Sometimes sacrifices need to be made in the name of writing. Be that giving up more time, money or focus in order to cover the things we love, even writers for the biggest of websites end up missing out the odd thing. In this particular case, I was given the choice between covering Codex: Deathwatch or the recently released Death Masque boxed set. There was only enough cash to pick up one and, given that the former was major codex release while the latter was a twin army combo with a small campaign, it seemed like a no brainer. Call me a fool for missing the promo images; but if the writers were going to pull any real twists or serious shifts in the lore, surely they would save it for the more widely available book, right? Well, no, if you're Games Workshop you do the exact opposite.
Death Masque is no mere book. It is one of the worst things Games Workshop has produced since Codex: Clan Raukaan. Brimming with needless spite, it's a story driven by idiocy, wanton destruction, and fueled by favouritism more than story potential. Even at only a cursory examination thanks to an equally mortified friend, it was clear what should have been a fun, engaging and simple series of scenarios had been turned into a weapon. Someone had approached this with an agenda - Doom the Craftworld Eldar, and ensure their total extinction before M42 truly dawns. The sad thing is, short of a full fledged retcon, they have accomplished it.
As we sadly don't have time for a full fledged review, though such a book certainly deserves a truly detailed examination, we'll stick to the simple points: Eldrad Ulthran has decided to try and speed up Ynnead's arrival. Working with the Harlequins, the ancient Farseer has gathered himself and a few believers in the old prophecy on a distant world, preparing a ritual to fully awaken the god within the Warp. Unfortunately his actions draw the attention of the Deathwatch, who quickly dispatch a small force to disrupt their efforts and assassinate the old warrior.
Normally in our reviews we would go into the Good and Bad points here, a lengthy process detailing everything in full. In this case, that process is rather simple.
The Good - The nonsense surrounding Ynnead supposedly being an urban legend is thankfully wiped away, somewhat correcting the character assassination surrounding Iyanna. We actually have a story surrounding Eldrad again, the first in a long time, and Artemis puts in a showing for the first time in years.
The Bad - Everything else!
For starters, the entire story is written to undermine or completely destroy the eldar force from the ground up. For all their experience, all their power, and despite being allied with the most famous living Farseer among their kind, they approach this entire thing with a half-cocked attitude even an Imperial Guard officer fresh out of the academy would be questioning.
You see, in his desperation to have Ynnead emerge, Eldrad apparently opted to start stealing souls from his people. Somehow sneaking into the Dome of Crystal Seers on each and every existing craftworld practically overnight, he uprooted the oldest crystalline trees and took them with him to this world. Ignoring how this would likely enrage all eldar short of those lurking in Commorragh and serving the Laughing God, he promptly set these down and started using them to drain the Infinity Circuits. As in, all of the Infinity Circuits, at once, into these trees and fueling them into the world itself.
So, Eldrad has the entire history of his people quite literally in his hands here and now, and needs a few quiet hours to ensure that a ten thousand year old gambit to defeat Chaos itself succeeds. Well, wouldn't you know it, but the Deathwatch come knocking and desire to put a bolt round through the Farseer's head.
Eldrad is a high priority target after all, and given the massive enmity the Deathwatch have for his kind, it's no surprise they wouldn't jump at the opportunity. So, what was their reason for him not seeing them coming? He didn't look into the one possible future involving possible conflict with the Imperium. Yes, the genocidal, commiefascist state responsible for as many eldar deaths as the Chaos Gods themselves, and whose civil war handed the Ruinous Powers their greatest servants on a silver platter, wasn't worth looking into. That's it, no other reasoning needed apparently, he just decided to be lazy here, and didn't even bother to ask "Hey, what if the alien hating alienhunters show up? Wouldn't that be a problem?" and look into what fate holds for prominent members of their organisation.
So, the Deathwatch has shown up armed to the teeth and spoiling for a fight. Still, given the sheer importance of this ritual Eldrad would have surely made a few precautions, right? Surely there's a full warfleet in orbit. Wait, no substantial orbital forces at all? Well, okay, perhaps he's looking for an easy escape via Webway gates and wants to stick to ground forces.
What titan support does he have? Nothing.
Well, what air support? Nada.
Tanks? Not a damn thing.
So, how about ground troops, surely he has a whole warhost keeping watch on the entire area and locking it down? Well, no. Apparently a task of such great importance only requires a small troupe of Harlequins, who are barely able to secure the basic site of the ritual let alone patrol the area for miles about. The story tries to justify this by claiming that Eldrad did convince a massive multi-craftworld warhost to assist him, but sent them out on a massive distraction strike elsewhere. Once again, Games Workshop's attempts to answer plot holes only create further questions.
