Characters: Warhammer 40000 Imperium

In an empire of a million worlds, how much can one man truly matter? Only one being is truly essential to its continued existence, hail his name, the Master of Mankind. And he has not spoken in ten thousand years...

The Imperium of Man, ruled from Holy Terra, is The Empire of Warhammer 40,000, and a particularly brutal and dystopian one at that. After the collapse of galactic civilization, a being known only as The Emperor of Mankind led his Great Crusade to reunify humanity in an enlightened new order. But just when a new golden age seemed imminent, the newly-forged Imperium was wracked by civil war as half of the Emperor's sons turned against him. The Horus Heresy was ultimately quashed, but at a terrible price: countless worlds were left in cinders, untold trillions were dead, and the Emperor himself was mortally wounded and forced to "ascend" to the Golden Throne, an arcane life-support machine.

Ten thousand years later the Emperor is venerated as a God, the Imperium's technology has barely progressed, Witch Hunts are commonplace since every rogue psyker is a potential gateway for the Legions of Hell, thousands of souls are sacrificed each day to power the Golden Throne and the psychic navigational aid known as the Astronomican, planets deemed tainted beyond salvation are subject to Exterminatus, and the sheer size of the Terran bureaucracy means that entire planetary populations can be forgotten due to filing errors.

Though it is by far the largest and most powerful faction in the galaxy, the Imperium is nonetheless an empire under constant siege from the rival powers of the galaxy. However, its greatest threats come from within, in the form of heretics undermining the authority of the High Lords of Terra or Ecclesiarchy, recidivists who understandably want to get the hell out from under the heel of such an oppressive government, or mutants and rogue psykers who threaten the purity of the human race itself. This siege mentality makes the Imperium a paranoid and superstitious place, but also keeps much of the populace in line — though it is a far cry from the Emperor's original vision, it is the only thing standing between mankind and extinction. At least, that's what the various higher ups like to believe...

Important pre-Heresy figures include the Emperor, the Primarchs, and Malcador the Sigillite. Post-Heresy, there are a number of significant factions that form the backbone of the current Imperium.


General tropes relating to the Imperium include:

  • A Lighter Shade of Black: The Imperium may be a cross between the worst parts of Nazi Germany and the Spanish Inquisition, but it's still better than the alternatives.
  • Alternative Calendar: An interesting case in that the standard Imperial Calendar uses the same year count as the Anno Domini/Gregorian one, although the actual dating tends to vary depending on the planet.
  • Belief Makes You Stupid: ...kind of. Since Warhammer 40K's magic system is based on Clap Your Hands If You Believe, belief can have power. It should be noted that while belief isn't treated nicely, outright atheism is treated as even worse. The reason no one saw the Horus Heresy coming and didn't believe it once it started was because the Imperial Truth had outlawed all belief in demons, magic, etc.
    • Well, it would be silly to not believe in the Emperor — his existence is a simple matter of fact.
      • The question wasn't whether or not he existed, but whether or not he was a god incarnate. The Emperor vehemently said no, to the point of ordering the Ultramarines to wipe out Imperial citizens whose only crime was being taught by the Word Bearers that they should worship the Emperor as a god.
      • By the way, this act is what lead to the Horus Heresy (oops!)
    • Of course, part of the reason the Imperial way had outlawed such beliefs was because the Emperor had determined the relationship between the Warp and physical beings, and wanted to avoid making the Chaos entities stronger.
      • Which, in the most recent additions to the Horus Heresy series, is revealed to have backfired rather badly, since, even without active belief/worship, the Chaos gods are still strengthened simply by humans going about their day-to-day existence of fighting, loving, planning, sickening, and dying. The only effective way to combat this is fervent belief in something else (i.e. the Emperor).
      • This feeding off of emotion has been present in the fluff for much longer, actually — since at least Slaves to Darkness, released back in 1987. Granted, the metaphysics of it has changed somewhat.
    • When compared to the Eldar or the Interex (a human/alien alliance from the first Horus Heresy novel), the Imperium seems to have swung directly from the two extremes of this trope (fanatically denying there is anything other than what strict real-world science teaches to just as fanatically revering the God Emperor) without hitting the interim point. This point, where the society in question doesn't worship anything but, at the same time, openly recognizes and seeks to guard against Chaos, tends to be shown as being just as effective at fighting against Chaos as the Imperial Cult.
