Thursday, 8 October 2015

Astartes Vs. Stormcast - Influence vs. Mimicry

Divisive as Age of Sigmar has been, few points have been more controversial than the creation of the Stormcast Eternals. They really serve as a lightning rod for all criticism surrounding the new game, from its new direction thematically to seemingly catering to a new audience. However, while much of it focuses upon a few key areas, most points tend to delve into the accusation of trying to popularise the Fantasy setting by making it more like 40,000

Whereas the Far Future has a single army, divided into multiple sub armies and two major factions, serving as their flagship force as cash cow, Fantasy never quite had that same draw. You certainly had the High Elves, a force which tended to attract an inordinately large number of newcomers, but they never dominated the game to the extent the astartes did. They never had the same massive number of novels, huge wealth of fully fleshed out sub-armies and lacked the superhuman angle. By comparison, the Stormcast Eternals have just about all of that, and combined with the pauldronificiation of Fantasy's armour, it's understandably become a point of discontent.

Why are we discussing this now? Because Josh Reynolds, a longtime Black Library author and writer of many End Times and Age of Sigmar novels, had an interesting response. When the subject of their similarities was brought to him directly, he had this to say:

"Well, for starters, Space Marines are chosen as children, tortured by SCIENCE!, and then drafted into an eternity of being monastic murder machines whose sole purpose is to hold up the crumbling foundations of an omnicidal dystopia in the name of a rotting carcass that eats psykers like chiclets. They're emotionally stunted orphans who were brainwashed and weaponized before being unleashed on a galaxy where EVERYTHING is trying to kill them. They never even had a chance to be people before someone turned them into a gun instead.

Stormcast, on the other hand, are dead heroes, chosen for their valour and faith, resurrected and sent to free the Mortal Realms from the abominations currently running the show, on behalf of a benevolent god-king. They're traumatized heroes who had lives, personalities and histories prior to being crammed into primary colored hulkbuster armor and filled full of lightning so that they could go save their descendants from the eldritch horrors of a nightmare dimension. They endure death after death, losing a bit more of their soul each time, in order to prevent anyone else from suffering the fate which befell them.

One group are so far removed from humanity as to be utterly alien. The other group are so human it causes them pain. One group feels little in the way of emotion, the other group feels emotion as strongly as they did before death. One group hates and fears the alien. The other group allies regularly with space-lizards, skeletors and green monster-men. One group is the personification of the grim future in which they live. The other is a thing born of hope.

The similarities are cosmetic: big guys in easily paintable armor sell better than little dudes with fiddly bits. But the context for those cosmetic similarities is quite different. Think of it this way...Space Marines are Batman and Stormcast are Captain America. Both are super-heroes, both wear costumes, both punch bad guys, both save people. But they ain't the same, are they?"

It's an interesting answer to be sure, and it brings up the question of just where we should draw the line between inspiration and influence, and outright mimicry. While people might have cried out against this and decried their inclusion, it's hard to not cite how Warhammer 40,000 itself is an amalgamation of various direct inspirations. The astartes themselves were directly influenced by Starship Troopers, the fingerprints of Michael Moorcock can be found everywhere on its metaphysical subject matter, and even the eldar are not a wholly unique creation. However, what makes them unique is thanks to how writers and creators put a new spin upon them, distancing them from their original creations, so why are players so adamantly against the Eternals? Going purely from personal opinion, I believe it comes down to a couple of key factors. 

The first among these is the shift from a gritter and more grounded fantasy setting to a a far flung cosmic tale. The death of the Old World was hard enough to handle for many, but even during that there were complaints from some that too many of Chaos' new designs seemed too 40Kified in many areas. Once the company promptly introduced a band of shoulder-pad wearing demi-god super soldiers fighting in the name of a Great Crusade to unite humanity, seeds of dissent quickly blossomed. It was, in many regards, too rapid a shift and too quick. While the End Times might have provided a clean break in the minds of some, the sudden jump to include these and extremely Khorne Berserker-esque designs was just too much. Plus, their curious resemblance to the Sanguinary Guard hardly helped matters.

Of course, even if the company had stuck to the sudden jump alone, that might have been fine, but then there's the issue of how writers present the astartes in 40,000. Despite Reynolds' statements, we have more often than not seen the astartes presented in an extremely heroic light. They're often seen as the closest the setting has to a wholly good chapter, and they're diverse enough of a faction for multiple stories to exist where they barely resemble the version cited above. 

