[40K] Do Necrons Have A Motive?

So last night Lexington and I got to talking about my last post, and the result was EITHER some deep thought OR a waste of several hours and two and a half thousand words.  Either way, I bring it to you, for sharing purposes.  And yes, I said two and a half thousand words; you were warned, so I don’t want to hear any whining about any funny-coloured ruminants.

Lexington
Hee. GladosCron.

Von
Mm-hmm. She’s doing science on the people who are still alive. Well, technically she’s causing science to be done on them, but that doesn’t scan.

Lexington
Khee.
I still really don’t much care for the Necron re-do, but your direction with it is spiff. :D

Von
I see it as a jumping-off point.

Lexington
Indeed, it is. Just a sort of shoddily-constructed on, in my mind. You can still do a nice dive, even if it’s off a pier crafted from driftwood, rubber nails and popsicle sticks.
I dug the old Necron/C’Tan fluff. Seems like there was definitely a chance to simply expand it, rather than obliterate it all.

Von
Mmm. I mean, there’s room to keep it on, as I and others have been saying.
Doesn’t take much in the way of fanficcer’s imagination to come up with ‘my Necron Lord is still loyal to the C’Tan and takes orders from his Shard’.

Lexington
Oh, it’s not that. I’ve got zero interest in making a Necron army either way. It’s more that they took a race with a motivation, then gave it none.
The Necrons really have no pressing need to do anything anymore.

Von
Ye-ss.
Qualified yes.

Lexington
They don’t need resources, they don’t need power, they don’t need anything.

Von
So we come back to what they want:
Their Empire back.
To serve their Star God masters.
To free themselves from the legacy of their Star God masters.
To establish their dynasty as the definitive Necron paradigm.
To finish off the Eldar out of sheer *spite*.

Lexington
Right, but they don’t have that as a necessary motivation as a race. You can make it such, but as given, the Necrons just aren’t well-motivated.

Von
Oh yeah, I agree with that.
You have to think up some compelling reason WHY your Necrons are doing what they’re doing. Some people won’t care, and will just play the army anyway. Some people will care, and will do the less than thirty seconds of thinking involved in coming up with something the ‘crons want to do.

Lexington
They still have their empires, such as they are, the Lords still have absolute power over their subjects, they don’t breed, they don’t need more space, or, seemingly, more resources…

Von
Yeah. And to make them interesting the player has to take something away.
I… find it hard to be disappointed in a construction which awards agency over the army’s motivations to the player. Player agency > alles, really.

Lexington
Oh, that’s fine. I love player agency and space to create. It’s just that what it means for the galaxy is that the majority of Necrons just sorta…exist. Or they *all* have some individual reason to put themselves and their resources at risk all the time in massively destructive wars. Both chafe, y’know?
Like, the Imperium fights wars for all the same reason humans have always fought wars
The Eldar fight for survival.
The Orks fight, realistically, for the same reasons humans do, but also have the part where they love to do it anyway.
The Tyranids need a meal.
Etc.

Von
And the Necrons fight because they’re bored. Or because there are members of lesser species poking around their tombs. Or because a particular tomb world *is* short of something. I mean, the majority of humans ‘just sort of exist’.
In the Grim Darkness of the Far Future there HAS to be stuff other than War.

Lexington
Oh, totally. But the Imperium has a warmachine, for the purpose of expanding human territory due to an ever-expanding need for resources and security.

Von
Does the Imperium expand? I suppose it must. Terraforming, isolated worlds, new colonies. Replacements for destroyed colonies.

Lexington
That’s the goal, in theory.

Von
It’s just not all that well flagged. [Since the overwhelming theme of the Imperium is ‘stagnation for survival’s sake’, and we get the impression that all the expanding happened long, long ago.]
Cf. Infinity for an example of that done right, I suppose, shame it’s so human-centric.
(apropos of nothing: would I like Infinity more without the Combined Army?)

Lexington
Whereas the Necrons are a wholly militarized society (as much as they have a society anymore), for the purpose of…what?

Von
Whatever purpose we give them. We step into the narrative and we give it motive. I get that you’re disappointed with the null that exists if we don’t do that.

