Civilians in Warhammer 40,000 AD
By Kid Kyoto
Trooper Bremer couldn't hide his grin as the Long March pattern cargo transport lurched out of the fortress gates. Even the constant bumps could not dampen his enthusiasm as the truck bounced its way past bunkers, aegis lines and lines of razorwire. The trooper adjusted himself again among the empty barrels in the back of the truck. He'd spent three months polishing boots to get this 48-hour pass and he'd gotten a ride on the first vehicle out. He spent the next hour choking on dust until the lights of Puerto d'Morsus appeared on the horizon.
He'd been on the world of Carrib for almost a standard year but this was his first time off of the base. He hated it. The 27-hour days always left him feeling sluggish and out of sync. The hot sun made him sweat through three undershirts a day. And when it wasn't hot and humid it was pouring rain. And after the rain the biting flies came out.
But worst of all was the boredom. It had been years since any bandit or cult had been foolish enough to attack the Imperial Guard garrison. And centuries since the last civil war or invasion. So life at the camp was nothing but a series of drills and inspections and looking at the same 1000 faces, all of them in the same drab uniform Bremer wore.
Three months of polishing boots. He looked at the towers of the city. It was worth it.
Soon the truck passed through the checkpoint, a few thugs wearing the Baron's colors and armed with a mixed arsenal of autoguns and lasguns waved them through. The tailgate dropped and Bremer jumped out the back.
He adjusted his service cap and hustled away, it was the first time in over a year he was seeing people in a color other than Cadian Khaki. And such people!
There were laborers wearing coveralls in the livery of their companies, merchants in their tasteful suits, adepts in their fine robes and even a few minor nobles resplendent in their rich costumes.
And best of all were the joy-girls, wearing more body paint than clothing.
He quickened his pace for the entertainment quarter, a year of back pay jingling in his pockets. He passed a group of rough-looking muscle men sporting gang tattoos and was grateful for the combat knife in his boot and the tiny stub pistol in his pouch. But more than that, he was grateful for the aquila on his breast. Even the most drugged out gang knew to give Imperial servants a healthy distance. Especially after the lesson the Arbites dealt out last year.
The explosion rocked the whole block. Sirens wailed and civilians ran for shelter. Bremer turned and ran back to the truck. The driver had already opened the weapons locker.
So much for civilian life.
As Warhammer 40K has grown from a tabletop war-game to encompass novels, video games and a whole line of role-playing games it's useful to think about the universe outside the 4'x6' tabletop.
Who build the ruins we're fighting over? What are the armies fighting for? Who makes up these forces?
And that's what this article is here for.
OK, this article is going to be bit long, so let me boil it down:
1. The Imperium is an oppressive galactic empire that is near its breaking point. For its subjects life is a combination of the Roman Empire, the Soviet Union, the Crusades and a Franz Kafka novel.
2. It is however the most powerful empire the galaxy has ever seen, and still has enormous power. Not all technology is lost, not every city is in ruins.
3. It is an oppressive and insane regime but even in the darkest moments of human history there has been room for light. acts of charity, love, music and art can be found even in prison camps and warzones. Writers should remember there is no GrimDark without the light.
4. If you want readers or players to respond to your worlds, to care about them there has to be some effort to make them credible and believable. That's not quite the same thing as realistic (this is a game where Space Elfs fight fungus monsters after all) but it means the society has to seem like something that could work. If everyone is an insane fanatic or drooling idiot who's going to want to read more?
5. That being said, 40K has never been a realistic game, it's always been a GrimDark science fantasy. If you want cities of black glass patrolled by warriors on roller-blades carrying shuriken catapults (as seen in one early novel), go for it. No need to worry about economics or physics or logic if the idea is cool enough.
Life in Wartime
"In the Grim Darkness™ of the far future there is only war"
OK, fair enough, but there has to be something to fight over, you need cities, factories, farms, you need someone to make the weapons and fill the ranks of the armies. You need a society and you need civilians.
So what is their life like? What do they do all day? Who are these uncounted trillions who make up the Imperium?
While the Imperium is vast and diverse there are still some things common to all worlds that fly the Aquila. For the vast majority of the human race the Imperium is all they know. Their education, their religion, their daily life all revolve around Imperial society and its teachings. They take for granted that Emperor is their god, that he is a demanding and vengeful god who will punish transgressors. But he is also their shield and protection.
The Imperium under siege from all sides, barbaric Orks, ravenous Tyranids, treacherous Eldar and fearsome Tau seek to claim human lives while the daemons of Chaos seek their souls. For an Imperial subject evil and sin are not abstract threats they are real tangible threats that sometimes take the form of 50' tall monsters smashing through the city. And this gives them a level of faith and commitment unknown to most of us 21st Century folks. Your typical Imperial Subject would sooner walk outside without pants than without a holy icon around his neck.
The Imperium is the thin line between trillions of people and certain doom.
But the Imperium is also an incredibly repressive regime with none of human rights or niceties of the 21st Century. Pretty much the only 'right' anyone has is the right to serve the Emperor. Everything else depends on how powerful you and your patrons are. You might be summarily executed to make an example to others. You can be imprisoned or tortured for crimes committed by your family, even your distant ancestors. Or you may be above the law thanks to your powerful connections.
As a wise man once said… "To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable. This is the tale of these times. It is a universe you can live today if you dare – for this is a dark and terrible era where you will find little comfort or hope. If you want to take part in the adventure then prepare yourself now. Forget the power of technology, science and common humanity. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for this no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter and the laughter of thirsting gods. But the universe is a big place and, whatever happens, you will not be missed…."
