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  1. #1

    Default Why Don't They Put Their Helmets On?

    Why Don't They Put Their Helmets On? A Plea For A Different Kind of Creativity Than You’re Used To

    The first time I watched ‘Saw’, it left me with the shattered nerves of an elbow stepping out of the cage after facing Ronda Rousey. I was so messed up I had to call my thankfully-tolerant, unfortunately-absent girlfriend and ask her for an over-the-phone hug. Something about ‘Saw’ (probably the self-inflicted, hacksaw-based foot amputation) left me as ruined as that Christmas Grandad gave me his used Rolodex full of the names and numbers of all his dead friends (a sadly true story).

    It wasn’t until afterwards that I began to ask myself how SPOILER ALERT it was possible for a terminal cancer patient (no matter how intelligent) to orchestrate the whole affair. For all his cunning, the character of John Kramer simply couldn’t have done everything his character got away with.

    So, faced with this irreconcilable problem, I did what a lifetime of horror movies had trained me to do, and immediately ignored it.

    Because the thing about horror, is that it is – to my eternal disappointment - a dumb genre. You’re going to get plot holes so big you can fit Kanye West’s ego in and still have room left over for your own sense of disappointment in what a petulant little tool he is. It’s like: why don’t the phones ever get a signal? Why is it that the killer always comes back three times? Why does anyone ever ask: ‘John? Is that you?’ WHEN IT’S NEVER JOHN. NEVER. IT’S ALWAYS A KILLER WITH A BLOODY GREAT KNIFE. (Or chainsaw. Or hammer. Or maybe some kind of elaborate death-trap involving a nightclub and the mechanism off the front of a combine harvester.)

    Plot holes are, to the hardcore horror fan, just something we live with. The sad truth is that horror films aren’t made with an intelligent audience in mind; like surface-to-air missiles, they’re made for people to just enjoy then forget about. Which is pretty crappy, but it is what it is. The Rule of Scary almost always trumps logic, common sense, or even the rules of physics, and that’s just how it is.


    But then ‘Saw II’ came out and lo and behold: for a terrible film, it had a masterful reveal. That SPOILER ALERT John Kramer was not alone! He had an apprentice all along!

    And I thought words to the effect of ‘Oh my glob, they just filled in the plot hole with logic instead of awkward exposition and scenes of teenagers drinking beer! Who saw that coming?’ Well, not me, I can tell you. While the ‘Saw’ series never really recaptured the visceral joy of the first film, they made an absolute virtue of their continuity. If ever something made you go ‘Wait: how did he set that up?’ you can guarantee they’d explain it in a later film. Yeah, the film could be charitably described as ‘mediocre if you squint’, but that little nagging annoyance, that little thing that stopped you suspending your disbelief, it would be gone, replaced by a satisfied sort of smile, because the budgets might not cover the effects, but the writers had your back.

    So far, so rambling. But how does this pertain to 40K?

    Well, it’s kind of simple really. There’s a ton of stuff in 40K that is, for want of a better word, utter bollocks. Orks clap their hands and the drainpipe the Mek superglued a trigger onto suddenly fires bullets? The Blood Angel has an axe encarmine the size of a council house front door, and yet he can swing it like it’s a ball-peen hammer? The Ultramarines use standard Macragge-pattern ‘Try It. Please’ camo, and yet no-one shoots their dumb blue backsides back into the Horus Heresy?

    Power fists?



    40K is a game of utter madness. It runs on the Rule of Cool; stuff just works BECAUSE IT DOES. SHUT UP AND ENJOY IT GOD WHY CAN’T WE EVER HAVE ANYTHING NICE?

    Look, here’s Arnie and Carl Weathers simmering together again. Why can’t you just let it go? And no, I will never get tire of this gif. Nor should you.

    The thing is, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. I’m a firm believer (and fan of) Deconstruction as an artistic concept.

    Making The Nonsense Work In Your Favour.

    Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ is probably the most famous deconstruction in all of literature, largely because it’s so simple an idea: if superheroes were real, really real, what would they be like?


    They would be insane.

    Rorschach: all the Batman, none of the money.

    ‘Watchmen’ takes a bunch of recognisable superheroic archetypes, and gives each one a chapter in the novel to show us how utterly, horribly, irredeemably awful it would be to be a superhero. Batman’s a dysfunctional homeless man who hates all women and breaks into his only friend’s house to steal his delicious uncooked beans. Superman’s a naked god who isn’t interested in saving the world or wearing clothes because what would be the point of either? Wonder Woman’s relationship with her pushy stage-mother can be described as ‘exhausted’ at best and ‘murderous’ at worst.

