Review – Pandorax

Review – Pandorax

I recently read two Warhammer 40,000 novels, Pandorax by C.Z. Dunn, and The Horusian Wars: Resurrection, by John French. The Black Library is often a gamble in terms of quality, particularly when you’re trying something by an author you’ve not read before. Both of these authors were new to me (aside from a John French short story I’ve read, but can’t quite remember, from an anthology).

Today, I’m going to do Pandorax. I’ll have a go at Resurrection on another day because I got carried away writing this and ran out of time.

One of these books is a great example of how to do a tie-in novel. The other is a great example of how not to do a tie-in novel.

This is a review of the latter.

 

Pandorax (C. Z. Dunn, 2013)

Pandorax is one of the Space Marine Battles series of books, which is a series I’ve dodged because it sounds as if someone at the Black Library said, “You know how everyone criticises our Space Marine novels as being bolter-porn? Well, what if we do a series that’s entirely bolter-porn?” That might be unfair. Like I say, I’ve avoided the Space Marine Battles series.

As well as being part of a series of books that doesn’t inspire confidence in those seeking good plot and characterisation, Pandorax is also a tie-in to the Apocalypse War Zone: Pandorax setting book for the 40k wargame’s ‘buy as many cool models as possible, line them all up in their deployment zones, and then remove most of them in turn one’ Apocalypse variant. (Back in my day, if you really wanted Titans and aircraft and tank companies on the battlefield, you played in 6mm epic-scale and actually had space on the tabletop to manoeuvre your troops.) In other words, Pandorax is one of those Black Library novels that, rather than just trying to sell the wargame setting in general, is specifically milking a recent release.

Those were my two main concerns going into the book: Battle Bro bolter-fests and ‘If you enjoyed this novel, maybe remortgage your house for this other book and loads of plastic soldiers and tanks.’ The former wasn’t so much of a hindrance to the story. The latter… was.

Pandorax starts out from the points of view of some Catachan Jungle Fighters and a reasonably nicely-drawn Inquisitorial retinue. (One of them is a traitor. Slight spoiler: it’s the one who’s a horrible person… Really? That’s the one the author picked? In the Inquisition, you shouldn’t beware the nice ones?) I really liked this segment of the story. There was a nice exploration of Catachan culture that I personally haven’t seen before, as well as a characterful depiction of the deathworld of Pythos. (Confusingly, and in contradiction to most systems portrayed in Warhammer 40,000, the Pandorax system and its primary inhabited world have completely different names.)

Things happen, Chaos turns up, someone turns traitor, and Rambo-style Catachan badassery ensues. This section of the story went well, although the abilities of the Catachans seems overstated. When Gaunt’s Ghosts go up against traitor Marines in Dan Abnett’s work, it’s always an effort to take down a single one of the superhumans. Here, Plague Marines fall like Star Wars stormtroopers, having apparently forgotten that they have enhanced hearing and centuries of combat experience. Catachans are badass guerilla warriors, but they’re still only human. They shouldn’t be slaughtering Astartes quite so easily, or silently.

Anyway, once Chaos arrives, the plot becomes a race to get the Inquisitorial team’s astropath to the capital so that they can send a request for reinforcements off-world, all of Pythos’ astropaths having been killed by sorcery early in the invasion. (I would remark on how contrived it was that they had an astropath on their team, but it’s a pretty common trope of the setting that Inquisitors like to have their own private psychic emailer.)

During this section, we spend a lot of time with Inquisitorial agent Tzula Digriiz (a black female protagonist – how often do you see those in science fiction, let alone Games Workshop science fiction?) and Colonel ‘Death’ Strike of the 183rd Catachan Regiment and various of their comrades and companions.

Tzula is a nice character. And by nice, I mean she’s actually a good guy. She’s a professional thief recruited to the Inquisition, but as much as I like her, she doesn’t feel like a member of an organisation that has the legal right and ability to commit genocide against its own side if it’s in the best interests of the Imperium. She possesses the McGuffin upon which the entire story hinges. She also gets a pretty good payoff at the end of the story, and (without spoilering) I think she’s the best Inquisition agent for that job. Certainly, she’d never make a good Inquisitor anyway.

