Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Crimson Slaughter: Part 1 - The Lore (Warhammer 40,000 Codex Supplement Review)

Of all the forces to create a supplement codex about, the Crimson Slaughter were certainly one of the most unexpected choices. 

Previous lists had emphasised upon well established and fairly well known forces such as the Iron Hands, Imperial Fists or Farsight Enclaves. Despite a frequent lack of respect for all established canon just short of openly insulting Rick Priestly, and a quality of writing which could have only been lower if the words had been printed in human excrement, they had big names behind them. Big names meant an established fandom and players who would fork over cash no matter how many times Games Workshop royally screwed the pooch. As a recent edition to the lore, the Crimson Slaughter lacked that kind of support from players and it seemed like a very strange choice. 
However, it was also a sign of hope. Without lengthy continuity or established fact for the writers to screw up we could have had something great on our hands. Predictably though, they managed to somehow balls this up as well.

Let's make this clear from the very beginning: It repeats just about every damn mistake we have seen in the past. Structurally the book is trying to tell a story. It is not focusing upon the army so much as a handful of characters and following their journey rather than actually exploring the damn army in question.

For those not in the know, the previous depiction of the Crimson Slaughter was this:
They were originally a chapter of space marines known as the Crimson Sabres, renowned for their skill at arms but noted for minor traits of psychological instability and extreme zeal. Called to the planet of Umidia, they were forced to kill the entire population to destroy a major Chaos cult, managing to prevent the summoning of a powerful Khornate daemon. In response to this, Khorne cursed (or blessed them) with an intense streak of paranoia and to have them constantly hear the voices of all those they had slain.

Chapter Master Kranon, realising that only bloodshed gave any respite, had them head into the Eye of Terror to try and gain a temporary peace. An act which ultimately corrupting them. The force returned during the 13th Black Crusade in search of the Hellfire Stone, an item which might have granted them the peace they so desired. Feuding with the Dark Angels' fifth company, Kranon himself was eventually run to ground and killed at the end of M41.

Now, this is effectively all the lore behind the warband beyond a few more details found in C.Z. Dunn's novels. It's simple, hard to screw up and with plenty of opportunities to explore how they operate. So, as you can guess, the ball was dropped within the first few pages.

Take that feud with one company of the Dark Angels, which was supposed to be the case of one relatively minor Chaos faction warring with one group within a chapter. Here it's bulked up so this extends to not only the entire chapter, but the Dark Angels themselves are written as the direct cause for their eventual corruption. Apparently having one group kill the other's leader just wasn't enough, but okay, it's a little overblown but it sounds relatively decent. That is until you see how they dealt with it.

Operating to rescue thousands of Imperial colonists trapped within a space hulk in M38, the Crimson Sabres work alongside the Dark and Blood Angels to board the vessel and fight daemons. Said daemons almost immediately start to disappear within a short time of fighting, a fact which apparently warrants no suspicion from anyone involved. Instead, several Crimson Sabres stumble upon an Interrogator Chaplain acting outside of his jurisdiction, get into a minor skirmish over him brutally interrogating a colonist, and then leave.

In response to one chapter breaking the tenants of the Codex Astartes, torturing someone apparently without reason, and then starting a fight with a younger chapter, Terra naturally overlooks the Dark Angels. Instead they censure the Crimson Sabres, citing the other chapters' beliefs that they had not shown them the proper "acclaim" for their actions. I'm guessing the Blood Angels were just feeling like pricks that day.

The Crimson Sabres respond to this act of censure by burying all records of their history, cutting all ties with other chapters including their progenitor, renaming their ships, destroying all relic weapons, armour and items which might directly link to their long history, and effectively starting over. They also completely change how the tenth company is trained supposedly, despite avidly sticking to the Codex Astartes both prior to and after this incident. They then declare they will only obey Terra as other space marine chapters cannot be trusted.

Confused? Don't worry, so is everyone else who read this section. It's supposed to show a younger chapter reacting badly to being snubbed for an incident where they were obviously in the right, but nothing adds up. Motivations and reactions are completely illogical and simply don't add up. It looks as if entire sections here have been removed and none of the responses from either Terra nor the Crimson Sabres make no sense. Each one is extremely contrived, especially the reasoning behind the chapter's actions, and it's just the start here. From this point on actions will happen because the author says so, and the plot is propelled fowards thanks only to the stupidity of those involved.

Speaking of stupidity: The supposed reason the Crimson Sabres behave as they do is a result of those psychological flaws previously mentioned. Said flaws translate here to being extremely needy for recognition and having an intense streak of paranoia. So not only have mental issues been dumbed down to feeling under-appreciated, but one of the flaws Khorne imbued upon them has turned up early. This is never really dealt with nor explained, only added to further by the chapter suddenly gaining a raging streak of arrogance. 

The book doesn't even properly stick to some points as the Crimson Sabres are noted, multiple times following this, to have frequently operated alongside other chapters. Often badly, but it means that whole bit about only obeying Terra and not trusting other forces is half baked at best. A problem not helped by the fact this is supposed to be a motivation which continues to get progressively worse over several millennia, without a single marine questioning just what the hell they are doing. 

