Those of us with longish memories remember a time when things were a little different in the 41st Millennium and the Warhammer world. A time when things developed, when things changed. Cities fell, new races rose up, mighty heroes died and, well, stayed dead. In other words, the timeline progressed.

This phenomenon was created under the rule of then-Games Development supremo Andy Chambers. There were broad, sweeping storylines that could be discerned from stories and background text published in White Dwarf, new army books, supplements and the major web-based campaigns that GW ran.

For Warhammer, the Ogre race started its migration into the Old World, the mad count Maruis Leitdorf was slain, the Supreme Patriarch of the Colleges of Magic was replaced, Eltharion was blinded – and then there was the Storm of Chaos. This, the last of the history-changing worldwide campaigns, saw Archaon launch the next major incursion, rivalling the Great War Against Chaos. The Grand Theogonist got himself captured by Daemons, Sigmar’s heir (allegedly) appeared in the form of Valten, and it all culminated in the siege of Middenheim. In theory the city could have actually fallen, had the bad guys’ battle results not been so rubbish.

In 40k Ghazghkull invaded Armageddon for the second time, Captain Tycho was killed, the entire Necron race awakened (heralded in subtle ways in the Gorkamorka supplement), and the Tau Empire came to power suspiciously quickly. The Eye of Terror campaign saw Eldrad Ulthuan slain, and had the potential for a major shake-up – the introduction article in White Dwarf claimed that a big win for Abaddon could see Chaos gain territory in the heart of the Imperium, while the opposite might result in a new age of expansion for the Imperium. As it turned out, the results were fairly even - not a massive surprise, statistically speaking, but the possibilities were huge and far-reaching.

More recent years have seen a much more conservative approach. The summer campaigns, while perfectly entertaining, have been ring-fenced or limited in scope, so that no ongoing consequences were possible – not fundamentally different to the campaign a large club might invent and run. In fact, a lot of the ‘progress’ I’ve mentioned has been back-tracked or ignored. Tycho seems remarkably well in the new Blood Angels codex and the current Empire Armies book scarcely mentions the events of the Storm of Chaos.  The background of both games now presents an unchanging snapshot – a moment in time.

So why the new approach? There are two main reasons that I can envisage. Firstly, the static method means you’ll get the same worlds to play in whether you start gaming now or in ten years’ time. Because there’s always the danger that a new storyline may not be as good as the old one – a new age of expansion for the Imperium may seem superficially tantalising, but is it really as dramatic as the Imperium approaching destruction? Look at any long-running TV show – series 5 is never anywhere near as good as the early days, as the producers struggle to keep things fresh, integrate new cast-members and new ideas, but still keep the spirit of the original show alive. The frozen time method is more like remaking a classic film – the effects get better, but the essential story remains unchanged.

The other obvious advantage with keeping time still is that they don’t invalidate older books and models. Of course you’d never have expected them to kill off an entire army or anything, but imagine how disheartening an introduction to the hobby it would be to collect an Empire army, paint it blue and white following the Army book, only to find out that “Sorry, Middenheim got destroyed.”

I understand both these sensible reasons. Yet like it or not, there is something undeniably appealing about change. World of Warcraft is doing it in a big way with Cataclysm – a massive sweeping change that will get existing and lapsed players excited, and no doubt net quite a few new ones too. Of course it’s not a trick you can pull very often (there’s only so many times you can nearly destroy the world), but I do wonder if, some time in the future, that Games Workshop will be tempted to stage their own cataclysm?

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