Games Workshop (GW) released the first edition of their tabletop miniatures game, Warhammer Fantasy Battle, back in 1983. Four years later, in 1987, they made the jump into science fiction with the release of Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader. By this time WFB was on its third edition, and both it and the new sci-fi game were put on the market as deluxe, hardback books.
With the two games side by side, the inevitable comparisons and conjecture began. Theories started to develop about the relationship between their settings. And as further editions of each game were released, in a kind of tandem dance across the decades, the background material developed - and occasionally changed - and things only got more complicated.
Over the years there have been a handful of fan theories offering different opinions on the relationship between the games. Some of them seem unlikely, some appear very well-informed, others make good sense, and one or two are the kind of thing you really want to believe. Here's my round-up of the six most important theories to date:
1) The different game systems exist on the same timeline, WFB in the distant past, WH40K in the far future. Thus the sword-wielding Orcs of the fantasy game may be the antecedents of the gun-toting Orks of WH40K, while Elves carrying bows, living in magic forests might be the forebears of the interstellar Eldar, cruising through the Webway on their Craftworlds. At one time this theory seemed the most plausible, especially given the obvious fact that WFB looks like the past and WH40K looks like the future. However nowadays, in the light of hugely expanded backstories, it is probably the least likely to be true. The most oft-quoted contradictory example being that if the Chaos God Slaanesh was born at the fall of the Eldar in the 30th Millennium, he can't possibly have been present during the time of Elves, somewhere in our ancient history.
2) As above, the two games are on the same timeline, but in this iteration WH40K comes first. This means the fantasy game is a kind of regression that happens in the future's future. The universe burns itself out, leaving primitive versions of the main races (along with a bunch of newly evolved or previously unencountered species) duking it out on the WFB world, where most of the technology has been lost. As unlikely as this may at first sound, it does square quite a few of the facts that make the previous theory so difficult to believe. It also tallies with the mentions, that have popped up from time to time over the last 30 years, of old and forgotten technology existing on the WFB world - the most infamous of which being the Treasures of the Old Ones, discovered at the end of the Dark Shadows/Isle of Albion campaign. You can read about them here, but essentially they sound a lot like WH40K armour, weapons and devices, found on a island in the Warhammer world.
3) There is no relationship. The two game systems are separate and distinct. The Fantasy Battle game is set in a mythical, Tolkienesque past and WH40K is set in a make-believe distant future. The original Rogue Trader was merely a sci-fi analogue of WFB, and most of its races were just copies of the fantasy archetypes, given more futuristic technology. At best this makes the original WH40K an attempt to give the pre-existing fantasy gamers a set of familiar characters to inhabit the unfamiliar, more advanced setting. At worst it makes it a tongue-in-cheek joke trying not to simply add the word 'space' before all the original race names. The theory is most evident when you compare WFB's Vampire Counts and Tomb Kings armies to the Necrons of WH40K. Though clearly different, the Necrons - soulless, skeletal, robotic, alien beings - appear, at least superficially, a lot like the re-animated corpses of the Undead.
4) The two systems occupy parallel/alternate universes, a single timeline that diverged into two at some point in history. Thus in one continuum the Fantasy Battle game exists, but in the other, where different decisions were made, it led to the development of the WH40K timeline. This is really convenient for the writers and game developers as it is a 'best of both worlds' solution. The universes are both present at the same time, yet need never connect. Writers can pretty much invent anything they like - links that seem incontrovertible or evidence that goes the other way and utterly disproves any affiliation - and it's all down to differences in the timelines. It's a common trick in movie reboots, with the Terminator and Star Trek franchises springing to mind as recent culprits.
5) The fantasy medieval world of WFB is located somewhere within the WH40K universe: perhaps a once-human planet, long forgotten by mankind, isolated from the Imperium inside a warp anomaly like the Eye of Terror. This theory seems to have been quite popular in the past, and some say that Games Workshop may even have originally suggested it in their 1988 book, Slaves to Darkness. If you have any reference to that I'd love to hear about it in the comments below.
6) And finally, less of a theory in its own right, more of an addendum to some of the above. Could WFB's warrior-God, Sigmar, be revealed as one of the two missing Primarchs from WH40K? Is the twin-tailed comet seen at his birth really the gestation chamber that he was growing inside when all the Primarchs were flung across the universe? Perhaps his journey was confused by the warp, leaving him in a different era, effectively isolated from the rest of WH40K. Or could he be the Emperor himself, maybe in a 30K setting or earlier? If any of this were true it would certainly go some way to explaining why Sigmar's forces of Stormcast Eternals so closely resemble Space Marines or Custodians.
What's interesting about the Stormcast Eternals, regardless of whether they really are the Emperor's finest, is that the old provenance has been reversed. It's not WFB offering archetypes for WH40K to adapt, it's the other way around. The science fiction characters are now being given fantasy equivalents, even down to the statues outside GW's head office. Could this be seen as a sign that something has changed in the relationship between the games? If so, it plays neatly with a theory of my own. More on that in a future post.