Friday 23 October 2015

Eldar Part 1 - The Lore (Warhammer 40,000 Codex Review, 3rd Edition)

The Third Edition was an interesting era for Games Workshop. It was ultimately a revolution, a twist to shift the direction of the setting and step away from neon colourful era to something much grimmer. It was the shift away from Adam West to Kevin Conroy, and while it might have produced some of the best lore to date, it wasn't without its failings. Even without getting into split feelings over the turn or certain fan issues, especially when it came to serious substance. The best lore was reserved for the likes of the Index Astartes, and substantial background lore only started to be added back into the book in late 2001. The early codices of this Edition by comparison felt extremely bare bones, which brings us to today's book.

To be blunt, this book is simply lacking lore in many regards. There's a definite shortage of the usual areas you'd expect of a truly great codex, skimming over a lot of the detailed history or variation which makes an armybook stand out. However, what little is on offer is astounding, establishing and building many ideas which still define the race to this very day. It's enough to make you forget how little is really on offer at first, because in all honesty it vastly outstrips so much of what we see in some modern books. How so? Because, unlike a few too many codices of recent years what's there isn't present purely to justify the existence of new shiny things or focus upon the army. Instead it's all about cultural identity.

Take, for example, the final page of the book. It's a single in-universe document, a detailed report by an Inquisitor which examines the starting points of the race's language. No, before you start laughing, just hear this out. So often in the lore the eldar are described as thinking on an entirely different level, beyond that of humanity in all regards. It's a very hard thing for any writer to produce, and in many cases authors only bring this to life by sidestepping the subject entirely. However, this article not only gave insight to this idea but better established the age of this alien race than any timeline ever could. It does this by taking a few choice words and then going into their origins, their meanings, the way in which they are woven into their society. Then, it starts to build upon that, showing how each word has multiple meanings or tones, and how they can be misread:

"Thus, the name given to their most prevalent war engine, Faolchu, is most readily translated as 'Falcon'. However, Faolchu is not just any bird of prey, but is in fact the legendary Falcon of Eldar myth. It is a word that is replete with implications of vengeance and retribution, of justice and the slaying of wrongdoers. In this way Faolchu appears in many texts and is wrongly translated as meaning the warcraft of the same name, rather than the concept of revenge."

Only a good paragraph or so is offered to each part, ranging from the use of their names to the locations, but it's enough to give the race a little more depth. When it discusses the subject of names it goes into the different meanings and connotations carried by each syllable, and how so often that has been built upon their religion in some way. While their gods might be dead, the very core nature of their society is linked so intrinsically to them that they're carried on by their existence, with some elements or serious shifts only adding new shades to certain terms. Believe it or not that ever popular term "mon-keigh" was formed millennia before the eldar encountered humanity, and is a more general word than many realise.

While perhaps not the single most complex or overly intricate way of presenting their culture (and, as ever, owing a lot to Dune), this text's presence helps to sell the reader on the book's ideas. It certainly does a far better job than many, far more popular, franchises would over the years, which rarely even took stabs at building their races in such a way. Looking at you Star Trek.

Perhaps understandably to a degree, many passages, texts and terms come from the Imperium's perspective. The opening paragraphs to the final quote on the back cover are of humans regarding these aliens, and the reader only "sees" through their eyes for brief moments. It's only either during certain short stories or the like that the narrative truly shows things from their perspective, and these are always fleeting examples at best. As ever, this is an understandable approach to take but it ultimately ends up being a double edged sword. While on the one hand it succeeds at making the race seem alien, seem beyond human and with little to link us, it also distances them. It makes the reader relate too much to the human factions and not so much with the very army they are examining.

A few years down the line writers would attempt to take things much further with Codex: Necrons and it would negatively impact that book. So much so that, upon the complete re-writing of their entire lore, the author was falsely praised with giving the army an identity and sentient HQ choices. The way this particular codex sidestepped it was thanks to two elements: A wider variety of characters and more distinct units, and those same short stories mentioned before. 
Every few pages or so, the reader would be granted a look at part of their army, from the Warlocks to the Aspect Warriors. However, what separates the success here with those of other codices is the way they use these stories. Rather than focusing purely upon visceral action or using it to shill a particular unit, they're introspective, quiet and showing the species' mindset. This is true across the board, and while it would have been an easy thing to show each of them slaying hordes of foes, we instead get moments such as Iyanna reluctantly summoning another dead warrior and her grief to add some real variation. Some, for lack of a better term, surprising humanity within their own societies. As a result of this, the reader is given just enough information to connect with the eldar, but it never crosses the line which makes them stop seeming alien.