Still, the Harlequins are hardly a force to be taken lightly. Even against the likes of the Deathwatch, they should be at least on an even footing, and capable of wiping the floor with the new arrivals if they're smart about it. Well, wouldn't you know it, but the campaign bends over backwards to favour the Deathwatch. Breezing through the enemy forces, they continually run rings about the Harlequins or overcome their tactics with remarkable ease, until it becomes less a battle and more of a full on curb-stomping for pages on end. Even once things start to even out, something will immediately happen which swings things back in the Deathwatch's favour. What we effectively have here is Mont'ka in reverse, with all that book's problems but favouring the Imperium this time. Before long Artemis himself is almost directly upon his target.
Just before it can all go wrong, Artemis falls afoul of his foe. One of the few Harlequins capable of stopping him promptly has the Watch Captain dead to rights, and all he has to do is pull the trigger. With Artemis gone, the enemy force will be beheaded and the eldar can likely draw things out for the vital final few minutes they need. Well, at this point the Harlequin warrior promptly gets infested with the brain parasites which have latched onto Eldrad for most of the book. He looks at Artemis, considers his actions for a second, and then drops his gun, trying to convince the gene-forged humanoid war machine covered in the blood of his comrades to just walk away. This doesn't go well, and the psychotic walking bioweapon thinks about this for a split second before putting a bullet between the eldar's eyes.
Yes, the elitist dying race best known for, among other things, attempting to sacrifice all of humanity to destroy Chaos and starting the Third War for Armageddon to save a few eldar lives, just stops. In order to preserve a handful of human warriors, he is suddenly willing to put both the past and future of his very race at risk, for something which had little to no chance of success in the first place. Still, you'd hope Eldrad might have set up a few defenses of his own, right? Nope, not according to this book! Here's the entirety of that ending in its unabridged form -
“Slowly, the Eldar laid down his long-barrelled cannon. He made a sound reminiscent of a herald clearing his throat and held out a hand in a stylised gesture of declaration.
‘If you slay me, Sir Knight,’ he said, his High Gothic perfectly enunciated, ‘the fates shall align to bless our mutual foes.’
‘Trust not the Eldar,’ said Artemis, his words thick with hatred.
‘We are the sons of Death, you and I,’ said the Eldar. ‘We bring oblivion, in order to deny Chaos. We cannot afford to thwart one another when the greater enemy stands on the cusp of victory.’
The gilded finger bones lining the edge of the creature’s cloak gleamed in the harsh light as crystal statues glowed bright all around. Artemis narrowed his eyes; a similar raiment was worn by the Chaplains of the Mortifactors in their sepulchral celebrations. Strangely, he could not sense duplicity from this one.
‘Walk away,’ said the Harlequin, ‘and a dire blow shall fall upon the Arch Enemy.’ Artemis recoiled at the term as the Eldar spoke on. ‘Is your distrust so seep you would rather kill me now than spare the doom of a trillion human souls?’ There was disbelief under his tone, and something else. Despair, perhaps.
‘Yes,’ said Artemis, pulling the trigger to end the creature’s life.
Eldrad Ulthran screamed as the ritual reached its crescendo. All around, the crystal sands of Coheria glowed bright. A bow wave of spiritual power rippled across the moon as every dead craftworlder since the fall lent a measure of its sentience. But a vital voice in the choir of his psychic melange had been silenced, and the blessings of the Laughing God were fading away.
Wraithbone runes whirled around Eldrad, burning to smoking ash one by one as the High Fareer struggled to hold the ritual of awakening together. His mind was aflame, the skies above bursting into bright orange fire in sympathy. Psychic energies heated the planetoid to volcanic temperatures. The moon became a psychic sun, a signifier of a new dawn. Somewhere, in the bottomless soulscape of the void, Ynnead stirred to wakefulness.
Another sun blossomed on the cusp of fate, far smaller, and filled with malevolence. Eldrad opened one eye to see a plasma sphere burning towards him. He directed a portion of his psychic focus into his rune armour to dissipate the blast In that act, he failed. The emergent consciousness of the gold splintered, its full apotheosis denied.
The crystal seers shattered with terrific force even as the Space Marines sprinted for their assault craft. Eldrad reeled, stumbling blindly through the webway gate behind him as the planet ignited with white fire. The last thing he saw was a vast and solemn constellation losing cohesion, a bright single point form within it shooting away into the far reaches of the cosmos.”
So, to make this clear, the entire Ynnead gambit has failed. At best, we have a splintered fragment of a god likely on par with an Avatar of Khaine which has survived the event, losing everything else even at its birth. Some might even argue that this is a partial victory, at least until you consider what has been lost here.
For starters, there are a lot of dead Harlequins, all of who were ancient and highly valued among their kind, whose wisdom cannot be easily replaced.
