Friday, 18 March 2016

Turning A Blind Eye To What Matters - Why Warhammer Reviews Are The Writers' Worst Enemy

As a rule, I try not to point fingers at anyone unless it's they're an author or developer. Personally, shining the spotlight on someone who has created something and done exceptionally well or produced something horrendous is always better than judging other journalists. After all, one person has opened up their work to criticism and judgement by attaching a price tag to it, while others are usually living purely off of advertising revenue. Combine that with the added problem that, on the whole, my own work is hardly bereft of flaws, and it can seem hypocritical. However, having taken time to properly reflect on the last few years of Warhammer 40,000 and Fantasy, there's a point which needs to be brought up. To put it simply, far too many reviews overlook a core component of the setting: Its lore.

It's a statement which seems ludicrous at first from almost every perspective. With so many new campaign books coming out, the success of new codices and more factions, surely this can't be the case. Yet, when you pause for just a few minutes to examine most big name or even some minor reviews, you'll notice the same thing: Rules are prioritized over everything else. Really, actually take the time to Google any random review, and this will normally be the same result. So, let's take Codex: Necrons for example. First result? Frontline Gaming, with a multi-part review format which covers every single unit type and formation, but doesn't even bother to touch upon the story. How about Codex: Tau Empire? Same again, with the Grey Splinter covering nothing but the models, and you then get the same once again even trying to review the venerated Codex: Space Marines with Index Astartes. Yeah, someone was brazen enough to name their blog that, yet couldn't be bothered to spend a paragraph on the depiction of the astartes themselves.

Still, these are just the top results, the first ones picked out from just searching "Codex: X Review" but what about the big name websites? You would think those venerated Spikey Bits might take some time to examine the actual details, but you'd be surprised. In their First Look at Codex: Eldar Craftworlds we get a lot of a guy talking about how much of the book is built up of fluff, how it's great because it takes up so many pages and it's awesome because it's such a thick book. No mention of how heavily padded it is, not a mention given to the storytelling devices used, not even a second is set aside so he might discuss how the eldar are presented. Many elements we discussed, such as how the craftworlds relentlessly lose damn near every battle and how shallow a depiction this edition was, are ignored. Instead we just get an attitude which can be regarded as rushing through things in order to reach the important stuff.

Now, true, that video was a first look and as the creator stated such early on. It was supposed to be just a general examination which is to be expanded upon in following weeks. Yet, as you pause to really think of his words, note exactly what he talks about. He talks about delving into the tactics, seeing which units are broken, and seeing the fine points of the tabletop game. No mention of the storytelling, lore or even the battles themselves here.  The closest he actually gets into discussing things is the layout, and he naturally overlooks how artwork has been reduced to padding. In fact, the closest he gets is rambling on about how great the art is, while skipping over page upon page of actual lore.

Perhaps the most frustrating part is that this example from Spikey Bits really helps personify the attitude so many reviews have towards such vital sections of these books. At best they're treated as trappings, a nice addition to something but a point which is ultimately worthless. Rather than taking the time to properly examine them, devoting equal time and effort to the story as much as the rules, it's just glossed over. In many cases you're lucky to get a single paragraph devoted to the actual history or ideas of the book. Even when they do, it basically amounts to "yeah, that's all great, perfect, fantastic, moving on!" Don't believe me? Here's a quote from A Tabletop Gamer's Diary and that blog's review of Codex: Eldar Craftworlds. Keep in mind, this is supposed to cover everything in the book which doesn't feature a stats line:

"So, I have a copy of the new Codex: Eldar Craftworlds, very possibly the most controversial book released by Games Workshop since, well, ever, really. It certainly has the various gaming forums alight with people ‘debating’ the rumours and leaks that have surrounded this tome. Are they right?

The first thing you notice – it is a big book, the size of Codex: Space Marines, and with the same price tag. And if pretty Codexes are your thing, you will not be disappointed.

There are some re-used pieces of art, but plenty of brand new items too, including a nice colour picture of an entire craftworld floating through space, the first time we have really seen that kind of detail.

As you would expect with a book of this size, there is a lot of background material, covering not just the individual units but the different craftworlds too, including…

… the lesser known ones. Interesting point here, the Altansar Craftworld on the top left of that picture is almost exactly the same colour scheme as my own Altsain Craftworld. Obviously just a variant spelling from a different part of the galaxy.

And, of course, the obligatory ‘hobby’ section, which has everything you need to get inspired to do the forces of an entire craftworld.

However, I am guessing that at least 92% of you don’t give two figs about any of that in a review, and want me to get into the heart of things – the rules and army lists."

That's it. There's really nothing else, and that final note really emphasises the borderline contempt such reviewers really seem to have for the lore in the game. If it doesn't involve rolling dice, to such writers it simply doesn't matter or is unworthy of their full attention. I know such a thing seems harsh, but it's sadly an attitude reflected in far too many reviews, all of who do not value such storytelling. It's for this reason that Codex: Black Legion received such a tepid response from so many websites; all of who focused less upon the expertly handled and interesting storytelling than they did the extremely flawed rules. 