This is the thing people so often forget about these books, they largely used the same storytelling tools as the bad ones. There wasn't some massive jump in how they presented each army in turn, or even how they structured certain books. On a basic level they were largely the same, but the authors of certain ones knew how to make better use of what they had on hand than the bad ones. To parallel this with films, codices such as this one are like giving Guillermo Del Toro £200,000 and one year to shoot a film in. He might lack some of the flashier or more extensive elements, but you're still going to end up with something extremely well crafted. By comparison, you could give Michael Bay eight times the cash and three years, but only end up with "They can never be Ultramarines!" as the sole cultural expression of the book.

However, while Codex: Eldar might execute certain ideas and elements extremely well, the lack of certain bare basics is still keenly felt in many areas. Chief among these is the lack of a real history, a real introduction to the race fully outlining events such as The Fall or how they came to reside among the stars. Their basic story just seems to be absent from this tale, and in its place you have very little to help define or fully establish the nature of each craftworld. At best, you have the Phoenix Lords, some representing certain craftworlds, but even in that case they seem distinctly lacking. With so many on hand, the book only has the space to offer up a paragraph for each.

Much of the actual lore itself is crammed in and around the rules, never allowed a chance to truly flourish or become the center of attention. The story is certainly a prominent part of the book, but at times it seems to be playing second fiddle to both the hobby and the crunch. As such, you have the introduction discussing why the player should take this army but that's really about it. The rest instead then jumps to the actual army itself, with the occasional moment of lore before spending most of the book's middle upon the models. Yeah, much as we might complain about the padding in modern codices, the old ones had it as well, and it's almost as egregious. It covers just about all the bases, from the primary units to the heroes, but in all fairness there is a little justification for its existence. Rather than the expected parade of showpieces, you have a series of painting tips and even some customised units to help inspire players to give armies their own identity.

Ultimately the Codex: Eldar of this edition is flawed to be sure, but it's certainly a book well worth looking into. As a book on lore? Perhaps not quite so much as you'd hope, but at the same time its ideas hold up extremely well. Better yet, it can serve to inspire new writers covering the lore, showing how much can be done even when you're limited to a small portion of an already thin book. That and the artwork, as has been shown here, really holds up and it's quite a surprise it's not been used more often.

Still, this is just the start. Join us here as we look into the book's rules held up and the limitations of their own era.


  1. Now this is a surprise, I didn't expect you to do this edition of Eldar, but I guess it's good to compare it to what we've currently got and 3rd edition is my favourite version of 40K (despite its flaws I've had the most fun playing it out of all versions) so why not?
    Having said that I've got a lot to say when you get to the rules, at least as far as certain upgrade options go and possibly the supplements if you're doing them.

    Something to keep in mind is the lore was in not only the codex, but also White Dwarf's, not to mention the Eldar were also lucky enough to be given a supplement. Angron's original fall to Khorne was originally in a white dwarf (funnily enough it was because he prized honourable martial combat that Khorne appealed to him, and not mindless slaughter like his current incarnation) yet the fall of Angron and the World Eaters is not in the Chaos Space Marine codex, just as an example.

    This is also when 40K was focused a;most exclusively on humanity and its fight against everyone else, to the point that non-human forces fighting other non-human forces are incredibly rare, which is why the Main Rulebook goes into extreme depth about the Imperium, but has only a few paragraphs for everyone else.

    As you mention it helps keep everyone else mysterious and alien, and I do prefer that, if everyone is too human most encounters just become questionable at best as to why people are fighting, just look at the Eldar wanting to get their maiden worlds back, they want the worlds so much they'll sacrifice thousands of their own endangered species to get it, which makes taking the world pointless because co-existing on a fringe world that doesn't have much Imperial control over it is just so unreasonable for some reason. They could have done something to better explain why they wanted those worlds but doing it in a way still alien, for example if there's better connections to the Webway, or if there's something in the Warp itself around that area that makes it far more suitable to habitation.

    I'll quickly touch on the Necrons, since it relates to the Eldar, you say it was false praise to Ward for giving the army sentient HQ's, but from me it was genuine praise, though if you have a problem with him making them too human and explaining everything then I can completely agree, and that's what happened to pretty much every race in 40K barring (possibly) the Tyranids.

    Some of the people I know played certain armies just because they were so exotic (admittedly it was and still is the reason I'm a big fan of oddball armies), yet if you ask anybody why they played the Eldar now I can almost guarantee they'd say either A) The models are cool, or B) Because of their rules (at least where I am those are the only two reasons anybody here plays Eldar at all).