Colonel ‘Death’ Strike’s main defining characteristic is that he has a goddamn stupid nickname, which he got early in his career, because the only thing those who fight against him have to hope for is… death. Really? Seriously? Who wrote this, a 12-year-old who thought he was being cool? Of the millions of soldiers that Catachan has given to the Imperium, he’s the one who gets the nickname of ‘Death’? Or is there a guy called ‘Death’ in every other squad, who fights alongside ‘Killer’ and ‘Knifeman’ and ‘Shadow Stalker’ and ‘Two Guns’ (who fights with two guns akimbo because it’s cool)? He doesn’t have much else in the way of personality, beyond being a kind commander who looks after his men. Unfortunately, this is an Apocalypse tie-in, so even when he’s leading a guerilla war against the invaders, he’s doing it with the most un-Catachanny of fighting methods, a super-heavy tank. A goddamn tank the size of a building, that can be heard from a mile away, is armed with ordnance that can be heard from even further, and is available as a plastic kit from Games Workshop. There is a nice touch that the Inquisitorial team included a Jokaero alien, who falls in love with the tank and starts tinkering with it. Unfortunately, the author gets carried away and decides that Jokaero abilities are so awesome (to be fair, they are, but not this awesome) that a tank that normally moves at 20-30 miles per hour is suddenly capable of 200 miles per hour. This is on a jungle deathworld not noted for its road network.

I’ve just realised… ‘Death’ Strike isn’t a character in the grimdark of Warhammer 40,000. He’s a supporting character from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

The good guy Space Marines, around whom the entire Battles series is based, don’t actually show up until reasonably late in the story, but when they do, it’s in the form of the entire Dark Angels Chapter, all one thousand of them, and a bunch of Grey Knights. Because all the Dark Angels are there, that means all the named characters from the tabletop game are there, along with Dark Angels characters from other novels. Also, Supreme Grand Master Azrael is an arse. He’s a complete and utter arse. Some reviews I’ve seen of this book don’t like that revelation. I don’t know if it marries up with other portrayals of the character in other books, but I like that one of our shining heroes of the Imperium, available from Games Workshop Mail Order, complete with Watcher in the Dark Helmet Bearer(tm), is a git. The supreme boss guy of the Grey Knights turns up as well, and there’s a bit of friction because the Grey Knights don’t trust the Dark Angels and the Dark Angels are scared that the Grey Knights will find out their secrets. (Spoiler: they already know.)

It’s around the time of the Space Marines arriving that the story on Pythos ceases to be interesting. Oh look, Abaddon and Huron Blackheart are sort-of allies. That’s nice, but has no real bearing on events. As much as I like the Red Corsairs, Huron could have been left out of the story. Everything he provides to Abaddon is something that Abaddon could plausibly have already had in his arsenal.

This being an Apocalypse and Space Marine Battles tie-in, everything degenerates into massive battles. Even the finale of the story takes place in the middle of a pitched battle of hundreds of thousands of combatants. There are two problems with this.

Firstly, the author can’t really write large battles (even if the smaller guerilla actions of the early book were pretty decent). They all seem to be Hollywood-style, in which two armies line up and attack each other until one side is wiped out. And yet, despite the vast amount of ordnance and the tightly packed bodies of the troops, named characters are still running around and not being blown to pieces. It turns out that even the sneak thief Tzula is such a badass that she can run around alongside Space Marines and not get hacked to bits by the kinds of things they face.

Secondly, and most egregiously, the large battles scream, “WE ARE GAMES WORKSHOP AND YOU MUST BUY OUR MODELS!!!!” Every hideous daemon that materialises from the Warp, despite the infinite variety of Chaos, is one of those found in the Codex: Chaos Daemons army list. Every Imperial vehicle is named by its model name, rather than by its general type (e.g. ‘Leman Russ Demolisher’ rather than ‘siege tank’). Every single Space Marine squad is available as a boxed set. Every single regiment of Imperial Guardsmen present on Pythos has a model range behind it. How boring. Characters do reference other regiments that aren’t in the order of battle, but they also have model ranges. In the million worlds of the Imperium, our characters only know the ones whose tithed troops are for sale in your local Games Workshop store? All of the large battles seem to have been written with the primary aim of being scenarios for apocalypse-scale games of Warhammer 40,000.

Aside from the plot and merchandising, the actual writing style of the novel was pretty poor. It wasn’t as bad as, say, Twilight or anything by Dan Brown, but I was still halting after reading sentences and thinking about how I could have written that sentence so much better. There were cool things that happened that were utterly ridiculous, even within the heroic grimdark of 40k.

Here’s an example: one of the defining character moments of Shira, a viewpoint character who’s a hotshot space fighter pilot, is when she deliberately sets of a sonic boom in a hangar bay because she’s annoyed at the officer who reprimanded her for not wearing regulation uniform and then sentenced her to a fortnight in the brig when she comes back from the mission she’s about to go on. She’s a maverick, see, who plays by her own rules and won’t let anyone tell her… wait, what? This is the Imperial Navy. She just caused severe damage to a launch bay on one of the God-Emperor’s own voidships, as well as to the hearing of every person in the immediate vicinity. While they’re engaged in battle. That fortnight in the brig should have been escalated to immediate summary execution and no one in-setting would have batted an eyelid.