  • Big Fancy Castle: The Imperial Palace, a massive construct made of gold which covers most of the Indo-Gangetic Plain and the Tibetan Plateau, and is not only visible from orbit, but also visible from Mars. It's the heart of the Administratum and, most importantly, the site of the Golden Throne.
  • Bizarre Human Biology: All the various abhumans, but especially the superhuman Space Marines.
  • Blind Seer: Astropaths, sanctioned psykers that act as the Imperium's communications network, are rendered blind (and sometimes even more crippled than that, to the point of losing other senses) by the Soul Binding ritual that reshapes their minds.
  • Bling of War: Good God-Emperor, yes. They even gold-plate some of their starships.
  • The Caligula: More than a few Planetary Governors (Herman von Strab of Armageddon was pretty blatant), but at the Imperial level, we have High Lord Goge Vandire, who became Master of the Administratum and Ecclesiarch in the 36th millennium, causing the Reign of Blood during the Age of Apostasy. Completely insane and prone to wandering about the Palace in the shadows, he was guarded by a sect he co-opted called the "Daughters of the Emperor". Eventually, the Adeptus Mechanicus and the Space Marines rebelled against him, but the Daughters managed to hold the line until the Adeptus Custodes were able to turn them against Vandire. The Ecclesiarchy was subsequently stripped of military power except for the Daughters, who became the Sisters of Battle we know and love today.
  • Catchphrase: "For the Emperor!" and "The Emperor protects!"
  • Central Themes:
    • The Fallen Greatness of Man: Everywhere in the Imperium, there is decay of mind, body, and spirit. Once, the armies of Man were led by Demigods; now, the forces of the Imperium are fragmented and distrustful of each other. The God-Emperor conquered the galaxy in a few centuries, but the Imperium now struggles to merely survive. Men once rearranged the stars to better suit themselves, but Imperial technology has been largely stagnant, when not actually regressive, for over ten thousand years. "In ancient times, men built wonders, laid claim to the stars and sought to better themselves for the good of all. But we are much wiser now."
      • During the Golden Age of Technology the galaxy was already explored by humans. The government was benevolent and liberal to allow xeno races to coexist peacefully, despite being able to crush it with little effort. But then the Age of Strife came, losing almost all technology achievements and bringing us research monopoly and A.I. prohibition.
    • Mortality and Insignificance of the Individual: The galaxy is a big place, trillions battle for humanity's survival, thousands of wars rage unchecked, and against this backdrop, the death of millions and destruction of entire worlds is rendered insignificant. Imperial Dogma reflects this: there are death and skull motifs everywhere, and Imperial culture is an especially fatalistic one. "Serve the Emperor, for tomorrow you may be dead."
    • The End Justifies the Means: The Imperium's war is ultimately one of survival; merely living to see the next day is hailed as victory, and the price of defeat is extinction of the human race and destruction of the very fabric of reality. Against that, what is a few million lives, or even an entire world? What mercy can one afford to those who would bend knee to the Xeno or Daemon? Better that they all die. And of the loyal souls lost? Well, "The Martyr's Grave is the Keystone of the Imperium."
  • Character Exaggeration: Much of what's been described about the Imperial Guard for this trope can apply to the Imperium as a whole. While the Imperium's bleak, "Grim Dark" nature is exaggerated by some to the point of Flanderization, the sheer size and expanse of the Emperor's realms mean that the more brutal and dystopian parts of it tend to stand out more. Meanwhile, many settled worlds are roughly AD 1000-2000 in terms of development and otherwise (relatively) quiet compared to the average Hive World, with some planets explicitly described as being paradises. There are whole regions of the Imperium that are pockets of stable, (relatively) safe calm, such as Ultramar. In other words, there actually are halfway-pleasant places to live if you're lucky - or if your name isn't Ciaphas Cain.
  • Church Militant: The Adeptus Ministorum, or Ecclesiarchy, exhorts Imperial citizens to kill and die in the Emperor's name. Though restricted from having their own armies, they do supply priests and preachers to help whip the Imperial Guard into a zealous frenzy.
    • Corrupt Church: As the Ecclesiarch became the most powerful of the High Lords, the Ecclesiarchy became wealthy and at times corrupt. This "Temple Tendency" is considered heresy by the Inquisition following the Age of Apostasy, and is purged with extreme prejudice.
      • In very early materials, the Imperial Faith was a blatant Scam Religion used to keep less-civilised worlds in line, which, to the embarrassment of other powerful forces, was beginning to be taken over by true believers. This was Retconned partway through First Edition in favour of a more or less sincere theocratic element within the Adeptus Terra.
