Sunday, 10 July 2016

Order: Sylvaneth - The Lore (Warhammer Age of Sigmar Battletome Review, 1st Edition)

Fantasy is often the underdog to science fiction. It's a sad truth to be sure, but history has proven time and time again that laser guns tend to win out against wands they come into conflict. Mass Effect beat out Dragon Age in popularity, the Foundation trilogy beat out Lord of the Rings in its own awards, and while fantasy can sometimes win out, these moments are  exceptions more than anything else. This was true of Warhammer naturally, to the point where certain outlets complained that the Total War adaptation was focusing upon the "boring" setting rather than the "fun" one. Were it not true, the End Times would not have been a thing and we would not have seen such a massive reboot, for better and worse.

We all know the Sigmarine jokes, all know the comments about a 40kified version of Fantasy, and we've all seen the aesthetic comparisons. Arguments can certainly be made one way or another, but the similarities cannot be completely dispelled, and it has left Age of Sigmar in an odd position. Stormcast Eternals retain something of an astartes influence, as do Khornate Chaos forces visually. The same goes with the Orks, many of who resemble beings wearing Mega-armour and even worshiped "Gorkamorka" The few exceptions such as the Lizardmen Seraphon were basically just their prior incarnation in space, with few to no major changes to their design or core elements. This isn't to say the lore was bad by any means, and the Stormcast Eternals actually retain more depth and detail to their core concepts than most major 40,000 codices these days; but the fact that their outwards identities or founding concepts often resembled major aspects from the two previous games is undeniable.

Because of this identity issue, the Sylvaneth had a great deal to prove. Above all others in this line-up, they stood the best chance of standing out from the crowd and solidifying AoS as an dependent game set apart from all others, but had the most risk of merely becoming Wood Elves in space once more. Well, that or the Craftworld Eldar with a tree spirit fetish. Thankfully though, the end result proves that it can stand on its own two feet without relying into fan fondness of prior armies as a crutch. Does it succeed as a starting point for this brand new force though? Well, yes and no.

The Good

When starting out with the Sylvaneth, it's clear that many authors wanted to use certain ideas presented in prior armies in order to subvert them. In fact, much of the race's own history reads like some version of the Craftworld Eldar if they were given a real fighting chance to start over and succeed in their War against Chaos. After the failure of their original conflict, a desperate retreat from the relentless attacks by Khornate and Nurgle aligned forces, and their perpetually dwindling numbers, much of it is out and out doom and gloom. While it only has a few pages to do so, it quickly gets across the sense of desperation and knife-edge flight from annihilation the entire species faced in these desperate days. They're presented as being hounded at every turn, barely surviving and for all their great power the conflicts it suggests presents them barely edging out against their foes. 

Even as it depicts this you're given a solid, definitive impression of the race itself and their overall culture. These aren't simply elf-tree hybrids but a more refined and cultured new species, completely apart from either prior influence. They truly are nature's will given physical form by this point, spiritual beings who reshape the very forests themselves to their will and defend them at all costs. A generic trope admittedly, but the battletome goes to great lengths to help avoid making it seem like Treebeard should be lurking in every image, or that the book be titled FernGully: The Psychopath's Cut. There are a myriad of influences present here from Celtic to traditionally spiritual to a few full on Wild Hunt style concepts, giving it some real thematic variation. Even when it is wearing its influences on its sleeve however, the book keeps throwing a few curve balls in the reader's way to keep it fresh. These can be anything from visual alterations to a few surprising twists in the lore. So, while Drycha might be in this once again, her vengeful nature takes her in an oddly different direction and she's looks as if she's piloting a headless wood golem.

Story-wise, the initial Sylvaneth retreat itself is based upon a single hail-mary pass of a gambit, intended to hopefully somehow restore their race or allow for some slim chance of survival - Hence the Craftworld comparison. However, what's different here is that the reader is given much, much more of an impression of what was lost before this fall. This adds much more meaning to the retreat itself, and while it doesn't bog the book down with constant details, you're given some indication of what kind of kingdom the Sylvaneth retained before them. It doesn't do this via wonderfully vague if grandiose quotes ("The stars once lived and died at our command!" etc. etc.) but via smaller, secondary bits of information. 
The most prominent among these emphasizes the hierarchical nature of the species as a whole. There are constant mentions of their biggest units being loremasters and ancient keepers of knowledge, which subtly suggests how reliant they are upon age and experience, but it even goes further into details such as the Soulpods. Basically these are how the species as a whole reproduces and serves as a constant source of new energy for any realm the Sylvaneth seek to colonise. While certainly relatively minor bits, they offer a good deal more insight into the force as a whole, and offer more substance than the usual "Chapter X has this primarch" one-lines 40,000 has devolved into. In simple terms, it gives the reader much needed investment in a fairly short and direct story.

