Games Workshop 'canon' is often quoted in many a forum argument, and while many game universes do have a strict canonical source that can be quoted as 'fact', 40K seems to have a very liberal view of what 'canon' is and how the background books, novels and 'colour text' should be viewed.
This quote is taken from the Black Library forums FAQ
Is Black Library fiction canon background material?
"The BL editors work with the GW studios to keep the fiction the way that it should (very hard might I add! - RK), though due to the sheer volume of detail involved there can be the odd discrepancy here and there. If you want to consider anything "canonical" then both BL fiction - be it novel, graphic novel, art or background book - and GW fiction - be it White Dwarf, Codex, Army book or rulebook - are such.
Keep in mind Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 are worlds where half truths, lies, propaganda, politics, legends and myths exist. The absolute truth which is implied when you talk about "canonical background" will never be known because of this. Everything we know about these worlds is from the viewpoints of people in them which are as a result incomplete and even sometimes incorrect. The truth is mutable, debatable and lost as the victors write the history ..."
My take: As I understand it, is that there is no strictly 'canon' background and it's all down to interpretation. In addition the Black Library uses an extended or expanded version of the 40K background and the Wargame uses are restricted background. To really tidy up this concept;
Quote taken from the Old Black Library Forum thread: The question of "canon"?
"I think the real problem for me, and I speak for no other, is that the topic as a "big question" doesn't matter. It's all as true as everything else, and all just as false/half-remembered/sort-of-true. The answer you are seeking is "Yes and no" or perhaps "Sometimes". And for me, that's the end of it.
Now, ask us some specifics, eg can Black Templars spit acid and we can answer that one, and many others. But again note thet answer may well be "sometimes" or "it varies" or "depends".
But is it all true? Yes and no. Even though some of it is plainly contradictory? Yes and no. Do we deliberately contradict, retell with differences? Yes we do. Is the newer the stuff the truer it is? Yes and no. In some cases is it true that the older stuff is the truest? Yes and no. Maybe and sometimes. Depends and it varies.
It's a decaying universe without GPS and galaxy-wide communication, where precious facts are clung to long after they have been changed out of all recognition. Read A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M Miller, about monks toiling to hold onto facts in the aftermath of a nuclear war; that nails it for me.
Sorry, too much splurge here. Not meant to sound stroppy.
To attempt answer the initial question: What is GW's definition of canon? Perhaps we don't have one. Sometimes and maybe. Or perhaps we do and I'm not telling you."
So that's an unofficial answer on what 'canon' means to the Cruel Overlord of the Black Library, which is very much a part of Games Workshop. There is also this fun thread where I manage to chip in a few thoughts on the subject of canon in: Canon or not (<-- now a dead link because BL keep changing their forum and deleting everything!).
Edit: Here are fellow contributor takes from Aaron Dembski-Bowden (Andy Hoare chips in later), and Gav Thorpe. Thanks Lynata.
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My personal take on this is that it is all canon. The difference is, to me, how you array the "facts" of the 40k universe in your own idiosyncratic interpretation. To be holistic - inclusive - of the various editions, taking them as a historical approach works as well as any, even if you still have to pass it through that lens of interpretation.
With that said, I'm afraid that Gascoigne's image of the 40k universe is one that I personally find incredibly depressing and, for me, "wrong." Perhaps this is what is "grimdark," but I hope not. This is the 40k universe that is being re-visioned (even if for quite some time) into a fantasy universe.
Ah well. I shall stick to Kage-verse and the inspiring creations of the fans, while I continue to see the official material - the canon - as less than inspiring, perhaps even insipid. (Strong, I know, but there you go.)
I think the whole aim of the open background is to allow fans to construct their own '-verse' and then share their ideas with others. I think this creates quite a vibrant (if argumentative at times) community, where all ideas are put into the pot and stirred up. 40K is one of the most popular backgrounds in games, and I think much of this owes to the way it is set up. To me it's all very 'Doctor Who' or 'Sapphire and Steel', it has a distinctly British flavour, but I admit I can see it moving away from this.
For me Rogue Trader nailed it, I do like a lot of new stuff, I love the artwork and many of the stories, but it is moving away from what drew me to it in the first place. Maybe that's why I started to write up WarSpike, as I would like to get back to that earlier feeling, but build upon the concept and ideas and really push the whole lot into new territory.
If that were strictly how it worked, and everyone accepted that, then there might be some less nerdrage around. With the release of Dark Heresy it often seems that people are nominating themselves as "keepers of the 40k flame." Dave Allen did that most notably on the 'ole Black Library forums, which was a tad bit on the disappointing side since it tended to marginalise those individuals with non-vanilla interpretations of the 40k universe (such as yourself) as being "not 40k."
Ah well. Maybe it's just another blip in the Warhammer 40,000 (or perhaps just Games Workshop) hobbyism.
Just in case you are looking for further comments regarding the issue of canonicity, I have some that more or less confirm your assessment:
"With Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000, the notion of canon is a fallacy. [...] Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 exist as tens of thousands of overlapping realities in the imaginations of games developers, writers, readers and gamers. None of those interpretations is wrong."
-- Gav Thorpe
"It all stems from the assumption that there's a binding contract between author and reader to adhere to some nonexistent subjective construct or 'true' representation of the setting. There is no such contract, and no such objective truth."