Even discounting the more moral forces, things like Rynn's World, the Ultramarines saga and a number of short stories show them to be upstanding and caring defenders of humanity rather than the Imperium. The dominance of this over the more traditional semi-psychotic super soldiers they were intended to be - and Games Workshop's desire to milk this to have more people buy them - means that there isn't enough to really differ them from one another. Plus, let's face it, we've seen them ally with certain xenos races more and more often as the years go by.

However, for the sake of argument, let's assume that the grim dark incarnation of this army is the only one which exists. Well, even then you run into more than a few distinct issues which, combined with the above example, can lead people to think that this is ultimately a Fantasy version of the space marines. Despite citing the differing origins, you can easily compare the recruiting methods of the astartes with the Stormcast Eternals. While the response might have called one conscripted children and the other venerated, ascended heroes, quite often they're depicted purely as the latter. 

On many worlds, feudal or otherwise, it's an honour to be selected by the astartes, and they only choose the greatest among them to be worthy of their ranks. It's often joked, to place some real emphasis upon the astartes' overly elite nature that Conan would be one of their basic recuits, but it's not far from the truth. They would have selected someone like him in his younger days, someone powerful, bloodthirsty and skilled, to be worthy of ascension, and to them that would have been akin to being raised among the gods. The Space Wolves, Mortifators and many others have traditions which directly resemble this, and once you pick out that point the similarities start to become more and more distinct. Replace Sigmar with a primarch/Emperor and his power with gene-seed/conditioning, and you end up with a vast number of parallels between the two forces.

Now, despite the similarities, I personally don't think that's the greatest issue which is causing so many problems here. You can have many very similar forces, very similar structured building blocks and still end up with something completely different. As they're structured, as they're presented to a degree in their lore, the Stormcast Eternals are the more angelic choice here. They're figures who once you really look at the nuances and elements building up each army, you see how they have started at the same key point but quickly split off from one another. Their very link to the Old World and alliances alone are enough to break them up from one another once you really examine it, but on the surface it might still seem extremely similar.

It's the same problem Pacific Rim suffered from once it was leapt upon by shrieking bloody fanatics of Neon Genesis Evangelion for being an "Americanized rip-off." Because Del Toro used certain setting elements and piloting systems which retained some initial comparisons with the anime, in the minds of many that instantly damned it. They demeaned and insulted any who enjoyed it as supporting plagarised content, without bothering to look into how each universe branched off from one another. However, such surface scans of a material, no matter how many details you might be covering, can always result in very different shows seeming identical at first glance.

Don't believe this? Well then, read the following:

You have a world which is perpetually under threat from an enemy alien race. A race which can emerge instantly on terrestrial earth with no need for space travel and retains religious overtones purely for the sake of style. Their weapons of war and very bodies seem monsterous, like creatures of legend or beings warped beyond the point of ever resembling humankind. 
All that stands in the way of this threat is an organised military force operating out of a heavily defended city, built to instantly slide into underground bunkers the moment it is attacked. While retaining many fortified military units, their one hope for true victory in this war relies super-prototype war machines equal and opposite to the aliens, which are fired at high speed into battle from their base. Among their crew is a unique figure with a direct genetic link to their foe, and the offspring of the organisation's often difficult commander.

Now, am I talking about Evangelion or am I talking about Stingray? Could easily be either despite how that detailed description seems to uniquely fit only one series on first glance.

As a result of this, I personally feel that the fault lies more with the execution and presentation of the Stormcast Eternals than anything else. They're certainly inspired by the astartes to be sure, but there's enough of a separation to make them stand on their own. However, that's not being depicted at this point. Currently, Games Workshop is focusing upon selling the Stormcast Eternals purely upon their image, their basic look and little else. There's no nuance present there and no opportunity to really examine their culture for lack of a better expression. This sadly carries over to more than a few stories, as while Mr Reynolds might have a firm grip on what makes them tick, other authors seem to slide into the thought processes behind writing astartes. As such, it can seem to fans like they're reading about a chapter but sans the traditions, solid identity and ideologies which helped make them so distinct.

To really avoid the continued labels which have plagued this new army, Games Workshop really needs to help present them in a broader sense. They need something compatible with the Index Astartes, something easily accessible, well written and in depth, delving into enough of their history to make them seem truly unique. They need more opportunities to be shown on an individual basis, covering the various hosts one by one rather than just sticking to the gold clad Hammers of Sigmar. If they were truly able to present this to the fandom as a whole, it seems far less likely we'd be seeing so many accusations of one army being a transplanted version of another.


  1. So, the big issue here is that GW has given us nothing besides how the Stormcast fight, and nothing else to get invested in?

    Though it'd be kind of unny to read about what they do when they're not fighting/training-to-fight...

    "... I tap for two mana, and play a Reckless Cohort. Your turn."
    "Ok, I untap my lands..."

