Monday, 31 March 2014

Crimson Slaughter: Part 3 - The Narrative Structure And Design (Warhammer 40,000 Codex Supplement Review)

For the previous part looking at this book's lore, please click here.

Yes, we're doing a part three for this. Why? Because there's a major error which needs to be addressed. That error his how the codices are written to present their lore and the type of narrative they are pursuing.

True codices are written as a collection of lore elements and short tales, exploring the different aspects of the army, the units and the characters involved. The emphasis there is upon the force as a whole and presenting the faction as a well established entity within the universe. 
From day one the supplement codices abandoned that format, attempting to instead ape the structure of novels. Rather than exploring the units involved and giving a detailed idea of their full history, the book instead gives a few sections covering the founding elements of the army then spews out some truly dire literature. We previously covered exactly why this is wrong in the guide to writing wargaming lore, but it just keeps happening.

Something brought up in the comments section of the first part by grdaat was the idea of judging the book as a novel rather than a codex. As the writers are so hell bent upon refusing to write a true army book, why not. Let's hold it to those same standards and examine if it actually manages to be any better as a traditional story than an armybook. However, something else rightfully brought up was the fact the Imperial Armour books do the exact same thing as the supplement codices yet they seem to work. So before we get into that we need to really examine why they are a success, but the likes of Codex: Crimson Slaughter are failures.

Oddly what completely separates codices and Imperial Armour books comes down to two details: Length and focus. Okay, three if you include the obvious differences in talent between Mat Ward and Warwick Kinrade

Every one of the supplement codices are between one-hundred-and-twenty to one-hundred-and-fifty pages long. Even the shortest Imperial Armour volume has a good fifty to seventy additional pages, with said pages generally being at least twice the size of those in the physical copies of codices. What's more is that many such books are often divided into separate volumes. For example, due to the multitude of factions involved both the Badab War and The Siege of Vraks were covered across multiple books. In short: They have room to cover how the story progresses but also leave space to still give great detail about the armies involved.

The bigger and much more important difference though is the focus. Each codex is devoted to a single army. The Imperial Armour books, barring those exclusively given over to vehicles, are about campaigns. While the forces involved are described and detailed, the book isn't about them and is instead about the war they are fighting in. 
Details place emphasis upon battles, troop movements and logistics over the characters. While it doesn't ignore the commanders or figures involved, it's secondary to how the armies behaved and the arenas they fought in. The book advertises this from the start so when we get details about the armies, but when it doesn't fully go in-depth about them it's not as much of a disappointment. The same goes for the Horus Heresy books, which focus upon several of the Legiones Astartes at a time as the events of the Heresy progress.

Even ignoring those details the books are also not written as novels. The armies are the focus here still and the characters are treated as a part of it rather than the other way around. They are ultimately not trying to ape the same format as novels and screwing over armies in favour of a narrow focus upon a handful of people. 

This is why almost every supplement codex fails as an armybook, because they are not written about the actual army.  Instead they follow a handful of people the author has created, try to make everything about them, and end up creating a very poor representation of the army. This reached truly ludicrous levels with Codex: Sentinels of Terra and Codex: Clan Raukaan, where every figure involved was named or detailed by the author somehow. The end result leaves no room for creative freedom by players.

Still, let's even ignore that massive failing for the sake of this article and because they needed that to write a story. Let's instead examine it as we would a traditional novel. Guess what? It's just as bad.

The first thing it clumsily fumbles is story structure. Any novel will follow some variation of a three act structure. While there are definite variations on this, some having a short second act or such, certain elements will always remain. This is partially true here, but it's also horribly mishandled. While there is an inciting incident and specific turning point within the codex, the events on the space hulk and at Umidia, they are ham fistedly slammed into the narrative. The protagonist is only introduced late into the second act with little to no introduction, and the final act seems contrived at best. Rather than naturally ending with the chapter totally corrupt it just keeps going. By the time it closest out, what should have been the final act has been dragged out for half the codex.

There is also no logical progression from one event to the next or natural curve in the story to where they turn, instead we have spontaneous actions as the plot demands. The first part of this review cited the sudden illogical knee-jerk reaction of the Crimson Sabres to being reprimanded. That felt as if a massive chunk of the story had just been removed, but worse yet there was no effort made to draw the reader into just why it was happening. There were no brief sections with viewpoint marines or even a lengthy text box depicting the scene itself. This is especially bad as it's the main trigger of the entire story from here on, but there are also no points like this throughout huge chunks of the book.

When the Crimson Sabres lose all knowledge of their past thanks to their complete devotion to completing a campaign and wipe away their dishonour, it's supposed to be a moving scene. The problem is that the story simply cannot make something of it. The descriptions cannot fully convey the sheer impact it should have, there are no viewpoint characters to truly make use of this events. Like so many events here, it feels as if it was merely thrown in at the last second and information is stated rather than truly shown to the reader. While the codex informs us of the impact and we see it play out, it's so distant and involving that it cannot hope to work. 