-- Andy Hoare (comment on Aaron Dembski-Bowden's GrimDark II: Loose Canon article)
"There is no canon. There's a variety of sources, many of which conflict, but every single one is a lens through which we can see the 40K setting."
-- 'Dead Blue Clown' [Aaron Dembski-Bowden]
For a long time, I have been mindlessly following the "it's all canon" idea as well, simply because so many people in the fandom are convinced of it and present it to every newcomer. Plus, it's what people are used from other franchises like Star Wars or Battletech, so they simply assume 40k would run the same way, even though GW never issued an official statement in this regard. I only started questioning this as I noticed more and more inconsistencies and conflicts between the material, and ... well, upon investigating, I stumbled over quotes like the ones above. Hope that helps.
Oh hey, my reply went online!
Just to clarify, the 2nd quote is (presumably) really from Andy Hoare, not Aaron Dembski-Bowden. It was just posted as a comment on ADB's website, but with Andy's name. 🙂
Thanks for the quotes Lynata, and the clarification! I double checked and found your second quote in the comments section of Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s 'GrimDark II: Loose Canon article'. I've amended the credit 😉
Cheers! I have a feeling that the 40k community can only prosper if information such as this is disseminated to a wider audience. It'd certainly limit the fights about conflicts between sources! As such, props to you for committing an article to it. 🙂
Oh, and here's one more that I have just been made aware of:
"It's just a different interpretation of the same theme. When we started writing novels for the Black Library back in the mid-nineties, one of the big problems we hit, which has always been a stumbling block was that the game studio, rightly enough, wanted a sort of creative control and approval of the novels, because they felt it had to be the same. And eventually we realized that it couldn't possibly be exactly the same, because a novel required you to do different things with the basic property than the game did. It's as simple as that, certain things that were really important didn't work in a novel and vice versa.
And this sort of paradigm which was built up, which I think was incredibly useful and applies in this case as well, which is that the novels and the game, rather than the novels being novelizations of the game, the novels and the game are both expressions and interpretations of Warhammer 40.000 itself, which was like a real universe out there somewhere. And the game was a version of it, and the novels were a version of it, and they weren't able to contradict each other; they are just different ways of seeing the same thing. And I think, by extension, with the movie it's exactly the same thing. It's just another way of taking this incredibly rich and very, very appealing universe that we love so much, and playing with it in a different way.
Yes, there are ways in it that are not game-like, and there are certainly things in it that are not novel-like. And just because there are those differences I don't think it's, you know, wrong or anything like that."
-- Dan Abnett, at ~17:30 in this video interview
I am in the process of finishing off converting Fantasy armies into 40K, and was wondering if you could help me. Over the years since I started this project the background for the fantasy armies has been based off the elder gods which were supposedly consumed by Slaanesh (in the Xenology book). I have used this obscure piece of background to explain why the Fantasy armies do not use advanced weaponry, as well as to explain how their magic works.
I am currently working on version 1.8 of the skaven codex, and am struggling to make the background appeal to 40k players and to flesh them out more (I write rules, not stories) and found your website while searching for advice. In your research for this chapter, did you find anything that may help me bring some of the Hindu mythology or its nature into 40K? Would you be able to assist in writing or modifying some of the background? For a sample of the work in progress, check out https://fandexes.wordpress.com/2016/10/10/codex-skaven-1-8/ .
Thanks in advance.
I had a skim through your text, to see what you already have, but in there is nothing about Skaven culture. It seems you have not yet decided on a theme for 40K Skaven other than your mention of Hindu mythology?
I am curious about your concept of using Hindu mythology as a basis for Skaven. What is the concept you have in mind?
I assume when you mention 'chapter' that you are referring to the Sons of Rarhm?
Your view of the 40k universe is incredibly spot-on and of an insight and depth only seen in the most inspired works from Games Workshop like their Heresy "black books". This historical approach, fueled by hard science facts and the wildest but plausible extrapolations of hard SF, is the very reason I enjoy this universe that much. Your work is gorgeous and a welcome addition to this universe, It's been years now since I discovered it and would like to give you my sincere thanks. Everything on this site is golden for the passionate players wanting to craft interesting 40k RPG campaigns, and you inspired many. I especially loved your work about Marines and the Dark Age of Technology, your Archilects replace the Necrons and C'tans in every campaign I write, with Dark Stars instead of Tomb Worlds. Your view of things here is simply much more engaging. Your insight on the minds and beliefs of the Adeptus Mechanicus was an eye-opener for me as to how to portray them, for example.
I'd like you to know that if 40k is a matter of interpretation, then yours is my preferred version for pretty much everything except... Space Marine optic camouflage, which isn't much ! To me any fiction is subjected to the mind of the reader, so of course there is no canon but what you agree to tell within your games. When 40k isn't your first taste in science fiction universes, but the works of Arthur Clarke, Kim Robinson or Bradbury are, you're going to have your little twists and turns any "canon" will have to be warped around. After all, our imagination can never be trademarked. 40k, for me, is there for world-building experiences you can then project yourself in through role play, not a religion. It is there to give us tools and propose us ways. You made this fiction that much more engaging to me and I'd like to thank you again for it. You've truly been GM'ing Game masters ! It's up to us, and if we're not actually playing 40k anymore, I still love what it is we are playing.
Love and regards