(Disclaimer: I’m an unpublished author, bitterly so at times, and it bugs me to read prose that is inferior to my own.)

Fortunately, everyone who knew that Shira is a saboteur and traitor dies shortly afterwards, so the author gets to keep her in the story.

I mentioned diversity earlier. She’s part of the gender diversity of the characters. There are a few others, including passing references to female soldiers among the Catachans. I have a big issue with the racial and gender issues in Games Workshop’s settings (I’ve ranted about it before – though apparently not on this blog). The Black Library is getting a lot better at gender balancing its casts, so long as you ignore Space Marines, who are canonically all male, but every time they do a good job, it throws the actual miniature ranges into stark relief. There have probably been less than a dozen female Imperial Guard models released by Games Workshop in the past thirty years, and yet the Black Library regularly includes women amongst the Imperial Guard’s ranks. And as for the new Primaris range of Space Marines missing the opportunity for female Astartes…

Anyway, I’ll grant Pandorax the credit that my initial recommender gave it for diversity, but overall, it’s still an example of how not to write a tie-in novel. The Black Library has released several series of novels that are amazing. The Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd Edition tie-ins were great, as were The Ambassador Chronicles. The Eisenhorn trilogy is still one of my favourites, such that I recently bought the 15th anniversary special editions. The Gaunt’s Ghosts and Ciaphas Cain series are rightly renowned amongst Black Library fans, and the epic Horus Heresy series has thrown us some amazing tales of tragedy from Dan Abnett, Aaron Dembski-Bowden and others (although with a few stinkers from other authors, to be fair). Sadly, this isn’t one of the Black Library’s high points. Although it has its moments, it feels like it was written to order with the instruction to include a checklist of canon characters, events and products. There’s nothing wrong with writing to order, but the finished product shouldn’t feel like it was written to order.

It’s a good job that I’ve given up on ever being published by Games Workshop because C.Z. Dunn, author of Pandorax, is actually one of the Black Library’s senior editors…

 

Fantasy Worldbuilding: Why Khorne Should Die

Fantasy Worldbuilding: Why Khorne Should Die

I’ve been thinking recently about the way that gods of war turn up in miniature wargaming settings, and why that’s often a pretty bad idea. (This article is geared towards the needs of a miniature wargame setting, but may provide food for thought for aspiring fantasy authors and roleplayers as well.)

Most fantasy worlds are polytheistic, usually with actual literal deities involved. Why? Because polytheism’s different from our own traditionally monotheistic culture, and so it’s exotic and interesting. Add in the needs of a wargame and you’ve got another layer: variety.

Religion is a great way of a) theming an army of little plastic or metal soldiers, and b) a great excuse to pit against another army of little plastic or metal soldiers. It’s simpler than coming up with complex socio-economic or political reasons why Faction A is fighting against Faction B. This is particularly the case with bad guys. Fantasy loves its evil gods as a motivation for why a particular faction consistently does horrible things. “Yes, I shall ravage your cities and put all your people to the sword because we’d quite like a bit more land on which to graze our cattle, muwahahahahaaaa!” isn’t exactly the most villainous proclamation ever.

Going back to the title, Why Khorne Should Die, the four Chaos Powers of the Warhammer settings are essentially avatars of humanity’s dark primal instincts. In the case of Khorne, it’s war, anger, rage and assorted other reasons to hit someone with an axe. As such, the followers of Khorne are generally warriors. So far, so good.

However, Tzeentch, the Chaos god of change, magic, mutation, and the entropic impermanence of everything also exists, and (because this is a wargame) has to have its own armies.

Likewise, Nurgle, who specialises in disease, decay and mortality, and Slaanesh, who deals in sex, drugs and rock and roll, both reflect aspects related to stuff other than straight-up hack-and-slash bloodshed, and yet (because this is a wargame) have to have their own armies.

In a roleplaying setting (which exists in the currently out-of-print Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and the five Warhammer 40,000 RPG lines), this varied approach to evil can be reflected in very different ways: Nurgle cultists poison wells or break plague quarantines, Tzeentchian sorcerers summon daemons or cause babies to be born with mutations, and servants of Slaanesh tempt the devout into sin and debauchery.

On the battlefield though, it essentially boils down to killing stuff. You can add flavours to it, through the use of themed magic spells or Nurgle biological weapons or special rules or signature units for each god, but ultimately each Chaos Power looks pretty similar on the field.

