Sunday, 1 November 2015

Tau Empire Part 1 - The Lore (Warhammer 40,000 Codex Review, 7th Edition)

It's a sad thing to think that, even a decade after their release, the Tau Empire is still viewed by some fans as an outsider. Despite being core to the lore of several, involved in countless tales and ultimately serving as a growing power, most seem to view them as just a lower key player on the galactic plane. In some regards this might be true, but the real shame stems from the fact that it means their successes are so often forgotten. Out of all the factions, all the codices released, the Tau Empire are the only one to go from strength to strength.

Every codex learned from the mistakes of its predecessor, built upon old ideas and gradually developed over time. Rather than being ignored, complaints were taken as points to focus upon in following editions. As such, when the Tau Empire was criticised for its overly good nature in a grim dark setting, a shade of grey was added. When the rules were thought to be problematic or issues arose from their place in the metagame, they were tweaked tactically, sidestepping the easy power-gaming approach popularised in the Fifth Edition. So, with all that in mind, this latest version Codex: Tau Empire had a great deal to prove. On a storytelling front though, it's nothing to write home about.

Like so many books prior to it, the codex makes the mistake of favouring artwork over storytelling. Abbreviating massive sections of the race's history to make room for showy art, it lacks the same depth and detail which helped prior books stand out. Rather than a fully detailed explanation of how their society initially evolved, developed and what happened in the wake of the Aun uniting their species. Even the events of Fio'taun itself are skipped, and the book never truly emphasises how the Mont'au shaped their very ideology. It tells the reader that their ideal is to unify all, driven by their history, but without the same context it lacks even a fraction of its impact. 

Even narrowed down to an extremely truncated form, the opening texts do at least cover the basics. It presents the Tau Empire as a conquering force, presents them as extremists, yet it never tries to push it into making them Orwellian Dictators like so many other texts. It describes the galaxy as being "barbaric and disordered" and that all followers of the Tau'Va must give up their individuality for the betterment of all. It's correct if a bit short, yet the problem starts to come into play when it describes their nature in approaching other species:

"Their silver-tongued diplomats continue to talk newly discovered alien races into committing themselves to the Greater Good - and those who refuse are either persuaded otherwise, or else eradicated by the overwhelming firepower of the Tau military."

Yeah, this is the issue. The Water Caste can spend years talking some species into joining them and a peaceful approach is always preferred. Even when it's not, they have been presented as wanting to conquer societies rather than eradicate them entirely. So, rather than any lengthy or complex process, the Tau Empire's approach according to the book boils down to this:

"Join us!"
"... No!"
"Okay, it's genocide time boys, break out the railguns!"

It's a problem which has been made in other stories, and it's surprising that this book makes the same mistake. This could have been to help avoid the overly positive criticisms of the past, but it just seems to water them down to their baser negative elements. This failing is further backed by the additional problem of the determination to make the Aun (okay, Ethereals) Montgomery Burns on steroids. In an examination of each Caste six pages in, it specifically notes that many of the Empire's member species are growing suspicious of the Aun and their mysterious origins; also that they are less venerated and respected than instantly obeyed without question. Again, it's not a bad idea, but it's utterly focused upon the Tau Empire's dark side, with no effort made to offer a balanced depiction.

When the book does break away from the "Tau Empire will kill all unless they submit, Ethereals are all secretly evil" angle, it's actually not too bad. Not great, and certainly still too brief, but it's not completely bereft of positive elements. The actual examination of the Caste system goes into some reasonable detail. While not nearly as much as before, it's still satisfying to see the author focusing upon the broad nature of each one. Earth for example, so often listed a just builders in some unfortunate lore, are explicitly stated to be anything from farmers to scientists. The book makes it clear that the Caste system focuses less upon a specific function and more upon their general role within society.

The real issue is that, in all honesty, nothing new has really been added here. In fact, a great deal has been taken away, and despite covering the same point or ideas, they're either lacking the depth from before or lumbered with some problematic issue or another. Take the Septs for example, for four editions now we've known little to known little to nothing about them or the ways of their worlds. However, even with all the space freed up by shortening the earlier sections, no effort has been pushed into fleshing them out. If anything, some have sadly slid further into being simple, one note factions, with the only defining point of Tash'Var now being that they have a metric ton of Breacher Teams.