    1. Oh definitely, and that's honestly my exact point here. Beyond the bare basics we know little to nothing, and little had truly been done to expand upon their culture in any way. I won't say there have not been one or two good stories involving them, but we desperately need something on par with the Index Astartes to examine them.

      The main reason the astartes became such a pillar of 40,000 was, after all, because they were lucky enough to have an extremely detailed and fleshed out series of articles going into each one in turn. The Stormcast have the potential for the same to be done again, but there's nothing there at the moment to really build up investment.

    2. Well, the question then becomes: What do they focus on? What do the Stormcast do for recreation? How do they fit into the rest of the peoples of Azyr? What's the society of Azyr like?

      I have no suggestions besides wargames and reading The Art of War. What've you got?

    3. Well, if you needed a single thing to build and hinge upon, to start branching out and build up a personality I can personally think one core point which would work well: Their missing identities.

      We know that the Stormcast were built from the souls of beings from the Old World, lost to the mists of time and then reforged as part of Sigmar's new crusade. However, according to Josh Reynolds, they were not merely made from human souls but effectively every uncorrupted one Sigmar could get his hands on. Men, women, elves, dwarves, orks, perhaps even lizardmen and stranger things were among them. This leads to great diversity among their kind hidden and locked away beneath their armour, With occasional flashes or hints of memory as to what they once were.

      As a result of such a melting pot of viably differing personalities and half-hidden cultural identities, I can personally see each Host consisting of minor sub-cultures. It would be akin to The Big O's representation of memory in some cases, with groups trying to work based upon what little they could remember and almost ingrained elements of knowledge built into them, I know that's a little vague, but it would help to further humanise them if presented right and better yet also gives some indication of a link between this world and the Old World. Imagine if some Stormcast eternals gathered on a certain day, trying to make half-remembered hymns about a celebration they have all but forgotten. Imagine others trying to scribe or record their thoughts, piecing together whatever they can from fleeting images. It might also allow for a certain link between certain groups and some races within Azyr, with some gravitating towards having some relationship with one people over another.

      That's the short version anyway. There's a longer one to be made but that is the starting point I would work with as a rule, personally.

    4. That'd actually be a way to introduce some conflicts between the Eternals as well. One Chamber is celebrating some old, half-remembered tradition, and a second Chamber looks upon them with... disgust? Pity? They can't remember why, but their brothers in arms make them really uncomfortable when they try to revive some part of their old lives.

      And then it turns out Chamber one is former Aelfs and the second are former Duardin.

    5. I would really like it if they did something like that with the Stormcast. They're obviously cribbing from the Einherjar of Norse mythology (virtuous warriors chosen on/after death to fight on in a heaven ruled by a warrior god), and there's a lot of scope to explore what they're like and what exactly reforging them does to their personality. The links to the former peoples of the Warhammer world would be interesting too and could perhaps be used to cast some insight on why Sigmar sends particular Hosts to where he does, perhaps deliberately sending former Aelfs to negotiate with the Aelfs.

      The key difference between Stormcast Eternals and Space Marines is this point where they can potentially remember their former lives and that can be used to differentiate them. You'll never escape the Sigmarines nickname I imagine, but a good place to start hammering out the differences is with the key one. Plus it gives room for people to forge their narrative and potentially do some fun conversions of the Stormcast models to reflect their interpretation of their forces.

      Even without going into the races thing, the kingdoms of men in the Warhammer world could be varied. How would a former Bretonnian be as a Stormcast? Perhaps he could catch himself whispering a prayer to the Lady before a battle out of habit and wonder who he is praying to if not Sigmar. Perhaps he might see some peasants in Azyrheim and find himself looking down on them without quite knowing why. A former engineer from the Empire might try and figure out the workings of the Stormcasts' weaponry. Could wizards become Stormcasts? If they do, maybe they muse about the metaphysics of the winds-turned-worlds.

      You could also use it to develop other parties, like how certain races and even peoples view the Stormcast Eternals. Are they just universally revered as Sigmar's holy warriors, or do some have a more tense relationship with them? Is there fear that Sigmar could loose them on anyone, not just Chaos? Do any forces fight beside the Eternals or do they always fight alone?

      I've actually softened towards Age, partly because I like the setting and I'm glad they left it open for people to continue using the old models. Some more fluff on the Stormcast could really help with the whole affair IMO.

    6. "You could also use it to develop other parties, like how certain races and even peoples view the Stormcast Eternals. Are they just universally revered as Sigmar's holy warriors, or do some have a more tense relationship with them?"