Sounds like fun!
Imperial Culture vs. Local Worlds
The Imperium of Man comprises over a million inhabited worlds. On some worlds the Imperium's power can be found on every street corner and household, in others the Imperium might nothing more than a distant myth, the only sign of its reality is a once in a century sighting of a warship on patrol or a transport coming to collect tithes.
Worlds are islands separated by vast reaches of potentially hostile space and months of travel. Each has its own unique history stretching back millennia. Each world also has basic differences from the norm, perhaps the day here is just 17 hours, or maybe the gravity is a tad more than human 'standard'. The plant life might be poisonous or the air may corrode most fabrics. And whatever these differences humans there have adapted and their culture has evolved to deal with it.
That being said, there is still a common Imperial culture to be found. On some uncivilized worlds only a few places may exhibit Imperial culture, perhaps only the capital, or a space station orbiting the planet or on a few ships paying a port of call. On other worlds Imperial culture is the norm, maybe with a few local twists to it.
For the Interstellar Traveler of course the culture of local worlds is at best a curiosity, but usually an annoyance. An interstellar traveler expects that on any world he lands on he will get in the same STC armored limo, be taken to the same sort of fortified villa and meet with people wearing robes and icons much like his.
Whatever madness is going on outside of that familiar bubble is of no concern.
In the real world we have something similar. While every country, region, city and village is unique, there are some songs, books, movies, clothing that are almost universal. You can go to almost any bar in the world and play the Beatles or Bob Marley and people will smile in recognition, even if they don't speak a word of English. Kids in the far corners of the world will recognize Spider Man or Hello Kitty. And if all you're doing is going from the airport to the international hotel to a meeting it matters little what country you're in or what language they speak. You'll meet pretty much the same drivers, same hotel clerks, and same businessmen in suits where ever you go.
Technology follows the same sort of split, there is standard Imperial technology which is rugged, reliable and works almost anywhere. Then there are local products which may be less advanced or more advanced than Imperial technology but usually rely on materials, fuels or expertise that can only be found on that world.
A planet may have skimmers and other high tech vehicles in common use, but because they require a certain rare mineral, or because they only work in that planet's intense magnetic field they are not seen anywhere else. Institutions that function on many worlds, including trading houses and Imperial institutions will shun local workmanship for tested and reliable STC designs.
The Adeptus Mechanicus usually has the most advanced technology on any planet. No world, no matter how advanced, no matter how hard it tries, can match the tech priests' level of ability. Even blinded by superstition and misinformation they have billions of people working on thousands of worlds for millennia to develop their technology. But on certain rare occasions a 'local' manufacturer might create a new variant that is so useful and so reliable the Adeptus Mechanicus will sanctify it for Imperial use. While this might seem a great honor for the manufacturer, the fact is the Machine Priests will also proclaim the invention was rediscovered from a prior age. Thus new tools and weapons are brought into the Imperium while preserving the myth that all technology is a product of the wisdom of the ancients inspired by the Machine God.
The Imperial faith has proven incredibly flexible and resilient, finding ways to adapt to countless worlds by integrating elements of existing local faiths. Quick-thinking missionaries might teach that the local sun god is just another name for the Emperor, or that the local earth goddess wed a primarch during liberation. Over time the central Ecclesiarchy will attempt to bring the faith in line with more orthodox beliefs. Usually with varying results.
Most worlds will have a few temples and cathedrals staffed by off-world priests and teaching in accordance with the rest of the Imperium. But there will also be countless shrines and cults with more divergent beliefs. Imperial cities are infested with rival sects and teachings whose self-appointed preachers jockey for converts and influence.
The Imperium will usually suffer their continuation, as long they do not stray too far from the orthodoxy. Witch hunters and Inquisitors are kept busy inspecting their sacred texts and sermons to ensure they have not crossed the line into heresy.
Well I already did a pretty through treatment of civilian vehicles in 40k which you can find here.
The quick version is that transportation, like dress and everything else depends on social class. The upper classes have chaufeured, armored limos, fliers and even rolling palaces to deliver them to their meetings, balls and summer villas.
The lower classes are mostly housed near their places of work and walk to the few places they need to get to. When they need to travel it's usually on overloaded trains, buses and other transports. Their goods are moved by crude motor carts, basically motorcycles with a flatbed in the back.
Imperial subjects are usually denied the typical 21st century luxury of a private automobile. Private cars give the owner privacy, mobility and freedom after all, and why would the Imperium want anyone to have those things? If they can't afford an armored limo they should rely on hired cars and public transport. However merchants and craftsmen will usually be allowed a van or truck for their business.
Most civilian vehicles are local designs though there are some STC vehicles found throughout the Imperium. Standardization is less important for civilian vehicles than they are for the military, most customers prefer something that's designed and suited for their own world rather than an STC that's 'good enough'. Of course off-worlders and Imperial officials prefer familiar designs and do not trust local craftsmanship.
Even if you have a vehicle, mobility is strictly limited. Many parts of the city and country side are off limits, and open areas frequently have check points set up by any of dozens of armed factions to search vehicles and passengers. Or just solicit bribes.
Money on a typical Imperial world will be complicated. Each sector of the Imperium (containing hundreds of worlds) issues a standard currency used by interstellar travelers and the upper crust on most worlds. Most planetary governments also issue their own currency, as do some hives, cities, towns and settlements. Factories and farms may pay their workers (if they pay them at all) in scrip which can only be used in company stories and facilities.