What is much more interesting however, is how the actual conflict (The War of Life itself) was triggered and developed. This wasn't simply some grandiose effort by Nurgle to wipe out the Sylvaneth but instead one faction spilling over into another. It's specifically described as a massed expansion by Nurgle than a concentrated invasion, which adds to this idea that Chaos was capable of simply overwhelming its foes. The books have repeatedly expressed the idea that the Age of Chaos was so massive, so vast, that they consumed all before them, but this minor bit is enough to really help enforce that. It shows a major faction, even for that era, falling before little more than an uncoordinated and massed colonisation rather than something so grand as a Black Crusade. While it might be a minor thing, it does a better job of reflecting the age of darkness which once dominated the world, and the power of the four gods, than many efforts to simply state such things. If anything, it actually helps make the world feel oddly more alive in many regards, and much larger simply thanks to avoiding the usual Evil Overlord and his Crusade Gang trope Warhammer is so fond of.

Another factor which helps make the sense of darkness during this time clear is an obvious sense of loss and a push to include broader details beyond just the Sylvaneth themselves. On several occasions the Battletome brings up species which are now extinct or kingdoms which are certainly have been rent asunder by Chaos' dominance over the mortal world. This might not sound like much, but for quite a few years we have been seeing unique narrative concepts or units phased out in favour of tabletop versions, just so new models can be shilled. Really, read Horus Rising some time and you'll notice a lot more unique vehicles compared to the later books, which relentlessly name drop the Forge World minatures. As such, when the book brings up things like the last Jotunberg (a living winter) sacrificing itself to provide the Sylvaneth with an escape route, it means far more than just some Stormcast waltzing onto the scene. It makes the story feel much more alive, much vaster, and much more grand as a result, and helps further emphasise the narrative aspect of this game.

Finally however, the book knows exactly where to draw the line on certain lore elements. While much of what has been talked about thus far has discussed the initial story, it is not completely built upon a single narrative arc. This is merely the backbone of the book, emphaissing the army's history and actions up to that point, but much like the old Index Astartes this is only the beginning of the tome. The moment the Sylvaneth succeed in their retreat and initiate their slow recovery on a foreign shore, it begins to branch out into other areas. 

While it doesn't go into great detail unit by unit, sections such as the Song of War and Armies of the Glades do push to really flesh out this force and hand over the building blocks for new players. Expressing ideas such as how each force is effectively a unique society and clan unto itself rather than just a standing army, it encourages players to do more than build kill frenzied bark skinned nutters. There's no barrier between an army and its society anymore, and rolling the two into one makes them more akin to an astartes chapter in some regards, allowing for players to more freely build distinct forces. While some do exist, they're only given just enough lore to make them interesting and emphasise the fragmented nature of the army. Even the named characters themselves are kept largely to the background, limited to a few paragraphs and directly barred from completely hijacking the narrative. While each is certainly still important, it avoids the Supplement issue of feeling as if you're stuck following someone else's story and using someone else's army.

There are even a few solid hints and lingering questions which remain to help people flesh out their own ideas or link new plot-lines into at a later date. The fate of certain human clans in the new Sylvaneth, what happened to the missing enclaves of survivors, and even the abrupt loss of contact with the old Sylvaneth homeland during the War of Life all remain unanswered. It's not so much frustrating as intriguing though, and it leaves plenty of room for players to offer their own ideas or forge their own stories until Games Workshop follows them up. 

Sure, 40,000 codices have featured plenty of strange mysteries for the past few years but there's a big difference in terms of execution here. In the Grim Darkness of the Far Future, much of that is reserved for the tail end of M41 or isolated events which go unresolved. There's a great deal of hype, ideas or pushed game-changing concepts shunted right into the final thousand years, often skipping over the prior nine as a result, nearly all of which are simply mysteries and little else. What we have here is instead much more planned out, staged and better presented. You have these points emerging throughout their history, dropped in at various points with more open opportunities for later payoffs or for players to build upon them. Mostly because whereas 40,000 is focusing upon an ever impending ending, this emphasises a new beginning.

So, on the whole a good start, but as you might guess there are some very notable flaws here and there.