    Through these characters, the standard superhero story is deconstructed: taken apart by very simply asking: what would happen if this was real? And the thing that makes ‘Watchmen’ so good is that it focuses not on exploring things (like how the cyborg body parts work, or how Doctor Manhattan’s phallus generates a low energy wang pulse) but on exploring people: on the effect crimefighting like that would actually have on you.

    I love deconstructions, because what they do is they take plot holes, and follow them through logically. They ask ‘Why is this so?’ and build a story from that, often revealing interesting things along the way.

    Look at ‘Toy Story 3’; in many ways, it deconstructs much of ‘Toy Story’ itself. It follows through on that horrible question ‘But what happens when Andy grows up?’

    Exterminatus, apparently. Exterminatus, and Guy Love: it's just love, between two guys.

    You see, to the creative mind, a plot hole isn’t a hole. It’s a hook.

    Crisis And Opportunity Are The Same Word In Chinese; Helmet and Forehead Are The Same Word In High Gothic

    There are many, many plot holes in 40K. Pointing them out is a favoured part of the hobby amongst those weary hipster-40K fans.

    ‘Why don’t Space Marine Sergeants wear helmets? I mean, I know it’s so I can tell them apart on the tabletop, but really? It just annoys me. It’s so unrealistic.’

    Pictured: a terrifying vision of the dark future.


    You hear that word used a lot.

    So what I’m going to do it look at the fact that Astartes sergeants don’t have helmets, because I think it illustrates the idea I’m trying to get across perfectly: that we should all stop complaining so much about ‘realism’, or telling people ‘just ignore it’, and instead concentrate on embracing the sheer creative joy that is such a central part of this insane little hobby of ours. Instead of complaining, we’re going to create. I put it to you, that our hobby would be improved if, instead of nitpicking, we engaged in a little bit of intellectual and narrative polyfiller.


    Well, I'm going to take a single example, and hopefully use that as illustrative of the theory. After a bit of thought about which plot hole might be the best, I've settled on the fact that every marine sergeant model ever photographed by GW is sans helmet; we’re going to assume that that's a deliberate thing, because honestly? A lot of the fluff suggests it is. That Astartes sergeants don’t normally wear their helmets; that, in fact, they go to battle with them off, exactly as the model suggests, rather than saying ‘Oh he’s just taken it off for a bit’. That being a balding, helmetless acromegaly sufferer with an oversized head is actually a core part of Astartes combat doctrine.

    Pictured: wrongness.

    Now we’ve made that core assumption, there is a simple question: why? Why on Earth would anyone want to take off a combination gasmask/thermal/IR/UV/EM visor, not to mention the only thing which saves you from turning into Hans The Human Headshot as your chromedome bounces around, reflecting the glorious sun for every sniper and her brother to ping bullets off of until your skull collapses into so much chum?

    Why would any trained, professional soldier do this? Worse, why would any genetic super-soldier do so? It runs completely counter to common sense.

    I’d like you to watch this clip now. I’ll wait here until you’re done.

    Pictured: I… Wait. What? I… WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?!!

    No, seriously: WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?!!

    Culture, my friends. Culture is what’s going on here.

    You just watched a small excerpt from a Korean baseball game. And the thing is, this all actually makes perfect sense.

    If you know the background.

    You see, the gentleman who got hit is, in his homeland, a notorious trouble maker when it comes to the sport. This was a charity match, but, being something of an egotist, he decided to make it look like he wanted a fight with the pitcher. However the pitcher, well aware of his reputation, quickly realised he was being set up, and so did the only logical thing: he decided to fight fire with marshmallows. Instead of fighting the would-be braggard, and getting himself into all manner of trouble, he instead elected to utterly ridicule the very idea of a fight, and take the mickey out of his would-be assailant, by starting to play a game that Koreans play when they are at primary school: it’s called chicken-fighting, and involves standing on one foot and 'fighting' until someone falls down and loses. By doing this, he first avoids a real fight, and secondly, roundly humiliates his opponent, who has no choice but to join in.

    At first, the other players run over to stop a fight, but the moment they see the would-be victim’s elegant humiliation of his attacker, they do what every jock in history has done when confronted with something ridiculous: they join in the stupidity, because the day a jock turns down a chance for fun is the day Satan goes to work in a snow-plough.