A certain logical flaw with all this came to mind when I was painting my fallen dwarf army for Dragon Rampant recently. The general gist of the army is that this dwarven clan had started praying to certain ‘Deep Gods’ who were remarkably similar to the Warhammer Chaos Powers, and were a nasty, corrupt society as a result. Every now and then, I’ve painted a mark of Chaos onto a model’s armour, shield or as a tattoo. However, this was almost always the Mark of Khorne. The only exceptions are for the army sorcerers, who bear the Mark of Tzeentch. Nurgle and Slaanesh didn’t get a look in, because there were no appropriate models for it. Why not?

Because they’re soldiers. These models are soldiers who are on campaign. They live in a polytheistic society and so the primary subject of their devotion at the moment is to the god that helps them kill stuff. Maybe when the soldier goes home, takes off his helmet, and decides to start a family, he’ll pray to Slaanesh that he’ll be good at it, to Tzeentch that he can create new life, and to Nurgle that the child is healthy, but for now, he just wants to not die on the battlefield.

Even if you argue that many or most Chaos worshippers are full-time devotees of a particular god, that counts against armies of Slaanesh, Tzeentch and Nurgle being a thing. Chaos tends to fight among itself as much as against other factions, and Khorne, specialising in warfare, would stamp out any uppity followers of the other powers because that’s just the kind of people they are. Dedicated warriors of Khorne don’t sit down and read books or experiment with heroin or deliberately infect themselves with plague as part of their religious devotions; they slaughter people. As such, they’re better at it. If you wanted to fight for the rest of your life as a warrior of Chaos, you’d devote yourself to Khorne, because that deity more represents the kind of monster that you are.

As a result, Khorne is the one with the best armies. But they’re really, really, boring armies. Nurgle gets biological weapons, Tzeentch gets its sorcerers and Slaanesh gets (in Warhammer 40,000 at least) heavy metal sonic weaponry. Khorne gets axes. That’s it. The bigger the warrior, the bigger the axe. Maybe a mace if his name’s ‘Skullcrush Hammerblow’. Khorne is boring.

So, if Khorne’s armies are both boring and dominant among the Chaos Powers, what happens if we remove Khorne from the equation, and the four Chaos Powers instead become three?

Chaos-infected society is still as violent as ever, because these are horrible, selfish individuals who hate and are hated by sane society. However, without a dedicated war god, religiously-inclined soldiers no longer have a better offer than the three Chaos Powers. The Unholy Trinity finally have Chaos warriors who aren’t just the also-rans who weren’t good enough for the proper Chaos armies, but are actual badasses. Also, those warriors who enjoy fighting? We’ve just found a selling point for Slaanesh that isn’t about desperately avoiding the implied problems Slaanesh worshippers have with consent. So, Slaanesh is now a new Khorne? No, because Slaanesh is far wider than just killing everything that annoys you.

(I actually have another article lined up about how I perceive Slaanesh, based on some comments I made on Tumblr. I’ll get to it at some point.)

This argument’s specifically about the Chaos Powers of the Warhammer settings, but the same general rule applies to any fantasy wargame setting. War gods might be cool (if you didn’t think that, you’d probably not be writing a fantasy wargame), but try leaving them out of your next setting.

An army of warriors is easy, but an army dedicated to the god of craftsmanship, or the god of trees, or herdsmen, or trade, or storms, or mining?

 

Wargaming: Xenos Rampant

Wargaming: Xenos Rampant

Hey, wait, what, you can insert documents into basic WordPress blogs?

Awesome. In that case, here’s Xenos Rampant – futuristic wargaming in Dragon Rampant v1 (opens as .pdf).

Xenos Rampant is an unofficial supplement to Daniel Mersey’s Dragon Rampant, published by Osprey Games. It is designed to allow platoon-level skirmishes in a more advanced historical setting than the official Rampant games. You could probably also play historical 20th-century games (the World Wars, for example) using these rules, or even in the present day, although they are intended for battles waged in a science fiction setting.

It should also be noted that the existence or involvement of aliens is not a required component in such a game; Xenos Rampant is just the coolest title I could think of, and certainly more evocative than my working title of Future Rampant. Also, Lasers Rampant was already taken…

As this is a supplement, rather than as a standalone game, assume that all rules in the Dragon Rampant rulebook apply to games of Xenos Rampant, except for where specifically tweaked in this document.

As a further note, like Dragon RampantXenos Rampant is setting-neutral. You can use models from any manufacturer or setting, in any scale. Personally, I’ve messed around with models from Warhammer 40,000, Warpath, Afterlife, Necromunda, Gorkamorka and various game-neutral ranges.

