Sunday, 23 April 2017
Order: Kharadron Overlords Part 1 - The Lore (Warhammer Age of Sigmar Battletome Review, 1st Edition)
First impressions are the single most important thing when it comes to products, people and even basic ideas. A bad initial image can leave products which are otherwise great to be overlooked, and it's something you can never fully get over. That said, cautious as this world and media has taught us all to be, there are some ideas which can instill sheer unbridled joy in people.
Where is this going? Well, upon seeing bronze clad steampunk flying pirate dwarves with airships, I quite simply could not stop grinning for days. This is, personally, an idea which is made in heaven. Something which jumps headlong into the angle that Age of Sigmar is the Spelljammer of Warhammer, singles it out from the past edition and helps it to fully stand out on its own. Combined with an undying love of steampunk, it does mean that this review might be just a tad biased in favour of the concept above all else; as the writers would have to monumentally balls this up to fully turn me against this. This coverage of the lore will still be critical to be sure, but expect it to have that sort of +1 bonus effect of having something which directly appeals to guy covering it.
So, with that brief disclaimer out of the way, let's delve into the lore behind this new army.
Like so many of the existing forces, the history behind the Overlords is one of failure and survival. Even in the wake of the End Times and Sigmar's crusade, this was a faction born out of necessity, scraping together what little they had left and surviving by almost any means necessary. While it's an idea which has been done to death by Games Workshop, it's one they do exceptionally well, and this is certainly no different. In this particular case, the opening lines note how the Overlords adapted, developed and reworked their society once the last of the Mountain Kingdoms fell to the relentless assaults by Chaos. At this time, what was the Overlords powerbase were little more than airborne mining stations, small forts and installations, all of which quickly became overrun by refugees.
Because of this overpopulation and situation, each was forced to adapt and alter what they had on hand, turning their locations into vast airborne ports which rose up into the heavens to escape Chaos. Desperately focusing upon enhancing their technology and bolstering their strength through newfangled designs, the dwarfs' marvels reached a new level, rapidly turning them into the most technologically advanced force in the setting. Building fleets of airborne ships, they now hunt to make trading pacts to ensure their future and seek out the resources they need to keep their homes aloft.
This background is simple, direct and used exceptionally well, as it explains away why we see shades of old dwarf ideas here. They're culturally mixed up and had part of their society reworked as much out of displaced populations as the sheer necessity of survival. In a bad book this would often be used to simply say "Well, we're keeping this bit but not everything else" without adapting or explaining anything. In this one though, someone clearly put a lot of thought into this society.
Take grudges for example, which still hold an important place among the Overlords and they will retain them until the end of time. However, the struggling initial years have forced them to alter their views on how best to approach them. Rather than, as the old dwarfs did, amassing huge armies to resolve a few grudges, and then writing down yet more grudges based upon the casualties, these are put on hold. If it is beneficial to follow them, as much to their coffers as their population, they will immediately chase after it, but if they feel it would only harm them, they will hold off for a time. A few examples are cited and, while it doesn't refer to it by name, part of it implies that this system is in place to specifically help avoid the likes of the War of the Beard, or anything which might doom their society. Yet, this is not universal, as some factions barely pay attention to grudges, while others will zealously record and follow them as needed.
Equally, the Overlords' nature and position was used to only enhance their love of profit and gold. Scavenging, desperation and a lack of the necessary metals are all obvious ones, but thanks to the long isolation this evolved to become their primary focus. So, politically each dwarf's standing is judged by his wealth and personal horde more than anything else, but socially it resembles a meritocracy, where helping society and others is the only way to truly rise above your station. It's certainly an interesting combination of elements to work with, giving them shades of the old brotherhood and close ties which made the dwarves stand out, but at the same time giving them an excuse to go full Ferengi as needed. The book even makes it clear that, while they are on the side of the angels, they're also in it for the loot. As a result they are willing to start a few skirmishes for personal profit, adding a shade of grey to their society.
The subject of trade and negotiations is the key driving force behind this entire army. While the book doesn't perform a truly in-depth look into this subject, it does lay down the foundation for just why and how such negotiations are handled, and their more open nature forwards even former foes. This partially ties into the subject of grudges (noting it is bad to start them with profitable partners, until you're in a very beneficial position yourself) but also with segments covering how they deal with lesser forces. For example, the Overlords might lay claim a mountain filled with treasures to claim them for themselves, driving off anyone performing a ritual there or attempting to claim it for themselves. Yet once they've done their business they will try to approach those same people to strike up a fair trading deal with them, with no ill will despite this.