To make matters worse different arms of each government might issue their own coins and bills, which are not always 100% compatible. An Imperial subject might be walking around with a pocket filled with golden Eagles issued by the Governor, the Priesthood, the Adeptus Mechanicus and even an off-world trade house. However merchants know that the Governor's coins are debased and contain far less gold than the Adeptus Mechanicus'. Discerning merchants won't touch them, or will charge a premium.
Many commoners will rarely lay their hands on cash and will get by with barter, IOUs and local scrip. But they will keep a small pile of real currency for the times they must do business outside their local region.
Violence and Weapons
The Imperium is a violent place. The God-Emperor is a god of war, his empire founded in blood. Peace is not even an aspiration, it leads to complacency and corruption.
Your typical Imperial city is closer to Baghdad or Ciudad Juares than Boston or Chicago. Bombings, assassinations, riots, even full street battles are common. Cities and continents on the same Imperial world may go to war over resources, land or pride. Sects, gangs and noble houses settle their differences with raids and massacres. As long as things don't get too out of hand the Imperium won't object, it may even encourage it to help identify promising military leaders and build valuable combat experience. Even on a currently peaceful world, there are likely to be bombed out areas, abandoned towns and ruined buildings from wars already forgotten.
And of course over everything hangs the threat of invasion. At any moment the skies might grow dark with Ork Kruzers, Tyranid Hive Ships or a Chaos Black Crusade. Or maybe reality itself will rip open and daemons, Eldar or Necrons will pour out. Finally although the Emperor protects, he is a jealous god and his wrath is terrible. For a typical Imperial subject a castigation by the Black Templars is little different from an invasion by the Black Legion.
So Imperial worlds are awash in weapons. Subjects are inevitably armed, even the poorest will carry a knife or homemade firearm. Workers will have regular training in militia units so that a city can raise literally millions of conscripts in just a few weeks. The wealthy will have any number of sophisticated weapons and defenses, even in social settings. They will also be surrounded by bodyguards and their homes defended with military-grade weapons.
Large standing armies are normal on every world. Some answering to the planetary governor, others working for other local authorities. In addition there will be off-world forces such as the Imperial Guard, Adeptus Mechanicus Tech Guard or other imperial factions. Clergy are as much warriors as they are priests. Most civilians will belong to a militia and have some level of military training. Even in 'peace' time an Imperial world will be more militarized than Earth was during World War II.
Pistols, rifles and knives will be widely available for sale on most worlds, and heavier stuff - whether smuggled in from off-world, lifted from an armory or built in a back-alley workshop - can be found with some effort.
Even in civilized areas light weapons like pistols and knives are commonly carried, sometimes discretely under a coat or robe or openly as a show of force. Among social elites weapons are still expected but will either be gilded and ceremonial (though functional) or completely discrete such as rings concealing digital weapons, canes concealing power swords, or broaches that generate conversion fields.
But this does not mean the Imperium is lawless. Heavy weapons - including the more powerful small arms like plasma and flamers - are rarely seen outside of a battlefield, an unpoliced wild zone or in the hands of the local authorities. They might be around but will be locked away in a militia armory or hidden far from sight until needed. Anyone openly carrying weapons of war (an vague concept that varies from world to world and even neighborhood to neighborhood) will quickly be noticed and challenged by whichever faction is in power before they can become a threat. Unless of course the newcomers are so well armed and in such numbers the local rulers decide they are better off letting them be.
Sometimes the bearers of heavy weapons will wear the livery of powerful interests who are above the law such as off-world trading houses, the noblity or the the Imperium itself. But even they will be expected to take care of their business quickly and efficiently. If they linger or cause too much damage the local powers will have to step in or lose all credibility.
Clan and Company
The Imperium is not fair. It's not just. It does not care about its people. And even when it does care, it is not all powerful. Your safety and freedom depend on who you are and, more importantly, who is protecting you.
So the most important thing for any Imperial subject is making it clear to everyone who or what they belong to.
Family, a guild, a church, a gang, a company or best of all some arm of the Imperium is essential to enjoy any sense of security or safety. Day-to-day most Imperial subjects take pains to make sure you know who they are and where they stand. They wear uniforms, rings, seals, tattoos and other signs of belonging.
But with that membership comes the constant fear that someday you may be cast out, or, even worse, your group itself may be destroyed by a more powerful faction. Having the patronage of the Baron's Cousin's Trading House may be enough to keep the local street gang from hassling you, but it won't mean anything when the Baron himself decides your Trading House is bad for his business.
Media and Information
Information in the Imperium is precious, and correct information even more so. Although all the usual form of getting messages out exist in some form or another, the content is even less trustworthy than in the real world. At the bottom are the ubiquitous posters with their simple messages and strong images that can communicate even to the illiterate. Black and white daily news sheets provide a bit more detail while audio messages (whether delivered by public address gargoyles, radio signals or a man with a loud hailer) hammer the point home. Laborers cluster in their dorms around the black and green glow of a communal vid catcher, while their bosses enjoy the luxury of a home vid catcher, maybe even in full color. Those with sufficient wealth or importance will have access to the datanets either through a work cognator, a home cognator for rich, or even a rare and precious wireless device.
The messages and information also vary by how trusted and important you are. For most people, regardless of wealth, the media reports a steady stream of patriotic news about Imperial triumphs and the dire fate that awaits any who cross the Imperium. In these stories criminals are always caught, harvest are always growing and the enemy is on the run.
Officials have access to some uncensored news otherwise they could not do their jobs. But this information is carefully controlled, distributed on numbered printouts and destroyed at the end of the day.