    Culture. From the outside, denied those all important cultural touchstones, we’re Captain America fresh out of the ice. But when we’ve grown up inside it, lived it all our life?

    So why don’t Astartes sergeants wear helmets? Is it some great tactical choice? Do they have adamantium skulls? Do they just like showing off their slap heads?

    No. It’s part of their culture.

    Characteristic Number Four.

    The thing about the Imperium, is that it’s a fascist government all the way down to its corpse-Emperor flavoured core (and yes, I am planning another article on the Imperium’s fascism some day…) A sociologist called Dr. Lawrence Britt identified fourteen characteristics we can use to identify if a society is truly fascist or not. Number four is the one that matters here:

    4. Supremacy of the Military - Even when there are widespread domestic problems, the military is given a disproportionate amount of government funding, and the domestic agenda is neglected. Soldiers and military service are glamorized.

    Pictured: being in the military makes you cool. QED, this is cool.

    Fascists love the idea of the military. Makes sense really; fascism is a governmental system driven almost entirely by an engine of runaway, imagined terror, and a simple way to overcome fear is through strength – if you perceive yourself to be stronger than the thing you imagine will attack you, you’ll be less afraid.

    So runs the logic.

    The thing is, the Imperium is utterly justified in its brown-trouseredness. Literally everything is trying to kill its citizens, from ancient space robots to ninja pirate space elves to sentient black holes. The Imperium is fascist because honestly? Fear is the appropriate response.

    The thing is, look at the last word in the last sentence of characteristic number four, because that’s the one that matters. ‘Glamorized’. As in appearance. In a fascist regime, it’s not enough to be a soldier. It’s not enough to be competent or professional. Oh heavens, no. No, you have to look good while you’re doing it too. There’s a reason Hitler hired Hugo Boss to design those uniforms – the ones that scream ‘faceless monsters of pure human hatred’ so effectively that every third FPS uses them as inspiration for the endless waves of faceless baddies you end up gunning down.

    Pictured: Por Homme. Hugo Boss

    As it is in the real world, so it is in 40K (which, let’s not kid ourselves, rips off literally everything in the real world ever. You know, before running it through the GRIMDARK blender.) The Astartes have to demonstrate not just competence, but the appearance of competence. They have to live their lives as an example of Imperial strength at all times. They’re walking, talking propaganda posters. Want the proof?

    Pictured: KNEEL BEFORE ZOD.

    Look at that. That animation was programmed into the frankly excellent ‘Space Marine’ computer game to make it absolutely clear how Space Marines are perceived by the Imperium as a whole. Not as mere soldiers, but as literal angels. Actual angels of death, sent by the Emperor to slay his enemies. To the common ruck of humanity, that’s not hyperbole: that’s what they’re told in church.

    Of course, Brother-Captain Tiberius Redshirt knows full well he’s only toughness four with a three up, because he’s no idiot. But he’s got a job to do, and part of that job is looking like the literal embodiment of the Emperor’s Divine Retribution, irregardless of whether you paid the points for his Artificier Armour or not.

    A helmet is impersonal. That’s why his men wear it; they embody the Chapter. Brothers both literally and metaphorically, they march as one, so they need to look like alike – uniform, faceless, identical.

    But him? He’s the face of the Chapter. So his helmet comes off for two reasons. First, it sends a very clear message:

    I am not afraid of you.

    Second - and in an idea perhaps more 'alien' to us than some Xenos cultures - he leaves it off for religious reasons. The insane Chapter cults that the Astartes follow are all predicated around inculcating the purest hatred imaginable. The evidence for this is everywhere, but was made most spectacularly manifest with the naming of the old Chaplain rule 'Litanies of Hate'. Marines are taught from their inception that hatred is not only desirable, but natural. To hate is the normal way of things. So why take the helmet off?

    Because they want you to look in their eyes while you die.

    Because it is important that you, as their enemy, know in your last moments: this is personal to me. Your life? Your deeds? Your entire existence? These things are nothing more to me than a personal insult.

    You offend me by simply being.

    Astartes are NOT modern soldiers. To apply modern military doctrine to a collection of fanatically religious, genetically-engineered supersoldiers with Chapter histories older than current recorded history, whose idea of a retirement plan is to be sealed into a house-sized coffin armed with a gatling gun and a rocket launcher because being dead makes them a more efficient killer?

    That’s a crazy idea.

    And that’s before we even get to the fact that Reality Is Unrealistic.