Such a level of depth and thought when it comes to the basics of their society is very welcome indeed, as it helps to massively flesh out and set them up as their own force. Without it, you could easily just think at first glance that this was simply a fantasy steampunk rehash of the Craftworlds, but with stunties in place of panzees. Yet, with the ancestor worship dialed back, with tradesman aspect in full swing and more a focus upon craftsmanship, there are enough immediate changes to help them instantly stand out. The reason this is so well worth praising is that these cultural elements and thoughts are what makes or breaks an army in terms of lore, as without them they can easily seem far too one dimensional. By giving people context, tone and a basic idea of how day to day life works, you end up with a better idea of just what makes them tick and how to create a personal background from this.
Speaking of making things tick, the book also makes it very clear that each port needs a specific substance known as aether-gold. Besides also hinging on the dwarf love of gold, this is used to power their technologies, serves as a source of commerce and is vital to keep their society going. In fact, hunting it down is their primary priority above all else, and almost all of their fleets devote themselves to finding this stuff time and time again. It's illusive, notable for appearing and disappearing, shifting hundreds of miles at a time in vast streams, but the Overlords need it to keep their forces going. Like the above examples, this is another element where the book actually stops and points out how this stuff works. Rather than just stating that it's a vital fuel what we get are bits like this:
"Should a rich vein of aether-gold be discovered, the sky-fleets cordon off the surrounding airways while the rest of the armada set to work. Larger operations employ cloud dredgers and trawlers to sweep the area, siphoning and straining the raw aether-gold. If the fleet is small - an exploratory or prospecting flotilla sent out to find new veins - then it will be composed entirely of warships. Although equipped primarily for battle, the ever practical Kharadron also use such fleets for mining and trade operations.
Should the dangers of mining aether-gold be avoided, the extracted gas is stored within the holds of the airships or, in the larger mining fleets, within the vast hulks known as Krontankers. Many convoys transport the mined material in a steady stream away from the mine, heading back to the sky-port from which the fleets originated. This too is dangerous work, for even within the armour-plated holds of Kharadron ships, the siren call of the substance attracts beasts and airborne raiders that lust after it. Many a convoy has been smashed out of the sky by raging chimera packs, pulled down into sludgeclouds by tentacled nightmares or brought to battle by the aerial armies of the Grotbag Scuttlers."
What's so very notable about this? Many points and ideas here don't even have models. In fact, most aren't even reflected in the game at all so far, and this oddly helps to immensely flesh out the world. All too often recent books or tomes have seemingly been written to purely reflect what's on the tabletop, limiting themselves only to certain miniatures and idea. So, for example, whereas the older Gaunt's Ghosts works cited lesser known Imperial vehicles or designs, more recent books only feature Leman Russ battle tanks or the likes. Elements and ideas like this help to reinforce the fact that there's a much. much bigger world out there to find and explore, and sidesteps any risk of stagnation within the setting. Or, for that matter, too readily relying upon a few choices elements over themes over all else.
As a final note, it's also worth adding how the book handles the subjects of weaknesses. Every creation needs a failing or a weakness in some way, from major to minor ones, and interestingly this force makes most of their strengths into a double edged sword. They're only occasionally highlighted, only briefly brought up as major subjects, but it's enough for players and fans to latch onto if need be. The big one here is their reliance upon aether-gold, as the book makes it clear just how dangerous the subject of mining the stuff truly is, but also cites an issue that the ports need more of it every year. Without it, they will crash back down to the ground.
Another key one is the code by which they live by. This defines them, guiding how they cooperate with others to a fair degree and even internal structures within their ports. Yet, while this is initially built up to be a relatively utopian angle on capitalism, there's a sinister edge to it which keeps cropping up. Often respect of others is based upon how well a dwarf adheres to this code, and even without that the code itself is rife with loopholes to exploit as needed. It was even the reason why they did not become involved with Sigmar's crusade and still try to remain relatively neutral despite the standing against Chaos. Both of these offer a good deal of depth to the force, and it gives some real substance for writers to work with.