“Blessed is the mind too small for doubt”
The Imperium appreciates the importance of a solid education. Even laborers need to read instruction manuals and perform basic math. Farmers need some awareness of agriculture, soldiers must be able to read their uplifting primers and so on. Most Imperial subjects can expect at least a basic rudimentary education from their parent’s work unit, a local shrine or even a widow who supports herself giving lessons.
But let’s not go too far here.
Imperial technology is generally crude and easy to use and does not require much in the way of training to operate or maintain it. People who need some advanced knowledge (electricians, repairmen, linguists) can have it implanted or burned into their brains. These implants tend to decay over time leading to insanity or death but are regarded as more efficient than years of training and study.
A traditional education is reserved for the wealthy, the very fortunate or the very talented.
The largest school system in the Imperium is the vast network of the Schola Progenium – orphanages that raise the children of fallen Imperial servants. From this pool of children who have no family or ties other than the Imperium itself come Commissars, Priests, Adepts and even Inquisitors. The Ecclesiarchy, Adeptus Mechanicus, noble houses and trading clans also operate their own school systems to find the most talented and committed students.
Sex, Love and Families
In all accounts the Imperium is, officially at least, a rather conservative and prudish society. Of course this may have more to do with GW's focus on young teens and Anglo-American society's odd standard that sex is icky while violence is wholesome family entertainment. But given the Imperium's embrace of suffering and struggle, the Imperium doubtlessly condemns luxury and pleasure as soft and sinful.
So, officially at least, most worlds expect a chaste morality from Imperial subjects. Of course the highest ranks of society are above such concerns, and the lowest levels are below anyone's notice, but for the vast bulk of Imperial subjects sex is a dirty taboo and even the most minor displays of affection are scandalous.
When men and women work or study together they are expected to ignore the obvious differences and treat each other as equal servants of the Emperor. Courtship is regulated, schools and workplaces have mixers, superiors recommend suitable matches and, officially at least, marriages are arranged in an orderly way among suitable partners.
Unofficially however people remain people. There are romances, relationships, marriages, illicit affairs and all sorts of unorthodox arrangements. The poor are basically unpoliced and carry on however they choose. The rich supplement their artfully-arranged marriages with mistresses, lovers, trysts and affairs. And the rest muddle through as best they can under the unapproving eyes of their peers, superiors and the law.
Most families are large, life in the Imperium is violent and hard, medical care is uneven to say the least, and no one ever heard of a pension. A large brood of children may be the only security parents have in their later years, especially since many will not live to adulthood. Upper class families may have fewer children, it reduces the potential number of rivals and heirs and upper class women have a strong interest in controlling when and whom they become pregnant.
One exception worth noting is that the Imperium's ten millennia of war, wars primarily fought by men, have created acute shortages on some worlds. On those worlds polygamy or at least polygamous relationships are common, and may even be sanctioned.
The Imperium is an explicitly patriarchal society where, all things being equal, leaders are expected to be male. After all the Emperor and his Primarchs were men (the 'Sanguinia Heresy' notwithstanding) thus proving man's natural role as master. Certain Imperial texts even make the biologically unlikely assertion that woman cannot accept Space Marine geneseed due to the gender difference.
Other women may serve alongside men as Guardsmen, laborers, farmers, scribes or even nobles but there is always a subtle attitude that women are expected to take a secondary role. They are usually relegated to traditionally female jobs such as cooking, cleaning, teaching or caring for children.
Only superb political connections, breeding, patronage, skill and luck can allow a woman to rise to the top in most Imperial organizations. But rest assured those who do, are forces to be reckoned with.
However with constant war draining manpower, there are whole towns and cities in the Imperium where the population consists entirely of women, children and the elderly. In environments like this women are able to prove themselves. At least until the next generation of young men come of age.
There is no single system of law in the Imperium, just varying levels of authority which are not always working together.
Imperial law is the highest, trumping any local authority and at times practicality or sanity. Ancient laws, written by long-dead hands, can decide the fate of entire worlds. To make things even more Byzantine, Imperial law includes not only those rules enforced by the Administrum, Inquisition and Arbites, but also church law laid down and enforced by the Ecclesiarchy, their Witch Hunters and the Sisters of Battle. Some of those laws are brutal and inflexible, and are often disregarded in practice but you never know when someone will suddenly decide to enforce some obscure edict and execute an entire army because its soldiers were exposed to Chaos. At least these laws are generally limited to things the Imperium cares about such as taxes, respect for the Emperor and the Imperium, the safety of Imperial facilities, culling psykers, and exterminating Xenos, heretics and witches. Petty matters among commoners like drug abuse, robberies or murder are left to local authorities.
Below it is planetary law laid down by the governor and then local laws. Finally there is the authority who whomever controls a given district, whether it’s a mining company, a factory boss, the local gang or certain well-meaning citizens. Unfortunately for most Imperial subjects this arbitrary and personal system is the one that has the most effect on their lives.
Crimes against the lowest castes, the outcasts and homeless, will get no interest outside of their immediate friends and clan.
Crimes against lower class citizens, street vendors, workers and shop keepers, will be dealt with by their hired guards or possibly the local authorities. Sufficiently spectacular crimes or crimes directed at powerful interests will certainly draw the wrath or local authorities or even the Planetary Defense Force.
Crimes against Imperial interests or Imperial servants will either draw the wrath of local and planetary authorities or, if needed Imperial assets such as the Adeptus Arbites, Imperial Guard, or other more exotic arms of the Imperium. Certain things, such as the use of mutants and psykers or heretical teachings, will draw the interest of the Inquisition or Witch Hunters. If they have the resources available of course, which is not a given in these dark times.
