Sunday, 2 October 2016

Genestealer Cults Part 1 - The Lore (Warhammer 40,000 Codex Review, 7th Edition)

The worst kind of foe to face is one which can strike from both sides. An enemy within, skilled at infiltration and combating your every move, you can eventually overcome. A vast horde assaulting a fortress, however vast and however skilled, is something which you can beat with the right leaders. Both at once though, working in unison, can bring down the mightiest empire overnight. It's one why Chaos has been such an effective arch-villain to the entire setting, as it can strike with the force of a sledgehammer but seed its victory from behind the scenes. As fun as that force is, sometimes it's the more terrestrial threat which can be all the more horrifying. The kind which is not born by the will of some great god, but a hungry monster who wishes simply to be fed, but can twist the strengths of civilisation itself into a weapon out of little more than sheer instinct. It's for this reason that it's honestly quite surprising it's take this long for Games Workshop to revitalize the Genestealer Cults. 

For those not in the know, a Genestealer Cult is an infiltration force spawned by the Tyranid Hive Fleets to act as an advanced guard. A sole genestealer is capable of infiltrating an enemy location and using its barbed "kiss" to implant its own genetic code into another sentient being. Hypnotically inducing others until they become its thrall, it begins controlling the life cycle of the world, creating a cult from the half-xenos descendants of those it infects. The original genestealer becomes a powerful psychic being known as a Patriarch, and as its kin gradually distabilise and take control of the world, it unleashes a beacon to guide the Hive Fleets to its location.

It's quite the unique and interesting take on the old alien infiltration theme, and a fun spin on the old xenomorph tropes. Did this book do it justice? Well, you'll just have to find out below.

The Good

For starters, this book exists. Yes, that might sound like a strange positive to start on, but given its lesser nature it wouldn't have been surprising to see this army rolled into Codex: Tyranids as a supporting force. Something similar happened to the Harlequiisn at first, after all, and while that army has been crucial to that race's mythology, the cults have been more of a curiosity. As such, giving what's effectively glorified cannon fodder for another army its own book is a definite win. 

It helps that the writing staff doesn't screw up anything major story elements this time. There are no major pushes to completely reinvent the wheel here, or add in abrupt, extremely useless retcons which only turns the force into a continuity nightmare. So, whereas the likes of Codex: Deathwatch tries to completely separate its own force from its founding history, to the point of almost being ashamed of it, Codex: Genestealer Cults embraces it. There seemed to be a big push to modernise the old lore while incorporating as many past ideas as possible, without ever losing sight of what made the Cults effective in the first place.

The few changes we do see are integrated into the overall life-cycle of the cults, and is largely present to help excuse new units. While this could have been an utter disaster, each of these works its way into the mythos without any real issue. For example, the ultra-tough Aberrants are failed mutations between generations, used as shock troops for the more valued forces. Others are just more varied stages of each generation of the Cult, and while these did exist in past editions, their effects, rules and strengths are more distinct here. While there are enough units present to make a (mostly) solid army, the writers managed to accomplish this by sticking to their guns and building upon what the army is best known for.

Still, all that's been listed thus far has largely been "you did the sane thing for once!" in terms of praise, so what did they really get right? Well, for starters, the writers offered a very clear and concise summary of the army. Rather than simply skimming over the fine details in favour of the basics, the articles go into a great deal of detail behind the army. It examines how they are sparked, their life cycle, and even how easily such forces can find a place within the galaxy. Better yet, often forgotten points such as the hypnotic capabilities of the purestrain variants are emphasised above all else, pointing out just how effective a weapon this is against unsuspecting foes. 
While it sadly doesn't offload pages upon pages of solid lore a-la the original Codex: Imperial Knights, it's more forgivable here. There isn't nearly so much history nor a sense of a dynasty to work with, and instead the writers attempt to invest the reader by telling them just enough to make sure they know there's more lore, and get them hooked. It's enough to inspire their own spin on things, and sometimes this lack of information can be enough to get a story obsessive fan all the more invested in the lore.

Many elements and qualities of the lore are also not spelled out. Oh, while they certainly make sure the reader comprehends many of the basic facts, thematic choices, influences or historical references are well hidden. Rather than - as expected of Games Workshop - putting them front and center, to the point of effectively lifting ideas wholesale from mythology, figuring them out is left up to the fans. Sure, it might still be building upon other ideas, but it's building upon them rather than simply replicating them. 