Obviously, as an unofficial fan supplement, this is a completely non-profit project. Furthermore, any feedback from players is more than welcome, and will be incorporated into the next version.

 

(The header image is a bunch of science fiction cultists – probably Light Infantry or Militia Rabble in Xenos Rampant – painted by myself. The models are Frostgrave soldier bodies, Frostgrave cultist heads and arms and guns from Victoria Miniatures.)

Wargaming -Retirement and the Imperium

Wargaming -Retirement and the Imperium

Yes, it’s another semi-speculative article about the Warhammer 40,000 setting. Skip it if that makes your brain bleed.

A commonly-cited Imperial axiom is: ‘Only in death does duty end.’

This is often taken to mean that Imperial service is like the Mafia: once you’re in, you’re in for life. I feel it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Someone on the 40k For Grown Ups Facebook group asked if anyone retired in the Imperium and I started typing:

Commissar Yarrick retired once. It didn’t stick.

But yes, some parts of the Imperium almost certainly do allow retirement, if you live long enough to enter it.

After all, it’s a waste of valuable materiel to put a lasgun into the hands of a half-blind, arthritic, Dad’s Army soldier, when there are a new generation of Imperial Guardsmen just waiting to replace him. The Munitorum knows better than that. According to the Rogue Trader RPG, when discussing the immense level of redundancy amongst the crew of Imperial Navy ships, people are the biggest resource advantage that the Imperium has over pretty much every xenos species out there. As such, it is possible to discharge soldiers who are no longer combat-effective.

Also, the promise of retirement is a great incentive to do an awful job for awful pay. The Imperium’s had ten millennia to realise that faith in the Emperor might be fine and dandy for the fanatics, but the average Guardsman’s going to need something more tangible to look forward to.

Even when circumstances, casualty rates or poor resource management prevent the rank and file from ever retiring, officers almost certainly have that to look forward to. They’re often Imperial nobility, so they’ve got a place in society to go back to, as well as access to the funds to pay for their own passage there.

The same probably applies to officers in the Navy. The lower naval ranks probably informally retire into less strenuous roles than the labour-intensive duties most common on human voidships, or possibly even actual retirement within the bowels of the ship they call home, after training up their sons and daughters, and maybe later grandchildren, into the position in which they spent their life.

From a civilian angle, retirement almost certainly exists, although what sort of pension scheme awaits the unproductive elderly is more questionable. It should be noted though that workplace health and safety is horrifically poor in the Imperium: one of the Abnett novels makes mention of Administratum scribes having all sorts of face and neck tumours due to spending too long staring at unsafe cogitator screens. Life expectancy in the Imperium probably varies massively, and on some worlds or in some employment sectors, retirement might be nothing more than a dream.

There’s often mention in background (particularly in hive world societies) of semi-tribal work-crews where they’re as much family as they are colleagues. If that’s the case, they’d look after their elderly and infirm (unless the elderly go full-Eskimo Days and wander off into the ash wastes to avoid becoming a burden), and in return the elderly and infirm will look after the young and helpless, thus strengthening their society.

‘Only in death does duty end’ probably shouldn’t be taken too literally. A retired Guardsman can serve by growing crops to feed the next generation of Guardsmen, or by looking after the children of those who work in factories supporting the Imperium’s eternal war effort. A retired Inquisitor can serve by writing his or her memoirs, for the information and education of future Inquisitors and other Imperial servants (for example, Ravenor’s works are renowned by the characters in any stories written by Dan Abnett in the past decade).

That said, there are probably societies that execute those that can no longer serve, because the Imperium sucks as a society.

Finally, no, Space Marines don’t retire. Astartes don’t age at anything like the rate that humans do. Usually, Space Marines die in battle. Those that avoid dying are either still in tip-top working order and thus continue to serve on the front lines, or are so belaboured by old battle wounds that they become instructors for future generations of aspirants.

Wargaming – Why do all renegade Space Marines turn to Chaos?

Wargaming – Why do all renegade Space Marines turn to Chaos?

Here’s another bit of nerdiness for you. Skip it if the psychology of little plastic posthumans isn’t your thing. (Originally posted on my semi-defunct Tumblr some time ago.)

One of the assumptions that occurs in the Warhammer 40,000 Imperium is that everyone who turns away from the Emperor’s Light automatically falls to Chaos. This is at least partially because the wargame tends to divide human factions down the middle: Imperial and Chaos. If you want little human soldiers on your tabletop, they’re waving banners with the double-headed eagle or the eight-pointed star.