  • City Planet: The Imperium has two types. The first type are Hive Worlds, planets whose surfaces have been covered with Hive Cities. Life on these worlds are especially unpleasant for the lower classes living in the under hives, even for the Imperium. The second type are Forge Worlds, planets devoted wholly to building the technology the Imperium needs.
  • Civil War:
    • The Horus Heresy was what turned the Imperium into the barely functioning husk that it is.
    • The Age of Apostasy started as a struggle for dominance between the Administratum and the Ecclesiarchy, which Goge Vandire ended by becoming head of both, and then became a civil war when the Space Marines and the Adeptus Mechanicus rebelled against Vandire's increasingly repressive and bloody rule.
    • The Badab War, the biggest Space Marine vs Space Marine war since the Horus Heresy, is very much an example as to why there are limits to the number of Astartes in a regular chapter.
  • Common Tongue: Imperial or Low Gothic, which is used for everyday conversation (and is translated into English for the sake of convenience).
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus: The Imperial Cult in general, which seems to incorporate several (likely distorted) elements from Catholicism in its veneration to the God-Emperor.
  • Do Not Go Gentle: The Imperium is going down and they're taking everyone they can with them.
  • Dystopia Is Hard: It is shown time and time again that the harsh conditions of the Imperium do not equal a very well-run state. The only thing keeping humanity together is constant outside threats from aliens, undead cyborgs, and the legions of Hell, and its size means the exponential growth is barely outpacing the exponential decay.
  • The Empire: Pretty self-explanatory.
  • Fantastic Racism: Fantastic in how bad it gets. The Imperium will only grant you any privileges if you're human. A lot of times, not even then if you're not human enough.
    • A degree of genetic deviation is tolerated; abhumans like Ogryns and Ratlings are useful. However, the human genome is sacred, and creating retroviruses that seek to change it is among the greatest of sins. The Space Marines are also not human, but since they are protectors of the Imperium and were created by the Emperor himself, they are both revered and feared as his "Angels of Death."
    • The Imperium's most hated foes are the Gue'Vesa infantry, of all people. Not because they're especially vicious or anything, but rather because they're viewed as race traitors.
  • Feudal Future: A necessity, given the Imperium's sheer size and the unreliability of interstellar communication. But note that a planetary overlord is not necessarily a baron or other hereditary title: so long as a governor provides the necessary tithes in manpower, sends their psykers to the Black Ships, and keeps things in some semblance of order, the High Lords of Terra don't care if it's a monarchy or republic.
  • Forever War: Ten thousand years and counting.
  • The Government: The Adeptus Terra, the "Priesthood of Earth," is an umbrella organization that includes the major Adepts, or government servants. In practice, though, the organizations of the Adeptus Terra are autonomous (and seriously distrustful) of each other.
  • Hopeless War: The Imperium is dying, the vultures are circling, but it has a lot of fight in it yet. A mere hundred years ago, it was at its strongest ever, conquering a thousand worlds in a mere decade, and it still has men and tanks enough to throw into the meatgrinder.
  • A House Divided: Many Imperial institutions were deliberately designed to monitor and check the others' power, which reduces their effectiveness but keeps one man from seizing control. For example, the Ecclesiarchy is banned from keeping "men under arms" to stop cardinals from becoming warlords, while the Imperial Guard is wholly reliant on the Imperial Navy for troop transport for the same reason.
    • Almost all of these draconian laws were put in place after Learning The Hard Way. Hobbes Was Right.
  • Human Resources: Psykers are rounded up on the Black Ships and taken back to Terra for testing. Those with potential are trained as battlefield psykers, astropaths, or even future Inquisitors, while others are sacrificed to power the Astronomican or maintain the Golden Throne. Several worlds also label humans as their primary export, most notably the fighters of Catachan.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: With the Imperium's religious fanaticism, aggressiveness in taking over the Galaxy, overzealous anthropocentricism (see above), and their ability to make 1984 look like the cliched portrayals of 1950s America, it doesn't take a genius to see why fans sometimes call the Imperials "Catholic Space Nazis."
  • Humans Are Morons: The average Imperial citizen's source of knowledge is enormously untrue propaganda, leaving them ignorant, fearful and superstitious; said traits are even extolled barefaced with those exact words by said propaganda. This doesn't necessarily mean that Imperials are idiots so much as they're either unaware of what's lurking all around them or would rather not know what's out to kill them.
