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I have never played the Warhammer 40k minis game, but have come into tangential contact with it over the years. Now that there are 40k video games, I'm trying to get into it. But the problem is that the RPGs don't really provide much of an overall view of the Imperium and the 40k universe - they are so fragmented that I can read Rogue Trader, for example, and not understand that there are Space Marines or Orks (and are there Squats in this universe or what...). I understand that they want to put stats for stuff in later books, but it seems like unless you're already a 40k grognard you don't know what all is missing, even.

What's the best, quickest way to get a good in depth guide to the Warhammer 40k setting so that I can understand enough of it to really run an RPG? I guess I'm not averse to buying the minis game if that's the best source for the setting info, but am open to whatever other sources...

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The omnibus novel 'Eisenhorn' is considered the cornerstone of Dark Heresy's inquisition themed adventures, however you didn't include that one in the tags, so possibly a moot point. – MadMAxJr Sep 4 '11 at 20:26
Yeah, I just read the "Ultramarines" trilogy as my first WH40k books (spurring this question...). I guess I don't mind reading 6 or so novels as the solution, but I'd want to know which set will give me a reasonable overview... – mxyzplk Sep 5 '11 at 1:23
The Spread of the Imperium of Man might give a grand over view of the setting. Other wise ask over at Sci-fi & Fantasy.SE – Pureferret Jan 3 '12 at 12:33
up vote 9 down vote accepted

It might sound strange, but Wikipedia and/or the 40k section of the (unofficial but rather thorough) Lexicanum seems like a good starting point to get to know the setting. :)

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I already checked Wikipedia and it's way too cursory, but I hadn't seen the Lexicanum, and it serves all right within the bounds of wiki-ness (all leaves, no summary explanations). Thanks! – mxyzplk Sep 4 '11 at 4:01

Really, there is no good single source. The RPG's each have more information than the core rules of any edition. The Minis Game will show you a brief view of the major factions of the prior edition, but a new faction seems to have been introduced mid-run in each of the prior 40K editions, and 3E dropped squats (or was it 2E? I forget). So no edition has been "complete"...

Further, each of the player's guides for each RPG has introduced more elements previously ignored in the RPG line. Dark Heresy adds a couple aliens, RT adds Orcs, and DW adds more marine specialists.

The novels, as well, don't give a big picture overview, either.

The best overall overview I've seen was in 2nd edition WH40K, but 5th ed is pretty good, and has several factions not in 2E.

As for Squats, FFG has hinted that they might give us stats for them in the next couple years...

To get a good in-depth view, buy someone's collection of superseded faction books/army lists.

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I just want enough to play the RPG with some idea of what is in the setting that they have left out of a given RPG core book for whatever morbid reason. – mxyzplk Sep 4 '11 at 4:02
@mxyzplk Then you are pretty much out of luck. There's too much detail out there. Even the wikipedia and lexicanium articles leave out big chunks. (in part, because GW coerces them into so doing, by being litigious.) – aramis Sep 4 '11 at 5:54
The Lexicanum is giving me everything I need. I don't need 1000 pages of super detail to run a game, I just need to know what the major setting elements are. – mxyzplk Sep 4 '11 at 12:49

It may contain a worrying quantity of additional memes, slightly more cursing than strictly necessary, and a certain amount of fan-generated stuff (usually marked as such), but the 4chan /tg/ (traditional games) wiki sections on Warhammer 40K contain a certain amount of additional perspective on the fluff (description and narrative) of WH40K that you probably won't find in the Lexicanum.

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Try and pick up a copy of the original Rogue Trader rule book from the 80s. It's almost certainly out of kilter with the current 40k mythology but it provides a very rich background - despite being a wargame rule book it reads more like a role playing base book.

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more or less than a more commonly available one? My FLGS has 40k 5th edition or whatever they're up to... – mxyzplk Sep 5 '11 at 15:59
The original Rogue Trader has much more background than any of the more modern editions. There's sections on the history of the universe, a large weapons guide, a beastuary and more. 40K as presented in that book was much more of a skirmish wargame/ roleplay hybrid and makes frequent reference to a Games Master running sessions. – Colonel Sponsz Sep 6 '11 at 9:13

This'll also cover anything you need to know about the Horus Heresy:

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