Lexington
Right. They don’t make sense *except* as exceptions to a standard that…doesn’t make sense. :P

Von
40K is not without those.
And to be honest, I always, always scale down when I’m thinking about 40K. If I can find a reason for *my* Necrons to be doing stuff, honestly, the universe beyond their horizons can go hang until there’s a reason for them to go there: because the universe itself is vast, and abstract, and absurd. It’s the little spaces where things that make sense happen, and that’s what I pay attention to. Otherwise I rather suspect I wouldn’t be able to interface with it in any meaningful way, because honestly? 40K is stupid.

[I’d have gone on to qualify this remark with the whole ‘ONLY WAR’ thing at its heart, the sense of perpetual conflict justified by static, unchanging agendas.  It works to justify gameplay between any two armies and that’s what it needs to do, so it’s not bad – but it relies on the suspension of the logical faculties to do it. Think about it in terms of real, breathing universes, and it’s stupid. Grand and hilarious and not without worth, but still stupid.]

Lexington
Well, stupid in its totality, maybe, but it has an internal logic and mechanisms that make sense on the surface. You know what humans, Orks, Tau and Eldar are doing when they’re not at war. The Necrons are really, as far as we know, nothing *but* a big military that really doesn’t have a lot of useful military objectives outside of Lord X’s bizarre whims.

Von
Or whatever else a given force has. Fair enough.

Lexington
Right.
There’s a lot of space given, but I don’t see them as any more inherently interesting than they were before.

Von
I just don’t see that totality ever mattering as there will always be some reason for a given clutch, or whatever the collective noun for Necrons is (catafalque?), to do something. And there will, I think, always be reasons.
I mean, as it stands, a tomb world wakes up, and it’s either got a problem or a desire. That’s them occupied for a bit. And I think, in a universe as full of potential nemeses, more things to go wrong, discoveries of how much has changed in all those millennia, ancient feuds with survivor species like Orks and Eldar, archeotech of the Old Ones, rogue C’Tan shards being unleashed by meddling explorers and, when all else fails, another dynasty who are gunning for you after what Lord X said about their Sharontek, as it were… in that kind of universe there are so many exceptions that the norm may never matter.

Although they ARE presented as so numerous that they might all wake up, and that might prove me wrong. That’s an issue, I admit. The implied numbers of them.

Lexington
Right. It feels patchy, though. There’s a goal (make the Necrons about the Necrons!), but no real attempt to tie it in with the rest of a functioning sci-fi universe. So we have a lot of individual Necron Lords, all doing their individual Necron Lord things, but as a race, they’re just lacking.

Von
A few points, which should not be taken to represent an overall disagreement:
– that’s only an issue if the setting is running with racial identities and agendas as monocultures, which to be fair is the way 40K has worked thus far. The Necrons may represent a slightly more mature world-building exercise in which it’s understood that a species/race/ethnicity will not share common motivations.
– you could say the same thing about Orks, to a point, in that the Orks are a morass of individual Ork Warlords going about their Orky business. Although what is classed as Orky business is rather better defined than Necronny business.
– the attempts to tie it in with the rest of the universe, re: the timeline, are the most egregiously irritating bit for me, ’cause there was a chance to do something clever there, and I feel it was missed. Keeping Sanctuary 101 as the first point of Imperial contact, and having all previous encounters involve non-human species, thus underscoring how… selectively-sighted… the Imperium is.

Lexington
I think your first point is a tad undermined by the *lack* of maturity of the examples we’re given of individual Necrons. ;)
In the book, I mean. That’s just a fun lil’ potshot, though.

I see your point, but I think that doesn’t really mesh with what feels natural in worldbuilding. Even if we have a lot of different cultural and social understandings, there’s certain…I dunno, “macro-factors” that motivate human conflict throughout forever. Resources, security and power, mostly. You can apply those to every other race in 40K. Even Chaos is fighting for etheric resources, in a sense. There’s lots of space *within* that, but large organizations in conflict are in conflict for reasons that are historically identifiable.

The Necrons are positioned as a race that’s as defined by conflict as any other, but they have nothing *motivating* that conflict. However, without war, there’s just no reason for like 90% of Necron society to exist. They’re all warriors, for the most part. I love when 40K fiction moves away from the tabletop, but there’s nothing like that even hinted at in the Necron book.