The very concept of the Cults and the variety of locations they infest for starters. While the codex is unfortunately quite focused upon the Imperium above all other locations - largely due to the models in all likelihood - it pushes to cover just about anywhere and anywhere. The cults introduced and discussed cover all portions of humanity's empire, from the Mechanicus controlled planets dominated by Servitors to crusading Imperial Guard forces mustering a billion men at a time. The key examples introduced show how varied and dynamic each cult can truly be, how they can develop so uniquely from one another and thrive on the most unlikely of worlds. Better yet however, each one places great emphasis upon the horror of the cults and how easily they can spread under the guise of benevolence. Several introduced sprung up thanks to feelings of oppression or the desire for freedom, while others seemingly offered the downtrodden a better life. Until the multi-armed purple nightmares show up, they can easily pass as a sect of the Imperial Faith, and a more benevolent one at that.

The very nature of the cults, despite their role within the Hive Fleets, is kept broad enough for a varied interpretation. Some regard the cults as little more than mind controlled thralls, mimicking human behaviour in order to carry out the Hive Mind's will. Others see them as a group of brainwashed humans, twisted into obeying a false faith, and are discarded the moment they are no longer needed. While the book does admittedly lean more towards the latter, a surprising number of minor of more subtle moments still suggests that there is more to this than simple faith in some situations.  For example, the Cult of the Twisted Helix sprang up on Vejovium III, a world with a massive medical industry supporting whole systems at a time. Rather than merely infesting the planet and controlling its population, the cult found a way to turn this to its advantage: 

"At a high cost in volunteers' lives, the magisters of the industrial cult have learned how to extract the germ-seed of the Genestealer and incorporate it into the curative syringe-phials that form a major part of Vejovium's medical exports. Though the imperfections of this bio-alchemical breakthrough have resulted in a great many aberrations and metamorphs, the process has seen the Twisted Helix swiftly spread its curse across the Vejovium System and beyond." 

Also, yes, that typo is in there. We'll be getting back to this one later on. However, the only time we do truly get into the inner workings of a cult and see them on a ground level, it is during the opening stages of a full scale invasion. We see the cult celebrating the arrival of the "Star Children" they view the Hive Fleet as, blessing their arrival, even as they are consumed by the arriving forces. By presenting them in this way, the army has a single strong identity, but it is also broad and varied enough to permit radical changes as needed. It's a quality more armies need quite frankly.

The writers were also quite happy to think outside the box and put serious effort into how certain aspects of the cults worked, and how other races reacted to them. While this is, admittedly, sadly quite limited, a few standout moments do show up now and again such as the Tau Empire's first encounter with these forces. That particular bit stems from the main timeline, which for once is thankfully bulked out and fully detailed. There are no micro-tales cut so short that they are near incomprehensible or bereft of vital details. Instead, they're short enough to serve as a brief glimpse into a bigger event, but retain a cohesive story.

So, overall it's a solid start with quite a few positive points. Unfortunately no book is without its failings, as is the case here.

The Bad

Perhaps the biggest offense of the entire book is that, while it emphasises a variety of cults and infected societies in one part of the lore, it ignores it in the other. Oh there's no end of human species infected, there's a good deal of xenos examples and we even end up with a couple of brief nods to the old ork infectees from Second Edition. However, for all of these fun ideas, the codex always limits itself to a few very core concepts, often favouring it over the bigger, broader themes. The really big one here is the suggestion that nine tenths of all Genestealer Cults consist of miners, existing in the underbellies of society until they gradually build up their strength. On the one hand, it's easy to see why this would be the case - It's an easy target, they have access to forgotten abandoned tunnels to use as bases of operations, and it offers them a single aesthetic to work with. On the other though, it doesn't match up with a multitude of other situations or environments, and limits their focus to lower class retches.

While many have argued that the cults were overused in the Ciaphas Cain books, each time they showed up they were doing something different. Sometimes they were infiltrating a world contested by the Tau Empire, or on others they were making good use of a war zone which was undergoing a rebuilding process. Each time however, the books showed how far such an infection could spread, with everyone from servants to noble houses risking falling under its influence. The same went for the original Deathwatch novel by Steve Parker, a key plot point of which surrounded how the Cult in that book had gained influence over the local governor. By focusing entirely upon miners over and over again, many great story concepts are being squandered, and it limits the ability for the army to truly develop in terms of its narrative.

