors of that series (started over 15+ years after this article) have ran with these ideas and even new 9th edition 40K fiction is playing with some of the themes of the Star Child once more after it all but being abandoned previously

    Like

  4. By the way Rick Priestley had this to say about this (a few minutes ago) – “Yes I remember I was asked to write that as a guide for authors working on fiction. At the time there were a number of concepts flying about that were ‘hot’ and which were championed by Bryan Ansell and part of his Confrontation project – if I remember correctly – or just ideas that Bryan contributed to the background. These were – as I recall – everything I’ve written here for the Illuminati, Star Child, and Sensei. Although I would be given the job of writing these ideas up, and always did my best to try and give them their full expression, they always felt a bit nailed-on to me.”

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Not to be drawn into the weeds of torturous pseudophilosophy TOO much, but I do perceive a distinction between Solkan (law as punitive and vengeful, “a short sharp shock” if you like) and Arianka Astasis* (law as preventative and conservative, the putting up of signs and the trust in people to obey them).

    I am also glad, at least, to have an explanation – even a pseudy one – for how Undivided Daemon Princes work, as it’s always bothered me. The idea that the soul fashions itself a spiritual existence at the end of its physical existence makes sense as an alternative to the patronage of the Powers so heavily banged on about in the books as received.

    — a lovely name for a little girl

    Like

  6. To some extent one might argue that the fact the nature of the relationship between Law and Chaos is a paradox is entirely appropriate.

    I’m not a huge fan of game world metaphysics in general, though.

    Like

  7. I’ve switched off comments on this post, as I feel the discussion keeps going down rabbit-holes that I would prefer to avoid. I’m sorry to curtail things in this way.

    Like

Comments are closed.