    Delusions of Competence

    We all think we’re roughly 98% more competent than we actually are. Everyone knows what they’d do in a fire. If the alarm goes off, they’ll be fine. They know what to do.

    Except they don’t. There was a fire on the London Tube back when I was a teenager. Awful state of affairs. Many people died. Why?

    They literally walked into the fire.

    I kid you not. Did British Rail try to stop them? Oh you better believe they did. They had guards on the escalators, barriers in the way, the whole shebang. What happened? People just pushed past them, mostly making snidely patronising comments about how ‘I pay your wages’.

    All those people died, in their grey-suited righteousness.

    Then there’s that science lesson I was in at school; the fire bell rang, and we all started getting up.

    “Sit down!”

    “But sir, the fire alarm…”

    “Ignore it. We haven’t been told anything about a fire drill today.”

    This from a man with two Master’s level degrees.

    We all think we’re more clever than we are; that we’d know how we’d react. The simple truth is this: no, you don’t. You just don’t. And that thought is a scary one; the idea that we’re powerless is a terrifying thing, so people ignore it, preferring the comfort of their unfounded assumptions about how they’re the coolest ever.

    Even now, how many of us are giggling a little at the anecdotes I quoted, thinking ‘That’d never happen to me?’ Are you sure? Think of your workplace, and then think which door you’d leave by. Because if that’s not the fire door, you’re possibly dead. Most people don’t leave by the fire door in an emergency; they tend to leave by the door they came in through. These doors quickly become metaphorical choke points, just before they become literal ones, and everyone dies of smoke inhalation. And that advice about taking the stairs, because those are safer than the lifts? In a tall enough building, those ‘safe’ stairs become perfect smoke stacks, funnelling all manner of toxic fumes right where everyone’s going to be. Once again, everyone dies. If your building’s tall enough, then it’s actually safer to stay on the topmost floor and just wait to be rescued.

    I know all of these facts and many more from a friend who worked in the fire service for fifteen years. He had a very low opinion of human competence, based largely on the silly, avoidable mistakes we make when confronted with something we know nothing about and have no experience of. It was made very clear to me that I had no idea how fire worked, how evacuations functioned and that in an emergency? I'd be deader than GW's Specialist Games systems. We all assume we have all kinds of knowledge, but as a species, we're actually pretty bad at understanding things we have no knowledge of. And I'm not singling myself out here as somehow cleverer; quite the opposite. I'm just as much of a blithering idiot as anyone when it comes to things outside my own, extremely limited, realm of experience.

    So why am I drawing attention to this?

    Because the ‘You wouldn’t do that!’ argument, used as a simple proof that Astartes sergeants wouldn’t wear helmets? It comes from the same sort of place. It comes from a place that assumes an Astartes thinks much like we do. That an Astartes, who has probably grown up on a feral planet and known a life of little beyond violence, taken in and surgically altered, given more organs than he knows what to do with, implanted and mutilated and brain-melted in so many different ways, then told he’s never going to have a girlfriend ever, but he is going to have more testosterone than he knows what to do with… You’re assuming that guy, the peerless warrior over two centuries old, so used to firing his fully automatic rocket launcher while wearing a mobile tank… That guy is going to worry about a bullet to the face?

    Oh, it’ll kill him, sure. But is he going to worry about that? Or will he have imagined his death a hundred thousand times, to the point where he literally has no fear of it at all, because all that means is he gets the aforementioned Death Coffin Of Awesome for a body, so he can kill heretics forever?

    Death isn’t a problem for a true Astartes. It’s a bloody promotion. Not to mention, you live forever through your gene-seed. So death? Death is nothing. ATSKNF is more than a clumsy abbreviation; it’s a statement of a literal truth. If you say Astartes should wear helmets because of logic or rational thought, you should remember one key factor:

    You are not an Astartes.

    They are not like us. And so it is a mistake to apply our thought processes to theirs.

    As a final note when thinking about how, apparently, everyone always does whatever is in their own best interests, consider the TV show ‘Person of Interest’. In season 1, the show assumed blanket surveillance of the entire United States by the government, with every message, email and communication being cross-referenced and correlated by a possibly-malevolent government organisation which used that information to conduct extra-judicial killings.

    Pictured: why you should be watching ‘Person of Interest’. I’m serious, why are you here reading this? Go watch it!

    Many characters in that show spoke about how ‘If the public knows, there will be outcry. Hearing, examinations, all kinds of problems.’ Then Snowden happened, and it turned out that ‘Person of Interest’ went from sci-fi to prescient warning. And what did the show’s creators have to say?