On and believe me, things only get much worse once they turn traitor.

Along with the new canon proclaiming the vast majority of the population of Umidia were innocents they put to the flame for seemingly no reason, the chapter then decides to start listening to the voices in their heads. They turn around and do the same thing again to the Umidia's sister planet, under the sort of misguided excuse of "we thought there were more heretics" which wouldn't fool a five year old let alone the Inquisition. It only gets worse when you realise they thought this could somehow prove their purity following their concerns of becoming tainted with Chaos, yet none of them even consider taking the time to destroy any evidence which could be used against them. Even an exterminatus strike would at least hide the mass slaughter so supposedly horrific that even Ordo Hereticus agents were shocked by it.

It's at this point you realise two attitudes were dominating the writing for this book: The desire to have certain events take place, regardless of whether they actually made a lick of sense or not, and to make everything BIGGER than what we originally had.

What we had here was a chance to see how a common Chaos warband operated, not a special one. For an armybook to cover just how they survive, how they endure and for what reasons they can fall after so many millennia of loyal service. Hefty questions which could have made for some excellent lore, but it seems the book didn't want to deal with that so we instead have a plot of contrivances and sheer stupidity.

This arises time and time again, allowing the book to skirt around any problems which might be difficult to overcome or require actual thought put into them. For example, following the Crimson Slaughter fully turning traitor, they need to now deal with replacing their depleted numbers and fully turning themselves into a true military force. It's an interesting issue and one other series have dealt with well.

Blood Gorgons examined how the renegade chapter built up a relationship with certain worlds, serving as their patron and defender in exchange for recruits. Pages were spent detailing exactly how and why this could happen without Imperial intervention.

In the Soul Drinkers books, it was explained how the chapter looked for rebels against the Imperium and selected only the most skilled of those fighting against its authority. This was following dealing with obvious problems like the mutation of their gene-seed.

Here? We get a couple of pages of Fabius Bile flying out of the blue, solving all these problems and then leaving again. Yes, rather than working with an interesting premise the codex opts for Primogenitor Ex Machina. How do they gain recruits? They somehow depart the Imperium and find them inside the Eye of Terror, with little to no explanation given as to exactly how this happens. Or for that matter, just how they know of the Crimson Slaughter and why they could go to them over the far more famous warbands/legions lurking in the galaxy.

Contrived writing at its finest people. This is one step away from the author declaring "It's Chaos, we don't need to explain!" to excuse the plot holes.

The only time the book manages to overcome this is during the chapter's time in the Eye of Terror, which is genuinely good and presents a decent depiction of how the chapter corrupted itself in relentless combat. While nothing truly outstanding, it's a decent lengthy depiction of how their crusade turned them from puritanical warrior priests of the Emperor into the sevants of the Dark Gods. Right up to Fabulous Bill striding in and saying "hey neighbor, could I bother you for a cup of gene-seed?" everything was going so well, but even that brings up yet another problem.

What we have here is a Chaos afflicted chapter charging into the Eye of Terror in a pennant crusade, determined to die or somehow redeem themselves. This action results in their corruption and they come back as a force to terrorise the Imperium. If this sounds familiar, it's because of the recently penned Abyssal Crusade in which something similar happened to a multitude of chapters. The changes by the authors here only served to make them all the similar. Initially I was going to overlook this as an innocent mistake, until you  start to see several other oddly specific additions which sound like things we've seen before.

Now, this isn't a case of open theft like we had with Sentinels of Terra but a vast number of ideas seem suspiciously similar to others we have seen. 
The loss of their entire history to a freak invasion was something only seen in the Storm Wardens. 
The Death of Antagonis featured very similar villains within the chapter wanting to raise themselves in the Imperium's eyes only for it to lead to their corruption. 
The Crimson Slaughter targets a very isolated Imperial bastion, belonging to the Dark Angels, seeking to make use of the gene-seed within - The exact plot of Storm of Iron.

Now, these might have just been innocent mistakes, they're easily done, but then we get to this point: The Crimson Slaughter learns that their entire chapter has been manipulated for millennia by a daemon to create its own personal minions. This is the same plot we have had for two codices in a row now, and it's the third in a row that a major plot element from the Soul Drinkers saga has taken and crammed into a story.

The book is peppered with these instances which appear to be extremely similar to ideas from other stories, far too many to be simple coincidence. It might just be that, a coincidence, but these are the same authors who get basic, well established, details like this wrong in the setting:

"An armoured spearhead of Crimson Sabres joins the Black Templars in defeating the Thu’l, a loathsome xenos race that thrives under the light of dead stars. After the battle is won, the two Chapter Masters nearly fight a duel, but this is avoided when the Crimson Sabres Chapter Master Gryloch refers to the Codex Astartes and finds that such a course of action is forbidden."

Add to this elements like the Dark Angels' pilots forgetting Chaos have attack craft of their own, a daemon shrugging off someone speaking its true name, and Abaddon showing the warband so much respect he has them spearhead the 13th Black Crusade, and it's clear this is a truly terrible book.