      Now I want to see a Stormcast Eternal negotiating with an orc Warboss by headbutting him. Or trying to drink a dwarf under the table in an attempt to earn their grudging respect.

  2. Really the Stormcaster Eternals are just symptoms of a much bigger problem with Age of Sigmar. He can *say* they are different from Space Marines all he likes, but you've got to show it.

    Age of Sigmar has no Middenhelm, no Praag, no Altdorf, no Kurgen, Hung Norse, or their dozens of sub tribes. When people say Age of Sigmar is shallow it's because in creating the End Times they have stripped away 30 years worth of culture and history in favor of the ancient heroes of those cultures fight each other.

    Superman and Batman fighting each other means nothing if it doesn't have a world to change, if the victors ideals hold no sway on mankinds direction nor point towards a different future. Just like that, Khornites and Eternals fighting each other means nothing to me because the victor will influence no culture of consequence.

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  4. I can't help but feel that speech about what defines a Space Marine and what defines an Eternal isn't really accurate when you take all chapters into account, I'll re-write it just slightly: "Space Wolves, on the other hand, are dead heroes, chosen for their valour and faith, resurrected and sent to free the Mortal Realms from the abominations currently running the show, on behalf of a benevolent god-king. They're traumatized heroes who had lives, personalities and histories prior to being crammed into primary colored hulkbuster armor and filled full of lightning so that they could go save their descendants from the eldritch horrors of a nightmare dimension. They endure death after death, losing a bit more of their soul each time, in order to prevent anyone else from suffering the fate which befell them."

    Now when you remember that Dreadnoughts exist, even that last sentence fits them quite well. To be honest though, I don't think GW were trying to copy the Astartes in backstory, I think they were just trying to make a big generic hero force everyone can root for, but it ended up being like Space Marines anyway since they're also supposed to be the generic force for good everyone can root for. Admittedly having such a similar design doesn't help.

    Also I haven't been able to read in a bit since my previous computer died, but at least you've got good articles to catch up on.

    1. You know, it's interesting you say that because I actually spoke to Reynolds and he freely admitted that there were some unfortunate inabilities to sidestep comparisons between that chapter and the Eternals, mostly due to their inspiration. Given how both are very deeply entrenched in Norse mythology (with no small amount of Marvel's Thor added in) it's something largely unavoidable on a basic level. However, he did argue that certain traits did help separate them from one another. They reflect less of the Space Wolves' savage nature or the turns they've taken in recent years, or the fact they have a living father to follow. They also lack the same detachment the Wolves have been shown to have of late, as while they might defend them that chapter is treated more like a savage beast keeping the even worse creatures at bay. They're less William King's creations than Dan Abnett's sadly, and I personally think that to a degree the Stormcast are a step back towards older depictions in some regards.

      As for the Dreadnought comment, yes and no. I can see where you're coming from to be sure, but personally I think they're closer to early Necron Lords at the most. Less losing their minds through slumber and possible age, and more being chipped away but gradual defeat. Plus there's that ever present possibility of the deal with Nagash hanging over them, which could come back to bite their entire force. Though, you could be right about the idea of them being more of a general idea though. It wouldn't be the first time Games Workshop has tried this, and they do look a little overly generic in some regards, sadly.

      Ah not a problem at all, just glad to see you back on here at long last. Thanks in all seriousness, but you've no need to comment and read everything on here. Just glad to see you're online again.

  5. Honestly i dont really mind the story much...except the fact that they cant die, which is kind crappy to me...The main reason why i dont like them is their seriously, if ya wanna make Fantasy marines, ya could atleast make em look bulky, not an entire legion of sanguanary guard with muscular men armour who cant die...
    Khornes dudes look wayyyy better and i honestly want to see them beat the crap out of these SM ripoffs

    Like seriously its like GW is FORCING US to like them making them much more OP and *HONOROUBLE* but for fucks sake please PLEASE ATLEAST MAKE THEM LOOK GOOD!!! Atleast we could use them for truescale marine conversions

    Ive tried making conversions out of them but really...i just feel its better to buy a 3rd party product from some SM ripoff sites like Kabuki who makes nice primarchs models, the Stormcast are just too... (Sorry to say) gay, they are to glittery, too magical , too...fairytale ish figures ...and lets not even mention how bad the armour looks again , as opposed to the Astartes...genetically modified superhuman soldiers...given a purpose , to not feel fear or mercy , to fight the nightmares that lurk behind the stars, that is the true charm of them...Not because *I AM ROYAL-ISH WITH LIGHTNING HAMMURS AND MAGICAL POWURZ AND I CAN KILLZ THEM WITHOUT MYSELF DYING BECAUSE SIGMAR*