    ‘The only thing we got wrong was the reaction. We thought people would be appalled by this infringement of their privacy. Turns out no-one cared.’

    Competence is an alluring illusion, but it’s not real; that’s just as valid a truth for 40K as it is for the real world.

    So What Is The Point Of All This?

    Simple really. The next time you see something 40K-related that doesn’t make sense to you but which is canon anyway, instead of complaining, do what Alan Moore does.

    Ask: 'Well, why?' If the answer isn’t technological, or seems to contravene common sense, then what is it in the game universe’s various cultures than means the thing which annoys you is just so? Once you stop seeing 40K from the point of view of an outsider looking in, and start seeing it from an insider looking across, does the previously crazy thing start making sense?

    If not, can you find a way to make it?

    Wargaming is a hobby like no other, with a wider scope for creativity than literally almost any other. Let’s start living up to that as a community, let’s use those minds to create something better, instead of getting lost in nitpicky nonsense that risks making us all feel silly for ever liking something so apparently stupid.
    Last edited by YorkNecromancer; 03-03-2015 at 03:28 PM.

  2. #2


    Expect this to end up on the front page within the next seven days.

    Also, I feel compelled to point out that some Chapters do do things the way we'd consider "sensible." Raptors, for one.
    Last edited by Houghten; 02-27-2015 at 08:10 PM.

  3. #3


    Also, I feel compelled to point out that some Chapters do do things the way we'd consider "sensible." Raptors, for one.
    Oh, indeed. They also get the coolest Chapter Tactics because of that. But they're very much the exception, and not the rule, yes? If they weren't the exception, we wouldn't notice them for it.

  4. #4


    "This helmet, I suppose,
    Was meant to ward off blows,
    It's very hot,
    And weighs a lot,
    As many a guardsman knows,
    So off that helmet goes!"
    —Arac, Princess Ida

  5. #5


    I remember reading in one of the Black Library novels that Space Wolves don't wear their helmets because the sensors and pick ups in them are hugely inferior to their own natural senses. But in practice, I think it has more to do with why you never see Bikies (Hell's Angels style) wearing the closed-face helmets favoured by most motorcyclists: (1) It looks way more badass when you've got shades and a glorious beard flapping in the breeze; (2) said beard would be itchy as all hell smooshed up into one of those helmets.

    Great write up, Yorkie, I can see that like many of us, you have put way too much time and effort into thinking about something that has little or no consequence or bearing on the realities of this little game we play, let alone the real world. I, for one, commend you for your efforts. And you can bet I will click on and read this again in a couple of days when it pops up on the front page.
    There are no wolves on Fenris. Except that one... and that one.

  6. #6


    You offend me by simply being.
    I think this is my favorite part of the Imperium of Man. All xenos must die.

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Aug 2009
    Norfolk (God's County)


    You wrote this for the front page didn't you... I hope all your marking is done.

    But there is only one problem, and that is the canon is that they wear their helmets the utmost vast majority of the time. I am not aware (I am prepared to eat humble pie from an appropriately referenced source) that space marine sergeants are renowned for not wearing helmets in the canon.

    I thought this was just a quirk of the miniatures which I mostly ignore because of your most excellent point - that genetically engineered super soldiers do not increase their vulnerability, and as to propaganda, the faceless fear they cause - a continuous theme in HH novels, is probably more effective to the target audience you suggest.

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Nov 2011
    The Phalanx


    Thoroughly enjoyed reading that, some great points. Well done!
    Either there is life in the universe more intelligent than us, or we are the most intelligent form of life in the universe. Either way, it's a worrying thought!

  9. #9


    Not just the facelessness thing, also forgot to mention how leaving your helmet off can be a logical exchange in 'Deathwatch', where it gains you +10 Fellowship (because your team are inspired by your courage).

    Which, now I think of it, is kind of the mathematical proof of the 'walking propaganda' thing...

  10. #10


    But there is only one problem, and that is the canon is that they wear their helmets the utmost vast majority of the time. I am not aware (I am prepared to eat humble pie from an appropriately referenced source) that space marine sergeants are renowned for not wearing helmets in the canon.
    There are many sources for some individuals who do not use their helmets.
    We could name Uriel Ventris, Ragnar Blackmane (Space Wolves as a whole are reknown for hateing the helmets) and counless other vet sergants across all BL publications. In the Night Lords Books for example when they were boarded by the Genesis Chapter there was a Sergant without a helmet,...


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