Von
I can dig that as a legitimate objection.
Without the GrimDark, they’re nothing.

Lexington
Right.
It actually reminded me of this great article Aaron Diaz wrote about comics-making.

Von
Although I’d argue that a species without macro-factors is quite an interesting sci-fi concept.
What do you do if you’re the species who has everything?

Lexington
Indeed.
I don’t think it’d slot well into 40K, but it’s an idea that’s sort of applied in John Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” books.

Von
That article is the boss, by the way – I think it’s very rare that we notice, say, cinematography, unless it’s either really good or egregiously bad, i.e. if it’s in some way distinguishable from experience – that’s assuming a realist bit of cine-text, obviously.

Lexington
Indeed. I love Diaz’ work like crazy.
See how I think it applies to this situation?

Von
Again, a qualified yes.
I think you’re arguing that there needs to be *some* kind of macro-factor, so that even the Necrons who aren’t motivated by it feel like part of the overall Necrondom, as it were. Because if they aren’t, you notice the absence of something that’s present everywhere else. Like, if they still had ‘kill ’em all’ as the default setting, the characters who prefer ‘do science on ’em’ or ‘conquer ’em all’ would be more distinct and interesting, and the others would have some meaningful reason for being what they are.

Lexington
Indeed. To some extent, it’s also that while the non-fightin’ part of 40K isn’t touched on much, we at least know it exists. We see hints. It’s around. That gives the universe depth. For the Necrons, it’s never touched on, and as far as we’re led to believe, it literally doesn’t exists. What you see on the tabletop is literally what you get, for their society.

Von
Because when they’re not on the tabletop, they’re plugged in back in the tomb. Fast asleep. Waiting for the next fight.

Lexington
Which, since they lack any general reason to *be* on that tabletop, feels very strange and ill-conceived. All of 40K’s just an excuse to put models on a table and roll dice, but the Necrons feel like a much flimsier one.

Von
I quite like that as a metaphor for the models…

They're just sleeping...

Anyway, I still think there are issues here that we didn’t quite get around to in our discussion of les affaires necronique, and those are the matters of scale and textuality.  The macro-needs that Lex is on about operate on a species-wide or faction-wide scale, and I think there’s a distinction between what a species needs (survive and reproduce, in essence) and what a faction needs.  Factions are armies, or nations, or empires – and factions are, I think, too easily equated with species when we think about 40K. The Imperium and the Eldar notwithstanding, everything is confined to a single book, and that single book creates a sort of totality to the faction.

All Orks are in one book, therefore all Orks are the same, wanting the same things, needing the same things. No. On a faction scale, a given Ork tribe or clan or warband wants something specific. They might be strapped for a given resource, they might want to move to a new planet, they might want to start a fight so the Nobz don’t start getting ambitious, whatever. The only needs common to every Ork everywhere are the need to survive, reproduce and (since they’re Orks) fight stuff. That’s all that exists on the very grandest of macro-scales, and everything else – every other reason for YOUR Ork army to be fighting the battles that it’s fighting – operates further down.

Considering Necrons on that same species level: what do they need? They can be attacked, presumably defeated, their secrets plundered and their tombs sealed, so survival is a concern for them (although the concern that I had about BILLIONS OF NECRONS comes up here again). They don’t reproduce, admittedly, so Lex isn’t wrong by any means, they do have less uniting factors as a species. Left to their own devices, they could just continue existing, fighting off any attackers but otherwise minding their own Necron business.

They don’t, though, because when you move down to the faction level, you’re dealing with individual dynasties, with motivations of their own that derive from the situation they’re in. Motivations like territory and power and resources are things needed in order to meet the species’ macro-need (survive) which operate at the factional level (because they’re held, or withheld, by other dynasties or factions from other species).

