Tuesday, 8 July 2014

WAAAGH! Ghazghkull: Part 1 - The Lore (A Warhammer 40,000 Codex Supplement Review)

You know, one of the biggest criticisms I keep making of these books is how desperately they attempt to tell a story. Nearly every one tries to shove some narrative tale into its lore rather than actually spending time exploring the army, and glorifies a few certain characters over long established, venerated armies of thousands of wars. Well, now they've truly taken things to the next level, not only shoving Ghazghkull's name on the book's title, but forcing his cybernetic green mug onto dominating the cover. 

Yes, before anyone comments, ork WAAAGHs! are so often named after their leaders, but really this is desperatley trying to sell the book purely based upon Ghazghkull and Ghazghkull alone. Really, take a look at the blurb on the codex's back cover: 

"It has long been said that should the disparate Orks ever unify beneath one leader they would crush all of the so-called civilised peoples of the galaxy. That doomsday draws nearer, for the great greenskin Warlord Ghazghkull Thraka has arisen, and Orks from all clans muster to his bellowing warcry. He is not just a mighty warrior, but a master strategist and the living Prophet of Gork and Mork – the brutal greenskin gods. Already star systems burn upon his orders, and more will soon follow. Ghazghkull has called the Great Waaagh!, drawing towards him the most warlike of his savage race. Goff warbands, Speed Freeks, Dread Mobz – all have crossed the stars in their seething multitudes to join the greatest Ork crusade in a millennium. This time, nothing will stop the green tide."

Nearly all of that is spent oohing and aahing over how great Ghazghkull is and the army is only mentioned when it needs to boast about him more. Really, if they'd wanted to do something like this it should have been saved for a Dataslate devoted purely to his character, not an entire damn codex. Still, if any faction could feasibly pull off being so insanely character focused and do it well, it would be the orks. So this was one I did approach with more optimism than usual. Naturally the book rewarded that by blowing it in the very first paragraph. 

The initial introduction to the army is nothing but Ghazghkull, with lines line "He is the green embodiment of all the brutal strength of Gork" and hyping up his power. Even when it does actually start to focus upon the army, the book opts to suddenly introduce the fact Orkimedes will be in this release, and starts to gush about his presence instead. This sadly sets the trend for the entire book. Rather than actually taking notes from the excellent Militarum Tempestus and actually focusing on the army as a whole for once, everything here is narrowed down to the characters. While it does eventually try to slow down and replicate the sections from Codex: Black Legion and detail the various sections of the WAAAGH! these feel tacked on despite being surprisingly well written.

Even more so than the bloated cast of Sentinels of Terra, the book goes out of its way to try and introduce Warbosses and characters rather than having the actual WAAAGH! be good at fighting. Now, this would be understandable to a point. After all, Ghazghkull is the most famous of the living orks and unlike normal forces a WAAAGH! doesn't really have a founding beyond whoever cracks the most skulls or who they fight/loot from. The issue is that everything beyond the writer hammering in how awesome he is feels rushed.

For example the sixth page actually tries to establish some history for the army. It gives details about the world Ghazghkull was spored on, listing its history all the way back to the Great Crusade and creates some legitimate reasons for the orks to not have been totally purged. The Dark Angels were using the planet as a recruiting world, keeping the orks in check to fight feral human tribes and taking the greatest from among them. Ghazghkull himself received a bolt round to the head by trying to attack one of their listening posts keeping check on ork numbers. It's satisfying enough to give the army a bit of history, but it barely gets going before going into Ghazghkull's origins. Really, it barely lasts half a page before everything starts to focus first on Ghazghkull then on Mad Dok Grotsnik. The writers had eighty pages to work with here, you'd think they could have spent some time actually fleshing things out a bit.

Now, even accepting this as a character history, a book devoting itself to Ghazghkull's past, it really rushes through things. There's about four paragraphs in total covering his origins and cybernetic enhancements before he starts killing people. It's no more information than was given in the previous codex, and nothing is made to really help flesh out just where the visions of Gork and Mork came from or any more details. 

