Sunday, 11 September 2016

Black Crusade: Traitor's Hate Part 1 - The Lore (Warhammer 40,000 Campaign Book Review, 7th Edition)

For all the times fans will criticise them for being creatively stagnant, Games Workshop does have odd outbursts of inspiration. Really, when it comes to a format or particular approach to a subject, they're more than willing to try something several times over. Should something run its course or lack the impact they wanted, they will readily move over onto something else. While this is obviously a double edged sword, such an approach is admirable in its own way, proving an odd willingness to go "no, we could do that better!"

This brings us onto today's book - Traitor's Hate. While edging into the 13th Black Crusade's territory again, Games Workshop opted to have a very odd take on this one, and truly go against the grain. Alongside the book having a fractured non-linear story, separated out between factions who rarely overlapped, the book was divided in two. One half was to be given to the loyalist forces of the Adeptus Mechanicus, Knight Houses and Blood Angels, while the other was gifted to the Traitor Legions and their allies. It's a bold and dangerous move to be sure, and quite the unconventional one. Yet, as this book proves it wasn't one entirely without merit.

Focusing upon the Diamor System, the book follows the efforts of the Black Legion to conquer the loyalist worlds to assist in the final Black Crusade. Led by Lord Xophas, the Crimson Slaughter and Khornate forces are used to subjugate the world before his elite guard moves in to conquer the planet and claim its arcane secrets for himself. With time running out, an alliance of Blood Angels and Mechanicus forces fight to stem the tide of corruption and avoid complete annihilation.

So, without further ado, here's a look at Traitor's Hate's strength's and failings.

The Good

Easily the most notable thing when opening up the book is its surprising pace. Not that it doesn't rush into the big battles, because that most certainly happens, but because it takes a few moments to really give personal insight to the forces involved. Rather than introducing the reader to a big explosion to get their attention, what we find is an exchange between Kranon and Draznicht of the Crimson Slaughter; each discussing the impending campaign, their tentative alliance with the Black Legion and the warband's curse. It's a brief moment, lasting all of two pages, but in that we get far more characterisation, atmosphere and a sense of the warband's personal drives than the entirety of Codex: Crimson Slaughter

The book is peppered with such moments of personal characterisation, as they're inserted between big fights, and it manages to seriously elevate the quality of this work. For starters, it offers breathers in between the relentless fighting, allowing a few of the bigger battles to feel more relevant rather than being drowned out in a sea of perpetual combat. Furthermore, each serves as a great introduction to the forces or individuals leading them, and helps to offer more insight into just what drives each warband. While this information could be quite easily conveyed via a quick expeditionary paragraph, showing it benefits the story by getting the reader far more invested in the work.

Such moments are small scale events, often overlooked parts of a war which would otherwise be skipped in most rulebooks. However, what's notable is that Traitor's Hate also knows when to go to the other extreme, giving some insight into galaxy at large and how this war factors into those events. While the battle here is only a secondary front in the 13th Black Crusade - and the writers thankfully make no attempt to override or rival the scale of Cadia's conflict - the book details how this factors into Abaddon's plans. We hear about why he has dedicated such a considerable strike force to take what is by rights a secondary target, and how this factors into the war with the Imperium. The Imperial response, why they are so slow to answer with considerable force and even the exact nature of the planet in question are all quickly established, giving the war zone a much needed sense of identity. Traitor's Hate - 1, Mont'ka - 0.

In stark contrast to many other books, there are no moments where the battle itself feels oddly limited or constrained to help sell models. With no recent Chaos releases, it seems as if the writers were free to play about with ideas as they wished, so at no point do we have one unit relentlessly shilled or hogging the spotlight. In fact, one major front of the war even goes to a game which is no longer supported today. Both the opening strikes of the war and several major engagements take place in the void, as Chaos and Imperial ships attempt to gain orbital supremacy. While it is a secondary front which is only occasionally given serious focus, the space war remains an important battleground; with orbital bombardments, reinforcements and vectors of retreat all reshaping the fight below as it goes on.