As ever, the setting’s deeper than that. There are many places that an Imperial citizen can go if they don’t want to be a part of Imperial society: Canonically, you’ve got mentions of your xenos-loving Tau sympathisers, you’ve got the various rebel enclaves that exist (even if just until the Imperium gets around to stamping on them) and you’ve got human empires that exist outside the Imperium’s borders, either due to a collapse of Imperial rule in a given area, or because the Imperium’s expansion since the Age of Strife has never actually reached them.

And then there’s Imperial society itself. You don’t have to be a loyal Imperial citizen to live in the Imperium. You don’t have to believe in the divinity of the God-Emperor of Mankind. You’ve just got to look like you do. So long as no one twigs that you don’t give a damn about a dead guy on Terra, and you go to chapel just enough that the preacher doesn’t get suspicious, you can exist as a quiet atheist for your entire life. (c.f. Christianity, heresy, and the casual nature of belief in many areas of medieval Europe, which is, of course, the analogue upon which the Imperium is built.)

Ever wondered where the mercenaries hired by the bad guys to kill an Inquisitor or an Abitrator or other representative of the Emperor come from in a theocratic setting? These are examples of Imperial citizens who don’t actually believe in the God-Emperor, or at least don’t associate it with the Imperial regime in the way that any ‘true’ Imperial citizen would do.

In short, humans are capable of not worshiping the Emperor without automatically embracing the Dark Gods.

Space Marines, though, they’re a different kettle of fish entirely. I think it’s supported in canon, although I can’t remember where it was written, if it is, but they have an inherent vulnerability to Chaos.

But the Adeptus Astartes are the paragons of humanity, the strongest in body and mind, right?

Not really.

Religious conversion tends to come along when everything in your life is falling apart. It’s a way of coping with trauma without going completely insane. This applies to Space Marines as well as it does you or I.

Humans can lose everything, but pick up the pieces and carry on. As already described, they can lose their faith in the Emperor quietly, without it ever affecting the rest of their lifestyle or sense of identity, and without feeling the need to turn to the Dark Gods. Astartes, though, are as inhuman in their minds as they are in their bodies.

They’re programmed from childhood through indoctrination and hypnosis to be obedient, to think of their Chapter, their primarch, their commanders and the Emperor above all other concerns. These are the anchors that hold Space Marines in loyalty to the Imperium.

When a Marine leaves his Chapter, for whatever reason, three of those four anchors are cut free. Only his love for the Emperor is left.

So long as that remains intact, I’d suggest that the renegade Space Marine will stay loyal to Imperial ideals, even if not to the Imperium itself. He will set himself up as a guardian for a remote colony, or set off on a combat-pilgrimage through a wartorn area, or hook up with the Inquisition or another Imperial body, or set himself a specific quest to fulfill his need to serve the Emperor without the usual chain of command to command him and support his emotional needs. (Yes, Marines have emotional needs, just like normal humans. They just tend to be a bit more combat-oriented than the average homo sapiens.) Potentially, entire Space Marine formations could go down this route without ever succumbing to the lure of Chaos. This is supported in canon in at least a couple of Black Library novels.

Most Space Marines don’t worship the Emperor as a god, possibly because their doctrines date back to the time of the atheistic Legions. If a Marine becomes disillusioned with the Imperium, he can blame the petty mortals that have corrupted it from the Emperor’s vision of the Great Crusade, and his loyalty to the Emperor remains intact and all is well and good.

Alternatively, he can blame the Emperor himself and decide that the Man In The Shiny Chair isn’t worthy of his loyalty. Similarly, if the Space Marine is from one of those Chapters that worships the Emperor with a religious devotion, there’s always the chance that, in the face of losing everything else in his life, he will also lose his faith.

Either way, that’s the fourth anchor gone. The Space Marine’s psychology drifts out of its safe harbour and into a storm.

However it happens, with that fourth anchor cut loose, the renegade Space Marine has nothing holding him to his old life within his Chapter. All of a sudden, there’s an emptiness within him that has never been there before. This is an emotional and psychological crisis that a Space Marine should never have to experience, and has no training or experience in how to cope; this is way beyond the scope of any doubts he may have expressed to his chaplains before his exile.

He needs a new anchor, something to keep his sanity in check. Something powerful, something that commands loyalty. Chaos is the most obvious one of those. He’s been trained from recruitment to hate Chaos, to revile the traitor and the heretic as being unworthy of life, and to fear the power that Chaos has over the weak-minded. However, the context of all this hatred is the binary opposition between the goodness of the Emperor and the evil of Chaos. The Emperor’s purity has already been violated in the renegade’s eyes, so how, in that case, can the renegade Marine continue to hate Chaos to quite the same degree as he once did?