As before, we also have copious amounts of padding in the form of its artwork. While certainly more excusable here than in other books, we still end up with the same problems time and time again, the chief one of which is how the middle of the book is little more than filler. Sure, it's supposed to show off the various armies, but it ultimately becomes the same cookie cutter poses and designs with a fresh coat of paint. This is, of course, when the book isn't repeating itself either, as several texts are effectively reiterated to the reader within pages of one another. For example, pages eighteen and nineteen offer a look into the Cults by citing a few key examples, which is fine as it's well handled and relatively concise. However, on the very next page we end up looking at four of the same Cults all over again. It doesn't really add anything to the past texts, nor does it truly build upon them, and instead each reads like a separate pitch of a synopsis for the Cults in question. Well, that and it wastes the majority of two pages to show off four giant banners with minute text boxes beneath them.

The codex also retains some very odd choices here and there when it comes to leaps in logic. While certainly not anywhere near as bad as other things we have covered on here, these tend to be limited to good ideas which ultimately lack a few fine details to smooth over events. Take the example above for Vejovium III. The idea is certainly sound for their invasion, but what pushes credibility is how on a medicae world such a massive infection goes unnoticed and unchecked. Even then, if you do accept that this could be pulled off, it requires the reader to believe that the Imperium is advanced enough to produce miracle drugs, but is so backwards that they can't perform basic sterilization or chemical tests. 

The same goes for their vehicles of choice. The old Genestealer Cults were infamous for using limousines as attack vehicles - Machines which were poorly made, poorly armed and likely to explode. The new ones are an upgrade, heavy mining vehicles up-gunned by the Cults. A smart choice for sure, but these things (supposedly mass produced and easily found on a million worlds) are a sturdier and more effective vehicle than the venerated Rhino. Even being generous, it's hard to accept a vehicle which endures cave-ins can outdo a combat APC which can withstand star cannons.

These moments can easily break any suspension of disbelief as it just doesn't add up going by the universe's personal set of rules. It's easy to gloss over at first, to the point where some will likely argue that these are minor issues, but all it would have taken is a couple of altered facts or presenting them in a slightly different way to fix things. 

Surprisingly, that's really about it. For once there's thankfully extremely little to complain about.

The Artwork

The artwork overall is definitely mixed, ranging from excellent depictions of mutant freaks, to oddly off-model designs which are both warped and blurred. Just see the above example for the latter.Equally, a few old images are just slightly photoshopped artworks from the Imperial Guard books, which is definitely irksome if somewhat understandable. Many of the best designs tend to be the more organically curved looks, with smoothed edges over the expected jagged or sketchy designs. Thankfully this makes up the bulk of the book, so for the most part it's a solid mixture of good art throughout most of the codex.

In addition to this however, we need to talk about the images of models briefly. We rarely cover these as they're often well presented and are extremely well staged, but they take far too much space away from actual lore. What's interesting here is that there's a push to encourage conversions for the first time in an age. In this case, alongside the usual cultists in mining gear, there are contingents of guardsmen altered to look like late generation Genestealer hybrids. It's a fun bonus for sure, and it's a good indication of Games Workshop encouraging personal touches with their armies for a change.


On the whole, Codex: Genestealer Cults proves to be one of the best codices we've seen for its lore in a long time. It doesn't break much in the way of new ground, nor is there anything quite so revolutionary as what was found in Codex: Black Legion, but it's nevertheless a very solid book. If you are after a good mixture of Cult stories, tibbits of lore or well presented concepts, this is one which can definitely be recommended for once. It's by no means perfect but it's definitely one of the highlights of this Edition.

So, that's the lore done. Join us here for our look into the codex's rules.


  1. While I also think the lore is good, there's something very vital missing from it, and a few minor points I'd like to bring up.

    So Genestealer Cults can spring up pretty much anywhere and there's hundreds of them at the least, what happens when they come across another cult? We're not even really given depth as to what happens when they butt heads with the Imperial Cult, let alone far more insidious ones like Chaos Cults. I would imagine that they'd kind of try assimilating the Imperial Priests, but Chaos Cultists? That's a lot iffier even if they're not Cultists who worship Nurgle (and arguably Tzeentch, both could screw the Genestealers over more than anything else) since Chaos never just lets anyone go, and any attempt to assimilate somebody from a Chaos Cult would both be noticed and be seen as an attack on the cult.

    The other thing that gets me is how it states the Cultists break free in the final stages of the Tyranid invasion, why? They're supposed to love and worship the Patriarch, why are they hesitant towards dying for the Tyranid cause? The way it's written before that point pretty much spells out that they have no problem jumping into digestion pools, so why are they scared now?
    It's a minor thing, but think about it, let's say a Genestealer Cult takes control of an entire planet, then a weakened splinter of a hive fleet comes towards the planet. There's no defenders there for the Cult to fight against, so that just means they fight the Tyranids, regardless of whether the Patriarch wants them to or not.