Battlefleet Gothic fans aren't the only ones who will get a kick out of the book though, as the writers even go so far as to include several units and models which are rarely seen on the tabletop at all. Both Forgeworld aircraft and Titan war engines show up repeatedly throughout the book, with the latter playing a major role in several key battles until they turn the tide of the war. When they do die, it's either down to extreme firepower or an event so hilariously over-the-top that you can't help but crack a grin. Really, here's an example of the sort of glorious grim-dark goofiness you can expect -

"It was Kharn, also, who scaled the flank of a towering factorum-stack at the head of fifty Khorne Berzerkers and leapt from its heights onto the carapace of an Imperial Reaver as it was moving between engagement zones. The Betrayer hacked his way through the war engine's armoured hull, leading those few Berzerkers who had survived the strafing runs of the Titan's gatling blasters. The butchered the machine's crew, leaving it looming, cold and dead in the middle of the street."

Yes, it's downright insane and completely over the top, but Traitor's Hate earns these moments. It builds up to this point, adding it between hard won battles and some smarter bits by the Chaos characters, and it only really delves into this quite late on. At the point this sort of thing really goes full crazy, the book has established page after page of Kharn being a badass, how effective he is and done all it can to really sell the reader on his abilities. Really, comparing this book's treatment of Kharn with the likes of Draigo is a night/day affair, as the former does accomplishes everything the latter got so horribly wrong. It doesn't just say "HE'S AWESOME!" and leaves it at that, it instead gives Kharn more of a personality and builds up to those huge moments Draigo took for granted. Also, no, we're likely to never stop using Draigo as an example of bad storytelling. Despite Laurie Goulding did performing the impossible task of fixing him, his original bio is still wince-worthy to read.

The final thing truly worthy of praise is something often otherwise criticised on here. Many of the quieter or more character driven moments within this book rise above their contemporaries because Traitor's Hate is trying to be a novel at these points. Numerous scenes aren't presented with the kind of distance or off-handed style, but are instead more the sort of exchanges you'd expect to find reading James Swallow's books. They're brief, succinct and focused entirely upon the core characters, with a few bits of background flavour thrown in. However, what makes this work here as opposed to any codex is that this actually is a story. It's not trying to tell the full history of a faction or expected to serve as a skeleton for someone to build an army off of. Instead, it follows a few core characters, using them as viewpoint figures at points in the tale, when it's not viewing the battle as a whole of course.

While it is admittedly very character focused, sometimes to the detriment of showing the bigger army, it manages to just about work. There's still enough varied characters to still give enough of a sense of how large the army is in spite of this; so while they're not completely removed, many of its weaknesses are at least smoothed over.

The Bad

So, after that very long list of praiseworthy points for Traitor's Hate, you'd think that this was a very impressive work wouldn't you? Well, you're partially right. You see, when taken on its own, many of the scenes are fantastic, both by Black Library and campaign book standards alike. From lengthy duels to full scale battles, there's plenty to like in each one. It's just a damn shame that few to none of them properly match up with one another.

Structurally this book is a mess, and the driving idea of presenting a fractured version of half of a story is really what hurts it the most here. Every page or two the narrative bounces about, going from big grand battles described in a manner akin to an Imperial Armour volume to small scale character driven segments in the style of a novel. It's not a bad idea per-say, and even with the short length of each segment this could have still worked, but the problem is that it's never clear where one bit begins and another ends. You can flip from one page to the next and find yourself in a completely different scene, with a completely different character, with no breaks in the narrative nor reintroduction to help explain just where you are. If you do end up trying to read this from cover to cover, you'll likely need to start it several times over just to help keep track of things.

