Infinite Variety

The rumours about the upcoming Chaos Legions Codex for Warhammer 40,000 has got me thinking. As I observed in my previous post, the challenge with this codex will be to incorporate sufficient options into a single list to allow the different characteristics and distinct troop types of the nine original Traitor Legions to be fielded while still allowing a balanced and flexible list.

It remains to be see if this is an achievable goal, but I am currently hoping that the GW Studio can do it without having to resort too much to variant lists.

I have a deep dislike of variant lists, either within a Codex – such as those in the 3.5 edition Chaos Codex – or added in supplementary material – such as those included in the the ‘Index Astartes’ articles that GW published in White Dwarf about ten years ago. I have several objections to the use of variant lists. The first is simply that they are often not as well play-tested as the parent list as as such often not as well balanced – often resulting in overpowered builds.

More importantly though, I think variant lists are too often based on a fairly narrow interpretation of a sub-faction’s background and character. Often picking up on one characteristics and exaggerating it or being based on popular stereotypes about a certain faction. This has the effect of further reinforcing those stereotypes. The most obvious example is the ‘all bikes, all the time’ interpretation of the White Scars Space Marine Chapter. Until the 5th edition codex provided a timely reminded that the White Scars are in fact a Codex Chapter, comprising largely of Battle Companies they were widely regarded in the popular imagination as being an all-bike force and White Scar players who fielded bike-light forces were regarded as not following the fluff, when really they were showing respect for the full extent of the fluff beyond the lazy stereotype that had been encouraged. Similarly, the issue of whether it is ‘fluffy’ to include units other than Wraith Guard and Wraith Lords in an Iyanden Craftworld depends very much on how strongly the ‘only construct troops’ stereotype has been inculcated with you and your local gaming group.

The flip side of this is that parent lists are often inappropriately restricted in order to allow the variant lists to have some justification and identity. It is only since the 5th edition Codex for example that Space Marine Chapters other than the White Scars ever got to really use their bike companies. Similarly, in the previous Chaos Codex, only the Iron Warriors had access to the Vindicator, despite that having been a design in use since the Great Crusade.

I don’t want to be dismissive of the important distinctions of history, tradition and character that exist between different Chaos Legions, Ork Clans, Eldar Craftworld and Space Marine Chapters. But I think that quite often the question needs to be asked whether these differences translate into differences that are meaningful on the tabletop and genuinely demand a separate list, and whether appropriate rules can be allocated that reflect the background. For example, which the Imperial Fists have a long and illustrious history and a distinct character, but I’m not convinced that anything in that translates into anything that should set them apart on the tabletop from the Ultramarines, and I don’t think that giving them the ‘Tank Hunters’ rule appropriately reflects their tradition of expert siege craft.

So my position is basically that variant army lists should be avoided. If a sub-army is genuinely different enough it should be developed into a full Codex. Otherwise it should be reflected in the core army list.

Of course, at the moment the only variant armies that currently have their own Codexes are Space Marine Chapters. I know this is a controversial fact in some quarters. I understand the frustration of non-Imperial players that so much attention is lavished on the Space Marines, though it is a common aspect of all science fiction and fantasy literature that the human faction(s) are much more fully explored than the aliens – though that might be because the humans are more usually the protagonists.

To be fair, the Space Marines do lend themselves to breaking down into multiple Codexes, as in contrast to other factions at large in the grim darkness of the far future a Space Marine Chapter represents a relatively small, distinct, insular and rigidly organised force. In contrast, even the Imperial Guard represents a much more heterogeneous and diverse organisation and an army could even be a fusion of the remnants of several defunct regiments from several different worlds. Similarly an Eldar Craftworld probably commands significantly greater resources than a single Space Marine Chapter, but warhosts are probably assembled and organised in in much more ad hoc manner than the Astartes. So it is possible to create codex lists which define the resources of a specific Space Marine Chapter in a way that isn’t really possible for other forces as there is much more room for variation and exceptions in other factions.

The GW design studio have done a fairly good job in recent years in developing what makes ‘non-Codex’ chapters distinct and making sure that the army lists are genuinely different enough to make each Codex just about worth the extra £20 you have to shell out. The challenge of the next year or so will be to see if GW can develop a new Dark Angel Codex that is the equal of the recent Space Wolf and Blood Angel Codexes.

I know that some people have expressed the view that individual Chapters should not have their own Codexes and should be folded back into a single book. This seems like a backward step to me and I think this overlooks both the extent of the work done to differentiate the non-Codex Chapters, and exactly how long some of the varient rules have existed – many of them actually date back to First Edition.

I understand the frustration of players with armies other than Space Marines. There is, strictly speaking, nothing to stop GW developing – for example – specific Eldar Craftworld Codexes, but this would require quite a lot of distinctive background to be developed from whole cloth (not that there’s anything wrong with that). The difficulty will not be identifying what – again for example – a Biel Tan army should have, but why other Craftworlds can’t have the same things, and what Biel Tan cannot have to balance out their advantages. From a more practical point of view, it might also be logistically more difficult to supply the models for an alternative Eldar army as it would require more than a new set of specialised accessories to add to existing models.

Ork Clans could be approached in a similar way, though there is the additional complication that an Ork Waaaaagh tends to be made up of a mixture of Clans, which takes us back to a single list that can be used to represent either a single clan force or a mixture. The question ultimately would be if – for example – a Bad Moonz only army would have access to units that Bad Moonz would not deploy when fighting alongside other Clans.

This is a tricky question that impacts on how GW develop their range of armies and army Codex books. At present I think they are proceeding on about the right course, sticking to a single Codex except where a sub-army is well developed enough to justify an whole separate Codex. I will be interested to see how GW handle things in the upcoming Chaos Legions book, and whether they will convince me that there is a third way between these approaches.


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