What follows proves to be extremely hit or miss with some conquests on Urk, Ghaz's homeworld, being surprisingly intelligent while others are absolutely nuts. Just take this line and wonder how the hell it got past the editors:
"It took a long, bloody week to subdue the Snakebites under Grudbolg, and Ghazghkull was forced to decapitate the old monster twice before finally winning his loyalty."
That's the bad example of trying to do orks, a good one embracing their black humour and insanity follows in the very next sentence:
"When challenged to a headbutting contest by the hulking Goff champion, Ugrak, Ghazghkull was like a piledriver sinking his foe a full foot into the ground and knocking him unconscious."

The book definitely has fantastic moments and great points where it seems the writer is getting a handle on them, but it never establishes a well time pace to events and often feels as if it's skipping points. It's ultimately far more interested in the Third War than the Second, so as a result most of the book rushes through those events, then tries to set up army building afterwards. The obvious issue is that while it examines a WAAAGH! being rebuilt for a second invasion, all focus is still constantly on Ghazghkull rather than the army or anyone else beyond a handful of Warbosses. Hell, even they aren't characters in their own right so much as an excuse to have the writer gush about how singly awesome Ghazghkull is.

So much here feels entirely unfocused and despite offering some genuinely great bits here and there, when it tries to run through information the reader already knows it's poorly told. It's as if the writers were desperately trying to race through them to get to more original bits, but there's more to it than that. In comparison to the lengthy, detailed account we originally had what is seen in the codex is little more than a series of relentless beat-downs until the astartes show up to boot him off the planet. It's extremely one note, there's no real variety to them and quite frankly the previous version, while from an Imperial perspective, was a far more colourful account of the War. Despite it being one of the single greatest rivalries in 40K, Yarrick is shoved into the background for almost the entirety of the book. We get little to no thoughts on him by Ghazghkull or even their long standing enmity. Honestly, half the time the book treats Yarrick as if Ghazghkull has no idea he exists.

The codex really doesn't know what it wants to be. Does it want to be a character study and examination of Ghazghkull? Then why does it keep veering away from him to explore his army and skim through vital points of his life, the most interesting bits which could help truly flesh him out. Does it want to be about the army he leads? Then why does it keep having so many sections which skip over the vying factions, troop types and the lengthy decades of preparation which could help to flesh it out. 

This is the book's real failing above all, at least in terms of lore. It's not that bad, but it is extremely unrefined, needing at least another rethink and better direction on the part of the writers. Unlike the embarrassing disasters of other books, what he have here does add up and you can see a great tale here. The orks under Ghazghkull are treated as a competent army, most of the story developments make perfect sense and there is far more of an effort here to flesh out the army than before. It's just that so much of that is built upon Ghazghkull himself and little else, and it's determined to try and tell a story rather than actually stop and examine the WAAAGH! he leads.

It's that last point which really stops me giving the book any truly genuine praise beyond a few trait elements. It's glorifying the a single ork rather than a force of orks, and it actually makes much of the race seem far worse off in its attempts to loudly promote his greatness. One of the key things the writers promote about Ghazghkull, something that supposedly makes him totally unique, is his ability to learn from his mistakes and come up with intelligent tactics. Oh dear.

While the orks might often be laughed for their daft nature, a key characteristic has been their brutally cunning minds and many do possess a strange kind of genius. For every one which does get cut down never learning anything, another Warboss will rise who has some ability to adapt to his enemies. The Fourth Edition Codex: Orks listed a number of examples, most infamously the War of the Dakka, and showed the race learning. Hell, it was even a major part in Rynn's World with the Crimson Fists realising that their old foe was learning from humanity's tactics. Claiming that all this is unique to just one Warboss is just insulting to the entire army.

Of course the problems don't stop there either. Apparently not content to make him the only ork in existence with any capability to learn from his mistakes and having him lead two of the best known WAAAGHs! ever to be written, they have him fight the tyranids. Yes, the writers sent him to bloody Octarian War, because apparently no other Warboss could hope to combat the tyranids in an effective manner. As a result a lot of the genius, victories and skill of the entire race is put down to a single figure, reducing a lot of their menace.

While Codex: WAAAGH! Ghazghkull is definitely a move in the right direction, it only stands out because the bar has been set so insanely low by the likes of Crimson Slaughter and Clan Raukaan. It does try to address a few of the bigger criticisms, and it even avoids the ever infamous issue of recycling art from previous works. Still, if they keep this up and keep learning from their mistakes, we may have another decent supplement sometime in the next couple of years. For the moment though? Skip this one and stick to the main ork codex if you want great lore.


