Monday, 24 August 2015

Rage of the Tau - A Tale of Betrayal, Lore and Fickle Dice

A good half of the players you'll talk to will likely have started Warhammer 40,000 with the Astartes. Even before the insane degrees of shilling they started to truly receive in recent years, there was no denying their popularity. They were a well rounded army, were core to one of the most defining settings in the entire game, and had the most expansive lore. With all that, who could blame people for getting into them. I was one of the few exceptions of that time, starting with a xenos race, in this case the tau. While it didn't take long to eventually jump to the Ultramarines, and then later on Chaos (thank you for influencing those, Graham McNeill) the Tau Empire was my gateway into the setting. That said, it was certainly not the most auspicious one, but it was something which led to a few interesting games. This is one of them.

During the last year of the Third Edition, my local Games Workshop basically set up a series of massive campaigns as a send off to one era, and a celebration of the start of another. For the veterans this meant a series of informal tournaments and, in the case of the rest of us, several insane multi-player meat-grinders. These usually consisted of five or six players a side, each with only five or six hundred points at the most.While some were out and out slugging matches, most had some serious lore related story behind them. In the case of this particular game, it was a hidden Ordo Hereticus cache of information, lost to the mists of time, but only recently discovered. Well, this led to a rather large scale battle, with the Imperium on one side (fighting to retake it and rescue the stasis locked Lord Inquisitor within) and everyone else on the other. Unfortunately, this didn't quite gel with me.

The reasoning for such an alliance of Chaos Warbands, Eldar Warhosts, Dark Eldar Kabals, Ork WAAAGHS! and a small Tyranid Hive Fleet was down to opportunism and exploitation. Half of them had been bartered or were being mind controlled by the Thousand Sons sorcerer on one side, the rest were present purely to deny the Imperium its prize for some unknown reason. The thing was, the Tau Cadre I was using didn't quite fit in with this merry band of murderers for more than a few lore related reasons. Thanks this to being the time before the sheer stupidity of Farsight Enclaves opted to have the Ethereals abruptly follow the Emperor's every mistake, the Tau Empire was relatively aware of Chaos. It wasn't widespread, and encounters were rare, but their discovery wasn't some staggering game-changer beyond all else. More importantly, encounters had proven two things: Firstly, the Ethereals' influence to calm minds and their minute presence in the Warp had been shown to make them extremely resistant to telepathic intrusions. Secondly, the few times Fire Warriors had run into Chaos, they had seen it as a manifestation of Mont'au, the very thing their entire society was created to oppose.

Things were only made a bit more complicated by my Cadre's background. Serving as an advanced vanguard for the Empire, they were sent to establish positive diplomatic relations and seek out potential races far ahead of their species. This was basically a form of far reaching planning, and usually relied upon them making a good impression by saving them from some xenos terror, like the orks, tyranids or dark eldar. Yeah, very the guys i'd been paired up with. Most players would have overlooked this, but unfortunately my allies were being saddled with a bloke who had a rod up his backside when it came to massive breaches in lore.

Quietly seeking out the manager, I went over and started bringing up these points and citing the background. While today these would have just been brushed over or ignored entirely by the staff, the manager at the time was something of a lore enthusiast. Being much more open to storytelling ideas, it turned into a discussion surrounding lore, the events of the Empire, nature of Chaos, and eventually game balance. Eventually he stated I couldn't just switch sides, it'd be against the rules, so asked me what i'd want to do instead? The answer: A royal backstabbing.

The story was privately changed thusly: The Cadre had lost their Ethereal in a recent battle, leaving them open to gradual coercion by the Sorcerer. While less effective on them than the orks, it nevertheless turned them to his side, at least until the vanguard's other Ethereal showed up. Thinking him little more than a priest, he was ignored, but quietly started to cause breaks in the influence controlling them. The Fire Warriors, upon realising the horror which had overwhelmed them, would react in suicidal rage, trying to annihilate anything in their path.

In English, or as the rest of the table was concerned: The bulk of the army would be charging into close combat or rushing into close range. Yeah, not the smartest move, but given they were partially being mind controlled and reacting in horror, it kind of seemed right. Plus it meant that it wouldn't be so damaging a betrayal than having the army shooting. Or so we thought.

Well, the Legion of Doomy Doom got the first turn, advancing across the green hilly fields which made up 90% of the terrain from that time. The problem now was keeping attention away from me during this turn, as i'd be taking my actions with the other side. Thankfully this didn't prove to be too difficult. While most of them were busy with their own movements, no one happened to notice the tau weren't doing anything. Standing still, most people assumed I was shooting, and then deflected all attention during the shooting phase by just rolling random dice until everyone was done. Sometimes it can be just amazing how much you can get away with doing that, especially during the carnage of rolling hundreds of D6s.

Well, then the other turn came about and I weighed up my options. Most of my army hadn't moved at all, sticking in the same place, but were close behind my allies. However, the "suicidal charging impulse" was exempt from the experienced warriors, so while 90% of my army was charging in, a few could hang back to shoot. This left my options open. Like any good story you needed a dramatic opening strike, and as historic as a massed assault charge might be, it needed to be memorable. It needed to be horrifying, and ultimately it needed to hit hard. Well, it didn't take long to eyeball a very tempting target.