The Bad

Long time readers, you'll all know this is coming - The padding. It's back once again here and it does take up a fair old chunk of the pages. Once again, the font is enlarged and the images presented on such a scale that most two page sections will only reach four or five paragraphs on average. The Battletome's very structure serves to spread alarmingly little information over a very large page count, and while that information is definitely engaging, it could have easily been fitted into a book half this length. While there certainly is a place for massive two page spreads or artwork which takes up a full half of a page, they shouldn't make up a solid 95% of the art in any rulebook. Especially not those trying to flesh out an entire army, its history, its culture and even its battle tactics. 

The same goes with some of the secondary images such as models on display or army formations. While they don't overrun half the damn Battletome unlike certain other books (Yes Codex: Tempestus Scions, that was directed at you) you do still end up with more than a few unnecessary images taking up entire pages. For example, pages 28-29 depict the formation and structure of a generic Sylvaneth Wargrove, with a few useful general notes on each unit's role in battle. That's fine and pretty damn useful, but when six more pages are spent doing almost exactly the same thing with slight colour swaps, those are six pages which have just been wasted on nothing.

Certain listings in the book are also alarmingly sparse and ill detailed. While a lack of information can certainly be engaging - as cited above - in other areas it can be downright frustrating, robbing an interesting incident of nuance or context. This sadly hits the timeline fairly hard, limiting nearly all the events present to single sentence descriptions. While certain ones doe simply note the year and order in which battles listed elsewhere in the book took place, many others are entirely new. In one especially bad case this lists what is little more than basic troop movements, robbing what should have been a monumental victory of any real impact -

"The Anvil Gate
One hundred Kurnoth Hunters scaled Mount Anvil, seizing the Realmgate at its peak from the verminous swarms of Clan Feesik."

Another two sentences could have easily turned that into an interesting and engaging event in the Sylvaneth's history, but instead what we get is bland at best. It's certainly not as if the writers did not have room for this either, as the timeline pages (while pretty to look at) retain an alarming amount of blank empty space which is not in use. Slightly extending the text boxes and making the font slightly smaller would have easily allowed for more meaningful events, or even just to make many details much punchier.

Even the main stories themselves do unfortunately have their problems. You see, while the opening tale of the Sylvaneth's initial war and survival is engaging, that should have been enough really. When it then branched out into new ideas and concepts, fleshing out the surviving factions and groups, it offered plenty of opportunities to better show more minute or in-depth details surrounding them. However, after doing so for just a short while, it then abruptly goes back to telling stories again, focusing upon a series of engagements against Chaos, the Orruks and other factions besides this. These are basically model shilling tales and little else, and unfortunately they offer little in the way of real insight or nuance into this faction. 

Oh we get some great artwork out of it and one we get some fantastic character moments surrounding Drycha, but besides this these battles are extremely by-the-numbers. Most are extremely predictable and serve as little more than an opportunity to show Sylvaneth massacring their foes with little serious effort or setbacks. It's akin to what we saw in Codex: Khorne Daemonkin, where units were each given a ministory to show off their skills, devolving into repeated massacres. The only difference here is that they've been rolled into a few bigger stories rather than lots of little ones. It's not that they're truly bad, merely that much of this space could have been used for more in-depth information surrounding the Sylvaneth or even perhaps the various splinter factions themselves. All of which would have been very welcome rather than a few more story examples, and all of which would have seriously benefited any introduction to new fans.

The story issue actually links into a more serious problem - That each Wargrove is given little more than two paragraphs to actually stand out in the book. While a few do gain some notable traits thanks to their histories, there's no denying that each lacks a substantial amount of information to help make them truly stand out. It's the old Warhammer faction problem again - Outside of the astartes, just about every army suffers from a serious identity issue when it comes to fleshing out their sub-factions, often offering them gimmicks rather than a truly well-rounded series of attributes. Yes, they have a good start here but that's it, it's a start not a basis for people to truly work off of or examine for further ideas when it comes to creating their own forces.

Finally however, we have the big issue which hurts this book more than anything else: Length, scale and legacy. While the opening story is certainly well told, it doesn't take long to notice a serious issue with it: For all the times the work emphasises loss and corruption, the actual war itself seems extremely short and very small scale. At few points does the language within the story truly manage to convey that an entire kingdom is being toppled, that a vast plane of the existing world is being rent asunder, or that a centuries old force has been brought to its kneels. If anything this could be any old kingdom, and the rapid pace at which they fall means this feels less like an army of tens of thousands going to war so much as a few hundred. Even the very conflict itself, with all its mentions of constant war and constant attrition seems less like a high fantasy Operation Barbarossa than it does a border skirmish between Border Princes.