But this orderly hierarchy can be short-circuited at any point if a crime affects the wrong person. A petty thief who mugs the sister of the Baron's favorite serving wench might find his neighborhood flooded with local watchmen or even hired bounty hunters all seeking his head.
But not all legal matters are a simple question of crime and punishment. Property disputes, lawsuits, major divorces, claims of official corruption, differences in religious doctrine and a million other issues require careful debate and research by armies of clerks and judges and sometimes prolonged off-world consultations. Alas the law moves slowly. Even those who manage access to planetary or Imperial justice will need years or decades to get a decision. Courts are surrounded by mobs of petitioners, some living for years in shanty towns so that they may press their cases daily. The Imperium tolerates this state of affairs knowing the justice system, no matter how slow or poor, is a valuable outlet to prevent unrest.
Some examples of how Imperial law might work, assuming of course anyone is ever caught:
Noble kills a commoner without cause: The Noble pays a fine to the victim's family and writes a letter of apology.
Noble kills a commoner with cause: The commoner's family is blacklisted and demoted for allowing one of their own to go bad.
Commoner kills a noble: The commoner is publicly executed, the commoner's family is blacklisted and demoted.
Lower class member kills a noble: Entire neighborhood or district is ravaged, dozens are killed, homes are burned, survivors are imprisoned or sold to slavers.
Lower class member kills another lower class member: No punishment, unless the victim's family wants to go after the murderer or hire someone to do the job.
Robbery in the slums: No punishment unless the local gang disapproves.
Robbery in the trade areas: Hired guards investigate, maybe local authorities as well.
Murder in the Imperial Sector: Full investigation by the Adeptus Arbites followed by an execution of the most likely/available suspect.
Riot/gang war in the slums: No punishment as long as it's contained.
Riot/gang war in the trade areas: Full mobilization of local authorities and hired guards. This is bad for business.
Riot/gang war in the Imperial Sector: Full mobilization of the Arbites, Imperial Guard and other Imperial forces. Local forces are conscripted. The perpetrators are hunted to the end of the world and their entire community is eradicated.
Noble blasphemes: The noble pays a fine to the church and attends a reeducation class.
Commoner blasphemes: The commoner and his family spend several years in a church-run reeducation through labor camp.
Lower class member blasphemes: No punishment, what can you expect from such creatures? Or maybe summary execution. Depends on how they're feeling that day.
Local Sect teaches the Emperor is loving and forgiving: Public torture and execution for the sect leaders, several years in a church-run reeducation through labor camp for members and their families. Several years of theological debate in the Ecclesiarchy to determine if the sect may have actually been right, possibly followed by postumous pardons for all involved.
Noble cheats on his wife: Wife either tolerates it or files for divorce setting off years of legal battles and scandal. Cheating after all is assumed, but getting caught just indicates an intolerable amount of indiscretion.
Commoner cheats on his wife: Wife's cousins beat the tar out of him as he screams apologies until she agrees to take him back.
Tradesman alters his portable vox set so that he may evade fees: Adeptus Mechanicus seizes him to techno-heresy. Tradesman is converted into a servitor.
Plotting against Imperial rule: The plotter, his family, his friends, his servants, his business partners are tortured and executed by the Inquisition. Their property is seized and redistributed to loyal subjects or the Imperium itself.
Plotting against local rule: The local ruler tries to execute the plotter, if he succeeds then it was the Emperor's will he continue to rule. If he fails then he was too weak to rule in the Emperors name and the new ruler is recognized by the Imperium.
Most planetary offices in the Imperium are hereditary, the Imperium needs to plan long term and finds a certain stability in letting one family run things over generations. But on some worlds a form of democracy is practiced. The Imperium recognizes that things run more smoothly if the subjects approve of their rulers and if their rulers make at least token efforts to appease the masses. But the results bear little resemblance to the ideals we are familiar with. Voters make their choices on clan or company lines, with every member told who to vote for if they value their positions. Sometimes angry mobs take to the streets to ensure the opposition never has a chance to get near a voting booth. And in any case the nomination process is tightly controlled to ensure the voters never have too many choices anyway. After a while the same families begin to appear again and again, with fathers handing power to sons, husbands handing power to wives. In the Imperium, democracy soon becomes a de facto hereditary system, though sometimes surprises do happen.
In contrast most Imperial offices are appointed and promotions are earned. The Imperium itself demands total devotion, total loyalty and tries to draw on officials who have no outside ties. Many are orphans, others are posted far from their home worlds to sectors where they know no one. Once in place their promotions are based on results. Is production up? Is disorder down? Are Imperial laws obeyed? They are closely monitored and their every move is scrutinized for signs of disloyalty, heresy or incompetence. A humble clerk might labor in obscurity for years only to be suddenly made responsible for an entire sub-sector based on his years of impeccable work. Or at least that's what they're told.
In truth the Imperial system has become corrupt. A wealthy family can buy a Director's rod, a Cardinal's staff or even an Admiral's throne if they have the money and connections. Of course if they buy a position and the incumbent proves a failure the whole family will be held accountable.
One thing that hangs over every Imperial subject is a feeling of decay. Cities are littered with devices that once worked, but can no longer be repaired, factories deprived of raw materials slowly being stripped for their machinery and even their copper wires, and rail lines that have not seen a train in a generation. Every subject has grown up with tales of the better days before the rationing, or at least before the rations were cut. They have heard of festivals that are no longer celebrated, foods no longer available and days when the rain was cool and refreshing rather than acidic and scaring.