The Necrons are just like everyone else at the level where it matters. They’re a species with one shared need, but no credible sentient species acts as one, or shares anything but the most basic goals (c.f. the entire span of human history). We expect non-humans to be different. In the specifically GW case, I think that’s because they have one book apiece and that creates a false expectation of totality. In the broader case, in which GW’s work is embedded, there’s a whole lot of Planet of Hats nonsense to deal with: there’s a whole world of genre fiction out there which fails to draw distinctions between species and faction for anything that isn’t human and represents the alien, the Other, as a monolith, denying it the plurality of cultures and histories and agendas that makes our species worth writing about.

GW have avoided that with the Necrons, creating them in such a way that plurality is the only justification for doing anything with them at all. Better yet, they’ve obliged the thinking player to generate plurality by giving their own personal Necrons some reason to venture out of the tombs in order to play the game. From that, we can think backwards, define what our Necrons do when they’re not fighting for that agenda.

Necron society, and Necron motivation, emerge backward from the objectives we define for our tabletop Necrons. Now, you can’t read further back to a totality of Necron society that applies to the whole species from that, true – but I’ll argue until I’m blue in the face that no fictional society that’s worth exploring can be reduced back to any species-wide motive more complex than ‘survival’.  So there.

Author: Jon

Sententious, mercurial, and British as a bilious lord. Recovering Goth, lifelong spod. Former teacher and amateur machine politician, now freelance writer and early-career researcher.

14 thoughts on “[40K] Do Necrons Have A Motive?”

  1. I think, actually, the best comparison is in fact to the Tomb Kings of the Fantasy World, which is probably where GW was going with it anyway. When Nagash first woke them, they had a chance to adjust to the new world – with rare exceptions, they fell back into their old patterns. They re-enacted courtly life as it was when they were alive, playing the same tableaus over and over again. They would march to war against other Tomb Kings for no good reason, other than that’s what they always did. The plentiful armies and such – all those skeletons – probably don’t have a non-soldier life and lay still until called for, much like the Necron RnF. (Unless the Tomb King/Liche Priests have a lot of power and the desire to see their cities “as they were” with busy citizens, I guess, which would actually make for a rather macabre and amusing scene.)

    So what you end up with are Necron Worlds (equivalent to Tomb King cities) scattered throughout the galaxy, with half- (or more) insane rulers following whatever patterns they did when “alive.” This could be war for the sake of it, court “drama,” empire expansion, deposing gods, experimentation on new races/curiosity, or whatever. The “hordes” of the Necron warriors have no agency, because they’re not designed to have agency. Rather than the race having an overall goal or reason to exist/move forward like you have with Imperium/Orks/Eldar, what you have is a disjointed group of leaders, each with their own forces, each acting to whatever whims they think of.

    1. I concur with this idea, and add that the Necrons are or at least resemble robots (I’m no expert on 40K as you know Von) and therefore the “repetitive” feature of their motivations could be a legacy of their electronic or logical heritage. They are undead Egypt-themed robots IN SPACE.

      Contrast the Necrons’ “10 Kill the living, 20 GOTO 10” attitude to the wholly-biological Tyranids – whose reasons for invading the galaxy boil down to a severe case of the intergalactic munchies.

      1. Robots who used to be people and have in many cases not been allowed to remember this, so you’re close. You’ve described how the base-line Warriors and assorted Canoptek (fully robotic tomb guardian) units operate very aptly, and you’ve made me go around saying ’20 GOTO 10′ in a dodgy Cyberman voice all morning to boot.

    2. Yeah – I wasn’t going to point out the Tomb Kings thing because, well, it seemed obvious, but they do share a similar set of motivations and that’s partly how I arrived at my initial concept of the ‘crons. If anyone asks, though, it’s totally because that’s how real species work – I can accept that the Tyranids are a ravening, totally alien monolith and that the Tau have skeezy brainwashing/mind control/cultural hegemony themes going on, but they can’t all be monocultures or as good as monocultures.

  2. Well, I was about to say maybe the idea is that they are like Tomb Lords – Undead kings who do, in fact just have an army solely to fulfill their bizarre whims. Whims which are sort of creepily pointless since they and their army are all already dead. The troops are going through the motions like ghosts, the boss is a crazy Lich.

    But then the two guys above me said it, so there you go .

  3. Why the argument is about “New Necrons have no motivations outside the battlefield” when a)Old Necrons didn’t have it either and b)Tyranids manage?