It doesn't help that this is yet another example of the reactions being completely wrong and confusing. Their first actions by being mildly reprimanded cause them to erase their entire history and destroy vast numbers of irreplaceable relics. Now, when their determination to completely wipe away that failure results in an even greater loss, it only encourages them to become even more devoted to the Imperium over all else. Not even a single battle-brother thinks "Hm. That was curiously well timed." So along with being schizophrenic they appear to be brain donors.

There is absolutely no build up here and any kind of natural story arc are completely abandoned, with things only getting worse as time goes by. Then the codex suddenly completely shifts gears once Kranon himself is introduced, at which point the book flips from having no characters to being utterly character-centric. Suddenly jack-knifing from one style of narrative to the next, it makes everything which came prior feel like an extended prologue. When a story is supposed to be character focused, it needs to involve those characters from quite early on.

None of these elements are helped by the sheer laziness of the writing and willingness to fully commit to the ideas here. The first part cited the issue with Fabius Bile strolling by, solving a major problem, and then merrily going on his way. While he might be a walking plot device at least his actions make a degree of sense and solve themselves. The same cannot be said for the remaining Crimson Sabres. 

Yes, you read that correctly, there are surviving members of the original chapter.

Now, this reads as if the authors were unwilling to fully devote themselves to the idea of a chapter falling to Chaos, but at the same time it could have made the codex stand out. There have only been fleeting tales which have fully examined the idea of massive numbers of traitors and loyalists from the same force in open battle. The Dark Angels' hunt is more like a covert war and others were either told through short stories or brief conflicts.  The obvious way to deal with this would be through the remnants of the companies which potentially escaped their Fortress Monastery following being declared excommunicate traitoris.  Unfortunately it seems that would make too much sense.

After the entire chapter has utterly corrupted itself to the point where they have countless mutations, elements of the 4th Company suddenly decide they don't want to be a part of Chaos. No longer suffering from the voices in their heads for no apparent reason, and making no effort to do any damage to their traitor brethren, they turn around and head back to their ruined homeworld. 
No mention is made of the fact they will have to head via the Cadian Gate, which previously fired upon them. 
No mention is made of the fact they are fully aware the rest of their chapter has willingly turned traitor, and they are effectively ignoring them. 
No mention is made of even made of their problems just getting to a point where they can fly out of the Eye of Terror.

The entire event is one massive plot hole, it works only if you completely ignore everything from the last several sections of the book. What's more is that this whole thing has been set up to be a major fight, with the Captain of the 4th company promising to destroy the Crimson Slaughter. Then the book forgets about them. We never see them again. It's one of a small forest of plot threads which the book sets up and then never makes any use of. A basic tool of storytelling is to reincorporate as many things as many times as you can, but the writers here just keep starting things and then tossing them away once they are bored.

Oh, and then there's the sudden plot twist towards the book's end. It's suddenly revealed a daemon prince has been manipulating them for centuries until they become his pawns. Let's once again overlook that this is a Soul Drinkers plot which has been taken and re-used for who knows how many codices in a row now. Let's instead focus upon two things:

Firstly, the book manages to make this delivery both extremely predictable. Details are left there to make you immediately think "a daemon is behind this" with Chaos near constantly being the cause of the chapter's ruination. The daemons disappearing without warning on the space hulk, the origin of the voices, and even their homeworld's destruction were all suggested to have originated from Chaos. As such this twist is something you're twiddling your thumbs and waiting for, so when it appears it is to no surprise.

Secondly, despite being predictable it somehow comes completely out of left field at the same time. Why? Because it's suddenly revealed that the chapter's Chief Librarian is possessed by one. This is delivered without any indication or even a mild hint anything was wrong with the Librarian, yet it's delivered in the manner of a murder mystery. Furthermore, there are no suggestions that anything is wrong or a trail of clues for you to pick up on; yet another event pulled out of the authors' rectum.

Even the finale just peters out and stops rather than ending. Rather than going after the aforementioned daemon prince, entering some massive battle with the Crimson Sabres or even fighting the Dark Angels, they suddenly join in fighting on Cadia. There is no emotional link or relationship between themselves or the Cadian Imperial Guard, yet they are treated as the big climactic enemy and rival. This would be like the Eisenhorn trilogy concluding with a fight against a crime lord Gregor had never met before, after he has dealt with the actual antagonist.

So there you have it folks. Even when the book is taken at face value and judged as a novel rather than a codex, it remains a crudely scrawled abomination of penmanship. Every basic plot device is misused, the writers show no comprehension on how to create an ongoing plot and it fails to even accomplish setting up a basic antagonist. If it's not been made clear in the past, such supplements are a waste of time which need to be avoided. They're the worst kind of published works, the sort where you're almost thinking there's a Springtime For Hitler gambit going on with the writers.

I am being completely honest with you when the graffiti you read in public urinals is of a higher calibre than what is found in Codex: Crimson Slaughter. It is a mess of confusing, contrived story elements by people who clearly have no clue what they are doing. Every person who is reading this could probably do a better job than the people here, because at least you wouldn't be lazy when it came to such a book. Don't reward these people with your money, just avoid this one.

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