    I'm also iffy on the spread of the Cults through third parties like in the description you used here, mainly because the newly born hybrids shouldn't know what to do and the Patriarch they should be linked to would be too far away to give them any commands.

    Aside from those the lore's good though.

    1. Well, there's actually a few reasons why i'm not dragging it over the coals about some of those subjects. For starters, when it comes to cults, i'm going with the assumption they work in a manner akin to the Hive Fleets. Upon linking up, one is merged into the other and they become a single being, the minds of those involved overriden by the Hive Mind and the genetics either exchanged or wiped out. It's not much of a stretch to imagine, and given how many of these cults tend to focus upon a single world at a time, or multiple worlds without much crossover, I don't hold too much against it. The same actually goes for the Tau example, in that case it just seems to play towards how adaptable the Tyranids are given the situation. We have seen them overcome greater odds, and even if it is bending the lore a bit, it's not entirely breaking it; with the added bonus of removing the old "kill the Patriarch early on and it's all over" issue which makes fans apparently think these are easily dealt with threats.

      Though, as for the Chaos example, there's three reasons i'm not bringing that up directly. Firstly, there is actually a small bit of lore in the book where a Cult does become infested with Nurgle's rot thanks to an ill aimed Warp jump, and they re-emerge as cultists towards that god. His greater influence and ability to decay all tissue overrides main link the Hive Mind has within their bodies. Secondly, several codices in the past have tried to do more detailed or outside-the-box takes on lore, and it's more often than not gone well, with the likes of Curse of the Wulfen and Mont'ka being key examples. Personally, after so many failures in trying to do something dynamic, i'm more than grateful just to have a more straightforwards outing for once.
      Finally though, some of those ideas should be left more to Black Library than the codex to explore, as novels are better suited to examine them in my opinion. They can go into greater detail and give more insight, and ironically there is a story coming out which features a Genestealer and Chaos cult clashing against one another to help answer this question.

      Though, finally, could I ask where you feel they break free from it in the end? The main example I was bringing up was a situation where the Genestealers turned upon the cultists, consuming them as they would any biomatter or leftover beings on the world. It doesn't go much beyond the initial strike, so what happens afterwards is largely left up to the reader. If there was anything after that, i'm afraid I missed it.

    2. The reason I find it odd is I don't think Genestealer Cults were ever mentioned as being linked across multiple worlds like this, hell, in the older lore (I'll be linking it in part 2) without a Patriarch all that the hybrid genes do (unless they're making a 5th generation/pure genestealer) is create a mutated human since they don't actually have any connection to the hive mind (and Genestealer/Tyranid Psychic abilities can't stretch that far, if they could the Patriarch wouldn't need a cult to call the Tyranids). One example in previous lore was a hybrid who went on to become a ministorum priest on some backwater planet because there was no Patriarch to guide him and both his parents were killed.
      I do think the current lore has a bit more of a problem with how the Patriarch is portrayed, as far as his death goes anyway. In older lore, yeah killing the Patriarch was a good way to cripple the cult, however it was also a great way to enrage them, and was just as likely to backfire as it was to work. In this lore I don't think they ever really touch on the Patriarch's death aside from mentioning that almost every cult died when its Patriarch was killed.

      I saw that lore in the book, it might be a nice nod to very old Genestealer Cult lore (where a cult fell to Chaos worship) or a nod to how in the older editions Nurgle's mentioned several times as something that could infest the Tyranids (I believe it's in the Daemonhunters book as a hypothetical battle scenario as an example), though I disagree that codex-crossing's will usually go bad. Normally when it's just one bit in the timeline, for example that bit on the Tau, it can work pretty well and that's all it needed (I don't classify getting stuck in Nurgle's Garden as being the same thing as meeting a Chaos Cult on the same planet).

      As for where the Genestealers break free in the end, it's right on page 22 and 23, where it mentions that when the Tyranids start eating them the entire cult gets their minds back, which I really don't get why they made that a thing. What happened to the Patriarch's mind control, did he just feel like turning it off? Did the Hive Mind just not feel like ordering everyone into a digestive pool? I really don't get it, the way it's written makes me think that if any Tyranid attacked them for whatever reason, they'd immediately break free from the Cult's control.

  2. "As for where the Genestealers break free in the end, it's right on page 22 and 23, where it mentions that when the Tyranids start eating them the entire cult gets their minds back, which I really don't get why they made that a thing."

    I'm guessing GW is hoping the reader will feel the horror of realizing they were following a false god and had doomed their planet.