Saturday, 13 June 2015
Cult Mechanicus Part 3 - Direction And Storytelling (Warhammer 40,000 Codex Review, 7th Edition)
Yeah, it's been a while since we really did a three parter, but this one definitely needed it. While the lore itself might have been fairly dire throughout and nose dived into little more than shilling new units, the bigger issue was consistency. While initially written to cover the Cult Mechanicus as a whole and its activities, the lore kept effectively backpedaling and directly contradicting itself. Not in a minor way either, but specifically when it came down to the exact overarching and defining traits of the organisation.
For example, one of the points praised quite early on in the book was how it did try to initially cite the variety of roles and jobs within the Mechanicus. Just because Tech-Priest is a universal term hardly means that all of them will be priests of war after all, and the codex took the time to cite how there were countless roles across the Imperium from Enginseer to Biologis and even stranger roles beyond this. It was a minor point to be sure, but after Codex: Craftworld Eldar focused upon little else besides the warhosts, it was a breath of pleasant fresh air. It gave some effort to actually show a few ideas of the universe beyond just the battlefields. However, one point the codex cited as being dominant throughout all of the Adeptus Mechanicus was its inability to innovate, develop and adapt, or even think beyond their ritual ideas. A point which unfortunately rapidly devolved into a very big plot hole.
The Adeptus Mechanicus' role in the universe boils down to two things: Recovering and preserving technological relics, and building new equipment for the Imperium's forces. The problem is that all too often much of the lore veered primarily towards the former, presenting them as only ever recovering older ideas and never thinking beyond what they find. This reached the point in some cases where innovation itself was deemed as a heretical concept and any thoughts towards improving or altering set designs were wrong. The issue is that much of the lore contradicted this point to an incredible degree, with the Mechanicus developing new variants of current technology, adapting new designs and even building new ones where needed. It would require a good deal of work to get the two to work together, but with the right writer it would have been possible.
Now, in the book's defence this subject on how well the Mechanicus understands machinery has kind of been a plot hole for the last few decades. However, it's far more of an accepted one and a point which is tolerated thanks to the way it was handled by multiple writers. While some would present the Adeptus Mechanicus in one deeply, needlessly, superstitious light, others would show them as being rightfully pious and even beneficial to the Imperium in every sense. They're one of the few factions who utterly changed depending upon who was telling the story while retaining a coherent identity despite this. Well, the writers of Codex: Cult Mechanicus took the novel approach of squandering all this, mashing both interpretations together and calling it a day. The very idea of them building things is contradicted from page to page.
On the opening section defining the faction as a whole it mentions that there are groups within the Mechanicum whose entire purpose is one of innovation and to build new ideas. Massive parts of the organisation are there to rebuild and restore old technologies, and yet the codex seems to keep forgetting this fact. For starters, there are several items which seem to have been made purely for this purpose - explicitly so that items can be examined and their knowledge restored. So what does the book do? Tries to fall back on the immediate justification that half their technology is not widespread thanks to lacking the bloody tools to do so.
Oh, it gets even worse atop of this. We then have them declaring that the Tech-Priests are completely incapable of creating things at points, utterly unable to think beyond the blueprints in front of them, and yet the book declares in other sections that each Priest is obsessed with building new things. Hell, entire Forge Worlds are built up upon the idea of stealing xenotech now, just in order for them to study and develop new ideas, apparently having immunity to all declarations of heresy! To make matters even worse, within pages of the book stating that the Tech-Priests are incapable of innovative thought and that half their rituals are utterly needless, it promptly goes right into having several battles won thanks to sheer innovative thought. Writers, please, for the love of all that's holy actually think about what you are putting onto paper!
Whole sections of the book suffer thanks to some utterly insane problems which fail to make any lick of sense; with vague half-baked efforts forced into trying to remain in-keeping with one part of the canon and then an entirely different bit. The sad thing is that for their every effort to build upon something and give the army a solid identity, the writers only trample something far better or ignore incredibly interesting ideas. For example, the Void Dragon and its cult? You'll be lucky to find more than a passing mention of them in this book. The idea of their expeditions so often coming at the cost of Imperial allies or the infighting among them? Downplayed and watered down beyond belief. Even basic points such as how the organisation (or at least big parts of it) is effectively in a secret war with the Inquisition is missing, with only one or two fleeting mentions put down as individual instances.