It probably won’t happen overnight, it may take a hundred years or more, but that emptiness in the Space Marine’s soul needs filling somehow, and the Dark Gods are always out there, ready to accept his allegiance. His hatred fades to the point where Chaos simply doesn’t seem like the worst option.

And, the joy of this (from the point of view of a Chaos follower) is that it’s not the inherent weakness of humanity that turns Space Marines to Chaos. It’s the Imperium. The Imperium put this need for service and obedience into the Space Marine, and it’s that factor that leads to renegades falling to the dark side.

As is so often the case in Warhammer 40,000, the Imperium is a tragedy. It is its own obsessive need to keep the Astartes under control that spawns new enemies.

Wargaming – The End of the 41st Millennium?

Wargaming – The End of the 41st Millennium?

(Here’s another thing about me. I also play tabletop wargames and do some roleplaying. I am a nerd. Also, Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol sucks. It’s awful. It’s a truly dreadful book, and you will never, ever get to the end of my chapter-by-chapter critique of it, because I abandoned reading it – something I almost never do – and shoved it back in the recycling box at work for some other poor sap to endure. You may, if I feel cruel, get the notes I did make.)

Dave Kay at the Scent of a Gamer blog posted an article commenting on the current state of play in the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop miniature wargame. In summary, it’s becoming pretty clear that something big’s about to happen with the metaplot and, thusly, the shape of the game itself. Games Workshop, the publishers, did something very similar a few years ago with the Warhammer fantasy version of the game, after its sales kept falling. There’s no indication that that’s been happening with 40k, but there’s been a definite bounce in fantasy sales since it was re-released as Age of Sigmar.

Anyway, I posted an overlong comment on that article, so I figured I may as well post it here as well, for posterity. Here goes:

 

If they’re running a Warhammer-style End Times event (and it’s looking more and more likely, with such stalwarts as Fenris getting popped and the major strategic shift that is the fall of Cadia, plus the constant rumours of primarchs – Magnus never left, so he doesn’t count), I’m torn between what I’d like to see in the rebooted setting.

Both old Warhammer and 40k have beautifully detailed settings, that have been written about and fleshed out over decades. WFRP is my favourite roleplaying game, ahead of even Delta Green, Call of Cthulhu and Unknown Armies, and I’ve bought nearly every book from the 40k RPG ranges without actually running anything other than a few campaigns of Dark Heresy.

But what to expect from the new setting? Will it be an advance in the plotline, or a complete reimagining?

A few thoughts of my own:

1) Advancement in the plot – The Imperium has never been completely static. Even aside from the Horus Heresy, there have been ages of expansion and change: the Age of Apostasy and the crusades of Lord Solar Macharius, for example. If 40k is to emulate the ‘hope’ theme of Age of Sigmar, then it needs to start a new period of expansionism, rather than its current state of slow, but steady, crumbling under relentless assault from all sides and within. Both of the post-Heresy hope spots that I’ve mentioned featured some great hero, Sebastian Thor and Macharius, and I suspect if GW go down this route, that hero will arrive again, essentially as the Emperor reborn in the Sigmar-Valten kind of way (but hopefully without him allegedly being murdered by his own side, and the skaven possibly getting framed for it, as awesomely Warhammer-dark as that was).