The Chaos player heading this whole thing had left his Sorcerer in the open. Going for the whole dramatic scene of the leader waving his legions forwards, he was standing open, on his own, and with his Rubric Marines marching far ahead. 

Imagine for a moment what this the scene would have looked like in a book:

Lightning illuminates the heavens silhouetting the Warband against the night. Below the Sorcerer the ancient animated suits of armour chant the lost hymns of Prospero, and bellow prayers favouring the Dark Gods. Raising his hands, he begins hurling spells ahead, throwing them into the lines of the loyalist scum, roaring his devotion to the Changer of Ways, and killing Guardsmen by the dozen. Then, a noise interrupts him, cutting his yell short. With a smell of ozone and snap of a super-accelerated round tearing through the skies, the round struck him full in the face, smashing into the Thousand Son's ancient warplate. His ancient protections flickered, failed and then he was blown in half, the two remnants of his body spinning off in opposite directions.

At the other end of their assault line, directly parallel to him, the solo Broadside Shas'vre on the battlefield stands with wisps of smoke escaping his cannon barrels. Watching his work in smug satisfaction as the Cadre is signaled for war, he declares "Yeah, sign of the Changer of Ways to you too, mate!"

... Okay, that last part got away from me but, in fairness, I did actually say that.

Well, with the cat out of the bag, it was time for the betrayal to begin in full. With the shocked expressions of both sides, one group of Fire Warriors shot at their nearest allies, while the other two promptly charged into the nearest massed unit. Now, this was where things get a little interesting. For starters, the player nearby was one who favoured odd armies like Chaos Dwarves, or in this case Genestealer Cults. For those not in the know, the Genestealer Cults were cannon fodder taken up to the Nth degree, consisting of badly trained civilians, gangers and the like, accompanied with some heavy hitters. Their big advantage stemmed from how, for the time, they could assemble massive units, of a good fifty individuals or so. As such, on one side you had eighteen Fire Warriors and an Ethereal, on the other thirty or so Cultists. This was going to probably end badly, until things promptly took a shocking swerve.

Now, Fire Warriors are terrible in combat, any player worth their salt knows that. The thing is though, despite their terrible WS, relatively poor Strength and Toughness, they have some damn good armour. So, the Tau charged in, managed to take out a good eight cultists with some surprisingly good rolls, then tanked everything thrown back at them. With a third of their number gone, the Cultists failed a Leadership Test, fled, and then were promptly run down by the vengeful Fire Caste. Killing one and a half times their number in combat, without casualties, is a good record for any army, even fodder. For Fire Warriors though? This must have seemed like an act of the Greater Good. Well, they weren't about to let that good luck go to waste, and promptly started running, screaming at the nearest enemy unit.

Well, what followed must have seemed like the Chaos Gods were playing a bad joke on people. While the Broadside hung back, firing away and blowing chunks out of a Carnifex and blowing up a couple of Wraithguard, before being dragged down by some Genestealers, every other greyskin went on the rampage. No, there's no other word for it. The Shas'Ui might as well have switched out his helmet for a Hockey Mask and started screaming "Today is a good day for someone else to die!"

Breaking past the Cultist lines, the mob promptly charged a badly mauled unit of Ork Boyz in a hellish storm of blood-splattered tan armour and broken rifles. Well, despite losing six of their number of the orks, not only did they manage to rip and tear their way through their number, but utterly annihilated them. With the Warboss falling beneath the rifle butts of the vengeful aliens, they kept running. No, really, they didn't slow down until the fifth turn. Leaving a road paved in limbs and cemented in the bloody gore of several Raptors, three Terminators, and a number of Hormagaunts, they were only stopped at the last second before reaching the objective. By a rather badly wounded Carnifex no less. By the time the last of them were run through by scything talons, they had inflicted more damage than the same number of Khorne Berserkers would usually be capable of. 

Suffice to say, this was quite the unexpected game and one which would have rarely been pulled off. Even accepting that the tau suddenly turned into a band of maniacs who would impress Deadpool, punching their way through power armour, it's the sort of situation no one would accept these days. Most managers now would sadly just stick to the plan, more concerned about basic balance or mechanics rather than storytelling or individual ideas, and in some respects that's kind of a shame. While this sort of thing would get old fast if it were allowed too often, the odd bit of random originality here and there helps considerably to keep the game interesting. 


  1. Shas'la PUNCH!

    You know, if I was one of the other non-Imperium players, I'd have been really torn between being pissed at this sudden but inevitable betrayal, and laughing uproariously at the freaking Fire Warriors tearing through Orks, Tyranids, and Chaos Marines like the they're fucking Doom Marine.

    1. Oh it got more than a few interesting reactions. Can't quite remember all of them, but the Thousand Sons player was certainly shocked and more than a few Imperial players still wanted to shoot the army. Oddly enough it was the dark eldar player on my other flank who was laughing the most and just opted to ignore me. If he'd not, this path of violence would probably have never gotten started to begin with.