Hello 40k fans! Chris Morgan, Chief Librarian of the Forge the Narrative Podcast, is here again with the next weekly segment of Tomes of the Librarius. Also, check the Tactics Corner for more great articles!
Just as a reminder, in this series we will explore facets of the history and legends of the Grimdark. This is meant to be an easy summary and introduction geared towards new players or people unfamiliar with the setting, but should still be an interesting read or fun refresher for those already familiar. There’s so much detail in this lore that a bare summary seems so inadequate, but for new people this should be the right portion to get a feel for the history of the universe we enjoy our games in.
Last week’s article was a tad more lighthearted than most histories, but today we are going to cover one of the most nightmarish horrors to come to the Grimdark. There are many races and species alien to humanity in the 41st millennium, but nothing is more alien than the Tyranid. This is true because the Tyranids are not only alien to humanity, but to the galaxy as a whole.
The Great Devourer
The Tyranids gain their name from the planet Tyran, which is where the Imperium of Man initially encountered them. In truth, the Tyranids are an extra-galactic species- not hailing from any world known to Mankind or to any of the other races in the galaxy. Tyran, and so many worlds since then (and maybe even before), have been reduced to barren, lifeless, airless rocks floating in the void. Tyranids have only one overriding purpose and desire – to consume. They do not leave any scraps behind, and the worlds that suffer at their touch are the planetary equivalent of bones thrown away after a meal.
It is impossible to ‘understand’ the Tyranid. It has only one motivation: to feed. It feeds, and feeds, and feeds, and is never satisfied. Tyranids have no personality, society, morals, souls, or free will. They are controlled by a single, terrible will. Humanity knows it only as the ‘Hive Mind,’ and it is the will that controls the actions of every single living organism from the largest bio-ships to the smallest feeder-beasts, and even perhaps to its agents operating at the cellular level.
The Will Behind the Swarm
The Hive Mind is immense, and its consciousness is bigger than anyone could hope to comprehend. The mere presence of a Tyranid Hive fleet and the psychic force of the Hive Mind behind it is enough to cut off psykers from the warp where they draw their powers from. Those psykers attempting to pierce the veil between the warp and themselves do so at great peril, and the weaker ones die in the attempt. Tyranid creatures are controlled this way through Synapse creatures, which are specialized control creatures that amplify and extend the will of the Hive Mind to the otherwise disorganized and mindless swarms. These creatures often have powers and abilities much akin to those of psykers that they can manifest to aid the swarms under their command, but instead of drawing power from the warp they instead draw power from the Hive Mind’s incomprehensible consciousness.
Traveling With Mouths to Feed
The Tyranids travel in hive-fleets which are often given the names of legendary monsters from Terran myth. These fleets approach the galaxy from all sides, the largest of them (Leviathan) is coming from below the stellar plane. While coloration and evolutionary tendencies between the fleets may vary slightly, what does not change is the will that drives the fleets to lush, populated worlds. The number of ships coming in from the edge of the galaxy is uncountable, and no-one knows how many still lurk in the darkness beyond. Some even speculate that this is only the beginning, and that the true invasion has yet to begin. Who know how many galaxies have been scoured of life before ours came into the Hive Mind’s notice?
A Tyranid invasion comes in many ways, but many follow a pattern similar to this. Semi-autonomous tyranid organisms knows as Genestealers find their way to an occupied planet. Infiltrating the society, they then find a victim to impregnate with an embryo. This embryo, and it’s now-enslaved parent, become the first elements of a gene-cult dedicated to bringing a tendril of a hive fleet to the planet to feed. By growing and spreading among a local populace, the genestealer cult undermines the society of the world in question, spreading dissent and chaos in the name of the “four-armed emperor” and building their ranks. The collective psyche of the Cult members acts as a beacon to nearby hive fleets, and the planets with the most biomass send the strongest signal. Once the psychic call becomes loud enough for the hive mind to perceive the planet is almost certainly doomed to death by an unstoppable frenzy of teeth and claws.
When the invasion in earnest begins, first the inhabitants of the world will notice the flora of the world begin to mutate. Spores in the atmosphere accelerate the growth of the plants, mutating them to become larger (creating more biomass for the hive fleet to feed on). These spores also act as irritants to animal life and whatever species inhabits the planet, causing severe allergic reactions to weaken the world’s defenders. The Hive Mind drops fleshy drop-pods from the hive fleets from orbit. These pods can be full of small feeder-beasts that are basically clawed, slithering mouths, or it can be full of gigantic monsters capable of cleaving a tank in half. Ultimately, all are alive just to feed and bring biomass to the digestion pools that begin to infest the world.
From these pools are spawned every conceivable monstrosity the hive mind deems adequate to finish consuming the world with. The more biomass that they consume, the faster the invasion accelerates. The more fierce the resistance, the more adaptive these bio-creations become. The Hive Mind never stagnates its strategy, changing tactics and adjusting the creatures in its army to better defeat the foe standing between itself and consumption of the world it invades. It has a tool for every job. It has been doing this for a long time.
Once all resistance is neutralized, the feeding begins in earnest. Capillary spires rise from the world and connect to the hive ships above, pumping raw biological material into what passes for a stomach in the giant living ships. These ships extend tubes down into the oceans and atmosphere, sucking up every last morsel of air, water, and biomass until everything – even down to the cellular level – has been absorbed into the fleet. Ocean worlds are left dry, and gas giants are pumped away to fuel the bio-processes taking place within the ships. Only the stars are safe, the heat of their fusion keeping them safe from the hunger of the ravening swarms.
Make no mistake, only the forces of Chaos represent a greater threat to the existence of life in the galaxy than the Tyranids, for where the Tyranid consumes the flesh, the thirsting gods of Chaos consume the soul.
Guy Haley’s Devastation of Baal stands out as the single-most comprehensive account of a Tyranid invasion I’ve ever read. This is fitting, of course, as it is also the largest Tyranid invasion recorded in the history of 40k. It’s got everything from large-scale fleet battles & army vs. army engagement to insidious infiltration and heroic duels. While books with Tyranids as the protagonist would be a near-impossibility, but this is the next best thing.
If you’re looking for something a little more small-scale, the Deathwatch book by Steve Parker is a good look at what a Genestealer Cult infestation looks like. Most of the book has to do with the Deathwatch themselves, but it’s entertaining and the payoff is definitely worth it.
Guy Haley makes another appearance on this list with his book Death of Integrity, which is about dealing with a Genestealer infestation on a space hulk. This is one of my favorite 40k books ever, and combined with the other two on this list, you get a really clear image of what it means to fight the Tyranids.
Now I’m Feeling Hungry
I hope you guys enjoyed this summary! The Tyranids have been my arch-nemesis since I started in the 40k universe playing the Space Hulk Board Game. After that, my brother and I have a decades-spanning grudge war between his Hive Fleet Charybdis (named before the codex version) and my Blood Angels 3rd Company.
What was your first encounter with the Tyranid swarm? What are your cool Hive Fleet names? What is your favorite food? Let me know in the comments!
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