Worst of all, some reviewers go so far as to actively complain and list a book as worthless if they put lore first. Remember Codex: Legion of the Damned, and how it featured some fantastic ideas but some very limited crunch? Here's someone with an awful gimmick bitching non-stop about how it favoured awesome lore, ideas and stories over listing a massive army. True enough, it's something which someone is well within their rights to criticise, and that's not being called into question here. The simple fact they were willing to overlook so much effort and promise within a book, without sparing a moment to actually analyse it though? That's insulting to every person who actually gave a damn about taking fandom ideas into account and putting a new spin on the old army.

Oh, and don't think that the above example is isolated either. Sometimes reviewers go so far as to complain about those who actually take the time to analyse and look into the core narrative elements of a book, or its lore failings. To cite Spikey Bits as an example again, their review of Curse of the Wulfen effectively opened up with them mocking anyone worried about the story's direction. Before getting into his amaturish, unfocused and poorly coordinated rambling about the fluff, he demands his watchers ignore anyone criticising the story. Telling people to ignore those who think this could be the start of an End Times event, he scorns those who regard the book with concern and you can easily imagine the eye-rolling when he talks about those hobbyists. Personally, i'm of the opinion that this was a poorly veiled pot-shot at the one other person to really analyse and worry about the book side from myself, Arch Warhammer. It's a theory to be sure, but his tones and choice of words seemed to be very direct in who exactly they're addressing, and rather derogatory.

So, where is this all going, you might be asking. What's the whole point behind this article? It's quite simple really - 

We can do better. 
Well, no, that's not entirely true. We must do better, because we are failing this fandom. 

I say this not to the hobby as a whole, but every person who lays a hand on the keyboard. I say this to every person who desires to criticise this game, to review a book or cite these flaws. I say this to every person who takes the time to regard these books and believes that they should be the ones to help guide the fandom. Our role is supposed to be that of a vanguard, taking the bullet when a poor release is on the horizon and highlighting a success for every hobbyist who regards Warhammer 40,000 with fondness.

We are supposed to serve as a guiding light, not to all but certainly those who trust our word and opinion in such books. Our reviews have influence, no matter how small or large, on those who read them. When we throw storytelling to the dogs, when we are shown to care so little about the actual narrative and history that it can barely be spared a paragraph, we encourage others to do the same. After all, why should they care when we are shown to do nothing? This is not supposed to be some high an mighty statement, but simply to say that, when we promote no discussion, no criticism and no praise, why should anyone care about it over the rules? More importantly though, if we don't care about the lore, why should Games Workshop?

Warhammer Fantasy, Age of Sigmar and Warhammer 40,000 has been extremely hit and miss ever since the Fourth Edition closed out. Some would argue that it was problematic even before then, but that's a discussion for another time. The point is simply is that, as the Fifth Edition rolled onward, the internet became more vocal about the game. More people than ever talked about it on forums, discussed it and considered its future, and complained. Oh how they complained. This was, after all, the era of Draigod, the Blood-Necron Alliance and the Spiritual Liege, and it earned no end of ire from fans. Many were insulted from this apparent abandonment of all prior lore and the amateurish approach of the company, and the many problems which arose from several books. After all, Codex: Tyranids is still best known for refusing the Hive Fleets even a single victory.

However, the Fifth Edition also brought about new changes. Codex: Dark Eldar was released with fantastic storytelling and ideas, Codex: Dark Angels proved to be a solid release and (say what you will about its execution) Codex: Space Wolves went back to Second Edition insanity. Something which was a welcome break after all the dour, boring and ultimately bland Ward helmed astartes books. Yet, looking today, you never see those successes or changes remarked upon, or even the company's push for improved quality in the wake of Codex: Grey Knights. While many claim that Games Workshop is largely deaf to the complaints of its fans, emphasis needs to be placed on the term "largely" rather than "completely". If enough people yell about something, if there is enough of a backlash or vocal response to something, they will take action. Rob Cruddance's downgrade in the wake of Codex: Tyranids and Ward's quiet demotion are proof enough of that, as were the books which followed.

In the Sixth Edition, the codices got bigger. While there was a noted price increase, the lore of each book substantially improved, resulting in the fantastic Codex: Imperial Knights, a superior Codex: Dark Angels and many vastly improved ideas. It featured one of the best written codices to date in the form of Codex: Tau Empire, which went into vast detail about their rise and gradual successes, and presented them as a full civilisation. True, there were failings such as the many Supplements, but there were fantastic releases alongside them. All of which, thanks to reviews deciding that lore was only worthy of being ignored, went unremarked upon. This in turn seemed to trigger a new change. The Supplements were thankfully phased out after one too many failures, but the new editions of older books became pale copies of their past selves. This has been commented upon many times in this blog, but the review of the latest Codex: Imperial Knights highlights this failing the best. No one cared, so the writers simply didn't put in the effort, and what we got was a shallow copy with artwork to pad out its pages.

