Tuesday, 7 April 2015
Khorne Daemonkin: Part 1 - The Lore (Warhammer 40,000 Codex Review)
When Supplements for the big Warhammer 40,000 armies were first announced, they were advertised as really being a chance for lesser explored armies to be highlighted. They were really presented as something similar to what Codex: Blood Angels or Codex: Dark Angels were for the longest time, books which re-used many units from a current army, yet held plenty of unique lore, characters and rules to make them truly worthwhile. While you've heard me rant many a time about how those books turned out, Codex: Khorne Daemonkin really is what we should have gotten. It's the standard to what any future release should be held to and a push for real diversity among Chaos, trying to do things right rather than quickly cashing in on things. Ultimately this is why it's so incredibly frustrating that the book can be so well written, yet have so many obvious blind spots or shortcomings.
Following the Berserker cults of astartes worshiping Khorne, the codex really fleshes out the relationship between the mortals devoted to the blood god and his servants. Combining daemons with cultists and many of the war machines seen in recent years, it truly goes the extra mile in showing how the many warbands operate when summoning his servants. Many of the unit descriptions carry some story about a battle or conflict against another major faction, the iconography and many shared elements are detailed have sections to flesh out their relevance. The daemons themselves equally benefit from a hierarchical structure which revolves around continual conflict and the Bloodthirsters themselves are redefined into a more organised force.
Unlike the lore of many past attempts to really extend an army, this one doesn't come up short or read as if the authors hated the previous incarnation. In fact, it's quite the opposite as there has been a major push to really expand the focus and take into account aspects which were previously overlooked. For example, one of the criticisms often brought up was that this should have been Codex: World Eaters, but that would have been a serious mistake. Even ignoring that the legion fragmented almost nine thousand years ago and was only successfully re-united once, that would overlook the cults themselves and the many defectors from the Imperium who have pledged themselves to Khorne. After all, each warband has its own beliefs, values and code of worship despite ultimately sharing the same overall goals. As such, this instead allows the book to cover both the World Eaters and other Khornate factions at once, with the book devoting a section to how the Butcher's Nails have been reverse engineered and become the practice of many cults.
The codex offers a varied number of cults to start out with, each noting very different methodology. Each is given only a couple of paragraphs, but it's enough to give them some character and serve as a starting point without having them dominate the book or remove any player creativity. A personal favourite is The Harvest, who go out of their way to engage in siege wars against massive enemy forces. How do they accomplish this? They predict the course and speed of an Ork WAAAGH! or Tyranid Splinter Fleet, find a fortified world and use Warp Talons to emerge within the battlements. After killing everyone there, they promptly take up defensive positions and ready themselves for their foes' arrival, and for the tide of blood to flow. Others such as the Eightscarred and Brazen beasts are sadly a lot more generic, focusing largely upon a single aspect, but there's nothing wrong with them really. Even the latter warband, focusing heavily upon daemon engines, is written more as a theme and less to try and shill big new models of some kind. They're more focused, but they're not quite stepping into that territory of being gimmick armies.
What proves to be especially interesting however, is just how the codex uses the previous weaknesses of the Khorne Berserkers. As a whole, followers of Khorne are sadly presented as all too one-dimensional and easily defeated by anyone with a vague grasp of tactics. Relying purely upon swarm rushes and retaining a highly self destructive nature, they often seemed like something which could only become a threat via plot armour. Unlike what was done with the Imperial Fists however, this aspect is not vaguely handwaved away or embraced, but actually turned into a strength.
In a spin on past depictions worthy of Geoff Johns, the codex presents a way in which this can ultimately serve to further their goals and Khorne's objectives. How? Because he cares not from where the blood flows. The book focuses upon this aspect, and builds an entire sub-culture within Khornate worship from it, examining just how it can actually serve as a way of furthering Khorne's influence within the material world. The book states the following:
"When a Daemonkin warband first forms, it will be predominantly a mortal army. (...) Any powerful emotion causes a flare of energy in the Warp, so the inferno of rage and devotion generated by the Daemonkin draws the attention of Khorne's Daemons like razorfish to a fresh kill. (...) Eventually, empowered by the Daemonkin's violence or by their deaths, the murderous warriors of Khorne's legions will cross over, coursing from the Immaterium like blood from a wound to fight alongside the mortal host. Called forth by the sacrifice of the Daemonkin, and sustained by their adulation, they do not require the succor of the Warp to maintain their corporeal forms."