  1. I love how they've (in the past editions) actually moved the storyline of 40K backwards, especially with the war for Armageddon, it was already over in 4th edition, then in 5th it wasn't over, just in the middle, then in sixth it's just starting.

    "Ghazghkull has called the Great Waaagh!, drawing towards him the most warlike of his savage race. Goff warbands, Speed Freeks, Dread Mobz – all have crossed the stars in their seething multitudes to join the greatest Ork crusade in a millennium. This time, nothing will stop the green tide."
    Except the Black Templars, whoops, I guess we forgot about them, though in fairness, just like the Orks, the Black Templars were innovative with the war, they found new ways of using old technology to work to their advantage that nobody else in the astartes thought of that were pretty new ideas in 40K, it's quite sad really what was considered ground-breaking with the astartes, in the space war they thought of actually using all of your heavy artillery to weaken the enemy and then use your short ranged guns to finish them off without ever getting into close combat, or on the ground, having your leaders stay in the rear and patched into their troops communications so that you can coordinate them better instead of having the commanders lead from the front and possibly die in the first assault, both of which are pretty much unheard of for Space Marines. Obviously we can't have two factions actually learning how to do things differently, like having Astartes/Orks learn from or respect the Imperial Guardsmen and their tactics, so let's just remove it entirely.

    I had three main hopes for this book, the first is that it expanded on Yarrick vs Ghazghkull, the second is that it fleshes out Ghazghkull's character (either through his perspective or the Orks around him, and by fleshing out I don't mean "the most awesome ever") and the third was that it actually has Ghazghkull in the book that's named after him (fingers crossed, I hope it's not going to be another Sentinels of Terra).
    Two of these seem to have fallen flat out the gate, at least it's got some decent lore, unlike some other supplements I can think of.

    Come to think of it, I think the lore here could have been awesome, if it was written by everyone observing the Orks and why this is so different, I've used this as an example before, but Imperial Armour 12 did this with the Necrons, because it knew that the army was really one note and there wasn't much you could do aside from focussing on the leaders of the different factions. Even Matt Ward (of all people) knew this with the Necrons, which is why their codex had a short story where the Necrons fought the Orks and it was told entirely from the Orks point of view.

    1. To be honest, as much as I loved the older editions they overreached themselves in that regard. Don’t get me wrong, things like the Third War for Armageddon, the First Tyrannic War and Medusa V were all great, fleshing out their factions and progressing certain ideas onwards. The big problem however seemed to be that they didn’t quite know where to go beyond them.

      Take the 13th Black Crusade, Games Workshop visibly was not prepared for Chaos to actually win the conflict and was caught off-guard with no idea how to respond to it. Similarly they had no idea how to follow on from Eldrad’s death or actually work towards the End Times. Medusa V was heavily criticised for bending over backwards to have the Space Marines win when, by all rights, the Eldar achieved total victory. So while I do agree with you that the setting progressing backwards is a big mistake and seems to only enhance the stagnation of the modern setting, the old approach did have some distinct failings.

      You know, I had actually not thought of that but it’s a damn good point. There has been a lot of efforts by Games Workshop to prevent the learning or incorporation of other faction’s tactics to be carried over from one army to the next. Perhaps as counter-measures, but actually integrating them? That’s something which used to have a small presence in the lore and has been completely shot down. It would certainly explain why in the 5th edition the Mentors suddenly went from a chapter devoted to improving and passing on improve tactics to Guardsmen, to complete isolationists.

      I will say though, the codex does at least try to stick to some of the newer ideas behind their technology developing very quickly in the last few hundred years. Roks are introduced as a new concept and something the orks use as massive bastions to help with plantary landings, inspired by how they landed during the Second Wars for Armageddon. Similarly, tellyportas are noted to be a very recent development by Orkimedes, so it’s good they retained those. The obvious problem is that both are limited down to Ghazghkull’s sphere of influence, and used as an excuse to beef up his status further. That and the fact they are given barely a page’s proper explanation. It reaches the point where apparently Ghaz is so great he can use them to jump across half the galaxy in an instant, so he can be on Armageddon and Octarius whenever future writers need him to be.