Prophets of doom can be found on every corner, proclaiming the end times are here. Centuries ago they would have been rounded up for their heresy. But these days who can argue the truth of their claims?
Classes and Caste
The Imperium does not believe in equality, it believes in rank. The law and justice depend more on who you are than what you have done. Most people are born into a class and remain in it all their lives though it is possible for the ambitious, talented and fortunate to rise and for the complacent, foolhardy and unlucky to fall.
At the very top are the rich and powerful, people who are not only above the law, but literally make it. But even among them there is a hierarchy, no amount of wealth would let someone stand against the might of the Imperium.
On any world the top caste will always be those who can claim authority from the Emperor himself. These would include Inquisitors, priests of the Ecclesiarchy, tech priests, officials, even some of their mid-ranked servants. Everyone, including the Governor himself, thinks twice before crossing an Imperial servant lest they incur the wrath of the Imperial Guard, Titan Legions, Sisters of Battle, Adeptus Arbites and/or Space Marines.
But while they may be above local law, the Imperium keeps a close watch on its own. Arbites patrol the streets and monitor the Adepts' activities, Inquisitors lurk in the shadows looking for any sign of heresy and each Adept watches his colleagues for a chance to implicate or blackmail them and open the way for advancement. And wise Adepts know not to push too hard on the local authorities, after all even Imperial servants have been known to have 'unfortunate accidents'.
They're not rich, the Imperium (officially at least) encourages humility among its servants. They will be dressed in simple but fine clothing with prominent Aquilas and other symbols to show their authority. The Third Secretary in the Imperial Sub-Sector Ministry of Agriculture, Bureau of Animal Husbandry, Office of Grox Semen Assessment might not sound like much, but your local watchman only has to see the Aquila and hear the word Imperial to know not to give him a hard time.
They are found in special sections of the city reserved for Imperial offices. These sectors include not only the wargame-friendly groups we are familiar with (the Inquisition, the Muninitorum, the Adeptus Mechanicus, the Ecclesiarchy etc) but also all the mundane arms of government an empire needs. Tax assessors, health officials, census takers and thousands of other branches of the bureaucracy will be found on most worlds. The streets are watched by the Imperial Guard and Adeptus Arbites, their homes and offices follow a standard design familiar to Adepts from one end of the galaxy to the other.
Most Imperial officials have no family. The Imperium discourages outside attachments and officially encourages (though does not require) celibacy among its servants. Many are recruited from the orphanages of the Schola Progenium because they have no ties or divided loyalties. Others are sent from distant sectors far from any friends or relatives who might influence their decisions.
Those who do make a family usually do so for political reasons to further their ambitions. There's little need to marry commoners, not when they can be taken as concubines who have no rights. Children from those unions can be adopted or disowned as the official desires.
Consider them the equivalent of Roman Prefect in a vassal kingdom or Soviet officials in the old Warsaw Pact. Individually they might not be much but there's a massive organization behind them and anyone would think carefully before crossing them.
Off Worlders and Spacers
Just behind the Imperial class are those who represent powerful off-world interests, whether other Imperial planets, Navigator Houses or Rogue Traders. They have the power to cut off trade, withhold necessary commodities or even launch military action. Fortunately they rarely care about local concerns, as long as they can do business the locals will have little trouble.
Unlike Imperial officials, off-worlders dress to impress, wearing garish and outlandish outfits to accentuate their wealth and exotic origins. They are usually heavily armed, openly displaying ornate weapons with more hidden in the folds of their robes and cloaks. Their homes and offices are found in certain districts, often close to the Imperial sector so they have a safe haven to flee to in times of unrest. Like their outfits, their homes and workplaces are opulent and impressive.
For them family is of primary importance, it determines their power, influence and protection. They proudly wear family crests and plan marriages and alliances across generations. As with Imperial officials they are generally above the law and have little fear or regard for local authority. These off-worlders command or represent more wealth than most locals, they would not be there if they didn't.
Think of them as foreign diplomats or powerful multinational executives in an impoverished country.
This is where the true power on each world lies, while Imperial and Off-Worlders might have a veto, it is the locals who make the decisions. At the very top are the Governors who rules in the Emperor's name. They may be selected by heredity, elections, contests or even randomly depending on the laws and traditions of the world. From time to time they'll be assassinated or overthrown, so long as their replacements abide by Imperial rule they'll generally allowed to take office. After all what use does the Imperium have for a ruler who cannot keep his throne? Failed rebels can only look forward to a slow death by torture, but successful ones, well obviously they wouldn't have succeeded if it wasn't the Emperor's will.
Below the Governor are layers of local government who have authority over anything from a moon, to a continent, to a hive city down to a village or neighborhood. Titles and the means of selection vary, but their role is generally the same.
The Imperium has always had a strong element of 'Roman/Medieval Times in Space' so on most worlds they will be hereditary offices, with generations of politics and grudges behind every official. They dress opulently but not outlandishly, projecting their power and office to anyone they meet. They never travel alone, always accompanied by bodyguards and flunkies. Many will remain on world for most of their lives, enjoying their lives as big fish in a small pond. Others, perhaps blocked from advancing on their world, will raise armies to join Imperial crusades or buy commissions in the Navy or Imperial Guard.
On some worlds the nobility will conform the lazy and decadent stereotypes we all expect. But others will be the product of millennia of selective breeding and genetic modifications. They are stronger, smarter and far more charismatic than we are. Improved mental pathways, photographic memories, expertly crafted features, enhanced pheromones, voices with ultrasonic rhythms to create a 'gut reaction', and then on top of that they get the best bionic enhancements money can buy. After all that some nobles are no more human than a Space Marine. Even stripped of their wealth and power they would soon rise to the top of whatever group they found themselves with.