While Games Workshop might be to blame for many things, we cannot ignore the impact of our ignorance. I do not ask for you to prize lore above rules, merely to treat them as equal halves in reviews. Regard and examine them with the same detail you would rules, cite their strengths and weaknesses, and encourage a better world to take shape. If we do not, I see the War Zone books failing as the Supplements once did, and story elements being marginalized further in each codex. For a world as rich and storied as Warhammer 40,000, it would be a tragic loss to generations of hobbyists both new and old. The grim darkness of the far future lies not in its dice but the words of those who forged it. It's time we truly respected that fact.


  1. I do have to agree, and this is definitely an ongoing problem I've seen in a lot of places. I think it might also have to do with the forums, if you look at all the popular sites, you can see many places to discuss the rules, yet almost no places to discuss the lore. Anyone who's trying to discuss the lore in the most recent reviews is drowned out by people who only care about playing the game, whereas I consider the lore to be equally important, if it wasn't I wouldn't be playing the armies that I play today.

    I wonder why this sort of apathy started though, you can see it both in reviewers and customers, people who just shrug off bad lore or think that the lore is awesome because it presents their own side as unstoppable. I've seen more than a few comments saying that Mont'ka had awesome lore on top of awesome rules, and I have to wonder if it's a new customer base that has these beliefs, or if the old one has just grown numb to it over the years and all of these retcons.

    The only ones who really seem to care are Forgeworld and their books, along with their customers, as I've always been able to have good discussions both on the rules and with the lore as far as those go, with the one exception being the Ultramarines (they love them more than Ward does).

    1. Honestly wish I had an answer for you, but you've basically summed up my own thoughts here. The attitude far too many fans seem to have is treating the lore as basic flavour text and little else, or something to help excuse new campaigns. So long as it doesn't completely break the game or make a complete mockery of their army, they're happy to sit back and let things play out. The only reason there seemed to be such a backlash against Ward was because he kept completely breaking armies over and over again, and insulting those he disliked. Let's face it, bad as some have been, I don't think anyone has tried to call every other faction a poor copy of their poster boy for a few years now.

      Perhaps the reason for this is that too many people are jaded or just have given up hope of being good. After so many years of bad lore, and rising prices, those who cared about storytelling just went back to the older editions they liked. That's a guess admittedly, but I have met those who went all the way back to the Second Edition after seeing what was done to some armies.

      Also, on the subject of Forge World, part of me keeps wondering if that's as much down to personal notes as editorial demands. John French is consultant there and it is thought that his influence helped turn Perturabo into a barely controlled psychopath in the Horus Heresy rulebooks over any prior depiction. However, the Ultramarines just keep being awesome (wait, sorry AWESOME!!!!!!!!) no matter the writer, until we have stories of them erasing all past defeats, no matter which author is working on them.

  2. I've noticed that this is not a unique thing to the Warhammer franchise. We have seen this same trend in PC gaming, with an increased focus on the visual themes and showy / flashy distractions over substance in story.

    I would offer up the recent interest in games that harken back to classic gaming such as Pillars of Eternity, where story is more prominent than the action, as a beacon of hope that this isn't necessarily a permanent shift in the market.

    I think that the biggest challenge of modern gaming is having GOOD writers that understand how to craft a story that doesn't come across as diarrhea-from-a-pen, or completely disconnected from the gameplay and narrative that the developers are trying to convey.

  3. I have only just come across your blog and already been poring over your insightful and well-written articles. The 2nd edition lore books and Codex: Ultramarines were my first introduction to the world of 40K and have very much shaped my passion for the hobby. Around the early 2000s though, I really felt that the new stories in White Dwarf and codexes were getting very generic and boring and had none of the strong characterisation and pathetic ethos that first got me involved. I guess after a while I just gave up on reading the lore - in fact I don't think I've read any of the fluff in the last three Codex: Space Marines - assuming it would just keep being either core fluff that I already know or bland new stories. Maybe I should start reading some of it again...

    1. It's worth it with certain ones, though it's sadly pretty hit and miss these days. If you're after great lore and pathos in the manner of the Second Edition, i'd strongly suggest taking a gander at Codex: Black Legion or the Cypher the Fallen Angel dataslate, and the Sixth Edition Codex: Imperial Knights was excellent. Atop of this, the Fifth Edition Codex: Dark Eldar would probably offer the sort of lore you'd be after as well, and it's honestly one of the two xenos codices I always point to as an example of lore done right. You can usually find them going cheap on ebay these days without too much trouble.

      As for the last few editions of Codex: Space Marines though, you're sadly not missing much. The Fifth Edition was so bad it caused a lot of people I know to abandon the Ultramarines out of shame of what they became, the Sixth was good but unremarkable and the latest one was just very generic abridged version of its predecessor sadly.

      Anyway, many thanks for the compliment. Certainly glad to know you found some use for my half-mad rantings.

  4. I think the cause of this apathy is an evolution in how peopke access the background.

    Many people assume that everyone kniws everything, that every young player has trawled Lexicanum and that there is nothing new to be learned. That the lore is the lore.

    Whilst to a certain extent this is true. The stories from my 3rd edition Chaos Space Marines are retold in the katest codex right? Right...and wrong.

    I suspect a lot of veteran reviewers and customers see their first interactions with the background as the pinnacle. This assumption engenders the attitude that releases are rules releases, not lore and rules releases.