      Yeah, I’ll be completely honest with you here and say that Yarrick is barely mentioned. Really, the closest they come to running into one another is when he and Helbrecht attempt to shoot down his hulk as he leaves the system. Beyond that though? Yarrick is just mentioned on odd occasions as someone Ghazghkull fought and a Commissar who kept warning the Imperium that the ork needed to be killed. Even his legendary defence of Hive Hades and their duel are skipped over entirely and Ghazghkull’s reasons for respecting him never stated. To be honest, atop of this the lore itself really isn’t that great. It’s just notable because it’s not brain numbingly stupid or a complete betrayal of the army, with some genuine effort present. It’s definitely head and shoulders above the other supplements, but even then it’s really not that fantastic, and never strikes the careful balance of humour and seriousness Phil Kelly had with his lore.

      Though, given your statements, I have been thinking, and you know who would have been good for this? William King. We have had Black Library authors before, and while the guy’s writing style might be a little aged, he’s proven himself excellent when it comes to depicting legendary characters through the eyes of others. Gotrek, Macharius, Siege of Terra, the Space Wolf series and others all feature this, and he even wrote the original lore for the Battle for Armageddon. It definitely should have been written with Ghazghkull being viewed through the eyes of others as you describe, and I honestly think he would have been the right person to do it.

    2. I'd like to get in to an off topic discussion if that's fine with you regarding some things here, like: "Take the 13th Black Crusade, Games Workshop visibly was not prepared for Chaos to actually win the conflict and was caught off-guard with no idea how to respond to it."
      I always find this interesting when people bring it up, because yes, Chaos won the ground conflict, but at the time they were also doing a Battlefleet Gothic conflict with the armies of Chaos vs Imperium, and the Imperium won there, it's in older white dwarf issues that you can still find on the website freegamemanuals.com, look for the Battlefleet Gothic White Dwarfs, they've got the entire Black Crusade storyline in one of the later ones (there's only about 20 BG White Dwarfs so it's not hard to find) and they posted the game results (as in who played, what they played, how much they won by) after the story and pointing out that while Chaos kept the sectors they took (which were the chaos major victories) they were driven entirely out of others (Imperium major victories) while admitting Chaos won the ground conflicts and such planets had to have exterminatus performed on them which, in the end, only helped chaos anyway since almost all of their troops left those planets when they were wrecked, and wrecking the planets was their goal in the first place.

      They went with a pyrrhic victory to the Imperium is the gist of it, which seems like the easy way out, though the strongholds that were set up to stem the tide of chaos ships were gone, the planets that had artifacts to stop the warp from spreading out were wrecked beyond recovery, and with this in mind you could still call it a chaos victory, the storyline to the game did still progress, because among other planets, Cadia was destroyed beyond all possible repair, and could not stop the warp spreading any longer, and considering that was Abaddon's main plan I suppose you could still call it a success regardless of the results. I'm not sure when exactly they put the brakes on the story entirely, but it wasn't with chaos winning, at first glance it looks like they were ready to go all the way because in the magazines they're asking for people to submit feedback for next time, which was supposedly to continue the crusade and try to stop it, and which never happened unfortunately.

      Your other points I can completely agree with.

    3. Ah, now that does explain a bit. I knew about Abaddon's fleet being soundly defeated and the Imperium maintaining the space lanes, but did not know that it was the result of actual BFG games. To be honest I thought it was the result of writers adding something on afterwards, but it's something which does make sense. It's also nice to know there was a time when Games Workshop's big campaign's once supported Specialist Games and allowed them to take part.

    4. This is why I have a lot of nostalgia for the third and start of fourth editions of the game (as in the time period), and personally feel it was when GW was at their best, they'd divide the white dwarf into different sections covering most things equally, they'd have more text than images, usually explaining what something is or what's going on, it's when they would show off really cool models that people would have built from scratch, and then would incorporate into their own line, that chaos lord on a rock model for example was based off of a massive conversion that somebody else did in one of the older white dwarfs (which I still have), it was also when they allowed you to do very small bits orders so you can use spare parts you had in order to make new models.

      Currently they're changing everything they possibly can to appeal to a wider audience, and I'm not even annoyed by that any more, I'm more interested in how things have changed from the past, to now. If you look inside the third edition of the Chaos Space Marine rulebook and the sixth editions of Chaos Space Marine and Chaos Daemons, so much has changed besides just the artwork, they've altered the stories, structure, characters, and models, and I think it's interesting to see how things change like this, kind of like looking in a time capsule, but I've gotten way off topic now.