One of the things that first attracted me to Warhammer 40,000 in my callow youth was the game’s grim, operatic setting. It’s Star Wars without the naïveté, a universe like our own, where no one gets along and the best you can hope to be is morally neutral. Sure, Warhammer 40,000’s bleakness is over the top and probably just as much of a cartoon as traditional “black hat vs. white hat” settings, but the grit is compelling.
That’s probably why I’ve always been a fan of the Dark Angels, the knights in tarnished armor who all but define the term “antihero.” With their storied history and secretive nature, the Dark Angels are billed as engaging and morally complex. But are they?
The Problem With Problems
The Dark Angels are consumed by their obsessive quest to hunt the Fallen, remnants of a portion of their number that betrayed the Emperor of Mankind during the Horus Heresy. These traitors, so the story goes, turned their weapons on their brethren. In the wake of the battle that followed, the Dark Angels’ home world was destroyed, and the surviving traitors were cast through space and time. Since that day, the chapter has single-mindedly devoted itself to finding these renegades, in the hope that their destruction will erase the stain of their betrayal from the Dark Angels’ proud name. If there’s one thing to take away form this abbreviated history, it’s that the Dark Angels feel fanatically guilty about this.
But this is no sort of real guilt, so it’s not very interesting. It seems to me that in the Wild West morality of Warhammer 40,000, if some of your buddies turn on you and you gun them down with extreme prejudice, you’ve done your duty. Being wacky space-Catholics isn’t quite enough reason to flagellate yourself for ten thousand years. In order for the shame to really stick and justify the furtive and brooding aspect of the Dark Angels, the entire chapter, up to and including their founder, needs to be implicated.
Imagine instead that the destruction of Caliban comes during the Horus Heresy, instead of immediately after. Horus sends a delegation to Caliban to recruit Lion el’Jonson and the Dark Angels legion to the side of the rebels, praising el’Jonson’s tactical acumen and assuring him of the need to turn against the Emperor. Because of his natural aptitude for careful planning, The Lion spends some time weighing the choice. Meanwhile, the galaxy begins to burn around him as war breaks out. Horus sends a second delegate, who befriends Luther, Lion el’Jonson’s closest friend and advisor. While the Lion is paralyzed by the indecision resulting from his ability to interpret every outcome of the war (essentially, he’s too smart for his own good), Luther cannot bear to stand idly by while the Imperium tears itself apart. Horus’ delegate seizes upon this desire, winning Luther’s sympathy for the rebels. Luther remains unaware of the influence of the Chaos Gods.
Plagued with doubt, the Lion turns to Luther for counsel. Luther convinces his mentor that Horus’ victory is assured. There is no option but to throw in with the rebels and preserve the hard-earned history of the legion. Lion el’Jonson, who had already been losing faith in the Emperor’s vision, agrees to side with Horus (largely due to his quarrel with Leman Russ, and strife with Rogal Dorn, who had probably been competing with the Lion for the reputation of greatest tactician and most stubborn commander, and was generally impossible to like anyway).
With newfound purpose, Lion el’Jonson commits his warriors to battle. After a few skirmishes, his first major action in the war is the destruction of an Imperial colony that is home to a key naval base. Removing the colony will allow Horus to reinforce a key battlefield. The Dark Angels leave no survivors, and as the colony burns, Lion el’Jonson’s tactical mind computes a new outcome for the war – an even faster victory for the rebels. Then, el’Jonson comes to an even greater realization, and the horror of his monstrous deed comes upon him in full force and he repents his earlier decision. He returns to Caliban to marshal the remainder of his legion, which had been left in Luther’s care to prepare for the assault on Terra.
The rest of the story plays out the same – Luther refuses to allow the Dark Angels to rejoin the Imperium, and is defeated after a difficult battle in which Caliban is destroyed. The survivors of Luther’s faction, as well as a few loyalists who are merely disgusted by Lion el’Jonson’s failure, flee the wreckage. In the aftermath, the Lion reaffirms his dedication to the Imperial cause, but his shame and fear prevent him from declaring the events of the war publicly and submitting himself for punishment. Instead, he decides to fix the problem the only way he knows how: to kill or capture every man with knowledge of the Dark Angels’ terrible secret. Thus begins the hunt for the Fallen.
My intention is to increase the Dark Angels’ culpability, to add some depth to character. Of course I realize it’s not canon – it’s merely a creative exercise. Still, when I’m pushing my toy soldiers around the table, this is what I’m imagining. After all, if I’m going to resort to extreme measures on my fictional plastic quest for redemption, I should have some truly terrible fictional sins to atone for. Otherwise, I’d be playing Ultramarines.