Basically the entire army is a way for Khorne's legions to move over into the materium en mass, for them to gradually snowball in numbers over time and strengthen their presence in the world of mortals. It offers a way for Khorne's daemons to sidestep the use of Sorcerers, something Khorne has often been depicted hating, and for their numbers to gradually snowball over time. In addition to this, it also manages to oddly present the same idealised form of Chaos without showing them as overly heroic. Lord knows Aaron Dembski-Bowden is a very talented writer, but all too often he seems to be almost ashamed of presenting them as villains, whereas here they're gleefully bloodthirsty. Yet despite that there is obvious symbiosis, with one relying upon the other for survival and whittling down their numbers until a chosen few are found worthy of ascending to daemonhood.
The actual army itself is one of religious worship and a trial among Khorne's believers, with some noted battles ending with hundreds dead but a scant few ascending to daemonhood. What's more is that their ability to strengthen a daemon's hold on the material realm through sheer rage and emotion is frequently brought up as something which has violently backfired on foes who underestimated them. Tales involving the Craftworld and Dark Eldar in particular highlight this, when they underestimate Khorne's followers. In the former case a strike force combined with Harlequins leads a massive Khornate host into an ambush, successfully cutting them down en mass. However, on the verge of defeating them, the sheer carnage and death of so many Khornate warriors draws an especially powerful Bloodthirster into existence, immediately turning the tide. The latter example is actually somewhat similar, but with a Khornate champion captured for gladiatorial duels sacrificing himself to bring a powerful daemon into Commorragh. In the rampage that follows, the Kabals are forced to detach an entire sub-section of the city so they can be rid of it. Something we've seen done more and more often these days. Really, how many more sections need to be ruined, detached or thrown off in these stories? It's not like they can build more.
Now, as the introduction suggested the codex has a few definite failings here. It's not down to the quality to be sure, that remains surprisingly high throughout, and aside of one or two dubious moments there's nothing here which is truly lore-breaking. No, instead the most pressing problem comes in the book's focus. This is supposed to represent Khornate forces on the battlefield, but the problem is it's only following a single type of Khornate worship. Oh, not the use of daemons, that at least is understandable, but the use of blood hungry berserkers who devolve into screaming fury and revel in slaughter. It's a strong depiction to be sure, but there's little real variation on this as a whole. With the likes of First Heretic, the Horus Heresy and Black Crusade, this is an era where the setting has gone back to a more varied depiction of Chaos as a whole. There are supposed to be shades to it, variation, yet none of that is here.
Where is the Khornate army who hunts only for the skulls of worthy champions and doesn't care about the chaff or cutting down innocents caught in battle? Where is the version of Khorne who seeks strong warriors who test themselves in war against stronger foes, egged on to ascend by proving their worth against powerful Champions? Where's the version of Khorne who looses his Flesh Hounds to hunt those who displease him, breaking his creed and showing cowardice? Where is the god who represents a twisted form of martial honour as much as mindless bloodshed? He's not here. He's not reflected in the slightest here and the codex goes out of its way to only depict one side.
To quote one bit which really sets the tone for the book: "Khorne's command is simple: kill, and kill, and kill again. Every single life taken in anger increases the Blood God's power. He looks favourably upon those warriors who slay their comrades, for they prove their understanding of a greater truth - Khorne cares not from where the blood flows, only that it flows. Friends or enemies, all the dead are equal in the eyes of the Lord of Battle. Those devotees who let a day pass without committing an act of blood-handed slaughter inevitably incur the Blood God's wrath."