  • Humans Are Warriors: This is why humanity is still alive in a galaxy where everything wants them dead.
  • Hypocrite: There are quite a lot of Imperial citizens who would like to slay all psykers indiscriminately. Leaving aside the fact that a lack of psykers would cause the Imperium to collapse in a matter of days (if not hours), such an ideology neatly ignores the uncomfortable fact that the Emperor himself was a psyker. The Imperium also holds the purity of the human form sacred and regularly hunts down mutants and others with "defects". Yet their greatest soldiers, the Space Marines, are packed with so many biological and cybernetic enhancements that they can't really be considered human anymore.
  • Intrepid Merchant: Rogue Traders are starship captains who seek fame and fortune on the galactic frontiers, discovering long-lost human settlements, exploiting alien species before the inevitable genocide campaign, or searching for ancient archeotech. The more successful ones own military-grade capital ships, if not their own worlds to govern.
  • Judge, Jury, and Executioner:
    • The Adeptus Arbites are basically expies of Judge Dredd, although instead of pounding a beat, they act as Internal Affairs, to frequent resentment, to planetary police and governments; otherwise, they concentrate on rebellion, civil unrest, smuggling, and interplanetary organised crime.
    • The aptly named Inquisition also functions in this respect, being literally above the law and able to render judgement as they see fit whenever they see fit. Inquisitor Lord Karamazov famously executed a young man because people believed he was the reincarnation of the Emperor (he thought otherwise). Karamazov basically skipped the trial and went straight to roasting the boy on the spot. While later findings would vindicate Karamazov's decision, the Thorian Inquisitors felt Karamazov did it to spite them.
  • Just Before the End: The current epoch has optimistically been labeled The Time of Ending.
  • Kill It with Fire: This is official policy to all threats to the Imperium — which is everyone.
  • Light Is Not Good: Uses quite some angelic imagery and themes, but it's not really that much better to any other side. Of course, the Imperials say they're the good guys.
  • Low Culture, High Tech: The Imperium of Man is basically the culture of Medieval Europe and pretty much everything from the 11th-20th Centuries with technology far beyond it, hence the nickname of "Catholic Space Nazis." Meanwhile, the Horus Heresy books suggest that the earlier days of the Imperium took quite a bit from the Roman Empire, with the Imperial Palace in particular looking much more Roman than the Gothic-inspired architecture of the post-Heresy years.
  • Martyrdom Culture: This telling line of wisdom from the Imperium: "Even a man who has nothing can still have faith. Even a man who has nothing can still offer his life."
    • ...AND MANY MORE!
    • Within the Imperium, there are lines known as "Thoughts for the Day", sayings attached to official documents. To sum it up, the Thoughts tell you that life sucks and something horrible is going to kill you in a horrible way, so you might as well kill as many of them for the Emperor as you can before you die.
  • Messianic Archetype: Sebastian Thor led the Confederation of Light against High Lord Goge Vandire and succeeded him as Ecclesiarch, ending the Age of Apostasy. He was believed to possess some of the power of the Emperor and gave rise to a Puritan belief in the Inquisition which holds that the Emperor will be reborn if he dies.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: A billion isn't even considered a significant loss for the Imperium.
  • Murder, Inc.: The Officio Assassinorum provides elite assassins used by Imperial organizations such as the Inquisition. The Grand Master of Assassins, the head of the Office, is one of the High Lords of Terra, and is heavily monitored by the other High Lords, as the Grand Master could (and at one point did) easily wipe the others out.
  • The Protagonist: As the largest faction and the main human government, various works of Warhammer 40,000 operate with the Imperium as the main characters. 40K being what it is, Protagonist is the most neutral term to call the Imperium. Calling them Heroes would be giving them too much credit, while calling them Villain Protagonists is not giving them enough credit.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The Administratum has planets of them, one of which is on the verge of a civil war on where to store the files.
  • Obviously Morally Grey: The Imperium's use of grim cyborgs, skulls, and intimidatingly large architecture makes it clear they are not about being nice people.
  • Order Versus Chaos: Staunchly on Order's side.
  • Orphanage of Fear: The Schola Progenium, run by the Ecclesiarchy, is an orphanage for children of Imperial soldiers and officials, where they receive a strong Imperial Cult upbringing, with graduates often going on to become various Imperial officials, such as Commissars, Inquisitors, and Imperial assassins, while a number of the girls go on to join the Adepta Sororitas. Military exercises, harsh discipline, and caustic, unyielding instructors are commonplace, and deaths are not uncommon although they're meant to be avoided as this deprives the Imperial military structure of future recruits.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: The Imperium was founded as an enlightened, secular society disdainful of "daemons" or afterlives, not because the Emperor thought such things didn't exist, but because he was trying to starve the Chaos gods and keep his people from delving into matters best left unknown. This backfired spectacularly, and today the Imperium clings to their belief in the God-Emperor because they know damn well what's out to get them.