Then, you have consider the fact that they might as well have lost Eldrad himself, as no one will even consider trusting him again after pulling this stunt.
Each craftworld has lost the oldest and most venerated remains of their Farseers, with their greatest hero effectively performing an act of tomb robbery prior to necromantic rituals.
The Craftworld Eldar as a species have lost their single greatest hope for success or the long-term survival of their race, likely dooming them to failure in the face of Chaos' relentless onslaught.
Then, atop of all of that, you have to factor in how all craftworlds have lost their contained spirits. Each of them stolen to fuel a god which has arisen with only a small fraction of its power, or likely consumed by She Who Thirsts.
The reason that last one is the most important among them is thanks to how badly it utterly screws over their kind. Yes, it hurts them even more than losing Ynnead. You want to know why? Culturally this is their end. They have lost any and all contact to their ancestors, the unity that brings and the ability to rely upon the knowledge of ages past. The memories of past worlds long gone or ideas from past eras have been snuffed out entirely, robbing their race of several key advantages. Even without factoring in the massive demoralizing effect this will have upon the surviving craftworlds, or how it might leave many open to attack, it all but topples their entire society.
Worse still however, this will cost them access to many vital machines of war. Think for a second about what they use spirit stones for, how often it arises in the lore and appears in passing mentions. Almost all of their war engines, from warships to titans to Falcon Gav-Tanks all use them to guide the crew, operating alongside the living to ensure success. Each were always removed or cycled through the infinity circuit, called upon as and when they were required, meaning at the very least no craftworld can ever replace its lost machines of war from here on. Wraithguard and the like are now something they can likely never field again, and whole living sections of the craftworlds will exist without any innate guidance or unity. No longer will their homes be truly alive or fully attuned to their owners, and ripping the heart from a craftworld could even mean the death of a great city-ship. At the very least, as the book confirms, they would be without any engine power.
What's worse is that this is the best case scenario.
If we assume it has only been centered upon the infinity circuit, the eldar race is still doomed but retains a few ways of fighting back for a few years yet. If not, if it in fact spread further, they have just lost everything from the abilities of their Seers to their primary fighting forces. If this extends further to the likes of the Aspect Warrior shrines, the craftworlds will have lost everything short of the Guardians to help defend their homes. If it has extended to the Seers themselves, the spirit stones they use in rituals or to focus their powers will no longer be able to serve as an asset. Many beings who consist of various memories or older ideals may have been broken down entirely, robbing the craftworlds of their Farseers, Autarchs and Exarchs.
In one single act, Games Workshop has rendered this species deaf, dumb, blind and clawless, with only a few years left before they are snuffed out.
This willingness to throw the Craftworld Eldar under the bus is certainly nothing new. The fact they have so frequently served as the galactic whipping boy in even in their own codices is a well documented and long standing criticism. Yet, as bad as it has been, this moment shows just how truly terrible it has become, and how imbalanced lore favouritism between factions has gotten. While we might have raged at the likes of Draigo mauling Mortarion, it never reached a level where an entire faction was being wiped out in order to push another space marine chapter. One which, let's be frank here, really didn't need any more promoting to help sell them to fans. This entire act is senseless, robbing the eldar of any hope for little more than a dumb gimmick and a few "BUY THESE MARINES!!!" moments they simply did not deserve.
A story surrounding a clever character attempting a bold plan only to lose it thanks to hubris is nothing new, but it can be done well. However, you need to actually have the plan look somewhat serviceable and justify their abilities to truly pull it off. When the plan itself is not only so overly convoluted a thousand different ways could allow it to fail, but sheer stupidity keeps handing the Deathwatch victories, it never becomes engaging. In fact, it becomes downright boring for one side and frustrating for the other; never allowing one side to lose ground or another to gain it. That, above all else, is this story's greatest failing and it would need to be re-written from the ground up to make this remotely serviceable.
Finally, this further proves just why another attempted End Times event is such a horrific idea at its core. Without any limitations, without any guidance or responsibilities, it seems that Games Workshop's writers will fly completely off of the handle. In much the same way Marvel keeps pulling its "Nothing will ever be the same again!" moments every other crisis, Games Workshop's authors want to reshape the world. They want to change everything, strip down everything, destroy entire nations at a time and try entirely new things. The problem is that, in their desperation to attempt new things, they never seem to pause and wonder "is this really a good idea?" or even "does this actually make any sense?"
Each of these writers needs to learn than innovation is rarely its own rewards, or we'll be seeing Games Workshop's End Times long before Warhammer 40,000's version.
Each of these writers needs to learn than innovation is rarely its own rewards, or we'll be seeing Games Workshop's End Times long before Warhammer 40,000's version.