The moments where the book really does progress anything are small, extremely short bits. For example, it's certainly nice to see that the Air Caste are getting a separate section unto themselves in the book, especially with fliers now being a core part of the tabletop game. While mostly focused upon selling the Razorshark and Sun Shark to players, it's at least an acknowledgement that they're a force outside of the Fire Caste themselves. The same goes for many new units. Rather than being treated as some commonplace part of the army or something which has been there for centuries (like the bloody Centurions) we instead have them being new additions. They're ideas or developments built upon older concepts, and it often even offers shout outs to their predecessors. The XV15 is mentioned as being slowly phased out in favour of the XV25, and the Stormsurge was developed as an additional countermeasure against super heavies which the Tiger Shark could not cope with.

Furthermore, the lore behind some new units is genuinely great, with the Stormsurge and Ghostkeel's lore noting not only how and why they were developed, but their methods of recruiting new pilots. It examines their tactics and use in war far better than other codices, and there's a sense that they're being presented as a part of a greater army. It's not much but it's leagues better than how some codices seem to just write them as an individual product to be sold to new players.

Unfortunately, most of the positive points on here are ultimately just going to sound like faint praise thanks to what was lost. It's ultimately gone the same way as Codex: Imperial Knights, and the limited and overly simplified nature of the lore is disheartening to read. For every step forwards, there's at least one step backwards.
We're given a look into the Fire Caste's organisation, but all else is forgotten. 
The book avoids listing the timeline as M31-M42 thankfully, but it skips over so much of what was present before and even fails to list the timeline in terms of Sphere Expansions.
We're given a look into how certain aliens are treated, but the book presents the Empire as erasing their cultures in favour of their own rather than the more even hand than before. It even lacks the list of species in previous editions.
The book largely sidesteps the issue of the Aun suppressing all knowledge of the Warp, but only by omitting anything relating to the Warp or psykers in the slightest, even pretending the Empire doesn't have Warp Drives.

In the place of real examination, real detail and work, the book just resorts to the same old filler we've seen time and time again. In all honesty, it wastes a good half of its pages on either recycled artwork, the same information presented twice, or just shorter, worse told, versions of what we've seen before. Also, yes, there's a massive chunk of the book which consists of simple palette swaps of armies but with little to no flavour text of any kind. It's nice to look at, but extremely insubstantial.

The codex isn't that bad but, as lore goes, there's nothing really great here. To be honest there's barely enough for a full review. While it might interest some new readers, anyone who has read any prior book is just going to be left disappointed. For all the flexability behind the Tau Empire and how they can be presented by various authors, it's a real shame to see Games Workshop limiting themselves to such a shallow depiction.

So, that's the lore down. For those interested in the rules, you can find a few thoughts here.


  1. You know, from reading your Codex reviews, I feel like I'm starting to see a pattern emerging where GW's writing is concerned, and that pattern is "less, less, less."

    Which, I suppose, makes sense if GW are still chasing the 12yo demographic who probably don't care about the lore and just look at the pretty pictures.

    1. It has been an undeniable trend unfortunately, at least with the codices. In the Imperial Knights review there's a photograph of the introductory lore to both the older and newer codices, and on the newer one three quarters of it is dominated by a single splash image. It's the same all over unfortunately, and it's becoming a real problem with some books. Even the good ones, like Khorne Daemonkin are suffering from some surprisingly one-dimensional depictions these days.

      That said, I wouldn't personally say this is true across the board. Kauyon seems to be actually incredibly well written so far, and the lore here seems to have been a priority. Part of me wonders if this is what most of the writing team was focusing upon, at the expense of the Tau Empire codex itself.

    2. Well, that's... odd. So, Kauyon is good (hurray!), but how many would be enticed to buy it if it's a supplement to a lesser product?

    3. Oddly enough because it's not exactly a supplement. It contains pretty much all of the codex's rules, unit listings and wargear, just not the same lore. So, you gain all the crunch, but the fluff is focused upon the war between Shadowsun, the Raven Guard and the White Scars.

  2. Would you be at all interested in producing a write-up of Kauyon, Bellarius?

    I ask because I'd like to see how you feel this new campaign book avoids the pitfalls of something you've reviewed in the past like Warzone: Damnos, particularly considering that it's been released alongside a Codex which delivers nothing particularly special on the story front. I've heard quite a bit from disgruntled Raven Guard players about Shadowsun putting Creed and Alpharius to shame with the way she outwits the Astartes, so I'm curious whether you think there's any kind of truth to talk like that and if not how the writers avoided falling into that trap?

    1. Yeah, i'm actually finishing up a write-up as we speak, looking into the lore and detailing the storytelling strengths and failings. It should be up by tonight, and while not as bad as some claim here there is unfortunately an element of truth to those statement. I can certainly see why the Raven Guard are complaining about it the most however given that, in all honesty, she does the most damage to them above all others.