Monday, 21 March 2016
Battlefleet Gothic Part 1 - The Lore (Games Workshop Specialist Games Review)
Every realm of Warhammer 40,000 is a battlefield, from the shadow wars to the front-lines. From assassination attempts to Titan combat, the stories and games have explored just about every facet of the Imperium's endless wars. However, few can ever claim to have faced it on the scale Battlefleet Gothic offered. Rather than focusing upon the troops, this was a game which examined the naval warfare of M41, and the way in which the Imperium defended itself from pirates, renegades and worse things still. Offering insight into the nature of void warfare, it gave players the chance to face a methodical, tactical game which was more in line with Fantasy than 40,000.
The story here focused largely upon one particular front and one of the Imperium's most desperate battles. Fighting to hold the line against Abaddon the Despoiler as he sought to annihilate world after world, and too the mysterious Black Stone Fortresses for himself, it was the Imperium's darkest hour since Vandire's reign. However, this is not going to be exploring story elements blow by blow. You can easily read the entire outcome of the war on 40K Wiki, as it's basically been copied and pasted into the Gothic War page. Instead, this article is going to examine just why so many story choices worked, and ultimately how the creative team nailed something so many others failed to pull off.
Perhaps the most surprising thing here is that you're going to be reading a lot of praise from this review. By that I mean the book breaks a lot of personal rules, and does the exact same thing this website has criticised many books so many times for in the past. Rather than expanding upon the universe, rather than setting the scene for multiple fleets, worlds and the universe of the game as a whole, it follows a single tale. Much of the core lore focuses purely upon the 12th Black Crusade, and the knife-edge war which raged across the Gothic sector. However, Battlefleet Gothic proves to be the exception rather than the rule, and much of its success comes down to the skilled planning, direction and storytelling of the writers.
For starters, only eleven of the one-hundred-and-sixty pages are spent on this story, but the writers clearly knew that. Rather than using this as an excuse to phone in some generic tale of war, instead they clearly opted to make good use of every square inch of space they had on hand. So, we had no massive padding via artwork and no pointless asides, and no push to have big descriptive 'splosions take the place of substantial storytelling. Instead they were handled in a manner akin to the Index Astartes articles of old; compressed down and focused until all the fat had been trimmed away, and the pages themselves radiated with raw grimdark atmosphere to help invest the player in the conflict. They didn't take the Michael Bay route of relying purely upon eye candy, they took the John Carpenter route of showing just enough to keep their audience hooked to the very end.
For starters, rather than rushing headlong into the opening act of the war, a full two pages were spent purely upon building up to the conflict. It helps to provide meaning to what's coming, depicting a gradual slide towards hell for the entire sector and the machinations of Chaos itself. In perhaps a dozen paragraphs at the most, the reader is told of the Arx Raid which served as a spark for the growing conflict, then the mysterious plague ships, the unrest and growing anarchy. It builds tension by showing the slowly spreading cracks among the Imperium's worlds, seeing their forces slowly whittled away by an unseen threat or raids by some unknown force. Snowballing from one event to the next, it quickly hooks you in as you wait for answers, and keeps you reading as you wait for war to erupt. As such, when it finally does strike, once the hidden forces emerge and the Imperium is beset by a new Black Crusade, these events have serious weight to them.
The importance of this introduction is simple: By spending half of a very rushed page, quickly sandwiched in between explosions, Curse of the Wulfen told readers that its stuff was important and that was that. By escalating events and building a tense atmosphere, and a great mystery, Battlefleet Gothic makes readers say "Sweet honking arse bandits, this is really important!"
Once the storm finally breaks, it hits with the force of a cannon. The opening paragraph alone emphasizes the sheer scale of the invasion, and the image it builds in the reader's mind is of a vast, unstoppable armada. Striking while the sector is weak and isolated, it gives the impression in just a few pages that this is an extremely well timed hammerblow, as much by emphasising its scale as its damage. Skimming over a multitude of battles, it takes moments from the engagements to pick out the worst of the damage, from a crippled carrier to the loss of so many shipyards. Far too many modern books would just leave it there, but there's instead an emphasis upon small or odd details which helps to give the work real life.
For example, early on into this page the book notes that the Lord Sylvanus was badly damaged in the opening attack. In most current 40,000 books that would be the end of that, but here the book lists the following: "Doomfire bombers from the Heartless Destroyer damaged the warp engines of the Lord Sylvanus so severely that it took nearly two years of constant repairs for the ship to make war jumps greater than five light years." The emphasis upon the extent of this damage and the length of these repairs adds a sense of urgency. It shows the level of attrition and harm the Chaotic assault caused and allows the damage caused to have far more meaning. What's more, it ties into following sections focusing upon the resource starved nature of the Imperial forces. Already denied outside help, the attack wave cripples or captures so many vital facilities, from shipyards to factories. This is constantly in the background and keeps the Imperials on the back-foot so often, and gives a real sense of desperation to every battle.