Their real-world parallels include just about any politician or historical lord. They have absolute power over their own domain but must be cautious about overstepping their bounds.
Below the nobility are the rich. They have money but have not yet fought their way into the circles of political power. The ranks of the wealthy are always in transition, most have only enjoyed their wealth for a few generations, a few are entirely self-made. They long to advance through marriage or payoffs into the nobility but risk having their wealth expropriated by more connected rivals. Others will simply lose their wealth to carelessness or misfortune and fall back into the ranks of the commoners.
Their homes and clothing are expensive but cannot be too flashy lest they be accused of rising above their station.
Allegiance counts for everything in the Imperium so even the servants and slaves of the upper class have higher status than the middle class or workers. Butlers, secretaries and courtesans might not be in charge, but the patronage of their masters and their access to the highest ranks gives them power above their station.
This would include Astropaths, who are little better than blind, half-insane slaves, but whose essential role in Imperial society guarantees them a gilded cage for the duration of their short lives.
The Imperium is a society of extremes, divided between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. But a small sliver of society manages to hold on in the middle, forever striving to rise to the top, forever fearful they will fall to the bottom.
Tradesman and Freeholders
Here we find something close to the real-world's entrepreneurial middle class. There are the folks who have built businesses and homes. They run the stores, the small workshops and farms found in the cracks between the holdings of the nobility and wealthy. They're not rich, but they aspire to rise. They have enough money for some luxuries and frivolities, but their first priority is making sure their children and grandchildren have every opportunity they can buy, even selling their second and third children into bondage with powerful houses to give them a new chance.
They're among the most vulnerable people in the Imperium, they can easily lose everything in a single day of violence. They pay their taxes and bribes for protection but know they're a secondary priority at best. Still they're almost among the most free, they're not in bondage to anyone and control their own destiny. And with luck, determination and skill they just might make it into the ranks of the wealthy.
To the Imperium the vast masses of humanity may seem like so much chattel but all but even the most dense rulers realize there are skilled workers who have value. They are the medicare, the engineers, the salesmen, the clerks, the craftsmen, the artisans, and the foremen. They are bound in the service of others, but valued and at least have the potential to rise.
They wear their uniforms and badges with pride to remind everyone they are part of a larger whole and that a powerful organization stands behind them. Most of them live in modest but comfortable dorms on the compounds where they work. As valued servants they have some freedom and education and enjoy security the freeholders will never have.
Of course it can take years to teach some skills and the Imperium is not known for its patience. So many are given implants or even have skills burnt into their brains. Invariably as these quick fixes decay they suffer neurological damage and eventually insanity and death. But even that fate is better than life as a mere laborer.
In many ways this class is the closest thing to real-world workers. The skilled workers enjoy enough income to get a bit ahead and enough freedom to enjoy some leisure. But they are always restricted by the whims of their bosses and live in fear they might lose favor and be cast out.
Few Imperial subjects get or need an education once they've learned basic literacy, job skills and enough of the Imperial creed to be strong in their faith. If they need advanced skills, those can be implanted or burned into their brains.
But those lucky and talented enough to go on to traditional universities have a chance to learn history, literature, science and even secrets most of the Imperium will never know. They proudly wear the robes and uniforms of their schools and most people know to give them space. They may not have money or power now, they are the future leaders of the Imperium.
While students might seem to have a pleasant life it is also one of constant fear and stress. They must constantly study and succeed in exams lest they be deemed unworthy and returned to the masses. They have a rare chance to satisfy their curiosity and learn more about the galaxy, but must take care never to ask the wrong questions. They have all seen classmates disappear after pursuing unwise courses of inquiry.
The greatest students may be chosen for a variety of neurological and cybernetic enhancements becoming savants, essentially ‘living computers’ who can instantly tell you the name of the governor’s favorite composer, the annual yield of Plantation #93 or the most vulnerable spot on a Chimera armored personnel carrier. It’s a hard life of constant data inputs and calculation, but no one of any importance would ever try to run a business without one.
Here we find the bulk of the uncountable trillions of Imperial subjects. They're common, expendable and have no more rights than what their masters grant them and no more value than what it would cost their masters to replace them.
Scribes, Laborers and Peasants
The Imperium is ultimately built on the blood and toil of trillions of unskilled workers. They mine the ore, they harvest the crops, the build the machines and they process the data that keeps 41st millennium life moving.
They wear simple, functional uniforms and robes marking them as bondsmen in the service of various organizations and noble houses. They have little money and little opportunity to spend it. The Imperium has no patience for labor unions or safety regulations and has never heard of weekends. Most laborers are fortunate to have a few hours after their shift and the occasional feast day for leisure.
Laborer's lives center around the compound they work for, whether it’s a mine, a farm, a factory, a data core or some incomprehensible location of the far future. They're born in the compound clinic, play in its alleyways, study in its schools (for a few years at least), meet at its festivals, work for decades and are eventually incinerated in its furnace. For some the idea of leaving the compound is frightening and intimidating idea. Everyone knows there are daemons out there. And Orks. And why would they want to go anywhere? The compound has everything you need.
Ambitious laborers might seek a career in the defense forces, hope to be promoted to a foreman or supervisor, or even show the intelligence to become a skilled worker. They live in fear of being cast out or even worse being reduced to a servitor or slave. They have no lineage worth speaking of and favor large families. Most children follow the parents into the factory, signing work contracts at age 15 committing themselves to work for housing and medical care for the next five decades of their life. In theory they can leave once their contracts are over, if anyone is interesting in hiring a 65 year old unskilled worker.