  • Planet Terra: Well, they call it Holy Terra, but still played straight.
  • Praetorian Guard: The Adeptus Custodes are golden-armored warriors who guard the Imperial Palace on Terra, and are elite even compared to Space Marines.
  • Puny Earthlings: An unaugmented human is one of the physically weakest sapients in the galaxy. They make up for this with the Space Marines, the best tanks and Humongous Mecha, a decent amount of psychic potential (the Imperium's psykers outnumber the Eldar, but their psykers' abilities far outstrip those of the Imperium's), and a lot of manpower.
  • Putting on the Reich: The Imperium has always had shades of this, but when the Emperor actually reigned, things were a lot more pleasant. After the Horus Heresy, well...
  • Regent for Life: The High Lords of Terra rule the Imperium of Man in the name of the God-Emperor. Since the Emperor isn't likely to get off the Golden Throne anytime soon, they've been running the show for the last ten thousand years. They include, but are not limited to, the Master of the Administratum, the Ecclesiarch, the Fabricator-General of the Adeptus Mechanicus, the Grand Master of the Officio Assassinorum, the Lord Commander of the Imperial Guard, the Lord High Admiral of the Imperial Navy, the Grand-Provost Marshal of the Adeptus Arbites, and representatives of the Navis Nobilite and Inquisition.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: There are actual sane leaders and officials across the Imperium.
  • Right Hand Versus Left Hand: This was institutionalized after the Horus Heresy to make sure no one man could ever topple the Imperium again. A constant, low grade civil war is a small price to pay for this balance in the eyes of the High Lords. Although after ten thousand years, the policy is beginning to backfire on them.
  • Sacred Language: High Gothic (which sounds like Latin) and is used as the official language of records for the Adeptus Terra.
  • Species Loyalty: Official policy. Those who don't show it by killing xenos and instead ally with them are considered the worst of traitors.
  • Starship Luxurious: The upper decks of their ships, certainly. The officers, astropaths, navigators, and other important people live in what are, essentially, palaces that have been vacuum-sealed and welded to the top of the ship.
    • Not so much for the rest of the crew in the hulls of these ships.
  • Tarot Motifs: The Imperial Tarot is occasionally consulted as another manifestation of the God-Emperor's will and foresight.
  • The Extremist Was Right: Nobody denies that the Imperium is the most dystopian and tyrannical government humanity has ever known, but nothing else could survive the unending torrent of horrors that are trying to devour, exterminate, seduce, brainwash, corrupt, vaporize and/or otherwise destroy humanity.
  • Treachery Cover Up: After the Horus Heresy, attempts were made to excise that dark period from history with varying success. Some worlds are dumbstruck when they are confronted by Traitor Marines, while on others Horus's fall to darkness is common knowledge.
    • This has actually had subtle effects on virtually all of Imperial society. For example, all canonical Space Marine chapters have Chaplains, Badass Preachers of the Imperial Cult whose primary task is to keep their charges from falling to Chaos. But, pre-Heresy, the Chaplains only existed amongst one Legion, the Word Bearers, and this intense devotion to religion made them the very first Legion to fall to Chaos.
    • Chaplains were in other legions, like the Emperor's Children, ostensibly there to enforce loyalty to the Emperor and the atheistic Imperial Truth. Didn't work.
  • Vast Bureaucracy: The Adeptus Administratum (the Imperial Bureaucracy) is this in a nutshell. As the administrative and bureaucratic arm of the Adeptus Terra, the Administratum assesses the tithes worlds must pay to the Imperium, takes census data, and maintains copious records of virtually everything. Unfortunately, ten thousand years has resulted in enormous bureaucratic incompetence. Whole planets can be lost due to rounding errors, Imperial Guard reinforcements can be anywhere from months to centuries late because of bureaucratic inertia, and departments will continue to function long after they're obsolete. The Master of the Administratum is its head and generally regarded as the most powerful of the High Lords, something the Ecclesiarch has had problems with a few times.
  • Vestigial Empire: The Imperium is struggling in a constant Hopeless War for their own survival.