Even basic introductions are repeatedly screwed up time and again in this book, and you'll suddenly have major characters coming out of nowhere. While the Crimson Slaughter, World Eaters and, to a lesser degree, the Black Legion all get some grounding, everyone else is at a loss. So, out of completely nowhere the Word Bearers suddenly appear, play a major role and then disappear for half the book, showing up again to be odd and ominous. Secondary characters among the other legions suffer from this same fate as well, leaving little impact for their victories or failures. Worse still, there's so damn many of them you'll be hard pressed to remember who is who and why they were important to events.

Now, when most novels show the same key event from different perspectives, they make sure they line up. Either they present something new each time, shed some unseen light on a subject or, if they're trying to pull a Rashomon, have them intentionally contradict one another. Each case can add something to the story, unless you're writing Traitor's Hate, at which point all you add is redundancy. Half the damn book seems to be extended by having each section repeat the same information we've had before, especially when it comes to certain battle changing events. 

Have Kharn's lot arrive? Well, you can expect to see that several times over. Have the Crimson Slaughter escape via Thunderhawk Gunship from a big battle? That gets recycled later on in an entirely different sequence. Not a bad thing in of itself admittedly, but what should have been a brief note of who is where gets turned into sprawling multi-paragraph events. Few of them are badly told, but they're just repeating the exact thing the reader confirmed a few pages ago, until the whole thing starts to become an oddly disjointed self-repeating mess. A problem only made worse by the horrible misuse of secondary text boxes. Now, normally these would be used to keep track of minor moments or flavour text, but here they're used to introduce or finish certain major story elements. So, if someone were planning to skip them and focus on the meat of things, they would end up horribly confused.

The whole thing reads as if it were being written by three different authors, with each story split up and divided throughout the book at the end. No single tale fully matches up with its opposite stories, so while they're covering the same events there's no cohesion or attempt to make one story easily flow into another. This creates the impression of having the book repeatedly starting and stopping over and over again, making it difficult to press through at the best of times, but it also ruins the story structure. There's a reason the three act structure (or five if you're going by the more archaic style) is considered a basis for all storytelling. You have a beginning, middle and end divided between the set-up, development and conclusion; an easy format to play around with and present any idea you wish. Well, apparently someone here decided to jump right into the second act and ignore the first one entirely, and it causes all the problems you'd imagine it would.

When Traitor's Hate starts, the book is already partway through the Black Crusade and we're given some vague impression of what the plan is. However, as the Crimson Slaughter are being intentionally kept in the dark, what's important about that world or the secrets behind it remains oddly out of sight for the majority of the tale. Oh, it tries to build-up a sense of mystery but the actual answer ends up being mundane and surprisingly obtuse, with little in the way of real explanations. It's handled in an almost off-hand way, and fails to explain or resolve several previously established points. So, when the Crimson Slaughter are so supercharged by Chaos energy that Kranon suplexes a Dunewalker (someone's trying to top Calgar's necron toppling antics it seems) you'd expect a good answer. Nope, it's sort of thrown in there towards the end and forgotten about. Worse still, the conclusion even tries to add in major story elements after the fact, as the warriors of the Crimson Slaughter start to suggest there were some adverse affects from being on the planet and hearing the "wrong" voices. An interesting concept, it's just a shame this is the only time it properly shows up, as everywhere else it doesn't seem to be an issue.

Unfortunately, the whole plan to have two books focus on a different side in this war seems to have horribly backfired, at least in this case. Rather than using the divide to expand upon one side while slightly developing or introducing the other, the story seems to effectively be barred from using any of them. Despite half the major heroes of the Blood Angels showing up here (from the Imperator-damned Sanguinor himself to Astorath's brooding presence) none of them are depicted actually engaging in the battle. When we do get a good and proper fight, it always involves some secondary almost-no-name character from the chapter, and never any head honcho. Those few we do see are barely characterised at all, each denied even the most basic of introductions, and they just end up serving as fodder for the Chaos boys.