For these lower-caste workers the law is an abstract concept, all that matters is the will of their superiors and the customs of their compound. Most crimes, even murder are dealt with within the compound, nothing short of a full-fledged rebellion would attract the attention of outside authorities.
Sadly this sort of life has a lot of real world equivalents, from feudal serfs and peasants to workers in communist collectives to the people who assemble our cell phones and computers in modern China. But as dire and dark as their lives sound it could be worse…
Slaves and Servitors
Laborers, at least on paper, are still free subjects of the Emperor, however limited those freedoms might be. But slaves and servitors are actual property, many are mind-wiped or lobotomized to keep them docile and modified with bionics and implants to make them better able to do their job. Some are grown in vats for this purpose, others condemned as criminals or rounded up from among the unwanted. Some poor souls even sell themselves or their children into bondage for a handful of thrones.
As bad as they have it, at least they're fed and have value as property. In some ways there are worse fates…
In an Imperium of a million worlds and countless trillions of people it's easy to fall through the cracks. Some outcasts once had homes, jobs and clans but through some transgression lost it all. Maybe they were cast out as punishment or maybe they fled before a worse fate could be planned.
Dressed in foul rags they haunt the dark corners of every Imperial settlement, they may in theory be free subjects of the Emperor but in practice no one is looking to protect them. They form gangs and tribes to watch out for each other but know that at any time the local authorities might come in and smash them.
Outcasts survive on the rubbish of Imperial civilization and by doing the jobs that no one else is willing to. They operate the grey and black market businesses people want to unwind. They might take on some extra-legal work for the powerful, knowing that if they fail their connection will be denied.
For many, their fate is to be rounded up sooner or later. Perhaps by press gangs that sell them to a mine or factory, or by some off-world ship looking for crew or maybe a tech-priest in need of raw materials for more servitors. Some might survive and prosper long enough to establish a legitimate business and rise to rank of tradesmen or even higher. But for most life as an outcast is nasty, brutal and short.
But it could worse, while their life is hard most of the Imperium is willing to ignore them, few are actually looking to kill them unlike some others…
Outlaws and Heretics
While outcasts are unloved and forgotten, and have probably broken more than a few laws, outlaws and heretics have actually managed to attract the unwelcome attention of the authorities. They prey on the weak and hope they never cause enough trouble for the local authorities to make a serious effort against them. They're constantly looking over their shoulders, not only for bounty hunters or enforcers, but also at their fellow criminals. After all there is no honor among thieves.
For a time they might succeed but eventually even the best criminal gangs will fall to the authorities or, more likely, a new rival. But it could be worse, even outlaws can harbor dreams of one day re-entering society. There are many who cannot…
And then there's the mutants, the gene-jokes, the twists, near the bottom of Imperial society. There are many causes of mutation, generations of radiation and pollution, unstable genetic tampering and the twisting presence of the warp. But every loyal Imperial subject is taught from birth that the mark of the mutant is the mark of the Emperor's condemnation and it is their duty to stamp them out where ever they may hide.
So they flee, to tunnels deep below hive cities, to dark forests and caves outside of civilization or into abandoned ruins where they can fight or flee any normal humans who intrude. Most norms believe mutants are cannibalistic savages who attack on sight and, given how they are treated, who can blame them?
Sometimes parents try to hide mutant children, or cast them out into the shadows hoping they will be found by their own kind.
Perhaps a few mutants might have a chance to prove themselves useful, perhaps they have some mutation that makes them stronger, faster or otherwise beneficial. They might be sanctioned and earn the partonage of some powerful benefactor, but that leaves them as slaves, property of their masters. But even that is a step up from their miserable status.
For most Imperial subject aliens are hated and feared and have about the same status as mutants. But still, Imperial edicts and Ecclesiastical commandments must sometimes bow to necessity. On some worlds trade with the Xenos is permitted or at least tolerated. Blood Axe or Kroot mercenaries might be recognized as part of the planet's military. Less intelligent or belligerent Xenos might even be kept as servants, slaves or pets.
And of course there are always the heretical worlds where Xenos are tolerated and even embraced.
Would you like to know more?
To see how all this works in practice, check out part 2 of this article:
Where I offer a sample setting, the completely ordinary Imperial city of Puerto D'Morsus and a series of short stories set there showing life for people at different ends of the spectrum.
Generally the strength of Warhammer 40k over other science fiction games is that it manages a good balance of feeling familiar and feeling alien. The use of familiar archetypes like Space Orks, Space Knights, Space Elves and Space Demons makes the universe feel familiar even at first glance.
GW also draws a great deal on real world history - especially the Roman Empire, the middle ages and World War II - adding another familiar element. Stories in 40k might involved Valhallan Ice Warriors fighting Ork Storm Boyz in the ruins of an Armageddon Hive, but at second glance it's really a retelling of the battle of Stalingrad, but in space, with lasers!
So to create an interesting world in 40k a good place to start is with the alien societies and cultures that already exist (or did exist) on Earth. One book I leaned on a lot for this article was 'Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea' by Barbara Demick. It is a fantastic, in depth look at people who lived impoverished, controlled lives in a repressive state ruled by an Eternal President who's been dead for 15 years. Sound familiar?
Books about life in Stalin's Soviet Union, Hitler's Germany, modern Saudi Arabia, Cultural Revolution-era China, Sadaam Hussein-era and Post-War Iraq, Afghanistan and other alien cultures can offer insights into how ordinary life goes on even in extraordinary circumstances.