    There's not too much hook to their lore anymore, not to mention this outsiders look inside the minds of the Eldar also allowed the player to come up with their own personality for their army (something highly encouraged at the time) and gave the players almost total narrative freedom over whatever they wanted to happen.

    I honestly think I'd prefer a continuation of this because if there's enough given to the player they can fill in the connections themselves (having the inquisition describe a lot of what makes the Eldar who they are but make sure they don't know everything about them), and simply by having the player fill in the blanks they'll be more invested in the army they've spent time on then if you were to flatly tell them everything.

    1. Well, i'd actually been planning to diversify reviews for a while now and honestly just wanted to test the waters. Ultimately it was really an excuse to look into the older editions and see who else would be interested. Sadly it's actually not drawn half as much attention as a modern release, but I might do the odd one here and there when I have the time. It's just unfortunate that, in this case, I managed to have it partway done when GW releases its first major 40K release for several months. Also, each to their own. Personally I liked the Fourth Edition a lot more, but the Third still has its charm, especially 3.5.

      That's actually one reason why looking into this was so fascinating. Many regard this as being the golden age of great lore, which it truly was, but so much of it has been lost because of its scattershot release. White Dwarf had countless excellent lore enhancing articles and every month you could get something new and outstanding (William King's interpretation of the Siege of Terra remains a personal favourite) but so much seems to have been forgotten because it was rarely compiled into a single document. Hell, we were lucky to get stuff like the Index Astartes put into individual volumes and all. Interestingly though, I have actually never read that version of Angron's fall, but that sounds extremely interesting. Would you happen to know which White Dwarf that originated from?

      The humanity first angle has always been something which has sadly been at Warhammer's core, and it's only broken away a few times. Even the original Rogue Trader rulebook tended to limit alien races to only a few paragraphs at a time, and it was only during the late Third, Fourth and some of the Fifth Editions where we started to see some exceptions. The comparison between the old and current Dark Eldar codices remains a major example of this treatment. As cited here, it does work to a point but also leaves some elements sadly malnourished and limited in their portrayal. It's honestly a shame that things were never better built upon or that readers were given an armybook which delved into their race in greater detail. A well written one of course.

      Yeah, i'll also definitely agree that the main reason all too many people go for them these days tends to be everything besides their background. There's still a solid core who do, the Eternal Crusade forums have a surprising number of such individuals, but it is extremely undervalued. It's also not helped that some are so starved of attention that they'll willingly embrace Codex: Iyanden's terrible lore just for a bit more attention.

    2. It figures to me anyway that the older releases would draw less attention if only because they're old and there's still new stuff coming out. I'm also certainly not going to claim that 3rd's the best edition, especially in terms of its mechanics, and I can definitely agree that fourth was more balanced and had better codex's, but I just overall had more fun playing 3rd.

      Angron's fall was in White Dwarf 279, here's some excerpts: "Angron was the first Primarch to join Horus in revolt against the Emperor, believing that his martial virtue was the only way to save Mankind from Destruction."
      "Khorne appealed to Angron's sense of honour and martial pride, and when the Heresy failed and Horus was slain, he and the World Eaters battled across the galaxy to reach the Eye of Terror and the daemon world Khorne had prepared for them."
      It's located in the section that goes into detail about the First War for Armageddon.

      Unfortunately the lore doesn't go too much into detail about his fall, those paragraphs pretty much sum it up, though something else that's interesting is he keeps hold of honourable combat and his martial virtue, not to mention he's able to formulate clever battle plans and doesn't like killing the weak when there's still strong opponents to duel, and this is ultimately the reason he loses the fight as the Brother-Captain he was fighting flat out cheats.

      If he didn't call off his Bloodthirsters from attacking the Grey Knights when the Brother-Captain, or if he believed in attacking an unprepared opponent then he either would never have had to fight the Brother-Captain or he would have killed the Brother-Captain when the other Grey Knights started channeling their psychic might through him.

      Something else I'd like to bring up is that the White Dwarf's also occasionally came out with full army lists (funnily enough almost all were written by Matt Ward or Phil Kelly), which we've actually kind of seen a return to in the latest books, but without much of the detail the previous issues had.

      I think context is the key thing when writing a Codex, if you want to show how effective something is in battle I think it's better to use a PoV from the commander, the enemy commander, or the unit itself. If you want to describe how the unit is in the world in general then the normal descriptions work, and if you want to flesh that out further then I think a written text from an outsider would do best. If there's nothing but flat descriptions like in most of the 5th edition Codex's then I find it hard to get invested and it just comes off as almost boring.