Bereft of any time in the spotlight or moment to actually establish themselves, the Imperial forces sadly just become an obstacle in the path of this book's heroes. There's no pathos, no engaging rivalries nor even something to help create a broader image of the battlefield on the whole. It's just a lot of big explosions over and over again, with some sudden victories coming out of nowhere thanks to this lack of focus upon the loyalists and a lack of any real satisfaction when it comes to their defeats. Well, unless Kharn is involved in those defeats, but that's only because of his sheer batbloodshit insanity and awesome one-liners. 

The Mechanicus get hit by this murderous treatment fairly hard, becoming the whipping boy of the book. Skitarii are cut down en-mass and repeatedly slaughtered so often you'd think the Traitor Legions were worshiping the Greater Good. While they are admittedly the first force on the planet and do start to fail thanks to several astartes going Super Saiyan via mysterious Chaos voices, things start to take a turn towards the ridiculous at things progress onward. Not only is a full Titan Legion (the Legio Metallica) considered insufficient to halt the invading force, but they lose most of their fleet in the initial engagement and are so incompitent that their entire battle plan comes down to "PLEASE, BLOOD ANGELS! SAVE US!" Yeah, it's not a good day to be an Adeptus Mechanicus fan.

There are also a lot of very odd but very irritating lore errors throughout the book. Nothing truly criminal of course, but they're odd things which keep building up as the story goes on. For example, the opening pages note that Chaotic vessels feature a plethora of gargoyles on their hulls, when that's supposed to be a distinctive trait of Imperial vessels. Such designs are intended to ward away daemons and keep them at bay. While not a big thing in of itself, but add to that small bits like how a Warhound Titan near instantly dies to firepower which really should have barely harmed it, or how the numbers and forces on each side keep changing, and it makes for a frustrating read. It's not killing the canon by a single stroke, but slowly whittling away at it via a thousand cuts.

Finally, the book just ends. Really, while it sort of pushes towards a general conclusion and has one moment of someone going "Oh, this will help Abaddon's grand plan, yes!" there's little closure for anyone involved. We don't know what ultimately happens to half the characters, or even the Khorne Berzerkers still fighting on the world below, the fate of the world is barely remarked upon and the story just sort of ends with a lot of loose plot threads. Some of these might be saved for the next book, but going from past experience methinks otherwise.

The Artwork

We've seen most of it before. A lot of the artwork here is just recycled stuff from countless past books, ranging from early Third Edition to Codex: Crimson Slaughter itself. The few new pieces are, admittedly, pretty good for the most part. Often emphasising scale over all else, we get some nice big sweeping battle scenes and atmospheric duels. That said, quite a few seem oddly rounded off, lacking that sketchy detail which makes Warhammer so atmospheric (see the example above) and would befit a force like the Craftworld Eldar or Tau Empire over Chaos. What's more, there's a rather infamous failure quite late on when Kranon himself is painted black and leading the Black Legion into combat. That's honestly just one of those things which is so daft it's amazing no one spent a few minutes in Photoshop to fix it.


While certainly not nearly as bad as some past outings, Traitor's Hate is by no means a success in the story department. Confused, directionless and visibly hurt more by the split than befitting it in any way. While it was certainly brave and bold to try new things, that simply doesn't change the fact that those same brave and bold ideas didn't work here. Better communication between writers, vast structural improvements and a redefined focus upon the story were all desperately needed to ensure its success. Thanks to a lack of those elements, what we get is a downright mess.

This said, while it is a failure, there's no denying that the creators went down swinging. Even in spite of the story's many failings, moment's like Kharn's Titan rampage, the quieter opening exchange between Crimson Slaughter leaders and the scale of the conflict gave brief glimpses of the book this could have been. Combine that with one of the few examples of character driven campaigns done right, and there are these frustrating points where you keep starting to see it work, only for it to fall apart on the very next page.

So, the story was sadly disappointing, but what about the rules? Join us here for a quick analysis of this book's tabletop offerings.

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