There are a number of definite bad points which crop up here, but it's honestly not nearly so many as you might expect. In fact, unlike many examples in past books, much of this is down to the ideas behind the Kharadron Overlords not being taken far enough over an actual mistake. For example, while we are given a basic description of the ports and their defining traits, it is always very brief. It lacks anything more than a few notable traits and ideas to hinge on, and it pales compared to better established forces. As such, while it's enough to leave an impression and get you interested, you can be understandably irked that there's nothing more to it. To give two examples, Barak Zubar is known for its monster-slaying and cutthroat trading deals while Barak Ziflin has the best navigators. However, we don't get much beyond this about their unique nature or societies, such as differing cultural trends or even aesthetic choices. Again, it's not bad but a few more paragraphs could have seriously helped bolster their individual images.
Another aspect which is problematic stems from the book going towards the other extreme most oppose. You see, whereas the likes of the Sylvaneth lacked a detailed analysis of their society and nature, they had a surprisingly compelling saga to work off of. In this case, the society is remarkably well fleshed out and you have some fantastic building blocks to start working with for a broader force, but few to no tales to truly help exemplify their capabilities. What little we do get is limited to small side texts (such as a hilarious one known as Aethersson's Gambit) or rolled into character backgrounds, and this book definitely needed at least one big two page story to help flesh things out. Plus, in this same note, it doesn't help that the timeline is very brief on this end.
The Overlords themselves also share a few too many distinct similarities with the dwarves they stemmed from and more generic steampunk factions. This might sound a little odd at first, but once you look at the listings of Admirals and Warrant Officers, it doesn't take much to see where the old Engineering Guilds or the like stemmed from. While each is to their own of course, I personally feel that more adaptation and development was needed at this end and a little less direct translation in this regard, along with perhaps broadening the focus of the faction a little more. You do get within the first few pages that profit is a great boon and necessary to these people, but it's difficult to find any subject where it doesn't come up. This might sound odd but, just to continue the Star Trek comparisons, think of how often klingons bring up "honour" then replace that word with "profit" and you might understand how overdone this is after a while.
The book's text can also end up repeating information you already know at more than a few points, either citing stuff which it had established only a few pages before or simply rewording it. There's certainly nothing wrong with reminders or some basic repetition, especially when it's not committing the sin of giving entire pages to single units only to repeat it later on. However, when the intro is being cited again just a few pages on, some of this stuff has clearly gone a bit too far. Combined with the rampant use of "pragmatism" to describe their behaviour and outlook on life, and it can be a difficult thing to get through at certain points.
It's stunning. Really, I wish I had a better criticism for it, but looking at this you can definitely see where the money for Games Workshop's art department has gone of late. It seems that the creators were going the extra mile and looking into the likes of Dishonored when thinking up this stuff, because I simply cannot single out a single negative work. While a few of them are definitely repetitive in showing airborne assault scenes more than anything else, they do try to at least diversify the angles and foes they're combating. Better yet, not all of this is wholly devoted to big battle scenes and we do get quite a few moments to help punctuate certain points. From what the ports look like to a slain sky-beast - and a very atmospheric look at an Overlord standing before his armour - there's plenty here to work with which again helps to give the army more of a definitive feel as a whole society.
While the book does also delve into a few too many splash pages for my liking, especially during the intro, this is also one of the few times where it is somewhat excusable. Unlike long established forces like the astartes, there's no singular iconic image to work with here. So, by adding in two major splash pages at the start combined with some very distinct imagery, it immediately leaves an impression upon the reader while also laying down the foundations for later works. You can argue that every codex or rulebook should be expected to do this, but the criticism I had with this was that said imagery always seemed to serve more as padding. To the point that, with Codex: Imperial Knights, we gained more pages but lost a massive amount of lore due to the new structure. With a first attempt like this, combined with such fantastic new artwork, it's very hard to complain.
In terms of lore and visuals, this one gets a definite thumbs up. Again, you will probably find harsher critics among those with a more negative disposition towards steampunk elements, but even were that removed this would likely still stand out from the crowd. Besides a few somewhat problematic points it offers a very strong start for this new army, and the lore here is genuinely interesting; establishing some of the best storytelling and ideas we've seen in a Warhammer rulebook for quite some time. It's at least on par with the original Codex: Tau in terms of basic details, and there are plenty of seeds left for later ideas to bloom. Definitely have a look at the synopsis first, just to get a feel for the army, but if you like what you see you'll be buying a faction with a very strong starting background.
So, that's a major point in this book's favour then. Join us in a few days when we move on from the fluff into the tabletop crunch.