If the suggestion of this lack of content sounds harsh, consider for a moment what we've had elsewhere. Codex: Dark Eldar spent a massive chunk of the book merely detailing the Fall, their gradual rise to power in the Webway and how their civilisation developed before even reaching true conflict. Codex: Imperial Knights (the first one anyway) devoted several thousand words and a substantial number of pages selling the reader on its ideas. It detailed exactly how the Knight Worlds came into existence, the gradual fall into a high tech feudal society and their complex relationship with the Mechanicus, building them up even before reaching the Horus Heresy. Codex: Tau Empire was the same, and for all their faults the Crimson Slaughter, Black Legion and Iyanden Supplements attempted to do the same thing. There was a sense of history, a sense of true legacy and grandeur to each and every one of them, and it impressed upon the leader that each was an ancient, well developed power.

While the previous examples might have all been from 40,000, it actually gets much, much worse once you look into the Fantasy alternatives. The older High Elf armybooks covered the entirety of their history era by era, with at several paragraphs outlining each Phoenix King's reign and eventual fall. The Tomb Kings were fully fleshed out upon their full introduction, with multiple in-universe and historical documents noting everything from their link to the Vampire Counts to Nagash. Even comparatively young races such as the Empire retained a detailed multi-page account of their rise to power, the original rule of Sigmar and the lives of countless prior Elector Counts. Here though, what we get is a few heavily padded out pages to establish the army, all of which are focused squarely upon their retreat and eventual rebuilding. For all its positive qualities, it simply lacks the same depth as the armies which came before it.

The same sadly goes for the escape itself. It develops extremely rapidly, meaning it sadly feels less like a constant flight and desperate escape so much as a rapid several hour chase, and at no point do you get any idea of numbers. After all the talk of losses and the mention of only a few units, it reads less like a substantial number of survivors than it does a few dozen. It's too small and too clean cut despite the interesting aspects on display, and at a few points it is overly predictable. Given their flagship role, readers knew the Stormcast were going to rear their metal heads at some point, but you can predict the exact moment they will show up down to the last word. When that happens, when it obeys standard rescue tropes to the point of cliche, something has most definitely been lost. "Engagement" is one particular one which comes to mind, but you probably have a few more fitting ones.

The Artwork

This is often a negative part of these reviews, heavily criticising the quality of the work, reused art or the general coherent style. Thankfully this isn't the case this time. The artwork present in this Battletome is not only spectacular throughout, but absolutely spot on. Everything from the smooth-lined and hyper detailed pieces depicting vast locations or Alarielle riding into war to the more jagged and traditional pieces all slot together near perfectly. At no point does one seem to clash with one another, and there is always some unit they manage to work with.

The great variety of scenes and environments on display really helps give an idea of the army's overall capabilities and the scale of their eternal war. While many do focus squarely upon Chaos, the time is taken to gradually add in the other armies of the game in one way or another, cropping up at scattered points throughout the Battletome. These help make up for the lack of grandeur on the story sections at times and gives you a better impression of the army's capabilities than some of the later engagements, augmenting what has been put onto paper. Combine that with the obvious lack of recycled art, and there really is nothing worth complaining about here.


The lore found in Battletome: Sylvaneth is reasonable, but it sadly doesn't rise above being an average book in this regard. While it certainly did have a wealth of interesting concepts, there were still are plenty of bits which definitely required a re-write to cover them in greater detail. The book is akin to an early Third Edition codex from Warhammer 40,000 in terms of its lore. Details are itself is oddly sparse at many points, lacking vital details and a lot of prominent ideas, but what there is remains pretty damn engaging. Because of this is makes for a good introduction to the army, but not a good overall examination, and there remains some definite room for improvement in terms of Sylvaneth culture, history and warfare. Still, it got this old cynic invested in the game again, so take that for what it's worth.

So, that's the lore done. Next up onto the rules.


  1. AoS is currently in an odd place for me. They're doing what I thought they should do to get people invested again, however at the same time I can't find that much interest in the lore, maybe it's just too early for me to get that invested since I'm trying to treat everyone as new rather than somebody carried over, or maybe it's because they have too little spread over too large an area, however I do like their depiction of Nurgle so far, as you state having this invasion be more due to a population boom rather than anything else is a neat way to differentiate itself.
    The artwork for AoS has also been stellar across the board, especially with the great captions people have been able to add to the images.

    1. Well, he lore in question is actually pretty good in a lot of regards, but the writers are missing a few key aspects which helped the prior games stand out. I'd actually like to write an article on it once this is done, and with some luck might even be able to as a final part of this review, covering where the game is succeeding in its new direction but where it keeps stumbling in terms of power dynamic and setting.