There are a few shining gems and good bits here and there, but that's only remarkable because previous supplement codices have set the bar so incredibly low. Beyond the genuinely great artwork amid the recycled stuff, there really is very little here worth your time nor your money in terms of lore. Just go buy C Z Dunn's works on the Crimson Slaughter if you're interested in them, or Betrayer if you want to learn about Khornate followers driven to kill others. Giving Games Workshop money for this is only encouraging bad writing.

Click here to see how the rules held up.


  1. I see where you're coming from, but honestly anytime you compare codex fluff to novels the codex fluff tends to come up short. I'm not trying to give them a free pass, but I just think if we're going to compare fluff, we should be comparing the level of writing in a codex to a codex, not to the novels written by well established authors who have honed their craft far more than the GW Dev team has.

    1. True, a comparison between a codex and an novel is never going to be fair. However, that is not due to strength of fluff or writing but because they are too different from one another. One is better at defining armies, outlining the histories of military organisations and bringing life to a force. The other is much better at telling stories about specific ensembles of characters and individual heroes.

      The problem is that whoever is writing these, Mat Ward if last reports were correct, ignores all that. He is utterly desperate to turn them into stories, sweeping novels covering the events of a few characters lives. He is utterly ignoring the strengths of codices in favour of trying to turn them into poor examples of something they can never be, often sacrificing the identity of the army or even basic lore while doing so.

      Furthermore, as the review states, the last three of these supplement codices have openly plagarised from Black Library novels or suddenly have VERY similar twists, characters and ideas to the more popular novels in recent years. It has become so bad that even where a codex should be excelling, such as the recruitment example above, background notes from other novels are leaving it in the dust in terms of organisational facts and army lore.

      Even accepting that however, these books get countless things wrong on the most basic levels. They show no respect for the canon, established facts of the settings or even the works of other authors. They suffer from horrific plot holes, lazy writing and even bad fact checking. That example there which claims the Black Templars have a rank called "Chapter Master" is one of the lesser mistakes seen in these books. No amount of inexperience when it comes to an author being unable to hone his craft or even differences in capabilities as a writer can excuse such shoddy and pathetic work as this.

    2. "True, a comparison between a codex and an novel is never going to be fair. However, that is not due to strength of fluff or writing but because they are too different from one another."
      I think you should start reviewing the supplements as one (not the regular codices), they clearly want to be, what with having protagonists, antagonists, and how they're structured.

      I'm also fairly surprised at just how much the imperium let's the Dark Angels get away with, minor things like fighting the Space Wolves for seemingly no reason (I know why they do it, but the rest don't), to torturing a civilian (which even other angels should have called him out for, there's no excuse for that), to threatening to open fire on Black Templars after they captured Cypher, forcing them to hand him over, and then killing them all anyway, the Black Templars are aware of that act and were going to "visit" the Dark Angels (with three whole crusades no less) before a distress call came in from the Armageddon because the Orks invaded again.

      Anyway back to this "lore", this isn't lore in the same way that C.S. Goto's work isn't a novel, it's trash, and I'm hoping future writers ignore it in the same way that Tyranids sixth edition ignored Iyanden's "plot".

      I do take some satisfaction in knowing my favourite group, the Sons of Malice are way too obscure to get a supplement, as I'm sure they'd ruin them for me the same way they've ruined every other army they've done (except black legion).

  2. So I was thinking on how to make the supplements work without writing them as a codex, and I think the key is to get the reader immersed in the chapter as it goes along, in this case you can have snippets of either a journal or dialogue between two marines as you go through the book, showing us without outright telling us how they fell to chaos, they (the supplements) want so badly to be like a novel, and I don't see why they can't be structured like one, divide the book into different parts detailing how the entire chapter was at that time, focus on the captains more than the chapter master, focus on how the chapter tries to deal with their new "condition", etc.,

    Another idea is you can make it about the chapters/inquisition surrounding the Crimson Sabres, show how they react to what the Sabres are doing, show how they're curious at why the Sabres have no relics and are drifting apart from the standards of the Codex Astartes, there's more options than what they're currently doing.

    1. You know what, that is actually a good point. Some books such as the Imperial Armour volumes have had running narratives in the past and this is a failing that these books keep making. Thank you for the suggestion, i'll definitely cover this in a third part for this review.

    2. I'm not sure if you meant that running narratives were a bad thing in these books or not (I'll assume not), because I really liked the running narratives in some of them, particularly 12, where the marines fight the necrons, and the narrative ends as the game begins, and I mean that literally, the narrative ends in a stalemate (or a pyrrhic victory for the marines) and you're supposed to continue the narrative however you want instead of just reliving the narrative, which is why they provide you with scenarios that didn't happen yet.

      The main thing that sucks about that book is some of the necron models, like the nightshroud bomber, are COMPLETELY broken, I defended the necron fliers in the past because I still don't think they were meant for the rules we ended up getting, but there's no way I could possibly defend that one.