The attention to detail here doesn't go into any truly insane degree, but it works by focusing upon the right moment at the right time. Well, that and also juggling multiple narratives at once. Many core books work by shifting about or establishing certain ideas one after another, leaving them in the background, and then dealing with them one after the other. However, instead the Gothic narrative opts to shift focus from one element to the next. The presence of xenos pirates remains an underlying current for quite some time and a major problem for Imperial forces, as are human renegades. While this might seem unimportant, it's another element which helps to give a sense of depth to the war. Conflict allows such predators to thrive after all, and their early establishment allows several swerves to fit naturally into the plot. That and, let's face it, the game needed something to help avoid turning it into a Chaos-Imperial slugging match.
Another note well worthy of mention is how the story never rushes into things, and always holds something back for some added mystery. Despite it being Abaddon's objective in the entire war, the stations remain completely out of focus throughout much of the war. It only starts to become clear how important they are towards the second half of the initial invasion, and even then it takes time before we see them in action. This ability to stagger reveals, to hint at fresh twists and turns in the plot does keep you guessing, and there's even a few fun turns for those who know the basic premise of the war.
When the story does opt to add in characters to events, it does so sparingly, and often as a way to work around the work limit. Rather than latching purely onto each of them as a Supplement Codex would, they are used as storytelling assets and only added in as required. For example, much of the initial introduction and essential build-up to the war repeatedly brings up Inquisitor Horst's investigations. We saw some things through his eyes, and the story repeatedly stopped to bring him up, but this wasn't present to turn him into the protagonist. Instead this was done to help streamline events and deliver exposition without breaking that all essential atmosphere. After all, having an Inquisitor investigating a Chaotic infestation and machinations offers far more opportunities to get the reader invested over outright spelling out things to the reader. That and, with such a character present, it makes it easier to work those details into future events as the story goes on.
What's also notable in how sparingly the heroes were used is how many opportunities it opened up for players to tell their own stories. Longtime readers might recall a rather lengthy rant at how Sentinels of Terra robbed any opportunity for players to tell their on stories or build up their own company, because it turned almost every single Imperial Fist into a named character. Well, we thankfully don't get the same here and a big part of that is down to the sheer scale of the war. Even limited to a single sector, the number of worlds covered is huge and the story repeatedly skims over certain events to depict a broader view of the war. So, even as we have Admiral Ravensberg planning counter attacks, huge engagements and tactical withdrawals, there's still room for add their own heroes or tell their own stories throughout this. It's akin to how the Horus Heresy has been presented of late. You still have the Drop Site Massacre, Siege of Prospero, Betrayal at Calth and Siege of Terra, but there's still room for no end of new stories. It's not merely a single, narrowly defined narrative, but a vast era with new story opportunities alongside a beginning and end.
What's also notable is that, despite this fact, the tale can still stop to show just why Ravensberg is the Horatio Nelson of this tale. It's mostly put down to a couple of key battles, but it's always welcome to show that, even once they're pushed a little out of focus, the story can still prove their tactical skill and leadership.
What we have beyond the story itself is present to help build up the universe and that all important atmosphere. In a manner akin to the older codices and rulebooks, even the crunch sections of the book are peppered with quotes, minor battles and even chants. Like so much of the Gothic War story itself, this is limited to very minor things, but it's more than enough to truly get you invested in the setting as a whole. Well, that and give the impression that this is a Napoleonic ships-of-the-line style era, just with less cannonades and more nova cannons. Some have complained that this seems oddly limited and that by pinning it down to a single era, it prevents more storytelling ideas. So much of 40,000 is based off of working on past eras and adapting them for a far future setting, and there have been many naval engagements beyond that time. Really though, what else could they have picked?
Go back to the ancient world or feudal eras? You basically get a metric ton of vessels built for boarding actions over everything else, and perhaps a few long range weapons on each one. Push towards the First World War? You enter an era where naval combat was limited, and much of the real action took place on land. Second World War? You end up with the problem of super carriers reining supreme over all others, and major battleships are in their twilight era. This really was the best place to set it, as it offered just enough diversity and complexity for long range combat, enough source material for major thematic pieces, and still left room for ship-to-ship boarding actions. However, there are a few Second World War elements present, with carriers, torpedo spreads and a handful of technological ideas.
The Second World War influence is most evident in the ship descriptions, and it's here that some of the best world building is to be found. Usually, especially with modern codices, what people get is a very generic "these guys are awesome, and here's why!" description here and there. Instead, many of these vessels offer greater insight into the universe as a whole and the technological curve of the Imperium as a whole. Many Chaotic vessels are, after all, former Imperial vessels and their history goes into just how they fell to Chaos or flaws within their innate designs. Often the writers go out of the way to add in these brief historical moments and ideas, which helps to give a real sense of ancient history to the fleets without just throwing in the Vengeful Spirit or taking the easy way out. A personal favourite is actually one which does touch upon the Second World War influence, and just why every ship isn't a carrier, and the ideological conflicts within Battlefleet Tempestus.
So, there's a great deal of good here as you can see, but what about the bad?