2) Revert to the Horus Heresy – This is a massive, radical change, but GW have started taking Forgeworld’s niche idea for running Astartes-heavy games in a historical period for 40k and turned it into plastic. With the two Heresy-era board games, they’ve essentially released multiple plastic kits in their main game range, and even released the first ever models of the Sisters of Silence, and the first Adeptus Custodes since the 1980’s, for a spin-off written and produced by one of their subsidiary companies, which can’t even be used without buying Forgeworld products. We’ve already seen how the Deathwatch and Genestealers got a ‘trial run’ of sorts with Overkill, before the full weight of the GW machine was thrown behind them in full army releases. Yes, I know there’s a long, long lead-in time that overlapped, but sales would still have indicated how much promotional effort it would be worth putting behind the new armies, rather than publicising X other release instead. But it does seem that the Horus Heresy has captured imaginations. It’s the single-longest serialisation of novels that the Black Library have ever done, which then spawned several other ‘in-setting historical’ Black Library series, including the epic Beast series. Space Marines are, and always have been, the most popular single faction within the game, despite being a minuscule portion of the Imperium’s incredible military power. Meanwhile, the Horus Heresy is about a civil war executed largely by, and motivated by the egos, agendas and prejudices of, Space Marines. It’s not impossible to imagine that the next edition of Warhammer 40,000 embraces the power armour love and sets itself back to the 32nd Millennium, where the Imperium was a more optimistic place, and is struggling to maintain that optimism in the face of not only the increasingly-Chaos-tainted enemy, but also its own desperation-induced militarism. Existing Astartes models in Mk VII or VIII armour could be easily hand-waved by rewriting setting so that that style of armour did actually exist back then, but was rare, and not releasing new models in those style of armour. Imperial Guard models could be rolled into the Imperial Army without much difficulty. The Adeptus Mechanicus rolls even more easily into the Mechanicum. The difficulty with a Horus Heresy reset is that, without rewriting large swathes of the non-Imperial side of the setting (which isn’t impossible, of course), certain factions would either cease to exist or be difficult to include. The Eldar would be different, probably something that combines the Craftworld, Dark and other varieties into one faction – something touched upon in the article as being what happened during the Warhammer End Times – even if those different factions had varying ideologies about how to cope with the new horror of Slaanesh’s birth. The orks would continue as normal, and have the Beast to look forwards to as well. Necrons have always been there, and can be rewritten to be waking up then as well. The Tau? A harder sell, but there’s no reason why they can’t be shuffled back in time (metaphorically) and reaching their interstellar expansion era at the same time as the Great Crusade. Tyranids and Genestealers? Grey Knights and Deathwatch? Adepta Sororitas? (Sorry, ladies, but at least you got Celestine for the Time of Ending.) The setting could be rewritten. The Imperial Agents list could well become a proto-Inquisition, set up to deal with the newly-growing threat of Chaos. And Chaos? The Chaos Space Marines are simply late-Heresy rebels who’ve given themselves over to The Eightfold Path.

3) Reboot from scratch – The 40k setting has had its time. Let’s rewrite it from the start. Keep certain elements: the Imperium, possible the immortal God-Emperor (or make it hereditary if we don’t want to remain stagnant?), the threat of Chaos, orks being a thing, eldar as a hangover from a previous great civilisation, but start the rest with a blank slate. What is the Imperium? Fascism was a thing in the 80’s, both as living memory from the war and post-war era and as a satirical swipe at Thatcherism and the National Front. And then the fascism of the Imperium became cartoony, bowdlerised. Compare the Imperium of the Ian Watson Jaq Draco novels with the way it’s presented in today’s Black Library novels: it’s not nice, but it’s filled with great heroes who fight against evil, so it’ll turn out fine.Even the Inquisition are heroic, even if only because Chaos is so much worse. But fascism has gotten itself a bad name these days. (Did I seriously just write that sentence?) Not dipping too deeply into real-world politics, but it may be advisable for GW to edge away from glorifying fascism (even satirically) for a little while, just in case the world does turn into a complete dystopian nightmare over the next few years. My alternative theme for the Imperium? Embody it in the Imperial Guard, who arguably got their name from the era anyway, and model it on the Napoleonic Wars. Expansionism, large armies of lots and lots of infantry models backed by artillery and cavalry (tanks, but also those rough riders that everyone loves but no one fields). Basically, take the aesthetic stylings of the Imperial Navy officers, and put them onto the infantry; remove the 20th-century fascism and replace it with 18-19th-century imperialism. Maybe have the Astartes as Roman-inspired, what with being Legion-inspired anyway. Perhaps get rid of the small Chapters and borrow the Legion-style of Astartes from the Horus Heresy era. Beyond that, I’ve no real thoughts. It’s possible my entire thinking in this direction would be satiated by a single box of Napoleonic Astra Militarum infantry that I’d never actually get around to starting an army of.

Personally, I’d like to see 2) or 3), rather than just a straight continuation – without drastic changes to the setting, it would turn the Time of Ending into just another summer campaign.

But the big change (again, -if- anything changes) is going to have to be the rules. The Warhammer fantasy rules worked pretty well, probably mostly due to the constraints of a regimental game. But 40k’s rules are a shambolic, bloated mess. I’ve ranted about this many times elsewhere (I think including in a comment on Scent of a Gamer), so I’m not going to go into great depth, but every time I pick up an alternate set of modern or near-future, or sometimes even fantasy, wargaming rules, I’m struck by how much better, more simply and with fewer rules in the rulebook, these games manage to replicate the things that the 40k rules also allow. Many of these games even have concepts that 40k has either never tried, or never managed to successfully implement, such as storming buildings, suppressive fire or explosive attacks that don’t need large discs of card or plastic to work out which individual models are hit.