If the codex wanted to be taken seriously, it should have taken a very different direction. The Skitarii were the fighting arm, so focusing upon them as a military force was only natural. Here though, the codex needed to take the direction of detailing them as a society of holy artisans, explorers and tyrant machinists who were on a holy endeavour. While there are shades of religious ideals in the book, so often these are reflected only in the areas of war, so often without any real look beyond that. The sad thing is that the codex could have easily been adapted to this. Say what you will about Graham McNeill's Priests of Mars, but it showed how dangerous and war-torn their seemingly more peaceful hunts for knowledge could be. Atop of this, the codex needed to reflect the Adeptus Mechanicus' vast scale and influence. Reading through this tome, it tells you how widespread they are but never convinces you of this fact. There's never a point which really hits home how every hive city, warship, power plant and manifactorum needs a few Priests. It never actually goes so far as to hit home that they are the ones keeping everything running all of the time.
Rather than spending so much time shilling the damn Robots over and over again, the codex's many stories could have instead covered a few key points. We could have had conflicts built up - brief stories to serve as examples - to show how varied and different its battlefields are. Perhaps one could disturb a Necron Tomb World, another could come into conflict with a lost human empire in their hunt for an STC, another could find itself combating a Chaos influenced rebellion, or perhaps display their ability to confront even the astartes when required. Those are just the basic ones as well, without getting into some of the more exotic possibilities involving the Halo Stars or what Fantasy Flight Games has suggested.
Still, even accepting the fact that the codex focused upon war over all else, there was one failing they could have corrected to save it. One thing which might well have fixed all of this: Storytelling and presentation. One staggering problem which plagued the entire book was its sheer lack of opinionated presentation or using viewpoints to show the factions. Well, actually that's a staggering problem which has plagued almost all of Games Workshop of late, but let's focus on the here and now. Anyway, rather than showing any truly in-universe opinions or real flavour to the text, everything is just blandly stated without too much variation. The obvious solution to help solve this would be by, rather than showing an internal view, using the other factions in the game to present the Mechanicus in a varied light. The Inquisition would be a prime one, given their nature for investigating others, and others such as the astartes could do the same. Atop of this, even certain xenos factions would work extremely well here; the Necron Dynasties in particular thanks to the obvious parallels between the two. Perhaps also even the Tau Empire, especially given their very different views on technology.
Each and every force in the game could help to present a different side of the Mechanicus, and it could help to balance out the varied depictions of this army. It would ultimately help to show every idea displayed so far, but better yet it would be a rare moment to help encourage players to truly make up their own minds. All too often in current books, lore is simply black and white, and a codex which took into account how varied each side can truly be would be a welcome celebration. How do I know this could be done? Codex: Legion of the Damned did a pretty fine job with it, Codex: Dark Eldar had shades of this, Codex: Tau Empire had a few subtle suggestions of a less than benevolent rule, and there have been other streaks of late even among Chaos. It's not impossible for Games Workshop to accomplish this, so long as they're not being forced to churn out codex after codex at an absolutely insane rate.
The main point which might have truly helped in showing such elements could have stemmed from the brief short stories or paragraphs of in-universe text. All of these were devoted to views of the Mechanicus upon themselves, or more often than not just celebrating the big Robots the codex was more dedicated to than the actual Priests themselves. We saw the same thing back in the Third Edition Codex: Tau with Imperial Guard, orks and eldar all viewing the race in different ways, as much as some Imperial forces. Even this small effort would have vastly helped to give greater dimension to the army and actually present it as having some variation.
Of course, most of the problems covered here have all been said before with other armies. So why is it being repeated here? Because Games Workshop has learned nothing. For every occasional step they take forwards, there is another back and we see them failing to learn from their prior errors. This should have been long behind them by now, but the company just refuses over and over again to truly acknowledge its errors or even listen to criticism. Until the day they do, until the day they actually stop to start trying to fix problems which should have been solved long ago, this blog will just keep pointing out their failings.