It's a damn shame it sticks with such a narrow view on him as this was the perfect chance to really go back and re-introduce some of the older elements. Ones which, while still twisted and evil, ultimately showed that there are different faces to these gods and some degree of depth to their depictions. Instead we just have one particular side to him, and one which is highly flawed. The book continually praises zeal, fanaticism,and worship, presenting them as effectively monks worshiping Khorne's might. Okay, fine, but so much of what is here really just makes them sound too much like Word Bearers. There's little here to really distinguish them from that particular legion or the followers of Chaos Undivided in many sections when it comes to their behaviour, and the language used really doesn't do enough to present them as wandering warriors searching for new battles. Really, so much here seems like the writers should have examined just what the term "berserker" originally meant and its connotations.
The other issue is that the book actually ends up contradicting itself rather nastily at one particular point. Everything here is done to depict the Daemonkin and Khorne worshipers as a whole as roving bands who never set root, build empires and seek only the relentless slaughter of their foes. This is mostly consistent, save for one particular bit of the book which tries to explain where all their weapons of war come from, the Ironghast Foundry. While every other part of the book seems to depict their machines of war are looted, taken and stolen, this one has a Khorne devoted forge world which produces all manner of machines for them, and Khorne is just fine with this. This might have helped to give a bit of dimension to them, but there's no excuse or justification, it's just there. There's also a few more minor points like this which really just stick out like a sore thumb among the vastly better writing.
Speaking of the writing, this is another codex where it honestly seems that some vital components have been lost. These were aspects criticised in some previous books as they were handled so poorly, but the problem is that Games Workshop seems to have gone to the other extreme of removing them entirely. For starters, there's no list of actual conflicts or battles. There's no moment which is devoted entirely to campaigns, and instead these are rolled into unit descriptions. These are actually well written, but the problem is there's not much in the way of variation. They're incredibly short, and they basically boil down to "here's why this unit is awesome and you should use it!"
Even rolling such tales into the unit descriptions doesn't help save on space, as the codex still suffers from an amazing amount of padding. In fairness, not nearly as much as previous books, but it's hard not to notice how the codex repeats itself twice over. First listing the units with some artwork and a few details, stories and the like, and then again later on with pictures of the models, lore and stats. This could easily have been removed entirely leaving room for some more lore related details or even additional rules to give a more varied depiction of Khorne. Or special characters, something this book is seriously lacking. You could reasonably argue that Khârn couldn't be associated with the book due to his nature, but there should have been a couple here to help represent the force. There are new Bloodthirster variations, sure and those are nice, but it's hard not to notice that Skulltaker is the only named character in the entire book. Surely it wouldn't have hurt to add one or two more at least.
Finally, the biggest issue with the book overall is how it completely avoids showing any Khornate defeats. It doesn't pull a Codex: Grey Knights or have them pulling off utterly insane feats to be sure, but at the same time there's not a single loss in here. The closest they actually come to it are a few very costly victories which leave some warbands almost exterminated (which is cancelled out by how the book plays up their self-destructive nature being an asset) and unintentionally saving an Imperial world. Both Codex: Harlequins and Codex: Tempestus Scions were good on this front, offering up a few legitimate losses and defeats amid a large number of victories. It helped show they didn't always emerge on top in every battle.
With all this considered though, personally i'd still call Codex: Khorne Daemonkin a definite win. It feels like a legitimate extension of another force, fully planned out and intended to help give them better presence in the game, and some serious effort had been put into giving them a solid depiction which didn't break the lore. Is there room for improvement? Definitely and some aspects certainly needed to be altered, the layout changed and a few areas modified to raise its quality. Despite that though, it's enough to satisfy anyone after a real "BLOOD FOR THE BLOOD GOD!" style Khornate army.
To end this on a high note though, just to symbolise that this was a win for all its flaws, it's worth noting this was the first book in a while to really embrace the idea of unreliable narrators. The language of the book pushed for an almost invincible, unstoppable propagandized form of codex without trying to slam it down as fact, and countless points used viewpoint characters, stories and tales to try and flesh things out. On the whole, it's definitely a welcome return to these sorts of books given how much their presence has been lessening over past Editions.
Click here to go to the next part examining the rules and how they fare in comparison to the fluff.