    Necrons fight for the command that the Silent King gave them: Restoring their ancient dynasties. Dynasties who occuped most of the galaxy so they are going to be busy for a long while.

    It seems to me that Lexington didn’t read the codex.

  4. A very interesting article – but here’s a thing that I feel should have come up; The Space Marines, under the direction of Mr. Ward, have also begun to fragment in an unprecedented fashion. In addition to some further divergence of battlefield strategies, he’s also emphasized the cliques of Chapters in little understated ways, and has included things like the Silver Skulls 7 year blockade of whatever system that was, with no other Imperial agencies knowing why.

    He also took the Grey Knights in a much more extreme slant of their direction than had properly been explained before – to me, killing other servants of the Imperium to prevent any chance of Chaotic manifestation/Incursion/knowledge was always there and a natural part of the Inquisition – but I fully comprehend that many never read the 2e fluff about them, and saw the slightly sanitized Thorian-and-other-faction based fluff that prompted Inquisitor and the like.

    With the way that the Dark Kin have also been portrayed as not being quite as subservient to Vect as implied by Thorpe’s original work – I see a concerted effort by G-Dub to move the fluff in a slightly different, less all-encompassing and megalithic scale, to make it more specific/player-based in terms of motivations, and in that way a little more character-driven and RPG-ish.

    Again, Codex: Grey Knights displays this with the micromanagement of so many 1-shot weapons, furthered by Necrons… and let’s not omit the Pain Token from this analysis, or indeed [albeit at a slight stretch] Tervigons’ capacity to be ‘pooped out’.

    It’d be pointless conjecture to say what this bodes for the future of GW gaming, and 6e in particular – but it’s worthy of note, and interesting {to me, at least!}

    1. Oh, I think it’s interesting, and it’s a trend I want to see carried forward. I’m not particularly familiar with the current Codices, Space Wolves and Necrons notwithstanding, but your point about the Space Marines developing divergences from monolithic ‘deviates from the Codex in X obviously-Force-Org-friendly way’ non-differences is interesting, and I’d caught the Dark Eldar being a bit more developed than ‘not very developed at all’, which is what we were previously burdened with.

      I sort of hope that we’re seeing a drift away from the third/fourth minimalism and toward a more pluralist universe; the Tau Empire codex as opposed to the original Tau is a good start and more alien races joining that faction can’t hurt. More divergence in the Chaos ranks (i.e. an acknowledgement that Renegades aren’t Traitors and no one list can do justice to even the multiplicity of the Traitor Legions, never mind anything else) would also be good.

      And while I’m wishing, I want more Matt Farrer writing. In everything.

    2. Apologies in advancefor the lateness of the response, but I kind of didn’t know this article existed until just a bit ago.

      Anyhow, I’m also not sure that it’s particularly less “megalithic,” (Hive Mind aside, none of the generic factions in 40K have ever really under any single individual’s direction) but they’re definitely more aggressive about suggesting player-directed background than before. Unfortunately, it tends to be based around silly, gimmicky things like “HQ Choice X loves tanks, so he leads the tank people who do tank things, and use lots of tanks.” Like the Kap’n said, one step forward, two steps back…

  5. At the moment i think the most interesting characters/dynasties in the codex are not with the dynasty that the codex focuses on, 90% of the special characters are all in the same dynasty just doing what imhotek wants.

    I think the most interesting continuing motivations for a necron race lay in the small stories scatterred around the book I.e the silent king trying to stop the tyranid invasion, pirate king acting like the dark eldar, the travellor flying through space with a skeleton army(excuse the pun) and waking up new tomb worlds, a warrior prince hunting and capturing scattered ctan shards.

    And then all the random worlds scattered around.

      1. Yeah – he’s the showcase for The Necrons, the default setting as it were, but the book does a good job of pointing out and setting up alternatives too. I keep reading and thinking “I wanna do THAT army and use THOSE units played THAT way to represent it”, and that’s the sign of a good book to my mind; one that engages the fluff/thematic nodes in my brain, gives me room to project myself into it, and above all allows all that to manifest in what I choose and how I use it on the tabletop, rather than being just boring window dressing on my generic army that’s just like everyone else’s.

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