Let's focus on the obvious failing first - This is an almost exclusively Imperium focused book. It's well told for sure, and features no end of great lore, but unless you're sailing under the double headed eagle, you're going to be at a loss. Every other faction here, even Chaos, serves as an extension of the Imperial fleet in some way, or is shown only through human eyes. There's no opportunity for them to have their own solid narrative or even proper viewpoint moments, and this ends up hitting the xenos factions really hard. The eldar are one of the most unique and fascinating factions here for their void warfare, but they're given next to nothing to work with. Worse still, orks are basically treated as pests at best. We see them brought up as pirate forces, but not much else and they fail to play any significant role in the war.
Another frustrating factor his how Battlefleet Gothic, for all its vast scale and emphasis upon big battle, keeps resorting to smaller and smaller numbers. Many Segmentum battlefleets in existing lore are known to be made up of millions of vessels, and even small fleets are often depicted with no less than eight capital ships at a time. Here though, we see the exact opposite, with only a small handful of ships on either side of a major battle. Okay, on the one hand this does help discourage the old issue of encouraging players to buy bigger and bigget fleets as time goes by, or Apocalypse syndrome as I like to call it. On the other though, you end up with major, critical engagements supposedly featuring the bulk of each fleet featuring perhaps sixteen vessels at the most. It's very limiting and this oddly skewed nature only becomes more and more head-scratching as the story goes by.
The actual lore itself also seems to limit classes as much as it can, and in some cases this reaches a truly insane degree. Take many Chaos vessels for example, as the lore notes that many of them are pirated, stolen or just defected to Chaos and are often old Imperial designs. Because of this, some classes are no longer produced and only gain advantages thanks to gifts from the Chaos gods, and older more advanced tech. Okay, fine, that can work and helps to build that all essential atmosphere. However, when you reach the point where Despoiler Class Battleships - the big, extremely powerful Chaos warship - only had three made in total, it becomes completely nuts. Also, before anyone does comment, no there's no suggestion Chaos took the time to make more, there's only three and that's that.
When the book does take the time to properly explore a fleet on a more universal scale, even then it's all devoted towards the Imperial fleet and no one else. So, you basically just end up with one faction being favoured over everyone else, and even that's reflected in many of the ships themselves. You have more Imperial ships than any other fleet, until the eldar and orks are left with just a small fraction of their number. Really, the orks have only six classes of ships in total in this book, and nothing else.
So, that's more the more general problems out of the way, but what about the Gothic War narrative itself? It ultimately suffers from the same problem which held back the Doom of Mymeara. It's good lore, it's in-depth, well thought out, extremely well balanced and creates a great sense of tension, that anyone could win. However, partway through it shifts gears. We go from the Imperium losing but fighting hard, to a more generic and predictable "Imperium turns things around, wins and drives everyone back with sheer force". Okay, there's a bit more to it than just that, but not too much and the ending really does feature them winning out of sheer numbers and firepower above all else. Even with some great attention paid towards the aftermath of the war, it presents the idea that the second the Imperium pays full attention towards a foe, they're as good as dead. Hell, even with a full armada behind him, it doesn't take long for Abaddon to flee back towards the Eye.
If you ever wanted a better example of classic Games Workshop artwork, you need not look any further than this book. Sticking to the extreme grimdark, black and white look with all the spines, exaggerated skulls and explosions you'd expect. While some would call this crude by comparison to some of the more modern works found within books, it actually retains more of a unique identity because of this.
Without the added colour, softer edges or reflections of lighting, it matches the vast cathedral style of many ships and does far more to reflect on the arcane nature of their technology. Rather than looking merely like a computer console, what we get of tech engines, control nodes or even interfaces looks more like some horrific construct of science; almost something naturally grown and cultured rather than built with human hands.
The void battles themselves are, naturally, the big eye candy pieces and they tend to be the most overt works. There's actually a few basic artists they shifted between with each subject, and the depiction of ships at war tends to be the most sketchy and almost simplistic for all its detail. It's here where people are really going to decide whether they love or hate the look of the book, but personally I think it fits the nature of the setting and the battles themselves. Plus, say what you will about black and white artworks, but they're not done out of laziness here, with even the most basic of them features a level of care and attention which puts many creators to shame.
Battlefleet Gothic's lore has its problems to be sure, and it certainly could have been much lengthier. However, I do appreciate any approach which tries to maintain quality over quantity, and tries to do something very different in this old setting. It was also ultimately intended to be the starting point for more extensive books, and we did get a vast amount more lore and info from the following Armada release. Along with introducing new factions to the game, it seriously helped improve upon the treatment of xenos races as a whole and offered the eldar and orks some much needed love. As this seemed to be planned rather than some reactionary move, this review isn't hammering down quite so hard on them on that front.
If you're after something a bit different, or seriously want to see another Black Crusade depicted beyond the thirteenth assault upon the Cadian Gate, this is a good one to pick up. It features a vast wealth of new ideas, plenty of flavour text about the Imperium, and really helps to set the scene for void warfare in M41. You can usually find second hand copies going quite cheaply on eBay, and i'd personally say it's a worthy investment for any longtime 40,000 fan.
So, that's the lore done, onto the rules.